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2014 MLB Free Agents with the Most on the Line This Season

Doug MeadCorrespondent IApril 5, 2013

2014 MLB Free Agents with the Most on the Line This Season

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    Next year's class of MLB free agents has a lot on the line as it starts the 2013 season.

    Simply put, these free agents-to-be are playing for their future well-being.

    Many of them are already making millions, so it's difficult for any of us to feel any empathy toward them. But nonetheless, next year's crop of free agents is putting a lot on the line this season as its prospective members play for their futures.

    Here are 20 players who can shape the course of their future as they look to secure a long-term deal.

Dan Haren: Washington Nationals

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    Dan Haren won't make his debut with the Washington Nationals until Friday against the Cincinnati Reds. But he already has something to play for and something to prove.

    Haren made 254 consecutive starts between 2005 and last year only to see the streak end because of persistent back pain. That pain led to a horrible first half for Haren. He bounced back with a strong second half, but his velocity was clearly diminished.

    Haren was nearly traded to the Chicago Cubs last October, but that deal was nixed when the Cubs had issues about his physical that showed a pre-existing hip condition that Haren admitted has been there since his rookie year.

    Likely for that very reason, he was signed for only one year. If he can return to the form that led to 254 straight starts, Haren's next contract could be for longer than one season.

Matt Garza: Chicago Cubs

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    Much like Dan Haren, Matt Garza is also out to show he can be a durable pitcher in the coming years. Unfortunately for him, the strained lat muscle that landed him on the disabled list to start this season isn't helping his cause.

    Garza likely won't be back until early May. He's expected to join the Chicago Cubs when they play in Atlanta on Friday and start throwing off a mound for the first time since he was shut down in mid-February.

    Garza's right elbow, the issue that limited him to 18 starts last season, appears to be healthy. Now, Garza will need to get back on the bump quickly and show prospective buyers that he can provide quality starts and remain healthy.

    Even if Garza stays on the field for the rest of the season, it's unlikely he'll see any offer for more than two or three years. But he could still draw a significant salary nonetheless.

Carlos Ruiz: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Philadelphia Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz didn't become a starter behind the plate until he was 28 years old. Last year at the age of 34, Ruiz put together what was by far his most impressive offensive campaign, hitting .325 with 16 home runs and 68 RBI. He earned his first All-Star selection as well.

    This year, Ruiz will be getting a late start courtesy of a 25-game suspension handed down due to testing positive for a banned substance.

    Ruiz will make $5 million in the final season of a four-year deal. When he returns from his suspension, he'll begin the process of playing for a new contract.

    Ruiz will be 35 years old before the start of next year, and it's unclear if the Phillies are actually interested in bringing him back. It could be that his performance for the rest of the year dictates the answer to that question.

Stephen Drew: Boston Red Sox

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    The Boston Red Sox signed Stephen Drew to a one-year, $9.5 million contract this offseason. It was looked at as a bridge signing with Drew filling the position temporarily while prospects Jose Iglesias and Xander Bogaerts continued their development.

    Drew returned last season after missing nearly a year with badly fractured ankle to hit a combined .223 between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland A's. Drew helped proved stability in the middle infield during the A's march to the AL West Division title.

    However, Drew has yet to take the field after being hit in the head by a pitch on March 7. He is scheduled to begin a rehab assignment at Double-A Portland on Thursday. If all goes well, Drew could be back in time for Boston's home opener on Monday.

    Drew won't be back with the Red Sox after this year, not with Iglesias and Bogaerts in tow. But he will be playing for his future nonetheless, a future that could be considerably brighter with a strong comeback season.

Delmon Young: Philadelphia Phillies

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    After making $6.75 million last year with the Detroit Tigers, outfielder Delmon Young saw no significant offers coming his way during the offseason.

    I'm going to presume that many teams were scared off by Young's completely boorish behavior last April.

