2014 MLB Free Agency: Contract Predictions for Top 15 Players
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Over the past few weeks, I've discussed the upcoming free-agency period here on a regular basis and have often given contract estimates for particular players or, in some cases, an actual projection for how many years and how much a player will sign for this offseason.
Many of those estimates and projections have changed, however, and could continue to increase or decrease throughout the course of the winter. Hunter Pence's five-year, $90 million contract extension with the San Francisco Giants, for example, is higher than what I would've expected. Therefore, projections for Shin-Soo Choo and several other free-agent outfielders will increase.
Late-regular-season and playoff performances can also move the needle on a player's perceived value. Boston Red Sox players Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Napoli have put several more million dollars in their pockets after their October success, while slumping teammate Stephen Drew has likely cost himself some money.
Along with St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran, the three aforementioned Red Sox players could still make or lose a few dollars based on their World Series performance. But that would likely require an unbelievably good or bad showing in the next four to seven games. For the most part, it's a good time to start making some free-agent contract predictions.
Here at the top 15 free agents, according to my rankings over at MLBDepthCharts.com, and my predictions for the terms of their next contract.
15. Curtis Granderson, OF
Interestingly, Curtis Granderson's injury-plagued season may have actually helped his free-agent value. Sure, a third consecutive 40-homer season would've been the best-case scenario, but a decline in production at age 32 would've sent a wave of concern throughout the league just as his contract was expiring.
As it turns out, Granderson's production did decline. He posted a .723 OPS with a 30.6 home run-per-at-bat ratio compared to an .863 OPS and 14.0 home run-per-at-bat ratio the previous two seasons. Had he been healthy for the entire season and finished with similar numbers, his agent would have a hard time convincing teams that he deserves to be paid like a premiere middle-of-the-order slugger.
But the left-handed hitter wasn't healthy. He missed significant time with two separate injuries—he missed the start of the season with a fractured forearm and then went back on the disabled list with a fractured finger after just eight games—and only played a total of 61 games.
The good news is that his agent now has an excuse for why his client's production was down once he returned to the lineup. At least one team will buy into the theory and give him $42 million deal for his ages 33-35 seasons.
Three years, $42 million
14. Tim Hudson, SP
If Tim Hudson was going to sustain a season-ending leg injury, there may have been no better timing for when it actually did happen. Of course, Hudson's injury in late July didn't help his team. The Atlanta Braves didn't advance past the NLDS after winning the NL East and probably could've benefited from a Hudson start. In regard to his future earnings, though, the timing was good.
Had he sustained the injury late in the season, his recovery could've been pushed back closer to the start of the 2014 season and his price tag would be severely limited. As of now, he's expected to be fully recovered early in the offseason.
Had the injury occurred two months earlier, Hudson would've still missed the remainder of the season, and he would've done so with concerns over whether his pitching skills were eroding at age 37 (he turned 38 in July). After allowing six earned runs in six innings on May 27, the third time he had given up six earned runs on the season, his ERA was sitting at 5.37.
Over his next 10 starts, however, Hudson was back to form with a 2.73 ERA, 19 walks and 50 strikeouts in 69.1 innings pitched. That's enough of a sample size to show teams that he can still be an effective top-of-the-rotation starter. Combined with his expected return to health, a two-year deal isn't out of the question.
Two years, $24 million
13. Dan Haren, SP
Even after a down year in 2012, Dan Haren was able to land a $12 million deal with the Washington Nationals for the 2013 season. The way things were going early on in Washington, though, it would've been difficult to land more than another one-year deal with a guaranteed salary of no more than $2-3 million for 2014.
But after finishing June with a 6.15 ERA in 15 starts, Haren turned things around and quietly returned to the form that made him one of the best starters in the game for several years. In his final 16 outings of the season (15 starts, one relief appearance), the right-hander posted a 3.29 ERA with 18 walks and 84 strikeouts in 87.2 innings pitched.
While he won't be among the highest-paid free-agent pitchers this offseason, the 33-year-old might have the most suitors because his price tag won't be as high. When it's all said and done, expect him to get $45 million over three seasons.
Three years, $45 million
12. Stephen Drew, SS
A 3-for-35 slump with one walk and 12 strikeouts during the postseason is putting a damper on what had been a terrific bounce-back year for Stephen Drew. But he'll get paid handsomely after a strong regular season.
After missing close to a year recovering from a devastating ankle injury, Drew returned in July 2012 but posted mediocre numbers between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland A's for the remainder of the season. Settling for a one-year deal in 2013 in order to try to boost his value before hitting free agency again after this season has proven to be a wise move.
