MLB Free Agency

MLB Free Agency 2014: Clues to Where the Top 10 Players Will Land

Ely SussmanCorrespondent INovember 4, 2013

MLB Free Agency 2014: Clues to Where the Top 10 Players Will Land

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    Robinson Cano has spent nine years in pinstripes, but there's no guarantee that he'll re-sign with the New York Yankees.
    Robinson Cano has spent nine years in pinstripes, but there's no guarantee that he'll re-sign with the New York Yankees.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Plenty of signings in 2014 MLB free agency will inevitably shock us, as little-known facts and existing relationships influence the ultimate destinations.

    However, it's considerably easier to predict where the top available players will land. Their pet peeves and career goals have been reported in much greater detail. Also, enormous contract expectations rule out several teams due to competitiveness and market size.

    Let's use clues and common sense to determine the most likely fits for each of the top 10 current free agents.

     

    *Rankings from Bleacher Report's free-agent tracker.

    **Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

10. Jhonny Peralta

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Jhonny Peralta has made it clear that he wants to remain with the Detroit Tigers organization. Although the 31-year-old would sell himself as a two-time All-Star shortstop on the open market, John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press reports that he'll consider serving as a left fielder for Detroit.

    Well, then this is awkward: Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski doesn't expect to pursue Peralta, according to Chris Iott of MLive.com.

    Unless Miguel Cabrera experiences a major setback in his rehab from groin surgery before Peralta has the opportunity to sign, there won't be a reunion.

    He's a potential fit with the New York Yankees at third base, where he has more than 200 games of major league experience. Remember that Alex Rodriguez will likely miss a chunk of the 2014 season for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Even if commissioner Bud Selig's suspension is trimmed or overruled in arbitration, the Yankees may value Peralta's bat and ability to fill in at short in case Derek Jeter's health continues to deteriorate.

    However, there's no end in sight to A-Rod's drawn-out hearing. Until that gets resolved and the Yankees learn exactly how much of his salary (if any) is coming of their books, they'll be hesitant to make the multi-year commitment necessary to woo Peralta. Also, after watching the New York media obsess over the A-Rod vs. MLB drama, why welcome another former juicer into the clubhouse?

    Perhaps another AL East team would like him at the hot corner: the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Peralta could certainly help them against left-handed pitching, against whom the Blue Jays posted a .240/.300/.377 batting line in 2013. In July, manager John Gibbons experimented with Brett Lawrie at second base. Signing Peralta to play third would allow Gibbons to revisit that alignment.

    It's also worth noting that Toronto pursued Melky Cabrera last offseason despite his prior PED use. Likewise, Peralta's history won't deter the front office from making a sensible baseball decision.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Toronto Blue Jays

9. Matt Garza

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants will entertain the possibility of signing a big-name free-agent starter for the first time since their Barry Zito blockbuster last decade.

    What choice do they have? Tim Lincecum again battled inconsistency, Matt Cain endured his weakest major league season, and the back end of San Francisco's rotation completely crumbled (save for a Yusmeiro Petit no-hit bid).

    The most "exciting" development for the Giants at the moment is the negotiating of a low-risk, incentive-laden contract for 36-year-old Ryan Vogelsong, Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com reports.

    Garza also suits the Los Angeles Angels because of all the ways that he differs from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, both of whom received massive free-agent deals that have already blown up in the team's face.

    Those sluggers were already past their physical primes when they signed with the Halos, approaching their age-32 seasons. Meanwhile, Garza is a soon-to-be 30-year-old whose velocity has held steady from summer to summer, per Brooks Baseball.

    Then there's the benefit of pursuing him without the risk of sacrificing a future draft pick. The Angels can't afford to forfeit any more of those. Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum ranked the franchise dead last in his farm system rankings due to the conspicuous absence of high-ceiling prospects. Thankfully, the midseason trade that sent Garza from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers prevents him from being tied to draft-pick compensation via a qualifying offer.

    L.A. general manager Jerry Dipoto feels a greater sense of urgency to bolster his rotation than does San Francisco counterpart Brian Sabean. His club hasn't made the playoffs since 2009, whereas the Giants have hoisted two World Series trophies in that span.

