Baseball is over. As hard as it is for me to say that, it’s true. Baseball is over…
…Well, for the most part.
Free Agency Frenzy is upon us!
As of 12:01 AM, players who have filed for free agency can begin negotiating new contracts with all 30 clubs. The star studded free agent class, headlined by St. Louis Cardinals slugger/machine/alien/god, Albert Pujols, is sure to be the topic of interest this offseason, as teams look to improve their clubs to gear up for the 2012 season.
While Pujols is the cream-of-the-crop of free agent hitters, the top free agent pitcher did not even get the chance to hit free agency. The Yankees re-signed ace left-hander CC Sabathia to a five-year, $122 million contract to make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball. Sabathia, who was in the midst of a seven-year, $161 million contract had an opt-out clause that could have allowed him to hit free agency. However, after professing his love for New York and the Yankees, the two sides were able to reach an agreement rather quickly and prevent Sabathia from using the opt-out clause.
So we’ve got our first big name off of the market. While the marlin has been reeled in, there are still plenty of big fish left in the pond. I know, lame analogy, but it worked a little? (Please, give me some laughs)
With many other great free agent hitters and pitchers auctioning their services, this market will be one to surely keep an eye on. Who will go where? How much? Will we have some shockers?
I compiled a list of the top-five free agents, and gave my take on where they’d end up and how much it’d take to get them. So without further adieu, let’s start with number one:
1. Albert Pujols
Position: First Base
Opening Day 2012 age: 32
Original Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Baseball, meet your next $200 million man. If anyone’s deserving of the next $200+ million contract, it’s 32 year-old Jose Alberto Pujols.
A three-time National League Most Valuable Player and a career .328 hitter who has slugged 445 home runs over an 11-year career with the Cardinals, “The Machine” might be the best player in the game. Scratch that, it’s not even debatable – he is the game’s best.
Fresh off his second World Championship in this year’s feat over the Texas Rangers, Albert is looking to cash in big-time. However, he just completed his “worst” season, hitting .299 with 37 home runs and 99 RBIs, snapping his 10-year streak of a .300+ batting average, 30+ home runs and 100+ RBIs. He must be pretty washed up, eh?
There’s a chance he could pass Alex Rodriguez’s record setting $275 million contract (signed in 2008) with the Yankees, but will it happen in St. Louis?
That remains to be seen.
Will the Cardinals give Albert what he’s worth to keep their star in red and white? My senses are telling me that there’s absolutely no way that Albert Pujols leaves St. Louis. It’s a scary thought for sure, handing out a huge $200 million contract to a player who’s nearing his mid-thirties and will hit the inevitable decline stage, but it’s something simply the Cardinals must do, if not for their team then for their fan base. Albert is going to spend the rest of his career mashing the ball in Busch Stadium
Destination: St. Louis Cardinals, eight-years/$245 million
2. Prince Fielder
Position: First Base
Opening Day 2012 age: 27
Original Team: Milwaukee Brewers
At just 27 years of age, Big Daddy Jr. will be hitting the free agent market. The second-best hitter on the market, Prince Fielder will be looking for at least over $180 million wherever he decides to take his talents. A bulky kid, standing at 5’11 and 275 lbs, Prince is sure to provide the pop to whichever team requests his services.
After publicly stating that he probably would not return to the Brewers, public speculation is that Prince will 100% be in another uniform come Opening Day. With Fielder, a team is getting a player who plays solid defense at first base, provides at least 37 home runs, and energizes a clubhouse. The big lefty slugger was a key cog in Milwaukee’s playoff run this season, hitting .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBIs during the regular season.
Teams are reported to be scared of Fielder for one reason: his weight. Fielder, like his father Cecil, has always been known to be a big guy. While his weight hasn’t been shown to effect him in his career so far, there is worry that as he ages the weight will soon take its toll on his knees. If his weight issue doesn’t scare teams, perhaps super agent Scott Boras, who just so happens to represent Fielder, will.
With Boras, it’s very likely that Fielder will demand a long-term deal that should be within the $180-200 million range. For a player of Fielder’s strengths and age, it makes sense… but where is the fit?
Enter, the Chicago Cubs.
