By Cliff Corcoran
This offseason's crop of free agents is the weakest in recent memory, the result of both the recent trend toward extensions for young star players as well as a quirk of timing. The lack of depth in this group can be seen all the way up to the top of the class, as three of this offseason's top free agents who struggled to find the long-term contracts they expected in last year's robust free agent class ultimately settled for short-term deals. At the same time, reviewing the best players on the market is a reminder that there are valuable pieces available. With both thoughts in mind, here is my list of the dozen best free agents available this offseason.
Note: ages listed are 2017 playing ages, meaning the age each player will be on June 30 of the coming season.
12. Rich Hill, 37, SP
The best free agent starting pitcher available this winter will turn 37 in March, didn't start a Major League game from 2010 to 2014, and features a curveball-heavy repertoire that led to reoccurring blister problems this past season. Nonetheless, when healthy, Hill has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball since his miraculous return to starting with the Red Sox in September 2015. Since then, he has made 24 starts, posting a 2.00 ERA (202 ERA+, tops among pitchers with 20 or more starts between the 2015 and '16 seasons), 0.93 WHIP, and striking out 10.7 men per nine innings with a 4.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last winter, the A's signed Hill to a $6 million deal based on just four starts and it proved to be a bargain. A team could pay him three times that for the coming season without overpaying. The big question is if any team will be willing to give him a multi-year deal given his age, short track record, and those pesky blisters.
11. Josh Reddick, 30, RF
Reddick has two significant strikes against him. He's fragile, having averaged just 122 games per season over the past four years, and he cannot hit left-handed pitching (.218/.280/.360 career against his fellow southpaws). If you focus on what he can do, however, you see an athletic corner outfielder who can contribute in all facets of the game and rake against right-handers (.297/.355/.492 over the last three seasons). Teams may also note that he's the youngest hitter on this list and the only one who cannot be extended a qualifying offer, a result of his having been traded with Hill from the A's to the Dodgers during the 2016 season.
10. Mark Melancon, 32, RP
The greatest area of depth in this year's free agent class is relief pitching, as evidenced by the next three spots. Melancon is one of three All-Star closers to make this list and, because of the competition, may prove to be a relative bargain. He is the oldest of that trio, the softest thrower and the only one of the three with a Tommy John scar (he had the surgery as a minor leaguer in the Yankees' system in 2006). Still, he has posted a 1.80 ERA over the past four seasons (good for a 212 ERA+, third-best among pitchers with 200 or more innings pitched over that span, trailing only Andrew Miller and Zach Britton), is stingy with walks, stingier with home runs and thus every bit as dominant despite his lack of velocity and outlandish strikeout rates.
9. Aroldis Chapman, 29, RP
Chapman is nothing less than the hardest thrower and most extreme strikeout pitcher in Major League history. His dominance as a closer is unquestioned, and, like the three players above, he was dealt at this year's Trade Deadline and thus ineligible for a qualifying offer. Still, he's merely the second-ranked reliever on this list for two reasons. The first is his domestic violence suspension this past season stemming from an offseason incident that involved Chapman discharging a firearm multiple times. Beyond the moral complications of the issue, that incident raised concerns about Chapman's mental stability in general as well as the possibility of him getting into further legal trouble and/or incurring another, longer, suspension. The second is the the mileage on his arm relative to that of the next man on this list.
8. Kenley Jansen, 29, RP
A converted catcher, Jansen didn't start pitching until his age-21 season in 2009, threw just 16 1/3 innings that season, and was in the Majors after just 45 more Minor League innings in 2010. Altogether, he has thrown just 70 innings in the Minors and didn't throw a competitive pitch until just two months before his 22nd birthday. Chapman, by comparison, was pitching in Cuba's National Series at the age of 17. That's a big difference in terms of cumulative workload and effectively makes Jansen's pitching arm far younger than Chapman's. Add to that Jansen's stinginess with the walk, resulting in a 9.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past two seasons (to Chapman's relatively pedestrian 4.04), and lack of off-field issues, and Jansen seems like the better bet going forward. The big question is whether or not the Dodgers will extend him a qualifying offer. They may do so to deliberately suppress his market, but this year's qualifying offer is $17.2 million. No relief pitcher has ever made more than $15 million per season and only two active relievers -- David Robertson and Craig Kimbrel -- are pitching on contracts with average annual values above $10 million per season.
7. Neil Walker, 31, 2B
Walker is coming off surgery to repair a herniated lumbar disc in his lower back, but is expected to be at full strength for Spring Training. He is also a switch-hitting second baseman who is above average at the plate and in the field and was an underappreciated part of the Pirates' return to contention from 2013 to 2015. Above-average players at up-the-middle positions are not easy to come by. Walker is just one of three men who fit that description on this list.
