MLB Free Agents 2014: Ranking the 25 Best Values on the Market
The best players on the free-agent market don't always turn out to be great values. It's uncommon for a player with such high expectations and that big of a paycheck to outplay his contract. On the other hand, there are plenty of free-agent options who have seen their value dip because of injury, poor play or age. They are potential bargains if they can bounce back.
While the price tag won't be nearly as high as it once was on many of these types of players, the risk is higher and the chances of a return to form aren't always very likely. But it also highly probable that several of them will end up outperforming their contracts and proving to be great free-agent values.
Here are the top 25 free-agent values for 2014.
25. Brendan Ryan, SS
Risk: Lack of offensive production
It's true that Brendan Ryan has been terrible at the plate this season (.541 OPS in 99 games) and didn't deserve to hold on to his starting job with the Mariners. But a look around the league shows that several starting shortstops weren't much better at the plate.
And chances are that Ryan, considered one of the best defenders around, provides more all-around value than most weak-hitting shortstops who play regularly. The 31-year-old, who was traded to the Yankees earlier this month, won't cost much either after his poor hitting display in 2013.
If a team in desperate need of a shortstop signs Ryan for one year and no more than $2 million, it is very unlikely to regret it based on the defense he'll provide on a daily basis.
24. Jose Molina, C
Risk: Age (38 on Opening Day 2014); lack of offensive production
Jose Molina is a 38-year-old catcher with a career .630 OPS. No matter how good he is defensively, he probably shouldn't be starting more than 50 percent of the time—he'll be slightly over that rate for the Rays in 2013.
But for several teams who aren't expected to receive much offensive production from the catcher spot, anyways, signing the best pitch-framer in the game for no more than $2 million to start approximately 50-75 games in 2014 should be well worth it. This must-see segment on MLB Network with Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus explains the value of an expert pitch-framer.
23. Eric Chavez, 3B/1B
Risk: Age (36 on Opening Day 2014); Injury-prone
Chavez was one of the best young third basemen in the game with an .840 OPS and an average of 26 homers, 89 runs batted in and 144 games per season for the A's between 1999-2006. Then a string of injuries derailed his career and he played in only 212 games over the next five seasons (2007-2011).
While the injuries haven't exactly disappeared—he's been on the disabled list in each of the last two seasons—Chavez has been able to play in 280 games with the Yankees and Diamondbacks over the past two seasons, and his production has been reminiscent of his early days in Oakland.
It's hard to ignore the injuries, not only this season but going back so many years, but the 35-year-old Chavez has an .814 OPS with nine homers in 78 games for the D'backs while making 52 starts at the hot corner.
Several American League teams, and possibly some National League teams, will be interested in bringing Chavez on as a part-time player who'll play some third base, first base and designated hitter. But no team will sign him with the idea that he'll be its everyday third baseman and that'll limit his price to one year and no more than $5 million.
22. Bronson Arroyo, SP
Risk: Age (37 on Opening Day 2014)
Arroyo is quietly having another terrific year for the Reds, who will likely say goodbye to the veteran after eight highly productive seasons in Cincinnati. If there was a team that would be willing to pay Arroyo for what he's worth, it would be the Reds. They know from firsthand experience that he's been as consistent and durable as any pitcher in baseball.
But they already have five good starters in place for 2014, including young lefty Tony Cingrani, and are unlikely to bring Arroyo back, even at discounted rate. Arroyo will test the waters in free agency where he'll face questions about his age and his ability to continue getting hitters out with a fastball that averages 87 miles per hour, according to FanGraphs.
Paying a pitcher for his ages 37 through 39 seasons is always a bit of a risk, even for one like Arroyo who has never been on the disabled list or who hasn't shown any signs of slowing down. So instead of a four- or five-year deal worth $12-15 million per season that his stats (14-11, 3.60 ERA, 197.1 IP, 191 H, 33 BB, 122 K, 71% quality start rate) would've gotten him if he was five years younger, he'll likely settle for no more than three years and $33 million.
