Establishing Future Value for MLB's Top 25 Free Agent, Trade Targets

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 6, 2013

Establishing Future Value for MLB's Top 25 Free Agent, Trade Targets

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    For Major League Baseball general managers, winter is a time to be in roster-construction mode. That involves trying to see the future.

    Since that can't actually be done, it basically involves making educated guesses as to what the future holds for players.

    That also happens to be the name of our little game here.

    A few weeks back, I embarked on a little project called the "MLB 500." The idea was to round up the top players at each position, analyzing them according to how their skills projected toward 2014.

    What we're going to do now is look a little further into the future—say, three to five years down the line instead of just one. The question that needs answering is: What are the top players on both the free-agent and trade markets going to be like in the long run?

    Following is a list of 25 players, with 15 free agents and 10 trade candidates. Let's go ahead and ponder their futures by using the same criteria that was used in the MLB 500.

Value System and Sources

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    Trying to quantify what players' skills are going to be like in the future is tricky. Turning the ensuing scores into some sort of monetary projection is even trickier.

    But since a score that's, say, 10 out of 20 is deemed as "average" and a total score of 50 out of 100 also basically counts as "average," we'll pretend that scores in average territory are akin to an average WAR. According to FanGraphs, that's somewhere between a two-WAR player and a three-WAR player.

    So we're going to break the scores down as follows:

    • 50-60: 2-3 WAR
    • 60-70: 3-4 WAR
    • 70-80: 4-5 WAR
    • 80 and up: 5+ WAR

    As FanGraphs' Dave Cameron wrote last year, one win is worth about $5 million in open-market dollars. As an example, Mike Trout's 10.4 WAR in 2013 was worth $52.1 million. 

    In keeping with our theme, many of the links in this assessment will take you to FanGraphs, so you can look directly at the data that's being referenced. Others will take you to Baseball-Reference.comBrooks Baseball or Baseball Prospectus. Like the MLB 500, this project was backed by data from all of the above sites.

    Since players like Carlos Beltran, Hiroki Kuroda and A.J. Burnett don't have more than a couple seasons left in them, they've been barred from the discussion. And if any scores are tied, the nod goes to the player who's a better option for the long haul, according to the opinion of yours truly.

25. Free Agent: Omar Infante, 2B

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    Hitting

    17/25

    Making contact is something Omar Infante has been good at throughout his career, but it's not the best sign that his contact rate in 2013 was his lowest in several years. In looking forward, one wishes Infante had a stronger track record when it comes to plate discipline. With Infante set to turn 32, it's going to get harder and harder for him to keep the hits coming.

    Power

    9/25

    Infante does have some sneaky-good home run power, but not nearly enough of it to make him a dangerous home run hitter. Age won't do his home run power any favors, and his gap power is suspect enough as is. He's primarily a singles hitter now, and will be even more of one in a few years.

    Baserunning

    10/20

    Infante's 17 stolen bases in 2012 were a huge outlier. He's more of a station-to-station guy and is likely to fall even further into that niche as he ages and his legs get more beat up.

    Defense

    11/20

    Infante has quietly become one of the game's better fielders at second base. He's been prone to boots over the last two years, but has been good enough at making rangy plays and turning double plays to make up for it. But once Infante's range starts to go, his defense at second base will become pedestrian.

    Health

    7/10

    Infante has a fairly lengthy injury history that includes hand issues and, more recently, a sprained ankle that landed him on the DL for over a month in 2013. Things won't be any easier now that he is in his mid-30s.

    Overall

    54/100

    Infante's ability to make contact will help him remain relevant as he heads deeper into his 30s. But he doesn't bring much else to the table, and he'll be bringing even less to the table before long.

    All the same, a score such as this casts Infante as basically being a 2.5-WAR player, worth between $12 and $13 million annually. He's going to sign for less than that, so he could actually be a good value buy.