6. Jose Bautista, 36, RF
Bautista was one of the best hitters in baseball from 2010 to 2015, but a poor, injury-plagued walk year and the recent passing of his 36th birthday, which fell on the day the Blue Jays were eliminated from the playoffs, not only dropped him on this list, but have me wondering if he's ranked too high. In February, Bautista was reportedly looking for an extension in excess of five-years and $150 million extension from the Blue Jays. He may wind up with closer to half of that amount in terms of total dollars, and that's if he can find a team willing to bet $20 million per year on his age-36 to -39 seasons. Bautista is a better fit at designated hitter than in right field at this stage, and he just had his worst offensive season since before his 2010 breakout while the rest of baseball was enjoying a league-wide power surge. Still, it was just last year that he slugged .536 with 40 home runs, a league-leading 110 walks and finished eighth in the MVP balloting. The upside here is still great.
5. Ian Desmond, 31, CF/SS
Speaking of changing fortunes, coming off a poor walk year of his own, Desmond couldn't find work as a shortstop last winter, so in late February he signed a one-year deal with the Rangers for barely more than half the value of the qualifying offer he had rejected from the Nationals the previous November and moved to the outfield. That transition was a success, with Desmond emerging as a capable everyday center fielder, rejuvenating his bat in the Texas heat, and making his second All-Star team. He now reenters the market with far less competition and the ability to provide speed, power and a reliable glove at two up-the-middle positions, though he should once again carry the added price of draft pick compensation via a qualifying offer from the Rangers.
4. Dexter Fowler, 31, CF
Speaking of speed and power up the middle, Fowler fits that bill as well, but also switch-hits and draws a significant number of walks. The big knock against Fowler used to be his poor defensive ratings, but a decision to play deeper this past season resulted in far better defensive metrics and contributed to a career-best 4.2 wins above replacement. Mix in the radiating glow of having been the leadoff hitter for the World Champion Cubs, and Fowler, who is also six months younger than Desmond, is the clear pick for teams in need of a center fielder, of which there are many.
3. Edwin Encarnacion, 34, 1B
Encarnacion is the most reliable bat on the market. Over the past five seasons, he has hit .272/.367/.544 (146 OPS+) while averaging 39 home runs and 110 RBIs as well as fewer than 100 strikeouts per season. He has also averaged 145 games played over that span. Among players with 700 or more games played over that span, only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt have posted a higher OPS+ and only Chris Davis has hit more home runs than Encarnacion's 193 over those past five seasons. Encarnacion hasn't had an off year over that span. His 133 OPS+ this past season was his lowest of the last five, but his 42 home runs, 34 doubles, 87 walks and AL-leading 127 RBI this season were his top totals of that span. The catch is that he will be 34 in January and is best used as a designated hitter.
2. Justin Turner, 32, 3B
The late-blooming Turner might be the most underrated free agent in this year's class. Over the past three seasons, he has hit .296/.364/.492 (136 OPS+) and emerged as an excellent defensive third baseman. He has also hit .357/.471/.607 in 68 postseason at-bats over the same span. Turner has ample Major League experience at second base and has started at all four infield positions as recently as last year, but he's best deployed as the Dodgers used him this year, as a full-time third baseman and middle-of-the-order bat.
1. Yoenis Cespedes, 31, OF
That Cespedes tops this list is not happenstance. It was by design. Finding his market lacking amid last year's bumper crop of free agents, Cespedes returned to the Mets on a three-year deal with an opt-out after the first year clearly intended to allow Cespedes to swim in these shallower waters after anything but a disastrous 2016 season. Cespedes' 2016 season wasn't quite as impressive as his 2015 campaign. A slight dip in batting average brought down his rate stats, a nagging quad injury limited him to 132 games and the Mets shoehorning him into center field for the first half of the season undermined his defensive ratings. Still, none of that prevented him from emerging as the top free agent in this year's class, as intended.
Looking past those minor shortcomings, Cespedes nearly doubled his walk rate from 2015 without decreasing his power or increasing his strikeouts, a very encouraging development from a player whose biggest weakness in recent years has been poor plate discipline. He has now hit .286/.340/.537 (134 OPS+) over the past two seasons with 30-plus home runs in each and is coming off a career-high 51 walks despite the time he missed. Cespedes has had an itinerant decade thus far, going from Cuba to Oakland to Boston to Detroit to Queens, then reaching free agency only to do so again a year later. Given his outstanding athleticism and his improvements at the plate over the last two seasons, it's exciting to think what he could do after finding a more permanent baseball residence. After seeing seven free agents sign nine-figure deals last offseason, Cespedes could be the only free agent to surpass $100 million this winter.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.