    Both front offices will make splashes in free agency this winter, but, desperate to capitalize on Mike Trout's early-career dominance, the Angels seem more likely to make this sort of huge investment.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Los Angeles Angels

8. Carlos Beltran

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Although the St. Louis Cardinals value Carlos Beltran's clutch hitting and leadership, they aren't about to offer him a raise. Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors projects him to receive an extra couple million dollars per year—from $13 million to $15 million—despite approaching age 37.

    The club wisely let Lance Berkman walk last winter and Albert Pujols the year before, as the rest of the league overvalued their home run potential.

    Thanks to a consistently terrific farm system, St. Louis never sweats its stars' departures. In this particular case, top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras seems capable of providing comparable overall value to Beltran for a measly six-figure salary.

    The borderline future Hall of Famer reportedly had a desire to sign with the New York Yankees during his two previous free-agent experiences, according to Mark Feinsand of the Daily News:

    Beltran has shown interest in being a Bomber before. In 2005, he reportedly went to the Yankees with a last-ditch discount proposal before signing with the Mets. He reportedly did the same in 2011 before signing his two-year deal with St. Louis.

    Both times the Yanks weren’t interested.

    The Yankees already have four veteran outfielders projected to compete for playing time—Brett Gardner, Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells—but Beltran would serve as a significant upgrade over any of the latter three.

    The switch-hitter is almost assured to ink a multi-year deal this offseason, and that's probably New York's preference. Aiming to stay below the $189 million luxury-tax threshold, the Bombers could reel Beltran in with a backloaded agreement that satisfies both parties.

     

    Most Likely Destination: New York Yankees

7. Hiroki Kuroda

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Hiroki Kuroda pondered a return to Japan following the 2012 season. New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman worries about him doing so again this winter, Andy McCullough of the Star-Ledger reports.

    Don't expect the veteran right-hander to go through with it.

    Fellow countrymen Kazuo Matsui and Takashi Saito have been playing in the Far East following notable MLB careers. However, that's because they fell out of favor in the U.S. due to a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness.

    Kuroda's predicament isn't comparable after he completed a third straight 200-inning season while posting a 3.8 WAR. Not only will MLB teams offer him guaranteed contracts, but he'll surely receive a raise from the $15 million he signed for last winter.

    Plenty of reputable pitchers have struggled in the hitter-friendly confines of the new Yankee Stadium since it opened in 2009. Kuroda is an exception, so it wouldn't be surprising to see New York overpay for one of the few who has proven he can thrive in that environment.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers ought to be similarly motivated to add to their rotation now that Chris Capuano, Ricky Nolasco and Edinson Volquez have all entered free agency. Kuroda appears to be a fit considering his prior relationship with them—he pitched there from 2008-2011—and the club's near-limitless resources. 

    With that said, Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times reports that the Dodgers have their eyes locked on another target: 25-year-old workhorse Masahiro Tanaka.

     

    Most Likely Destination: New York Yankees

6. Ervin Santana

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Chasing the biggest payday would almost certainly drive Ervin Santana away from the Kansas City Royals, but Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star hints that the right-hander might have different priorities.

    “I like it (here) a lot,” he said late in the season. “Great people. Great teammates. The training staff is incredible. It’s a good town for baseball. There’s not much to do except focus on baseball. That’s very good.”

    Even so, the Royals must offer close to market value for the right-hander to convince him to re-sign. There's reason to believe that they will.

    James Shields, their current rotation leader, is scheduled to reach free agency following the 2014 campaign. Assuming that Clayton Kershaw and Jon Lester work out extensions before then, he'll vie with Max Scherzer for the distinction of being the best pitcher available. In other words, Shields figures to be hopelessly out of K.C.'s price range.

    The Royals need at least one durable workhorse under contract to perennially contend. Trading lovable slugger Billy Butler would enable them to do that, and conveniently, ESPN's Buster Olney tweets that the designated hitter is on the market.

    Half of all MLB teams have some interest in Santana, but he's been expressing gratitude to the organization that showed faith in him last winter when few others did.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

5. Brian McCann

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium suits Brian McCann about as well as bow ties suit Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.

    This Brooks Baseball spray chart of McCann's past three seasons shows his clear preference for pulling pitches whenever possible. It's practically a forgone conclusion that the All-Star backstop would shatter his single-season record of 24 home runs if he committed to the New York Yankees with a long-term deal.