    He finally got an offer in late January—a one-year, $750K deal from the Philadelphia Phillies. The deal included $2.5 million in incentives as well, but still a stark decline.

    Young started the season on the disabled list while he continues rehabbing from offseason ankle surgery. Young's performance and his behavior will absolutely be the determining factors in his next contract.

    At just 27 years of age, maturity will have everything to do with Young's future in baseball.

Mike Napoli: Boston Red Sox

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    After a three-year, $39 million offer turned into a one-year, $5 million contract, Boston Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli certainly has something to play for next season and beyond.

    Napoli's original deal was nixed because of a pre-existing hip condition called avascular necrosis. The condition has never caused issues with Napoli, but it's something that could possibly become a deterrent later in his career.

    Napoli could still make as much as $13 million this year through incentives, but he's still playing for the future. If he gets through the season healthy and puts up solid numbers at Fenway Park, there's always the chance he could return to Boston.

    But it would be a stretch to think that anyone would sign him for anything longer than two years at this point.

Shaun Marcum: New York Mets

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    Starting pitcher Shaun Marcum spent two months on the disabled list last season dealing with right elbow soreness.

    The fact that it came just three years removed from Tommy John surgery was certainly a red flag.

    Marcum did return to the hill and posted a few quality starts before the end of the season. But teams were obviously still concerned as the offseason dragged on.

    Marcum had to wait until late January to sign on the dotted line, and it was only for one year and $4 million with the rebuilding New York Mets.

    While his elbow was the big concern, it's currently his shoulder and neck that are drawing concern. Marcum hasn't pitched since March 16, and he'll now travel back to New York for an evaluation after he was unable to pitch in a simulated game in extended spring training.

    At this point Marcum simply needs to get healthy and get on the field as quickly as possible. Otherwise, he'll be pitching for a deal significantly less than the one he just received. And that was already a vastly decreased salary.

Kevin Youkilis: New York Yankees

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    Kevin Youkilis signed a $12 million contract to replace an aging and hurt superstar.

    The trouble is that Youkilis is himself aging and prone to injury—at least for the past few seasons.

    The New York Yankees are now paying $40 million for two old and aging stars to man third base this season—Alex Rodriguez at $28 million and Youkilis at $12 million. Youkilis will actually at times help fill in at first base as well until Mark Teixeira returns from his wrist injury.

    At 34 years of age, it's hard to imagine that Youkilis would get much more than one-year offers following this season. The aging process, the decline in production and injury history are the causes for that belief.

    However, Youkilis can make decent money in those one-year deals if the production doesn't suffer a dramatic drop-off.

Michael Morse: Seattle Mariners

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    Michael Morse has made his return to Seattle successful early in the 2013 season.

    Morse has three home runs and five RBI in the Mariners' first three games. A team clamoring for more offense has certainly received that and them some from him so far.

    Morse is making $6.75 million this season. If he delivers anything close to 35 home runs and 100 RBI, the Mariners could be enticed to extend Morse's second stint in Seattle.

Brian Roberts: Baltimore Orioles

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    At 35 years of age and with a well-documented history of injuries over the past three seasons, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts has likely seen his last days of an eight-figure salary.

    Making $10 million in the final season of a four-year, $40 million deal, Roberts is attempting to just stay healthy and be a factor for the only team he has ever played for.

    I can absolutely see a scenario where Roberts stays with Baltimore—but it will be at a drastically reduced rate of pay. He simply won't get a sweetheart deal with any other team—certainly not for longer than one year.

Mark Reynolds: Cleveland Indians

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    Mark Reynolds will largely be used as a designated hitter this season for the Cleveland Indians. A few starts at first base will be peppered in as well.

    Reynolds signed a one-year, $6 million deal back in December. At the time it was thought that Reynolds would play first full time. However, the signing of Nick Swisher changed those plans.

    Reynolds is only 29 years old and has 182 lifetime home runs. He also has well over 1,000 strikeouts with a .235 career average. With Reynolds it's simple—you take the bad along with the good.

