By Chris Cwik
A successful offseason can turn a basement dweller into a World Series contender. Just look at the 2013 Red Sox. After finishing last in the AL East in 2012, Boston was active on the free-agent market, re-signing David Ortiz and picking up veterans Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli. All five players played a significant role during the team's run to the World Series.
The market this offseason is a bit top-heavy, with four players clearly distancing themselves from the pack. The rest of the pack includes two inconsistent pitchers looking to cash in after strong seasons, a player coming off a drug suspension and a hitter with a degenerative injury. In any other offseason, the red flags might cause general managers to think twice about giving any of these players a multi-year deal -- but given the state of the free-agent market, it looks like teams are going to have to take big risks in order to sign some of the top talent available. So how much will these players get, and where will they end up?
Cano enters the market in a unique situation. He's clearly the best player available, but plays a position where elite players rarely hit free agency. Over the past seven years, Luis Castillo's four-year, $25 million deal with the Mets is the highest contract signed by a second baseman in free agency. Cano is expected to make most of that in one season, so the recent track record of free-agent second baseman doesn't apply here.
Looking at recent extensions is more helpful, though it comes with a few caveats. Players who sign extensions typically receive much less than players on the free-agent market. That's because players who sign extensions can only negotiate with one team, while a player on the market can play teams against each other, raising their price. The biggest extension handed out to a second baseman was Dustin Pedroia's eight-year, $110 million deal, signed during to the 2013 season. Pedroia is a year younger than Cano, but the fact that Cano is on the open market should negate that small age difference. Cano's representation is of course well aware of Pedroia's deal, and will likely look to make Cano the highest-paid second baseman in the game.
Projected contract: Cano should easily pass Pedroia's deal on the open market. With multiple teams vying for his services, Cano shouldn't have a problem landing an average annual salary between $23 million and $25 million.
Potential landing spots: The Yankees should be considered a threat to re-sign Cano even though they're attempting to get under the luxury tax. The Dodgers just signed Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero, but they are one of the few teams who could afford Cano. Though the Orioles haven't signed a huge free agent in a while, they've gone in big on elite talent in the past. The White Sox freed up a fair amount of money during the year, but it's unclear if they will immediately reinvest in order to try and contend.
When Ellsbury is healthy, he's capable of being one of the best players in the game. He proved that in 2011, hitting .321/.376/.552 with 32 home runs and strong defense in center. While Ellsbury didn't hit those heights in 2013, he enters free agency coming off the second best season of his career.
Health will be a big factor in Ellsbury's next contract, because he was limited to just 18 games in 2010 with a rib injury, then was held to just 74 games in 2012 by a shoulder injury. Even though he was able to play in 134 in 2013, the power he flashed in 2011 did not reappear. Even without the power, there's still a case that Ellsbury compares to Carl Crawford. Crawford was undoubtedly better at the same point in his career, and didn't get hurt much, so it's tough to see Ellsbury getting seven years and $142 million. Matt Holliday's seven-year contract might be a better comparison. Holliday got a later start to his career, giving both players a similar amount of plate appearances when they hit the market. On top of that, Holliday was also coming off his age-29 season.
Projected contract: Ellsbury will likely be looking for something in Holliday's range. An annual salary of about $17 million might get it done. At the same time, Ellsbury could argue for more as three years have passed since Holliday signed; he could end up with something between $17 million and $19 million per year.
Potential landing spots: Even with Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting in the wings, the Red Sox should still be considered a landing spot to re-sign Ellsbury, particularly if the team pulls off a World Series victory. Ellsbury has ties to Cubs' president Theo Epstein, but it's unclear if Chicago would spend significant money this early in the rebuilding process. The Mariners may have the money, but don't provide an immediate opportunity to win. With the expected loss of Shin-Soo Choo, there's a chance the Reds look to make a splash.
It's pretty rare for a catcher of McCann's caliber to hit the market. In fact, John Buck's three-year, $18 million deal with the Marlins is the highest free-agent deal given to a catcher in the past seven years. That once again means extensions are going to be the best points of comparison. The closest comp here is Yadier Molina, who signed a five-year, $75 million extension prior to the 2012 season. The two actually compare pretty well according to career WAR, and McCann actually holds a lead on Molina through their age-29 seasons.
That said, it might not be reasonable to expect McCann to receive as much as Molina. Not only was Molina a year younger when he received his deal, but his offensive numbers were on the upswing. While McCann was able to recover from a pretty involved shoulder surgery, his offensive numbers were slightly down. And though defensive metrics think McCann is solid behind the plate, Molina is widely considered the best defensive catcher in the game.
Projected contract: Despite their differences, Molina's annual salary of $15 million seems like a good place to start when putting a value on McCann. If he receives more, it's likely a result of the market overpaying for a good catcher. If he gets less, it's likely because teams are worried about how his shoulder will hold up moving forward.
Potential landing spots: With the Red Sox and Rangers potentially losing Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski respectively, both could make a play for McCann. The Yankees and Angels are also in dire need of a catcher, but it's unclear if these teams want to add another big contract to their payrolls. The Cubs and White Sox are in a similar situation, but again, their distance from contention makes it less than certain either team will spend this offseason.