    With that said, ballpark conditions don't typically influence the decisions of premium free agents. They're primarily considerations for older players aiming to artificially boost their numbers before putting themselves back on the market. McCann's skill set translates well to any venue.

    The question is who wants him most, and the answer appears to be the Texas Rangers.

    Departures of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli took a painful toll on their offense. The Rangers totaled only 730 runs scored last year, their lowest full-season total since 1995.

    Like any other American League team, Texas could squeeze extra plate appearances out of McCann by starting him as a designated hitter on days when he isn't catching. That flexibility leads one anonymous general manager to predict that the 29-year-old could receive $100 million guaranteed, according to Andrew Marchand of ESPNNewYork.com.

    With Lance Berkman, David Murphy, Joe Nathan and A.J. Pierzynski all entering free agency, the Rangers should have the resources to match any offer McCann gets.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Texas Rangers

4. Masahiro Tanaka

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    Adam Pretty/Getty Images

    Since coming under new ownership, the Los Angeles Dodgers have spared no expense to thoroughly evaluate and commit to international talent. Signings of Yasiel Puig and Hyun-jin Ryu have already paid huge dividends, and Alexander Guerrero, their latest foreign acquisition, is expected to step into an everyday role immediately.

    Could Masahiro Tanaka become the next famous foreigner to make a positive impact for them? The Japanese right-hander went undefeated for the Japan Series champions this year and now heads toward free agency as a 25-year-old.

    The aforementioned Steve Dilbeck article makes it clear that L.A. thinks highly of him: 

    The Dodgers have been unusually open in their interest in signing Tanaka. At that infamous season wrap-up press conference, General Manager Ned Colletti was asked about the team’s interest.

    “We've scouted him a lot, we're very much aware of him,” said Colletti.

    Most teams will find it prohibitively expensive to bid for Tanaka, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. The cost to simply enter negotiations with the splitter specialist is expected to exceed the $51.7 million that the Texas Rangers paid for Yu Darvish.

    Then there's the matter of his contract. Not only will it likely span a half-dozen seasons, but the annual value of it figures to be extremely steep. For that, we can thank the San Francisco Giants and the $35 million they generously gave Tim Lincecum for the 2014-2015 campaigns despite obvious signs of decline.

    Although the New York Yankees could make a strong push for Tanaka, Brian Cashman may have difficulty repressing the memories of Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa. During his quarter-century in New York's front office, those are the only pitchers that the team has directly imported from the Far East. Both grossly underachieved.

    The Dodgers, on the other hand, should see this as less of a risk considering the competitive and commercial success of their recent gambles.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Los Angeles Dodgers

3. Shin-Soo Choo

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    In his annual predictions for MLB Trade Rumors, Tim Dierkes predicted that Shin-Soo Choo would sign with the Detroit Tigers.

    He suggested that the well-documented relationship between Choo's agent, Scott Boras, and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch could culminate in a long-term deal. Boras appealed to Ilitch's spend-whatever-it-takes-to-win mindset two winters ago when Prince Fielder became a free agent. The slugger ultimately signed with Detroit for $214 million.

    Although Choo would fit perfectly atop the team's lineup, the contract numbers don't mesh quite as well. Another Boras client, right-hander Max Scherzer, is set to reach free agency following the 2014 season. Locking up both doesn't seem doable considering Detroit's other hefty contracts. In all likelihood, the Tigers will prioritize the slightly younger, Cy Young Award-caliber pitcher ahead of the elite batter.

    Jon Heyman of CBS Sports was the first to identify the Houston Astros as a legitimate player in the Choo sweepstakes. Their progressive front office values on-base percentage more than most others do, so the disciplined outfielder—who perennially ranks among the league leaders in that department—appears to be a great fit. Moreover, the Astros have ample funds to participate in free-agent bidding coming off a season in which they barely spent anything on payroll.

    With that said, there's virtually zero chance of Houston contending during the next few seasons. Unless Choo is adamant about being the face of a franchise (he's never said anything publicly to suggest that), it's doubtful that he would agree to spent the rest of this decade with the Astros.

    The New York Yankees have the motivation to spend exorbitantly after failing to qualify for the postseason, but Andrew Marchand notes that Choo doesn't satisfy their biggest needs. The Bronx Bombers lack power (ironically), and the 31-year-old has never accounted for more than 22 home runs in a season. Perhaps dramatic platoon splits give the Yankees pause; Choo didn't go deep once in 221 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last summer (.612 OPS).