Despite his postseason struggles, the 30-year-old is clearly the best free-agent shortstop available. At least a handful of teams will be interested in his services after he posted a .777 OPS with 13 homers during the regular season with the winning bid coming in at four years and $48 million.
Four years, $48 million
11. Hiroki Kuroda, SP
As consistently effective and reliable as he's been, it wouldn't surprise me if Hiroki Kuroda could land a two- or three-year deal this offseason even though he'll be 39 years old at the start of the 2014 season.
A long-term commitment is not Kuroda's preference, however, and he is said to be deciding between a one-year major league deal or a return to Japan. If he stays, don't expect Kuroda to get anything less than the $15 million he earned in 2013 for posting a 3.31 ERA in 32 starts.
Considering that he'll likely be very particular with whom he pitches for, he won't be able to maximize his value, but a $2 million raise should be manageable.
One year, $17 million
10. Mike Napoli, 1B
The degenerative hip condition that limited Mike Napoli to a one-year deal with only a $5 million guaranteed salary in 2013—he earned an extra $8 million in incentives—is likely going to cause concerns for teams again this offseason.
But after a highly productive and injury-free season as the Red Sox's starting first baseman, there will be at least one team willing to take a chance on the 31-year-old over the next two or three years.
Napoli will be limited to the American League if he wants a multiyear deal, but the number of teams who could use an upgrade at first base or designated hitter will ensure he won't have a shortage of suitors this winter.
While I can see him getting at least one or two three-year offers, those would probably max out around $39 million. His best offer, though, is likely to be one in the two-year range.
Two years, $32 million
9. Nelson Cruz, OF
Nelson Cruz was on pace for a career high in homers when a 50-game suspension interrupted his season. He admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs last offseason in an effort to regain strength after he had lost 40 pounds with a gastrointestinal infection, which may or may not have had an effect on the terrific season he was having (.833 OPS, 27 HR in 109 games).
While some teams will shy away from his asking price because of the suspension and the question of whether his prior success was aided by performance-enhancing drugs, there are several teams in need of right-handed power that will be willing to believe that Cruz was clean when he had an .844 OPS and 27 homers per season from 2009-2012.
As a result, the 33-year-old will land a big-money deal to be some team's starting right fielder over the next three seasons.
Three years, $45 million
8. Brian McCann, C
An 0-for-13 in the postseason was a disappointing way to end what was a terrific nine-year run with the Braves. But the contract Brian McCann lands this offseason, likely from one of a handful of big-market teams seeking a catcher, will likely cheer him up.
After posting a .796 OPS with 20 homers during the regular season, the 29-year-old enters free agency as the top catcher available in a very deep market. None are in McCann's class, however, and he'll be the preferred choice of teams like the Red Sox and Texas Rangers, who would love to have the seven-time All-Star hitting in the middle of their lineup and leading their pitching staff for the next several seasons.
While one general manager told Andrew Marchand of ESPN that McCann could receive $100 million in free agency, a contract of that amount would be a huge risk for a catcher who would be in his mid-30s at the end of the deal. Expect him to land a deal closer to Cardinals star Yadier Molina's five-year, $75 million deal.
Five years, $70 million
7. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP
There's no closer comparison to Ubaldo Jimenez than Tim Lincecum, who recently agreed on a two-year contract extension with the Giants for an estimated $35 million.
Lincecum will be 29 years of age at the start of 2014, while Jimenez will be 30.
Both pitchers were clear front-line starters at the top of their game when things suddenly flipped and they became two of the most unreliable. Lincecum's struggles started early in 2012. Jimenez's decline began in mid-2011.
And once again, things suddenly flipped at some point for the duo in 2013. Lincecum had a 4.00 ERA with 45 walks and 125 strikeouts in 132.2 innings over his last 21 starts. Jimenez's return was even more impressive, as he posted a 2.41 ERA with 58 walks and 147 strikeouts in 138 innings over his last 23 starts.
The similarities don't mean that Jimenez will settle for a two-year deal as Lincecum did. We'll never know if a team would've been willing to offer Lincecum the same annual salary over four or five years. He and his agent must've not thought it likely.
But Jimenez will soon find out. And if that team exists, it won't have to decide between Jimenez and Lincecum. Jimenez will land a five-year deal for his ages 30-34 seasons.
Five years, $75 million
6. Matt Garza, SP
Although he did have a strong postseason performance in 2012, Anibal Sanchez wasn't overly impressive after the Detroit Tigers acquired him from the Seattle Marlins in July 2012 (3.74 ERA in 12 regular-season starts). And yet, he was rewarded with a huge five-year, $88 million contract extension after the season because he was a talented pitcher with a good track record and only entering his age-29 season.
