With the winter meetings squarely in the rear-view mirror, the majority of player movement in preparation for the 2014 MLB season has happened. Shin-Soo Choo's seven-year, $130 million pact with Texas marked the last major currently-available free-agent domino to fall. But plenty of offseason remains, and teams still have plenty of holes to fill.
If the Rakuten Golden Eagles end up posting their ace starter Masahiro Tanaka, he will be far and away the top option on the free-agent market. As I wrote here earlier in the offseason, Tanaka's statistical pedigree and impressive repertoire make him not just the best free agent on the market now, but arguably the best free-agent pitcher to hit the market all offseason.
But for now, Tanaka remains a Golden Eagle. And until he hits the market, the following players project as the best available free-agent options.
1. Kendrys Morales
It took nearly two full seasons for Morales to return from one of the cruelest injuries in sports history, a broken leg suffered as the Cuban switch-hitter completed a walk-off home run trot in May 2010. Despite the time lost to rehabilitation, Morales has remained an excellent power hitter. In 290 games over the past two seasons, Morales has mustered 45 home runs, just behind Nelson Cruz's 51 among remaining hitters.
Morales's accomplishments, however, have come with cavernous Angels Stadium and SafeCo Field as his home parks. Morales owns a .275/.329/.457 line, good for a free-agent-best 121 OPS+ over the past two seasons.
The issue, however, is the qualifying offer extended by the Mariners. Any team signing Morales will be forced to give up a draft pick. But while this is a significant deterrence for teams like Milwaukee, San Diego, San Francisco or the Angels -- the first four teams with unprotected first-round picks -- it shouldn't be an issue for a team picking in the top 10 of the draft, nor for a team like the Yankees or Rangers (just as examples) who have already forfeited their first-round pick to sign another free agent tagged with the qualifying offer.
Obviously, Morales is not without his warts -- he can't be relied on to play the field, he doesn't run well, and he's 30 years old. However, like Kyle Lohse last season, the qualifying offer could end up lowering his perceived value to the point where the team willing to take a plunge gets a major steal -- and the best hitter remaining on the free-agent market.
2. Stephen Drew
Where Morales offers the best remaining value at the plate, Drew clearly offers the best remaining defensive value. Although Drew, 30, is not an elite defensive shortstop -- certainly no Brendan Ryan or Jose Iglesias -- he is the only viable shortstop remaining on the market, and he made enough strong plays during Boston's run to the World Series to believe in his ability to remain at shortstop for a few more years.
If Drew was consistently the hitter he was in 2013 -- .253/.333/.443 (111 OPS+) with 50 extra-base hits in 501 plate appearances -- he would have been in line for a large, multi-year contract with the first wave of free agents. But Drew has been an above-average hitter by OPS+ just four times in his eight-year career, and just once in the past three seasons. Power has never been the issue -- even in a disastrous 2012, his ISO (isolated power, SLG-AVG) was above the league average, a rare feat for the modern shortstop. But strikeouts limit him, as he struck out once a game in 2013 and has showcased similarly poor contact skills throughout his career.
Still, Drew is a shortstop with a competent glove and a powerful bat, and that's a difficult combination to find in today's major leagues. Injury concerns -- Drew has played 86, 79 and 124 games respectively the past three seasons -- will limit his earning potential, but for teams with a hole at shortstop, Drew will be an awfully enticing option the longer he remains available.
3. Ubaldo Jimenez
As the free-agent ranks dwindle, few options offer reliable performance. As such, potential becomes more and more important. Good luck predicting Jimenez's performance -- over the last four years, his ERA has gone from 2.88 to 4.68 to 5.40 and back to 3.30 last season with Cleveland. Luckily for Jimenez, who's still just 29, he timed it right, making his walk year in 2013 a quality performance for potential suitors.