    It's been easy to forget that the New York Mets also reside in Major League Baseball's largest media market. Since signing Jason Bay for $66 million in January 2010, they have not pursued potential stars in free agency. That could change this winter, as Bay, Johan Santana and Frank Francisco come off the books.

    The Mets undoubtedly covet Choo for his spectacular on-base skills, as the club aims to improve after finishing 12th in National League OBP last year. Meanwhile, the presence of defensive whiz Juan Lagares would allow Choo to settle in at his natural position in right field. The New York metropolitan area could provide comfort away from the ballpark, as Tyler Kepner of The New York Times notes that it boasts the second-largest Korean population of any U.S. city.

    Guaranteed money figures to be the biggest factor in this decision. The Mets could fulfill Boras' dreams of a $100 million-plus commitment while offering Choo a great chance of championship contention within the next few years.

     

    Most Likely Destination: New York Mets

2. Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    After clinching the 2012 World Series, the San Francisco Giants spent generously on their free agents to keep that "special" roster intact.

    Don't expect the Boston Red Sox to follow in their footsteps.

    Longtime center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury—who, like Shin-Soo Choo, uses Scott Boras for representation—will aim for a record payday in terms of both contract length and average annual value. The reigning champs will inevitably back away from the negotiating table once the bidding war escalates and instead entrust Ellsbury's old job to Jackie Bradley Jr.

    The Boras connection once again brings the Detroit Tigers into the mix. Mike Ilitch has spent more money than expected in recent offseasons, so don't rule out another superstar acquisition between now and spring training.

    However, general manager Dave Dombrowski has made it clear that reinforcing the bullpen is a necessity, per Chris Iott of MLive.com:

    We're going to have a closer. We're going to pursue somebody to pitch the back end of the bullpen. Joaquin [Benoit] is in that group, but there are a lot of closers out there. That's the one area where there are a lot of guys. That is one area I think we need to address with him or someone else and then we'll look at the rest of our club.

    Detroit could spend big bucks to retain Benoit or even bigger bucks to acquire Joe Nathan. Meanwhile, any modifications made to the lineup probably won't be so prolific. 

    The Seattle Mariners committed to bolstering their offense last winter, although the results weren't indicative of that. They finished 12th in the American League in runs scored.

    With so many position players—specifically outfielders—coming off their books, why not try again? According to Baseball Prospectus, the 2014 Mariners payroll is Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and very little else.

    Ellsbury spent his entire amateur baseball career in the Pacific Northwest. The ultra-athletic All-Star won't sign there at a discount, but his familiarity with and affinity for the region could serve as a tiebreaker in case he receives several comparable offers.

     

    Most Likely Destination: Seattle Mariners

1. Robinson Cano

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Phillies already employ a great second baseman in Chase Utley, but Andy Martino of the Daily News sees a scenario that could lead them to sign Robinson Cano.

    Cano reportedly has an "extremely close" relationship with Larry Bowa, the club's bench coach. More importantly, the move would be financially plausible if the Phillies declined to re-sign free agents Roy Halladay and Carlos Ruiz.

    With that said, the fit hinges on Utley shifting to third base or one of the corner outfield spots. The soon-to-be 35-year-old has never played a major league inning at any of those positions.

    Money is no obstacle for the Los Angeles Dodgers. They pulled off the largest free-agent signing of the 2012-13 offseason to acquire Zack Greinke. However, their vacancy at second base has been filled by Cuban defector Alexander Guerrero, according to Steve Dilbeck.

    Earlier this year, Cano became the first professional athlete to choose Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports for representation. The hip-hop mogul has created a dominant global brand by integrating New York into his song lyrics and apparel. Abandoning Scott Boras for someone with such strong Big Apple ties understandably fuels speculation that Cano will re-sign with the New York Yankees.

    The composition of the 2014 free-agent class suggests that the Yankees will pay whatever is required to reach an agreement. Beyond Cano, the next-best available second basemen are light-hitting Omar Infante and Mark Ellis. They can imitate Cano's presence in the middle of the infield, but certainly not in the middle of the lineup.

    Driven by desperation, Brian Cashman will blink first at the negotiating table.

     

    Most Likely Destination: New York Yankees

     

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.

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