2014 MLB Free Agency: Predicting Winter's Highest-Paid FA at Each Position

Jason MartinezContributor ISeptember 17, 2013

2014 MLB Free Agency: Predicting Winter's Highest-Paid FA at Each Position

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    When it comes to Major League Baseball's free-agent market, timing can be a major factor in how much a player ends up getting paid.

    If three of the top closers in the game enter free agency at the same time and only two teams are looking to upgrade at that position, one of the three is likely going to lose out on earning top dollars. The other two could also have a tough time in maximizing their value without the bidding war that could've ensued had their been more than three teams vying for three closers.

    In this year's free-agent class, it's a good time to be an infielder. There is arguably only one strong option at each of the second base, third base and shortstop positions. It's not easy to figure out who'll get the biggest contract this winter. The same goes for catcher, although there are a handful of second-tier options.

    The market is deep in corner outfield spots and starting pitching, but it's still unclear which players will end up the richest at those positions.

    Here are my best guesses for who will be this coming offseason's highest-paid free agents at each position.

     

     

Catchers

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    Seven-time All-Star Brian McCann is set to become a free agent for the first time in his career unless the Braves can re-sign the Georgia native before the start of free agency.

    If the Braves play deep into the postseason, they might not have much time to take advantage of their exclusive negotiating window that ends at the conclusion of the World Series. It probably doesn't matter, though, as they're not expected to be the top bidder. That's because big-market teams like the Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees and Phillies could all be interested in the 29-year-old, who has an .810 OPS with 20 homers this season. 

    Teams that lose out on the McCann sweepstakes still have several options, including John Buck, Dioner Navarro, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Geovany Soto. That shouldn't affect McCann's price tag, though. He's clearly at the head of this class and should command a deal in the neighborhood of Yadier Molina's five-year, $75 million contract with the Cardinals.

First Basemen

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    For someone who had just 118 starts at first base during a seven-year big league career coming into the season, Mike Napoli has done a solid job as the Red Sox's everyday first baseman after signing a one-year deal last winter.

    Despite a chronic hip condition that caused the Sox to pull a three-year, $39 million deal off the table, Napoli should get a huge bump in guaranteed salary—his base salary in 2013 is $5 million, but he'll earn an additional $8 million in incentives. He might even land a multi-year deal after a terrific debut season in Boston. 

    The 31-year-old, who has an .842 OPS with 22 homers, 36 doubles and 89 runs batted in while making 117 starts at first base, will more than likely remain in the American League where he won't be as much of a risk on a two- or three-year deal because of the ability to move him to the designated hitter spot down the road.

    For now, he doesn't appear to be a liability as a first baseman or as a long-term injury risk. Thus, expect him to land a two-year deal in the $26-$30 million range this winter from any one of several big-market teams. Cuban free agent Jose Dariel Abreu and James Loney could get more years, but for a much lower annual salary than Napoli is expected to receive.   

Second Basemen

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    Not only will Robinson Cano be the highest-paid second baseman this winter, he'll also be the highest-paid free agent at any position. In fact, the 30-year-old is reportedly seeking a contract that will make him one of the richest baseball players to ever play the game.

    One of the most consistent hitters in baseball since entering the league in 2005, Cano hasn't hurt his value one bit with his 2013 performance (.899 OPS, 27 HR, 35 2B, 103 RBI). While he might not get exactly what he wants, he'll likely end up with a multi-year deal somewhere in the range of six to eight years and $150-$225 million. 

    Next in line for free agent second basemen isn't a mystery either. Omar Infante will just have to settle for a contract somewhere in the three-year, $24 million range with a chance to increase to four years and $40 million if a bidding war ensues. 

Third Basemen

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    The third base free-agent market is so thin that a shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, is expected to be the most highly coveted player at the position.

    That's partly due to Peralta's limitations as a defensive shortstop and the lack of teams expected to be searching for shortstop help this winter. But it's mostly because the top free-agent alternatives are Juan Uribe and the injury-prone Kevin Youkilis.

    If the 31-year-old Peralta, who is currently serving a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis case, can convince teams that his success as a major league hitter wasn't due in large part to performance-enhancing drugs, he could be in line for a three-year deal in the $30-$36 million range. After all, he has an OPS over .800, including 2013, in four of his 11 big league seasons.

    Since it won't be possible for him to completely convince any team of that, he'll likely have to settle for a two-year deal in the $16 million range, just as Melky Cabrera did this past offseason after his 2012 suspension for a positive PED test. 

     

Shortstops

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    As was the case last offseason, Stephen Drew will once again be the highest-paid free agent shortstop this winter.