Last season also saw Jimenez's best peripheral stats since his dominant 2010 with Colorado: his 2.4 K/BB marked a career high and he likely would have surpassed 200 strikeouts for the second time in his career with just one more start. And in terms of potential, no pitcher available can top what Jimenez did in 2009 and 2010, when he combined for a 3.17 ERA over 439 2/3 innings with Coors Field as his home park. Over those two seasons, Jimenez amassed a combined 12.8 WAR. If he can muster even a fraction of that ability with his new club, he will be the best of the last available pitchers.
4. A.J. Burnett
Although no one can blame the Yankees for bailing on Burnett after the 2011 season, the Pirates' decision to acquire the 36-year-old righty was one of the many shrewd moves that allowed Pittsburgh to break its two-decade postseason drought in 2013. Burnett was everything Pittsburgh could have asked for over his two years in the black and yellow: over 393 1/3 innings, he compiled a 3.41 ERA to go with 389 strikeouts and just 129 walks. His 9.8 K/9 in 2013 led the National League.
But Burnett turns 37 just after the new year, and one can't ignore his two brutal campaigns with the Yankees at age 33 and 34: 377 innings, a 5.20 ERA, and a 2.0 K/BB, a full point below his mark in his two years in Pittsburgh. Between Burnett's age, the help he received from Pittsburgh's brilliant defense and pitcher-friendly park and league (he had a 107 ERA+ as a Pirate, just above the league average) and his issues facing top-tier talent in the AL East's best years, it's easy to see why teams might be gun-shy.
At least the Pirates didn't extend the qualifying offer to Burnett. Teams squarely in contention or just one veteran pitcher away would be wise to look into a short, incentive-laden contract to sign the former Pirates ace.
5. Matt Garza
It's tough to find the correct order for the top three remaining pitchers. The cop-out answer is it depends on which team is doing the shopping -- Jimenez makes sense for the team that can take on risk and would prefer a younger option, Burnett makes sense for the team looking for short-term help, and Garza represents a happy medium between the two.
Garza's peak can't match Jimenez's -- his ERA+ topped out at 119 with the 2008 Rays, compared to a 161 mark for Jimenez with the 2010 Rockies -- but he has been far more consistent. Aside from a cup of coffee with the Twins in 2006, Garza has never posted an ERA+ below 100. At this point, Garza has established himself as a mid-rotation pitcher. He's too prone to the home run (135 in 191 starts, or 1.0 per nine innings) to be an ace, but his strong control and vicious slider give him enough weapons to handle most major league lineups.
Perhaps this is a disappointing assessment for Garza, who was once seen as a future ace in Minnesota and then Tampa Bay. But if teams are realistic about his spot in the rotation -- as in, he won't be the best or likely even the second-best pitcher on a winning team -- he can be a worthy building block for a contending team, and at just 30 years old, he can do it longer than just about anybody else available.
6. Nelson Cruz
If anyone would quibble with my assessment of Kendrys Morales as the best batter on the market, it would be Nelson Cruz. Cruz was an All-Star in 2013 and posted a 123 OPS+ and 27 home runs in 109 games before a 50-game suspension for his links to the Biogenesis scandal ended his season.
But Cruz will turn 34 in July and has seen his defense decline sharply to the point where he, like Morales, should be limited to exclusively a designated hitter role. Cruz had a down year in 2012 as well -- just .260/.319/.460 despite playing in the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington -- making Morales the better hitter over the two-year period after adjusting for park. And Cruz is more than three years older than Morales to boot.
This is the major concern with Cruz -- injury issues were a constant from 2009-2011, as he missed at least 34 games a season until playing 159 games in 2012. Can he stay healthy? Can he play the outfield? Will his skills at the plate remain with age? Can he hit home runs consistently in a park other than Texas? Will there be a negative post-PED effect? The sheer number of questions combined with the draft pick cost associated with the qualifying offer make Cruz a tough sell.
The list of worthwhile players doesn't end here -- Ervin Santana could argue that he is on or above the level of the three starting pitchers listed above, and Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney are intriguing relief options. But aside from Tanaka, these six players look like the ones with the chances to make the biggest impact next year and beyond, and therefore the six most worthy of watching as the calendar flips from 2013 to 2014 and spring training draws ever closer.