21. Jesse Crain, RP
Risk: Shoulder injury that kept him out of action for nearly three months; lack of closer experience for teams seeking a closer
There's no question that Jesse Crain was one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the first three months of the season (0.74 ERA, 36.2 IP, 31 H, 11 BB, 46 K in 19 holds) before a shoulder injury put him on the shelf. The Rays were still willing to acquire him from the White Sox, and now he'll likely have a chance to prove his shoulder is sound after they recently activated from the disabled list.
Even if he doesn't make a big impact over the next few days or in the playoffs, the 32-year-old will be highly coveted in the offseason. But there's a wide gap between what a proven closer will make on the open market and one who is looking for his first chance to be a closer.
That's where Crain will find himself this offseason. He could get a closer's job from a team seeking a low-cost option like the Astros or Cubs, but he might get more money by signing on as the setup man for a big-market contender.
20. Roy Halladay, SP
Risk: Age (36 on Opening Day 2014)
Roy Halladay had been amongst the most durable pitchers in the game with at least 220 innings pitched in eight of 10 seasons from 2002-2011. But he missed time in 2012 with a shoulder injury while his ERA (4.49 ERA) jumped well above his career average and another shoulder injury sidelined him for most of 2013 while his ERA has continued to rise (6.82).
At age 36, there will be questions surrounding his health and his ability to continue at a high level. A full offseason of rest and recovery, though, and there's a chance he can go back to being a productive starter. Even if he's not the dominant pitcher he once was, there is a lot of value in a veteran who can give a team 25-30 strong starts.
The risk will be high enough where no team will be willing to offer him more than a one-year deal, and Halladay might be fine with going year-to-year for the remainder of his career—but he can prove to be a huge bargain if he signs for anything less than $8-10 million.
19. Scott Baker, SP
Risk: Uncertainty in effectiveness after long recovery from Tommy John surgery limited him to three starts in 2013.
The Cubs thought they were getting a great value when they signed Scott Baker to a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the expectation that he'd be back at full strength early in the season. After several setbacks, though, the right-hander finally made his Cubs debut on September 8. He allowed just one run in 11 innings over his first two starts before getting roughed up in his final start of the season.
While the 32-year-old has a strong track record from his days with the Twins (63-48, 4.15 ERA 2.1 BB/9, 7.2 K/9 in 958 innings), the fact that he missed nearly two full seasons with only three late-season starts will limit his price tag tremendously. In fact, it could ultimately be Baker's decision to accept a one-year deal in order to boost his value before seeking a bigger multiyear deal next offseason.
Another year removed from the surgery, Baker should be able to land closer to $7 or $8 million guaranteed this time around, but that would still be a great bargain if he can return to his 2011 form.
18. Kelly Johnson, IF/OF
Risk: Decline in performance since 2010 season; better fit as utility man than as lineup regular
It can be argued that Kelly Johnson's ability to play multiple positions makes him more valuable to a team. But the reason he's been forced to play all over the field—he's played left field, second base, third base and first base for Tampa Bay this season—is because he hasn't been a good enough all-around player to stick as a regular. At least not since 2010, when he had a huge season for Toronto (.865 OPS, 26 HR, 13 SB).
While teams will be lining up to sign Johnson to be a key player off of their bench, the opportunity to start, whether it be at second base or left field, could end up being the key factor in signing the 31-year-old.
In other words, Johnson could be willing to pass up a two-year, $8-10 million deal for a bench job in order to sign a one-year, $6 million deal with a team that views him as a starter. For the 15-20 homers and adequate defense he'll provide, that's pretty good value for a second baseman.
17. Dioner Navarro, C
Risk: First productive season since 2008
In only 87 games for the Cubs, Dioner Navarro has an .867 OPS with 13 homers while throwing out 24 percent of attempted base stealers. Sounds like the kind of production that was expected when he was a highly touted prospect nearly a decade ago.
While he's still just 29 years of age, the switch-hitter can't hide the fact that he completely fell off the radar since an All-Star season with the Rays back in 2008 until emerging with the Reds late last season in a solid 24-game stint.