Choo enters free agency coming off a monster season at the plate, in which he hit .285/.423/.462 with 21 home runs. Choo has always been a patient hitter, but a high hit-by-pitch total helped contribute to his ridiculous on-base percentage. It should also be noted that Choo played in a friendly offensive environment.
Consistency should play a big role in Choo's next contract. Even if teams expect some decline after his great 2013, Choo has put up a .377 wOBA over the past five seasons. That figure ranks sixth among outfielders with at least 2,000 plate appearances since 2008. From a free agent standpoint, both Nick Swisher and Shane Victorino made some sense as comps -- until Hunter Pence signed a $90 million extension with the Giants in September. Both players are the same age, so Pence's deal is the perfect contract for Choo to use as a baseline. Both players are pretty equal using WAR. Pence holds a small lead over Choo 24.5 to 23.6. Choo has been a much better offensive player, but his defense has slipped considerably the past two seasons, pushing down his value.
Projected contract: It really depends on how the league reacts to Pence's deal. Choo has every right to ask for $18 million per year, considering he's been as good as Pence. If teams see that as an overpay, Choo may have to work with less money. But if he can play bidders up, there's a chance for him to get a little more. For now, an annual salary between $17 million and $19 million seems likely.
Potential landing spots: The Reds have been mentioned as a suitor for an outfielder, and could opt to hold Choo. Houston has emerged as a surprise suitor as well, even though they currently boast the lowest payroll in baseball. The Mariners are in need of outfield help, but Choo likely wouldn't be in a position to win immediately. The Rangers could also use help in the outfield, and should compete next season.
The last couple of seasons have been a roller coaster for Santana. When he's on, Santana looks like a strong mid-rotation starter. When he's off, the ball flies out of the park at a ridiculous rate. While that was the case during 2012, Santana's struggles that season look like an outlier compared to his recent performances. He also carried the injury-prone tag earlier in his career, but he's been able to start at least 30 games over the past four seasons, so that's no longer the case.
Given those improvements, Santana suddenly looks like one of the safer pitching options in a bad market. Problem is, there haven't been many pitchers like Santana to hit the market recently. The most comparable player is probably Ricky Nolasco, who is also a free-agent this season. Another might be John Lackey, but that's still not ideal -- Lackey was a far superior pitcher at the same point in his career, and signed his deal in 2010. While Anibal Sanchez signed more recently, he's not a great comp either; Sanchez was younger, and had never turned in a bad season when healthy.
Projected contract: Sanchez received $16 million per season from Detroit, which seems steep for Santana. Though he's actually been better than most realize, Santana should still draw some apprehension from general managers. That said, there's a chance for him to make between $13 million and $15 million per season.
Potential landing spots: The Royals are expected to give Santana a qualifying offer, and spoke highly of his contributions this season, though they might not stay in the bidding if Santana gets significant offers. But interest in Santana might be surprisingly light, since teams would have to give up a first-round draft pick to sign him; Nolasco and Matt Garza might go for a similar amount, but won't cost the extra pick. Santana will either return to Kansas City, or go to whatever team misses out on the other starters. With that in mind, he makes the most sense for a team who can surrender a pick in order to make the playoffs. That makes the Dodgers or Blue Jays potential players. The Angels actually fit well, but it's unclear if either party wants a reunion.
Cruz finds himself in a tough situation this offseason. He was on pace to cash in big after a bounce-back season, but his year was cut short after being suspended in the Biogenesis case. Cruz (and Jhonny Peralta) now join Melky Cabrera as one of the few players to hit the market immediately following a drug-related suspension. While the general consensus was that Cabrera lost a lot of money by testing positive, that might not be the case with Cruz, who has a five-year sample of strong play in the majors. Cabrera turned in just a season-and-a-half of elevated play before his suspension.
Given that, it might be reasonable to value Cruz as a normal free agent. He compares pretty well to both Josh Willingham and Michael Cuddyer, who both hit free agency at the same age as Cruz. Cuddyer got three-years, $31 million from the Rockies. Willingham received three-years, $21 million from the Twins.
Projected contract: Using those deals, Cruz could make between $7 to $10 million per season. Whether he makes that depends on how the league reacts to his suspension. There's a good chance he takes a short-term deal to re-establish his value in order to try and hit another payday.
Possible landing spots: Cruz is probably a better fit on an American League club, where he can DH occasionally. That makes the Royals, Twins, Mariners and Orioles interesting possibilties. It's unclear whether the Twins would spend the money on an older player like Cruz, however. The Mariners seem to have their sights set higher. The Orioles could use Cruz to replace Michael Morse.