    But unlike last year when he settled for a one-year, $9.5 million deal in order to rebuild his value after an unproductive half-season upon returning from an ankle surgery, the 30-year-old should get at least three seasons in a new contract this time around and possibly more. 

    The Cardinals are the clear front-runner, with the Mets and Pirates also potential suitors, as well as the Yankees if they aren't expecting a healthy Derek Jeter back. If three or four teams make Drew a priority, his price tag could reach four years and $48 million after a solid season in which he has a .760 OPS with 12 homers, 27 doubles and 62 RBI. 

    Alternatives to Drew include Jhonny Peralta and defensive whiz Brendan Ryan, although it's possible that only Drew will be a starting shortstop in the majors next season. 

Center Fielders

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    A foot injury currently has Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury sidelined, possibly for the remainder of the regular season, but not before he made an impressive last impression on potential suitors for this winter. 

    In his final 82 games prior to the injury, the 30-year-old Ellsbury had a .330/.378/.478 slash line to go along with 38 stolen bases. While it's not close to his 2011 production (.928 OPS, 32 HR) that would've likely placed him ahead of Robinson Cano in earning power had he continued on that trend, Ellsbury will easily surpass the four-year, $48 million contract that top leadoff hitter and center fielder Michael Bourn received last winter. Ellsbury's haul this offseason could approach $100 million over a six-year deal. 

    The Cubs could be the biggest threat to Boston's chances of re-signing Ellsbury, although the Mets, Mariners and Cardinals could also be in the mix. 

Corner Outfielders

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    Shin-Soo Choo's ability to play center field increases his value slightly, but the presence of fellow free agents Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson should ensure that he'll be back at a corner outfield spot in 2014.

    The terrific season Choo is having (.893 OPS, 21 HR, 33 2B, 104 BB, 18 SB) ensures that he'll sign one of the biggest contracts this winter. 

    Giants right fielder Hunter Pence is making a case to be the top-paid corner outfielder with an .845 OPS, 25 homers and 21 RBI, but the 31-year-old Choo's ability to lead off while reaching base in over 40 percent of his plate appearances could give him the slight edge.

    Andy Martino of the New York Daily News reported that the Mets are interested in Choo while Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago wrote that the Cubs are also expected to pursue him. Add the Mariners, Rangers and any other team in need of outfield help to the list of teams that could make a bid on Choo with the final offer for him likely sitting in the five-year, $75 million range.

Starting Pitchers

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    In what appeared to be a two-man race for who will be the highest-paid free agent starting pitcher this offseason, a couple other candidates have emerged with strong performances over the last few months. 

    While Matt Garza and Ervin Santana are still expected to receive huge multi-year deals for four-to-five years and approximately $13-16 million per season, former ace pitchers Ubaldo Jiménez (2.52 ERA in his last 20 starts) and Tim Lincecum (4.01 ERA in his last 19 starts) have rebuilt their value to the point where a team might prefer to take a chance on the higher upside talent.

    The pitcher least likely to be a free-agent bust, however, might be the 30-year-old Santana, who has been consistently great all season for the Royals. He has posted a 3.23 ERA with 2.1 BB/9 and 7.1 K/9 ratios to go along with a 73 percent quality start rate and 17 starts with at least seven innings pitched. 

    On the other hand, Garza has struggled as of late, with a 4.94 ERA in 11 starts since being traded to Texas, and Lincecum and Jiménez were excruciatingly bad for a long period of time before their recent turnarounds. It could be close,

    Veteran Hiroki Kuroda has a chance to land the highest annual salary for a one-year deal, but Santana should win out with the same five-year, $80 million deal that Anibal Sanchez landed last winter.

     

Relief Pitchers

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    Don't expect any free agent reliever to come close to the four-year, $50 million deal that Jonathan Papelbon got from the Phillies prior to the 2012 season or the two-year, $28 million deal Rafael Soriano landed with the Nats.

    However, it's very likely that impending free agents Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Jesse Crain and Edward Mujica will be extremely happy with the deals they end up with this winter.

    All four could find closer gigs, or at least a job as a primary setup man, but expect the youngest of the group—the 29-year-old Mujica—to strike the richest deal after a breakout season as the Cardinals closer. The right-hander, who had four career saves coming into the season, has a 2.19 ERA in 60 appearances with 36 saves in 39 chances to go along with three walks and 44 strikeouts in 61.2 innings. 

    Spending big money over the course of three or more years on a reliever is extremely risky so expect Mujica to settle for a two-year deal that will pay him around $14-18 million while Balfour and Benoit settle for something just less. The 32-year-old Crain could get three years and $18 million after a dominating season that's been interrupted by a shoulder injury.