Matt Garza finds himself in a very similar situation, although his resume is more impressive with a successful stint in the American League East and an ALCS MVP. He'll turn 30 this offseason and has the ability to be a No. 1 starter on some teams and a solid No. 2 on a championship-caliber squad.
For that reason, Garza's agent won't have a problem matching Sanchez's contract, and just for good measure, he'll make sure his client gets slightly more.
Five years, $90 million
5. Carlos Beltran, OF
Over the past three seasons, Beltran has an .860 OPS with an average of 26 homers and 88 runs batted in. He's been an All-Star in all three years. And, most importantly, the 36-year-old has averaged 146 games per season while playing right field regularly. What knee problems?
Giving any player big money for his age-37 season and beyond is a risk, regardless of production. But one with injury concerns would find it difficult to land anything more than a one-year deal. But with his three consecutive injury-free seasons, Beltran has likely crushed any concerns most teams would have about his ability to produce over the next two or three seasons.
Moving back to the American League, where he played from 1998-2004 with the Kansas City Royals, will give him the best chance to land a three-year deal because teams will be able to rest him more as the designated hitter.
Three years, $54 million
4. Shin-Shoo Choo, OF
Choo's top competition on the free-agent market for corner outfielders was Hunter Pence, who signed a five-year, $90 million extension with the Giants. So it would make sense for Choo and his agent, Scott Boras, to seek $100 million after a terrific season in Cincinnati.
In his one year with the Reds, the 31-year-old established himself as one of the better all-around players in the game with an .885 OPS, 21 homers, 20 stolen bases and 112 walks. He was adequate in center field, but he's above-average as a corner outfielder, where he'll likely return. He was outstanding as a leadoff hitter (.423 on-base percentage), but he could also be a great No. 3 hitter.
Even the New York Yankees are showing interest, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, which will only bump his asking price further. The price is steep for a player whom most wouldn't consider to be a superstar, but he's been very good for a long time, and he'll be rewarded nicely.
Five years, $100 million
3. Ervin Santana, SP
Remove the expectation of a No. 1 starter striking out a ton of hitters, and Ervin Santana would easily fit the description. The soon-to-be 31-year-old had a 3.24 ERA in 2013. He exceeded 200 innings and pitched at least seven innings in 18 of his 32 starts. He also limited opponents to two earned runs or less 18 times.
So just because he's not perceived as an ace doesn't mean he's not deserving of a big payday. No one was mistaking Anibal Sanchez of being a No. 1 starter when he got nearly $90 million from the Tigers last offseason.
Santana's poor 2012 season (5.16 ERA, 39 homers allowed) could scare some teams off, but one that plays in a pitcher-friendly ballpark might not have concerns of his homer-prone ways returning.
Five years, $95 million
2. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
There was always a chance that Jacoby Ellsbury would get a $100 million deal when he became a free agent this offseason. Staying healthy was a big part of the equation, but it was also necessary to show the power once again that led to a 32-homer season in 2011.
While Ellsbury's stayed relatively healthy, the power didn't return. Through the ALCS, the 30-year-old has nine homers in 144 games. Surprisingly, he's headed for a $100 million payday, anyways.
And for that to happen, a player has to be extremely good at every other facet of the game. In 2013, Ellsbury has been. He had a .781 OPS during the regular season with 31 doubles, eight triples and 52 stolen bases while providing terrific defense in center field.
It's his postseason performance, however, that may have pushed him over the $100 million mark. In 10 games, Ellsbury is hitting .400 (16-for-40) with three doubles, a triple and six stolen bases. Barring an awful World Series showing, Ellsbury is in line to be the highest-paid free agent not named Robinson Cano this winter.
Six years, $105 million
1. Robinson Cano, 2B
With so many holes to fill on the roster, it's likely that the Yankees forget about their goal of keeping payroll under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold and do what's necessary to put together a competitive squad for 2014.
Whether that results in Robinson Cano staying in Yankees pinstripes is unclear. But that would be terrific news for Cano's camp, as his price tag would likely drop significantly if the Yankees weren't willing to make a competitive offer. And if the Yankees are interested, they might be one of the only teams with the resources to meet his contract demands.
The Yankees should know better than any team, however, what happens when you give a star player a megadeal that expires well beyond their best years. In the end, Cano's price will have to come down substantially from his current $310 million asking price, as was reported by Buster Olney of ESPN (subscription required), but the 31-year-old will still double the next highest-paid player of the offseason.
Nine years, $252 million