With new President of Baseball Operations, Theo Epstein, and General Manager, Jed Hoyer, at the helm, expect the Cubs to be very aggressive suitors for Fielder’s services. With tons of money to spend, and a rebuilding process in the works, Chicago could look into securing Fielder as the cornerstone piece to their return to glory alongside Starlin Castro. The Cubs currently hold a vacancy at first base, and I’m sure that Prince would love to mash some homers onto Sheffield Avenue.
Destination: Chicago Cubs, seven-years/$195 million
3. Jose Reyes
Opening Day 2012 age: 28
Original Team: New York Mets
Mets fans, time to toss those “KEEP REYES” t-shirts. Jose Reyes, the National League’s batting champion, is looking for a new home.
A career Met, Reyes is most likely not going to return to Flushing next season to play in the newly refurbished Citi Field. A high-contact hitter who focuses his game on stealing bases and hitting triples, Reyes, 28, is looking at upwards of $100 million. In other words, he’ll be taking his services to whoever presents him with “Carl Crawford Money.”
“Carl Crawford Money” refers to the seven-year, $142 million contract that Crawford signed with the Boston Red Sox last winter. Reyes and Crawford are similar players who base their game on speed and hitting for contact. After the season Reyes just had, .337 with seven home runs, 44 RBI and 39 stolen bases, one would think that he is definitely deserving of such a contract. However, Reyes has been known throughout his career to be injury-prone, as he spent part of each of the past three seasons on the disabled list, and is, in some ways, a shell of the former player he once was.
Once a lock for 60+ stolen bases, the switch-hitting Reyes can no longer run the way he used to. Various hamstring and foot injuries have derailed his base running skills. No team should expect for him to steal upwards of 50 bases, as around 30-40 seems more reasonable. Despite these injuries, Reyes is still one of the best shortstops in the game.
Is Reyes deserving of $140 million? His play on the field says yes, but any team looking to sign the All-Star Reyes will probably be cautious. I’ve always been a big believer in being cautious before giving a big contract to a player who bases his game on speed. As Reyes ages, his speed with inevitably start to slow, and he’ll now longer be a stolen base threat. It’s a risk that some team will have to take on Reyes.
That being said, I see Reyes landing his big deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers, who cut loose shortstop Yunieksy Betancourt, would be the perfect fit for Reyes. The Brewers would not only be fixing their hole at shortstop, but they’d be adding another potent offensive hitter to help ease the loss of Prince Fielder, who most likely will not return to Milwaukee. Reyes fits the Brewers style of rag-tag, gritty-gutsy baseball, and has the energetic personality to light up a clubhouse that already includes Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan and NL MVP candidate, Ryan Braun.
Destination: Milwaukee Brewers, six-years/$138 million
4. C.J. Wilson
Position: Left Handed Starting Pitcher
Opening Day 2012 age: 31
Original Team: Texas Rangers
With CC Sabathia back in New York, C.J. Wilson becomes the cream-of-the-crop for free agent pitchers. Wilson, who has spent the past two years as a starter for Texas after five years in the bullpen, will be seeking anywhere from “A.J. Burnett Money” to $100 million.
That’s not a typo, folks. The guy has two years as a starter and wants $100 million.
Despite it being just his second year as a starter, Wilson had a fantastic season for the American League Champion Rangers, going 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA in 34 starts while striking out 206 hitters in 223.1 innings over the course of the regular season. His performance this season surely makes him worthy of a $100 million contract, right?
Wilson was terri-bad (yes, that is terrible and bad) in the postseason for Texas, going 0-3 and posting an ERA over 6.00 and walking 19 batters in 28 innings. However it is not just his postseason track record that may not make him deserving of such a big payday, it is also his inexperience as a starter and the fact that he is already in his 30s. If I’m a team that has interest in the lefty, I am not giving him what he demands. Instead, I would reason him down to about $70-80 million, perhaps topping out at $82.5 million, the amounts similar pitchers Burnett and John Lackey received when they hit free agency.
Wilson is an ace of some sorts, but profiles as an above-average solid #2 or #3 starter for sure, and he’ll be filling that role next year when he re-ups with the Rangers. The Rangers cannot afford to lose Wilson. While they are pipelined with young arms in the minor leagues and have one of the best farm systems in baseball, they do not have a true ace to head their rotation. Derek Holland, while he shined in the World Series, is not ready for that task, ditto that for Colby Lewis. Wilson has also publicly expressed interest in staying in Texas, but will consider his other options. I fully expect him to re-up in the Lone Star State.