    He's not going to be playing for a three- or four-year deal. Teams will not commit money to a player prone to streaky play and the chance to whiff once out of every three at-bats.

    But Reynolds could see a nice paycheck if he can put up 30-35 home runs and keep the strikeout count somewhere south of 200.

Corey Hart: Milwaukee Brewers

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    When Corey Hart finally steps on the field for the Milwaukee Brewers sometime in May, he will have begun his 10th season with his original team.

    Hart is rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, the second year in a row he will have made a late start. Making $10 million this season, Hart presents a conundrum for the financially challenged Brewers.

    With Mat Gamel down for the count with another torn ACL, the Brewers have no options at first base other than Alex Gonzalez, who prior to this season had made every single one of his major league starts at shortstop.

    It could be out of necessity more than allegiance as a reason for the Brewers to extend Hart. But it's still a good reason to keep a player who has been an integral part of the offense for several years.

Hunter Pence: San Francisco Giants

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    With an escalating payroll, the San Francisco Giants will have a decision to make regarding Hunter Pence.

    Making $13.8 million in his final year of arbitration, Pence won't come cheap. While he struggled with a .219 average following his trade from the Philadelphia Phillies last year, he still drove in 45 batters in 59 games. That translates to 124 RBI over a full season.

    That kind of production is hard to come by. Pence has only driven in over 100 runners once in his career, so it's certainly not a given he can provide that type of production for a full year.

    In addition, the Giants have Gary Brown laying in wait, with his path to the majors currently blocked by Angel Pagan in center field.

    General manager Brian Sabean does have options next season, so Pence could be playing for a contract in a new city. How long and for how much will be determined by his production.

Nelson Cruz: Texas Rangers

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    Right fielder Nelson Cruz has spent all but eight games of his career with the Texas Rangers.

    That run could come to an end this season.

    Cruz is making $10.5 million in the final season of his two-year deal. It's hard to say he's not worth the money considering he's averaged 27 home runs and 83 RBI since becoming a full-time player in 2009.

    But money is the crux of the issue when it comes to making long-term decisions. The Rangers have Mike Olt working in the outfield at Triple-A Round Rock, and manager Ron Washington was pleased with what he saw from Olt defensively during spring training.

    Left fielder David Murphy is also set to become a free agent, so it seems apparent that Olt will take over for one of them. If it's a money-based decision, Cruz is out.

    He'll still make an eight-figure salary, it just might not be in Texas.

Tim Lincecum: San Franciso Giants

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    San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Linecum is the first player already making $20 million to land on this list.

    It's a better-than-even-money bet he won't be close to that figure next season.

    Lincecum is attempting to bounce back from a season that produced a 10-15 record and 5.18 ERA. His 107 earned runs allowed and 17 wild pitches led the National League. After an inconsistent spring, Linecum walked seven batters in five innings in his first start of the season on Wednesday night.

    In that outing Lincecum threw 91 pitches and only 46 of them for strikes. The inability to command the strike zone has been maddening for the two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.

    If Lincecum wants to continue his time in the Bay Area, a drastic turnaround is needed. Forget the $20 million contract—just a future as an effective pitcher would be nice.

Justin Morneau: Minnesota Twins

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    Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau has been a fixture in the Twin Cities since 2003. The Twins have always been one the more loyal teams in the league in terms of retaining their stars.

    That's why the decision to keep Morneau is such a delicate subject.

    Clearly loved by both fans and management, Morneau has been a faithful and devoted servant for 10-plus seasons. Whether or not that relationship continues beyond this season is the big unknown.

    In February, Phil Mackey of 1500ESPN.com commented that Morneau couldn't have gotten healthier at a better time. Mackey believes that with a productive 2013 season, Morneau could either play his way into an extension with the Twins, become an attractive trade-deadline candidate or even play his way into a qualifying offer at the end of the season.