His price tag has increased since last offseason when the Cubs snatched him up on a one-year, $1.75 million deal, but it's hard to think he'll make what a typical starting catcher would make after this kind of production. The lack of a strong track record over the past several seasons will probably limit him to a two-year deal in the $8-12 million range.
16. Dan Haren, SP
Risk: Decline in performance over past two seasons
By agreeing on a one-year contract for 2013, Dan Haren's clear goal was to rebuild his value so he'd be in a good position to earn a hefty multiyear deal this offseason. While his strong finish (3.57 ERA, 80.2 IP, 70 H, 17 BB, 79 K) is going to help, his rough start (6.15 ERA through 15 starts) to the season puts him well behind what Matt Garza and Ervin Santana will make on the open market this winter.
The 33-year-old might even be the preferred option amongst free-agent starters for certain teams, but he could probably be had for three years and no more than $36 million as opposed to the five years and close to $80 million he's be in line for had he pitched better the past two years.
15. Nate McLouth, of
Risk: Poor performance between 2010 and mid-2012
Not only is Nate McLouth's price limited on the free-agent market because he's no longer considered a power threat—he last hit 20 homers in 2009—his sudden drop in production between 2010 and late last season will always be a concern.
The 31-year-old has been very good, though, since the Orioles picked him up off the scrap heap and called him up to the majors last August. In 197 games with Baltimore, McLouth has hit .262 with 19 homers and 42 stolen bases in 48 chances.
His value is further diminished by his corner outfield profile. But considering he'd be an upgrade at the leadoff spot for several teams, there will be no shortage of interest in signing McLouth for what will likely end up being a two-year deal worth around $14-16 million.
14. Ervin Santana, SP
Risk: Poor performance in 2012
If Ervin Santana can match what Anibal Sanchez received from the Tigers last offseason (five years, $80 million), it will be tough to exceed expectations. But if the market doesn't get out of control and the best he can do is four years and $52-60 million, he can certainly outperform the contract if he maintains what he's done with the Royals in 2013.
The 30-year-old's latest outing, in which he allowed just one earned run over 7.1 innings, was his 23rd quality start (at least 6 IP, no more than 3 ER) of the season—he has an impressive 74 percent quality start rate—his 18th start of at least seven innings pitched and the 13th time he's allowed one earned run or less.
That is a No. 1 starter performance worthy of a No. 1 starter payday. His poor 2012 season (5.16 ERA, 39 homers allowed), however, has to be a cause for concern and could limit Santana's earning power this winter.
13. Jhonny Peralta, SS/3B
Risk: P.E.D. suspension
The lack of shortstop and third base options on the free-agent market will ensure Jhonny Peralta won't suffer too much a salary hit after being suspended 50 games for his involvement in the P.E.D. scandal. But the three- of four-year deal he was on track for after posting an .822 OPS with 11 homers and 29 doubles over his first 104 games of the season is likely off the table.
Even if a team believes he's closer to the 2012 version (.689 OPS, 13 HR, 32 2B) than the All-Star level he exhibited in 2011 and 2013, he's still a solid pickup at two years and $14-16 million considering the alternatives that are likely available to teams with a glaring hole at shortstop or third base.
12. Scott Kazmir, SP
Risk: Difficult to project after first good season since 2008
For a left-handed starter who will be just 30 years old on Opening Day next season and coming off of a very solid season (4.14 ERA, 152 IP, 156 H, 45 BB, 151 K in 28 starts), Scott Kazmir is hardly expected to break the bank this winter.
That's because, as of a year ago, he wasn't even very good in the Independent League, where he had a 5.34 ERA in 14 starts for the Sugar Land Skeeters. So teams interested in signing Kazmir can't be sure that the 2013 version will show up every five days over the course of a contract.
He's probably done enough to secure a multiyear deal, but it could be limited to two years and $14 million after his first solid season since he was an All-Star with the Rays back in 2008.
11. Raul Ibañez, DH
Risk: Age (41 on Opening Day 2014); defensive liability
If Ibañez were 10 years younger and putting up the same numbers (.815 OPS, 29 HR), he'd probably be in line for a four-year deal that would pay him at least $13 million per season. But regardless of how great of shape he's in, no team is going to give a multiyear deal to a player who will turn 42 a few months into the season.
