In a year where the free agent pool is rather diminished, perhaps the most valuable move many teams can make is to try to hold onto the players already in their organizations.
That said, there will obviously be movement amongst many of the players available. Having seen the way this past season has shaken out, with many divisional races—the AL and NL East in particular—being turned upside down, it seems that there will be more competition to get the few top-tier players who are available.
As Major League Baseball pre-heats the Hot Stove, let’s look at the top free agents available at each position.
Mike Napoli’s numbers have never been particularly overwhelming. Save the anomaly that was his .320 batting average a year ago. But if he should depart Texas for his third team in four years, it seems that he would provide a great benefit to the Boston Red Sox.
Napoli’s versatility as a catcher and first baseman would fit very well on a Red Sox team that is without a definite first baseman, catcher, and designated hitter. Although Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a career high 25 homeruns this season, he only batted .222 on the year.
Contrastingly, Napoli’s production at Fenway—batting 6-for-13 with 3 homeruns and two doubles—is second only to his offense at his first home, Angels Stadium in Anaheim.
With questions about James Loney as a long term first baseman and David Ortiz’ future still up in the air, a platoon of Saltalamacchia, Napoli and top prospect Ryan Lavarnway could provide the versatility that the Red Sox saw with Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek and Kevin Youkilis in 2010.
With Napoli and A.J. Pierzynski both on the market this offseason, both will probably receive calls from the Yankees as Russell Martin—also a free agent—barely broke the Mendoza Line this season, batting .211 on the year and .191 at Yankee Stadium. He did have 21 homeruns nonetheless.
After a career year with the Nationals where Adam LaRoche put up personal highs with 33 homeruns, 100 RBIs and 155 hits, it is likely Washington will reward LaRoche by picking up his $10 million team option in 2013.
Beyond LaRoche, there is a bit of a drop off in the free agent market amongst traditional first basemen. Also on the free agent market are Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman and Travis Hafner who are all over 35-years-old, as well as James Loney who batted just .249 with 37 runs and 41 RBIs this season, although he has shown potential for better.
One might imagine that Kevin Youkilis, whose career seems entirely in transition at the moment, will be approached as a first baseman this offseason.
Now this one is a bit facetious as it is likely Cano will join Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips as franchise second basemen to sign contract extensions.
From there, the pool of players includes Toronto’s Kelly Johnson and Tampa Bay’s Jeff Keppinger, neither of which are huge offensive threats—Johnson produced 55 RBIs and Keppinger scored 46 runs including nine homeruns—though Keppinger did bat .325 for a Tampa team that never managed to turn the corner in the AL East.
For the sake of Mets fans, the team has to bring back David Wright in 2013.
Wright leads the Mets in nearly every offensive category, he is the answer to every trivia question scrolled across the jumbo-tron between innings and he is the star of every regional commercial.
Picking up the $16 million option should be an easy enough decision.
Elsewhere, Kevin Youkilis seemed to prove Bobby Valentine correct, batting just three points higher in Chicago than he did in Boston, although he did manage 15 homeruns.
Regardless, Youkilis’ greatest value may come from his defensive versatility—potentially transitioning back to first base if a team has that availability.
Edwin Encarnacion also proved his value with Toronto, but Brett Lawrie has the hot corner well-manned north-of-the-border.
Despite a bit of a drop off statistically from Jhonny Peralta this season, batting just .239 with 63 RBIs, it seems likely that the Tigers will retain him.
Beyond Peralta, however, it is Stephen Drew whom I expect to find his niche with a new organization in 2013. Drew proved to be a worthwhile rental for the Athletics after the trade deadline, manufacturing 21 runs and 16 RBIs during Oakland’s improbable run to the AL West title.
That is not to say that Drew won’t return to the Bay Area and spend a full season with the Athletics. How long a team built entirely around sabermetrics can stay successful remains to be seen, but this A’s team looks poised to give us the answer and Drew certainly fits the bill.
Meanwhile, across the harbor, journeyman Marco Scutaro quietly batted .306 this season en route to a Giants’ division title. Specifically, Scutaro hit for .362 in 243 at-bats after coming to California from the Rockies.
Though this is not the strongest year for free agency, the list is rather saturated with outfielders and middle-of-the-road starting pitching, so first let’s address who I believe is shopping around and who is staying put.