    One or possibly two of those three scenarios involves Morneau returning to Minnesota. It's production and health that will determine the most likely answer.

Roy Halladay: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Through the terms of his contract, starting pitcher Roy Halladay would have to throw 259 innings for his 2014 option of $20 million to kick in.

    I'll go out on a limb and say that's not likely to happen.

    Three conditions have to be met in order for Halladay's 2014 to vest—a total of 415 innings between 2012 and this season, a minimum of 225 innings in 2013, and he can't be on the disabled list to end the 2013 season.

    The first two conditions certainly won't be met, and the last one—well, who knows.

    To say that Halladay was all over the map in his first start on Wednesday would be putting it mildly.

    In 3.1 innings, Halladay struck out nine batters. But he also issued three walks and allowed base hits to six of the seven other hitters, two of them home runs.

    According to Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, one scout was completely baffled.

    "If you didn't know it was Roy Halladay out there," he said, "you would say, 'This guy looks like a journeyman.'"

    Halladay battled through a shoulder issue last year and then fought bouts of reduced velocity this spring. The first start did nothing to alleviate any concerns.

    Making $20 million this season, Halladay is almost assuredly financially set for life. He could call it a career right now and be a candidate for the Hall of Fame.

    Considering how he looks right now, his future won't be with the Phillies. In fact, that future could be in serious doubt.

Brian McCann: Atlanta Braves

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    For the first six-plus years of his career, Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann was one of the best in the majors. He compiled six straight All-Star nods and five Silver Slugger Awards.

    McCann's production took a hit last year as he dealt with shoulder issues all season that led to offseason surgery. A partially torn labrum was the cause of McCann's difficulties.

    McCann has been playing in games in extended spring training, and while no timetable has been set for his return, it could be early May before he comes back.

    Meanwhile, the Braves are going with the duo of Gerald Laird and Evan Gattis. Gattis clubbed his first major league home run in his debut after a torrid spring in which he impressed everyone in camp. The Braves also have prospect Christian Bethancourt laying in wait as well.

    The future for Atlanta behind the plate is bright—and that's without McCann in the picture.

    Making $12 million this season, McCann's future in Atlanta is quite probably a short one. Depending on how he looks when he makes his way back to the lineup, McCann will be a highly sought-after player on the free-agent market. But as a catcher coming off a major injury, a long-term deal likely isn't an option.

    The Braves could make a qualifying offer if McCann produces upon his return. But a future in Atlanta is far from certain.

Jacoby Ellsbury: Boston Red Sox

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    Making $9 million this season, Jacoby Ellsbury's future in Boston could be sealed by two factors: his health and the play of Jackie Bradley Jr.

    The oft-injured Ellsbury is a beast when he can stay on the field. His 2011 season is an example of that. But that was sandwiched between two injury-riddled campaigns in which he played in only 92 games combined.

    Coupled with the fact that Scott Boras is his agent, you have a scenario that doesn't bode well for his future in Boston. Especially with Bradley waiting for his chance.

Robinson Cano: New York Yankees

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    There are still all kinds of comments floating through the Internet regarding Robinson Cano's recent switch of agents.

    Now with Jay-Z after firing previous agent Scott Boras, Cano is on the brink of entering free agency and possibly signing a landmark deal.

    Whether that deal comes with the New York Yankees is anyone's guess.

    It's believed that the switch of agents means good news for the Yankees. Boras typically tells his clients to wait out the process and negotiate for every dollar he can find. Now, Cano can move toward a deal with the Yankees.

    It's believed that Brodie Van Wagenen, an agent for C.A.A. with whom Jay-Z has formed a partnership with, will be representing Cano. Van Wagenen has been very successful in negotiating long-term deals with his clients' current teams in the past.

    It's still an obvious assumption that Cano needs to continue to produce, especially with the Yankees missing so many key weapons in their offense. But Brian Cashman and the rest of management have to be happy with the recent news nonetheless.

     

    Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle.

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