Although he's finishing strong, Ibañez has a .684 OPS with only five homers after posting an .892 OPS with 24 homers in the first half. Questions about his age and potential decline in performance will only be magnified by a poor second half.
And that's great news for American League teams that will be bargain hunting for a designated hitter in 2014. He should have enough left in the tank to provide more than enough value for the one-year, $7 million deal he'll likely receive this winter.
10. Bartolo Colon, SP
Risk: Age (40 on Opening Day 2014); weight (listed at 265 lbs); prior P.E.D. suspension; link to Biogenesis scandal
Bartolo Colon has been one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past two seasons (27-15, 2.99 ERA, 1.4 BB/9, 5.3 K/9 in 53 starts), but he also has a long list of risks that should continue to limit his price tag to one year with a guaranteed salary of no more than $5 million.
While there could be a long line of teams bidding on Colon's services at that price, he could ultimately go to a team with the highest and easily attainable incentive combination. Even if that earns him a total of $12 million for a similar season to 2013, it would be money well spent for whichever team signs him.
9. Franklin Gutierrez, of
There might not be a more injury-prone player in the game than Franklin Gutierrez, who has played in just 171 games over the past three seasons due to multiple ailments. When he has been on the field, he flashes the power he showed when hit 18 homers in 2009 and the defensive ability that earned him a Gold Glove in 2010.
While the 30-year-old's numbers aren't all that impressive throughout his career (.696 OPS in 761 games) and he has an awful five walks and 42 strikeouts in his 40 games this season, his defense and power combination makes him a valuable asset if he can stay on the field.
Gutierrez's injury concerns are so severe that some team is going to sign a very talented player capable of a terrific season at a very low cost. That team, however, must have a very strong "plan B" in place.
8. Colby Lewis, SP
Risk: 1 1/2 year absence due to elbow/hip surgeries
Pitchers who have missed nearly two seasons due to injury will typically fall under the radar in the offseason. Colby Lewis will be in that position this winter when he and his agent will be reminding teams that he was a pretty solid starter with the Rangers from 2010-2012, when he posted a 3.93 ERA with a 2.4 BB/9 and 8.1 K/9 in 80 starts.
The 34-year-old had been extremely underpaid during his stint in Texas and, unfortunately for him, that'll be the case once again if he's healthy. On the other hand, whichever team takes on the risk and signs him to the most enticing one-year, incentive-laden deal could have the steal of the offseason.
7. Corey Hart, 1B/OF
Risk: Multiple knee surgeries in 2013
Coming back from a knee surgery can be a tough task, which is why a player's value would decrease in that scenario. In Corey's Hart case, he'll be coming back from a surgery on each knee, keeping him out for the entire 2013 season.
So despite his strong track record of consistency (.830 OPS, 24 HR, 33 2B, 78 RBI, 13 SB per season from 2007-2012), team's will not have a good gauge of what kind of player he'll be once he does return to the field. He could benefit from a one-year deal, which would be a bargain for any team that can lock him up for less than $12 million and allow Hart to return to the free-agent market after a healthy season.
Hart will be 32 years of age on Opening Day, though, and if he can land a three-year deal in the $9-$11 million range, he might take it knowing that his value could take another hit if he has a poor season.
6. Hiroki Kuroda, SP
Risk: Age (39 on Opening Day 2014)
Even as he approaches his 39th birthday, there may not be a more reliable option on the free-agent market than Hiroki Kuroda, who has put together six unbelievably consistent seasons since coming over from Japan. While he's had plenty of multiyear offers as a free agent over the past three offseasons, Kuroda's wish to only pitch for a handful of teams has limited him to one-year deals.
Unless things have changed, he'll likely stick to the one-year plan once again. Even if that means paying him $15-16 million, the lack of a long-term commitment makes it a bargain for a team that will likely be getting the typical Kuroda season, which is an ERA under 3.50 and 200 innings.