Staying: Michael Bourn, ATL; Cody Ross, BOS; Nick Swisher, NYY
Bourn is an easy call, stealing 41 bases this year and putting up a .995 fielding percentage that could win him the Gold Glove.
Ross and Swisher each have the same kind of style as fielders, but more important to consider is the chemistry and energy they bring into the clubhouse is infectious and appreciated by the fans.
Particularly in a Red Sox clubhouse that is fraught with personality issues, Ross is a good place to start the repair and his offensive numbers are worth holding onto.
Going: Josh Hamilton, TEX; B.J. Upton, TB; Torii Hunter, LAA
Obviously, if you can hold onto a player like Josh Hamilton you do so. But it is just as obvious to shop around if you have a player with the talent that Josh Hamilton has.
Hamilton is a good fit in Texas and the fans love him, but I foresee some team overpaying for him or trying to squeeze him into a lineup where maybe he does not fit very well.
For example, given the swing in competitive parity over the last two years, a team like the Pirates—who already have a bona fide MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen—could become too aggressive hoping to replicate what has been accomplished in Washington, Baltimore and Oakland.
B.J. Upton would most likely only be retained for trade value, seeing as the Rays have tried to trade him at the deadline in recent years.
Hunter, 37, has the unfortunate burden of being an older veteran playing next to two young superstars in Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo; eventually there are just not enough positions on the diamond. Still, Hunter hit .313 this year and can still play, so he should find a home outside of LA.
The Red Sox should not bring back David Ortiz in 2013.
He can absolutely still play, that is evident, but he is old, he is injured and—for a team that is trying to overhaul its clubhouse—he complains.
Ortiz is only 36-years-old, but perhaps the biggest variable working against him is the realignment set to take place in 2013 with the Astros set to move to the AL West. To that point, Houston could be a possible destination for Ortiz.
The David Ortiz debate epitomizes an interesting dilemma for Major League Baseball as a whole: what to do with the DH?
Given that there will be expanded interleague play, it seems that a need to unify the DH rule—either by universally accepting OR rejecting it—is imminent. Even if it is accepted, the versatility of the position may ultimately phase out the use of an everyday designated hitter, leaving Papi without a job and the Sox should try to get ahead of that curve.
The Rangers may end up making a decision between Ryan Dempster and Colby Lewis the same way they decided between Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson a year ago. This year, Dempster is the hot player and Lewis is hurt. Look for Dempster to come back before Lewis.
Jake Peavy’s return from a complete tear of the lattisimus dorsi tendon resulted in an 11-12 record, but a 3.37 ERA. It will be interesting to see how Chicago juggles their payroll given that Peavy’s option is for $22 million and both Gavin Floyd and Francisco Liriano are also entering free agency, which could ultimately deplete a Chicago rotation that narrowly missed reaching the playoffs.
Kyle Lohse had the best season of his career, going 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA. This will certainly drive up his asking price, but to return to a pitching staff that includes Jake Westbrook and Adam Wainright could mean another run at the NL Central in 2013.
Zack Greinke seemed like a rental when he was acquired at the deadline, but now it is possible that the Angels will have to decide between Greinke and Dan Haren. Haren has a $15.5 million team option and was involved in trade talks at the deadline that could rekindle interest in the offseason. Should Haren sign elsewhere, it could open up enough capital to hold onto Greinke.
Broxton had 23 saves with the Kansas City Royals through the first half of the season before being dealt to Cincinnati at the deadline to help set up Aroldis Chapman.
Chapman, however, was filling a role that was intended to be held by Ryan Madson, who signed a one-year deal at this point last year, before being shelved for the year to rehab from Tommy John Surgery.
Given the success of pitchers returning from Tommy John Surgery, it is likely that a team will pick up Madson for short money, while Broxton seeks out a closer role outside Cincinnati.
Another closer that will be on the market is Detroit’s Jose Valverde. Detroit would be wise to lock him up as soon as they can, however, as they look to be the next team in line to make multiple runs at the American League pennant. As it stands now, Detroit is on the brink of their second straight appearance in the ALCS and Valverde has been critical in getting them to that point, posting a 3.78 ERA and 35 saves.