24. Trade Target: Andre Ethier, RF

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    The Rumor: Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com said in September that Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig could all be on the block this winter. Since dealing Ethier makes the most sense, I'm going to focus on him.

    Hitting

    20/30

    Ethier's inability to hit lefties isn't improving, as he mustered just a .275 OBP against southpaws in 2013 with a strikeout percentage over 20 percent. The good news is that he got his plate discipline back to where it needed to be after a rough year in 2012, and he's as much a line-drive merchant as ever. Ethier's not about to get better as a hitter, but he'll be able to avoid a sharp decline if he maintains the approach he has now.

    Power

    14/30

    What Ethier has at this stage is more doubles power than home run power, and that's likely to be par for the course from here on out. His power has regressed more toward the league average after peaking several years ago. He should continue on that path as he gets deeper into his 30s.

    Baserunning

    6/15

    Ethier can get going when he has to, but he's ordinarily not one to make things happen on the basepaths. He rarely tries for steals and he's generally not one to try to take extra bases either. I would expect him to become even more of a station-to-station guy going forward.

    Defense

    6/15

    Ethier was surprisingly decent in place of Matt Kemp in center field in 2013, but he's undoubtedly better suited to play right field. That may not last long, though, as he doesn't have much range as an outfielder about to turn 32 early in 2014. A move to first base could be in Ethier's future.

    Health

    8/10

    The ankle injury that slowed Ethier toward the end of the 2013 season was the latest in a line of nagging injuries that he's had to deal with over the last three seasons. He's only needed one DL stint, but the injuries are likely to keep coming as he gets older.

    Overall

    54/100

    Ethier's approach at the plate should coincide well with his advancing age, and he doesn't have a whole lot of power left to lose. He won't be anything special as he gets older, but he should remain solid enough to be a productive regular.

    A score like this one puts Ethier in the same discussion as Infante at around $12 million-$13 million of annual value. He's set to make more than that in each of the next four years.

23. Trade Target: Brandon Phillips, 2B

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Rumor: Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported in October that the Reds are serious about trading Brandon Phillips this winter.

    Hitting

    9/25

    Phillips posted the lowest season OBP of his career in 2013, and it didn't happen by accident. His lack of looking for walks requires him to hit, and his lack of a consistent line-drive approach can be rough on his BABIP. The biggest concern, though, is how much Phillips struggled to do damage against fastballs. That's not a good sign for a guy due to turn 33 next June.

    Power

    10/25

    Power is another department where the signs aren't good for Phillips. Another thing that doesn't bode well, in light of a possible trade, is that Phillips' .185 career ISO at Great American Ballpark dwarfs his .157 career ISO. A deal for him will mean a deal for a guy with declining power who traditionally hasn't hit for much power away from a launching pad. Good luck with that.

    Baserunning

    10/20

    Because Phillips was hitting in the middle of Cincinnati's order for the bulk of 2013, he didn't do much baserunning. This is probably a sign of things to come, though, as he was easing up on the base-stealing even before 2013. With his 33rd birthday due up, he has the right idea. He should save his legs, even if it means being a station-to-station guy.

    Defense

    17/20

    Though Phillips is getting up there in age, he's still fielding at a high level. Only Dustin Pedroia and Darwin Barney have racked up better UZRs over the last three seasons, and in 2013, Phillips ranked fourth in range runs above average. He can still cover ground, but a decline is bound to come, even if it only knocks Phillips down from "superb" to "great."

    Health

    9/10

    For a guy who plays a physically demanding position, Phillips is in outstanding shape. He's only been on the DL once and has been largely able to avoid nagging injuries. He only loses a point here for his age.

    Overall

    55/100

    Right now, Phillips is a guy who offers outstanding defense and an average bat. In the future, he's going to be a player who offers very good defense and not even an average bat.

    This score casts Phillips as a 2.5-WAR player who will be worth around $12.5 million annually. The contract extension he signed maxes out at $14 million.