5. Michael Morse, 1B/OF
Risk: Significant decline in performance from from 2012 to 2013
From 2010-2012, Michael Morse burst onto the scene with an .861 OPS and 64 homers in 346 games with the Washington Nationals. Primed for a huge free-agent payday if he could maintain his success during the 2013 season, the 31-year-old has likely taken himself out of consideration for a multiyear deal by posting a .651 OPS with 13 homers in 88 games between the Mariners and Orioles.
An August trade to Baltimore gave him a chance to quickly rebuild his value with a strong late-season performance, but he's gone just 3-for-29 since the deal.
If his decline has been at least partly due to multiple injuries suffered throughout the season—he's battled through a fractured pinkie, quad strain and wrist injury—there is a strong chance he can bounce back and provide right-handed power to the middle of a lineup. And his new team is very likely to sign him to a one-year deal for no more than $5 or $6 million guaranteed.
4. Tim Hudson, SP
Risk: Age (38 on Opening Day 2014); Injury (returning from fractured ankle suffered in late July)
After hitting a rough patch in May, Tim Hudson was back to his usual form with a 2.73 ERA over his next 10 starts. He pitched at least seven innings in eight of those starts and allowed two earned runs or less six times. The fractured ankle he suffered in Game 10 of that span combined with his age will, unfortunately, overshadow his dominant performance to finish out his 2013 season.
There may not have been too many teams willing to offer more than a one- or two-year deal, anyways, but his uncertainty for the start of the season—he hopes to be back for the start of spring training—will certainly limit the guaranteed salary he will receive. Expect something in the neighborhood of one year and $5 million guaranteed with at least another $5 million in incentives.
3. Nelson Cruz, of
Risk: P.E.D. suspension
Melky Cabrera's suspension in 2012 likely cost him several millions of dollars this past offseason when he settled for a two-year, $16 million deal with the Blue Jays. Prior to the suspension, he was one of the top hitters in the game and on track for a mega-deal in the neighborhood of five years and at least $65 million.
Nelson Cruz's case might not be as severe, considering his track record of consistent production is much stronger than Cabrera's was, but he's also four years older and will also lose a considerable amount of money after missing 50 games because of his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal.
Like Cabrera, the 33-year-old Cruz was having a big season (.841 OPS, 27 HR, 76 RBI in 108 games), but it was right on track with what he had done during the previous five seasons (.855 OPS, 23 HR, 71 RBI per season). Still, his likely deal will drop him well below what the top corner outfielders—Shin-Soo Choo and Hunter Pence—are expected to make in free agency.
2. Tim Lincecum, SP
Risk: Poor performance in 2012 and early part of 2012
Tim Lincecum went from being one of the best, and highest-paid, pitchers in the game after the 2011 season when he signed a two-year, $40.5 million contract to avoid arbitration over the last two years of club control. There was no reason to think his salary would be any less once he hit free agency after the 2013 season.
That is no longer the case, although his value has jumped significantly since he turned things around in early June. Prior to his latest 20-start span, in which he's posted a 4.08 ERA with 43 walks and 119 strikeouts in 125.2 innings, the 29-year-old had unexplainably become one of the most unreliable starting pitchers in the game since the start of the 2012 season.
That run of awfulness is what makes him a risk, but it's also what has likely dropped his price tag down to the four-year, $52-60 million range. Considering his age, resume and recent success, several teams will be willing to lock him up for that amount.
1. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP
Risk: Poor performance in 2011-2012
Jimenez has risen to the top of free-agent rankings by suddenly returning to his All-Star form of 2010 when he won 19 games with the Rockies. Since May 27, the right-hander has a 2.47 ERA with 57 walks and 134 strikeouts in 131.1 innings pitched over 22 starts. He's allowed more than three earned runs in just one of those starts.
Whether Jimenez has permanently returned to a No. 1 starter-like form is unclear. He was really bad the past two seasons and early this season. And that's why, although his projected contract has risen significantly since early in the season, he won't get paid close to what a 29-year-old ace would normally get paid.
Any team giving him the four years and $56 million he'll probably end up with will be taking a huge risk. But if he can maintain his current form throughout the deal, he's worth much, much more.