Destination: Texas Rangers, five-years/$75 million
5. Yu Darvish
Position: Right Handed Starting Pitcher
Opening Day 2012 age: 25
Original Team: Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan)
The fifth-best free agent on the market isn’t even a free agent yet, and hasn’t even pitched in Major League Baseball. So how is Yu Darvish ranked fifth?
Darvish, 25, has been talked about for years as the next “big-thing” from Japan. Said to be better than Daisuke Matsuzaka, Darvish could be posted this offseason by the Fighters if he chooses, and at this point it’s very likely, to want to play in America.
With Japanese players who are restricted free agents, American teams must bid for the rights to talk to the player. For example, in 2006, the Boston Red Sox paid a record-setting $51.1 million to speak to Matsuzaka and signed him to a six-year, $52 million contract. While a team can win the rights to talk to the player, that does not mean that they can agree upon a contract. In this case, the team receives the money it bid back and the player would spend another season in Japan.
Darvish is a different breed from other Japanese pitchers. At 6’5, 185 lbs, Darvish is the owner of a career 75-32 record with a 2.12 ERA over six-seasons with the Fighters. He has had an ERA under 2.00 the past four seasons. Darvish’s other accolades include being named the Pacific League MVP twice (2007 & 2009) and winning the Eiji Sawamura Award, the equivalent of the Cy Young Award, in 2007. He also was a key component in Japan’s 2009 World Baseball Classic win.
In the MLB, Darvish is projected to be an ace or, at worst, a #2 starter. Still considered a prospect, reports say that Darvish will surpass Matsuzaka’s bidding record with upwards of at least $60-70 million, on top of receiving a contract that is predicted to be around $100 million. What’s even better is that, if the hype is true, he’ll be worth it.
Signing a Japanese player is always a risk. Over the course of the past decade we’ve seen successful Japanese pitchers such as Matsuzaka, the Yankees’ Kei Igawa, the Braves’ Kenshin Kawakami, and others squander in the major leagues. The MLB is a huge step from the NPB. The competition is tougher, the ballparks are different, and the American baseball is slightly bigger than the Japanese baseball. There’s no reason to say Darvish won’t excel in America, but there’s also plenty of concern and proof that he could fail.
In my opinion, Darvish is a different pitcher from the other Japanese players who have migrated to America. He’s got better command of his pitches, has truly dominated the NPB, and is young enough to mature to American talent. That’s why Darvish, pending he is posted, is going to pitch next season with the New York Yankees.
The Yankees have been doing their homework on Darvish for years. Yankee Universe has buzzed about with the idea of Darvish joining a dream rotation as the second starter behind Sabathia and rookie-sensation Ivan Nova. However, after their most recent Japanese pitching failure in Igawa, could the Yankees be worried that Darvish could turn out the same way, only much more expensive?
â€œI think weâ€™re more prepared today than we have been in the past in terms of how we evaluate players over there and what risks weâ€™re willing to take,â€ Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman said. â€œâ€¦ Weâ€™ve gotten a lot more educated by our past experiences as you would expect. That doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to shy away. That doesnâ€™t mean weâ€™re going to be more aggressive. That just means I think weâ€™ve gotten more educated, thatâ€™s all, and thatâ€™s a good thing.â€
So while there’s no indicator that it is a definite that Darvish lands in New York, or that he comes to America, there is a definite consensus among the industry that Darvish is the real-deal. I expect the Yankees, who are said to not be heavily interested in Wilson or Roy Oswalt, to go hard for Darvish.
Destination: New York Yankees, five-years/$100 million
That’s it for my picks. Jimmy Rollins, Aramis Ramirez, and Edwin Jackson were guys who were the close cuts from the top five. I’d love it if you guys could leave your predictions in the comments, so I could get some feedback on what ya’ll think. It’s going to be an interesting offseason for sure, and I can’t wait to see what unfolds. Hopefully there are lots of surprise trades and signings headed our way, baseball fans.
Until then: 3 months and 12 days until pitchers and catchers report…