Garza might be the best pitcher on the market, but arm injuries have limited his value in recent seasons. Garza was sidelined with an elbow concern in 2012, and dealt with a shoulder strain early in 2013. He showed no ill effects once he returned, settling in with a 3.82 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 155 1/3 innings pitched. Both his strikeout and walk rates remained the same. If there's one reason to be concerned about Garza, it's his high home run rate. He might be better suited to pitch in a large ballpark, though he still managed to be effective at the hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
The best comparison for Garza might be former teammate Edwin Jackson. While Garza is actually older than Jackson was when he received his deal, Garza has been consistently solid over his career, while it took Jackson a few seasons before emerging as a mid-rotation starter. Jackson was able to get a four-year, $52 million deal from the Cubs.
Projected contract: Garza is a better pitcher than Jackson, but recent injuries will likely affect in his contract. He could be looking at somewhere between $12 million to $14 million annually. There's also a chance Garza bets on a short-term deal in order to build himself up for a big deal in a year or two.
Possible landing spots: The same teams that will make a play for Ervin Santana will likely be in on Garza. And since Garza won't cost a draft pick, he could be a higher priority among those clubs. That means the Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays could be interested. The Rangers could also try to retain him.
Despite his age, Beltran continues to be an effective player. His two-year, $26 million deal with the Cardinals ended up being a bargain based on his production. While he should be in line for another nice payday, age continues to play a role in how much he'll make on the market. Beltran has held up as well as Ichiro Suzuki and Manny Ramirez through the same age, but even those players had to succumb to age at some point.
The best comparisons for Beltran's next deal is his most recent contract with St. Louis, and Torii Hunter's two-year, $26 million deal with Detroit. Hunter signed that deal at the same age as Beltran, so that may again be the going rate for the soon-to-be 37-year-old.
Projected contract: Another two-year, $26 million deal seems pretty fair based on what Beltran has done recently.
Potential landing spots: Beltran will likely attempt to play for a contender, given his age. He could also be willing to move to the American League, as it would allow him to DH on normal rest days. The Yankees, Orioles and Royals could work in the American League. St. Louis may seem like an unlikely spot for Beltran to stay, but all bets could be off if the team wins the World Series. (How much Beltran is able to contribute remains to be seen, since he injured his ribs making a great catch in Game 1, and is considered day-to-day.)
Granderson enters free agency looking to rebuild his value after an injury-riddled 2013. While he's had a nice resurgence with the Yankees, his new approach has gotten the best of him the past two years. Granderson can still provide ton of power, but his batting average has cratered, though he can offset some of that with a strong walk total.
Shane Victorino works as a possible comp. He was a year younger than Granderson when he received his deal, and was also coming off one of his worst seasons at the plate. He still managed to grab a three-year, $39 million deal from Boston.
Projected contract: It's tough to say. If teams believe the power will bounce back, Granderson could be a nice addition for teams willing to accept his poor batting average. Thirteen million per year seems like a lot to gamble on him, so he may have to settle for something in the $10 million to $12 million range.
Possible landing spots: The White Sox have already been rumored to have interest in the Chicago native. Both the Rangers and Red Sox could lose outfielders this offseason, which could open the door for Granderson. If the Yankees give him a qualifying offer, there's a chance he stays in New York. Granderson's agent admitted he would look hard at that option if the team extends the offer.
Napoli bet on himself in a big way in 2013, and it paid off. After losing out on a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox, Napoli had to settle for a one-year, $5 million deal. The team discovered a degenerative hip condition during a physical, causing the to renegotiate the contract. Napoli didn't seem bothered by the injury, playing in 139 while reaching his career norms offensively.
Teams might be more willing to hand out a multi-year deal to Napoli after his hip proved to be only a minor issue in 2013. Still, the condition will likely scare off some. Because of that, Napoli is his own best comp. While he only signed for $5 million, he earned all of his incentives, pushing his salary to the full $13 million.
Projected contract: Napoli will likely be looking for a guaranteed $13 million per season after proving his hip was not an issue. Since he's coming off a stronger season, there's an outside chance he makes even more. It really depends on how concerned teams are about his hip.
Potential landing spots: The Red Sox are most familiar with his medicals, and managed the situation well, so they make a lot of sense. There's also a possibility for a return to the Rangers if he's willing to go back to Texas.
After two seasons of uneven performances, Jimenez churned out a resurgent 2013. He may no longer feature his signature heater, but has made up for it by throwing more off-speed stuff, mainly sliders. It's tough to trust Jimenez after just one season based on how much he struggled in 2011 and 2012, but prior to that, he looked like the next rising pitching star.
The Tim Lincecum extension is the best possible news for Jimenez. Like Lincecum, Jimenez is a former stud trying to make his way back. The Giants were willing to gamble two years, $35 million to find out if Lincecum can revert to form. Ubaldo might not be in for such a high annual salary, but could get more years on the open market.
Projected contract: Jimenez is probably in line for a combination of the Lincecum deal and the Edwin Jackson contract. Expect him to get more money per year than Jackson, but more years than Lincecum. Something between $13 million and $15 million per season could be fair.
Possible landing spots: Jimenez has talked about how much he loves Cleveland, and has reportedly bonded with the club's pitching coach. He'll also be pursued by the same teams that go after Matt Garza and Ervin Santana. The Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays might fit.
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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.