22. Free Agent: Stephen Drew, SS

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Hitting

    12/20

    Playing at a position where guys are known more for their gloves than their bats, Stephen Drew might have the most disciplined approach of any shortstop. This will help him survive as an offensive force going forward, and he definitely picked a good time to become a line-drive machine. What's not encouraging are Drew's rising strikeouts, as that's not something age is likely to magically correct.

    Power

    13/20

    Drew's .190 ISO (Isolated Power) in 2013 was his highest tally since 2008, which was also the last year he posted a HR/FB as high as 9.7. Those numbers, and Drew's line-drive renaissance, make him a solid bet for power in 2014, but age will inevitably start taking its toll as he gets deeper into his 30s. He'll still be a solid power-hitting shortstop, but that's not saying much in this day and age.

    Baserunning

    9/20

    Drew was a perfect 6-for-6 stealing bases in 2013, but I wouldn't call him fleet of foot. I'd say he's an average baserunning shortstop for now, and he's only going to get worse once he starts to lose some speed with age.

    Defense

    15/30

    Drew's glove kept him in the lineup during the postseason, and it was good even before October came around. Drew ranked ninth in UZR among qualifying shortstops this year. But his range isn't that far above average as things stand now. Once he starts losing a few steps, it will regress to average.

    Health

    6/10

    A severe ankle injury knocked Drew out for half of 2011 and half of the 2012 season. In 2013, he battled a concussion and a hamstring strain, both of which put him on the DL—not exactly ideal for a guy just entering his 30s.

    Overall

    55/100

    It wasn't his best season, but 2013 was as close to vintage Stephen Drew as it gets. He may be able to do it again in 2014, and his bat will keep him as a solid regular in the lineup as he gets into his 30s. But his fielding is bound to regress, and he does come with health concerns.

    This score casts Drew as a player who will be worth roughly $12.5 million annually. Since he could sign for less than that, he might actually end up being a decent bargain buy.

21. Free Agent: Mike Napoli, 1B

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    Hitting

    13/30

    Mike Napoli struck out in a career-high 32.4 percent of his plate appearances in 2013, and that had something to do with an inability to catch up to fastballs. The 32-year-old swung and missed at a third of the four-seamers he hacked at this season, which is obviously not good. He'll be able to maintain a strong OBP as long as he maintains his discerning eye, which allows him to keep his walk rates well over 10 percent each season. However, it's hard to fathom him having an easy time with the whole "hitting" thing a few years down the line.

    Power

    22/35

    He still has the power to destroy baseballs now, but Napoli's fly-ball percentage (FB%) has been headed nowhere but down for a few seasons now. That's not a good trend for a power hitter. His struggles with the fastball are also scary, as it's certainly a lot harder to hit offspeed stuff to the moon on a consistent basis. Those things, and his age (FanGraphs' Eno Sarris has done research that shows how dangerous a hitter's 30s are to his power) are a real threat to Napoli's power going forward.

    Baserunning

    3/10

    Napoli doesn't look like much of a baserunner, and he isn't one. He doesn't bother with stolen bases, and his 18 outs on the basepaths over the last four seasons are a few too many. Age won't make him better.

    Defense

    12/15

    Napoli's defense at first base in 2013 was a huge surprise. He led all first basemen in UZR and was one of only four who had 10 defensive runs saved (DRS). Because first base isn't a physically demanding position, it's fair to expect Napoli to carry on as a stud fielder for a few more years.

    Health

    6/10

    Napoli avoided the DL in 2013, but his health does come with question marks. His degenerative hip ailment is something to watch, and the plantar fasciitis that he battled late in the season was the latest in a line of problems he's had with his wheels. His health could be problematic as he gets older.

    Overall

    56/100

    Napoli had one of the best years of his career in 2013, but he doesn't have the look of a guy who's going to age particularly well. His best power days have passed him by, and his hitting in general showed some cracks this past season.

    A score like this puts Napoli more toward the 3-WAR discussion on my crude little scale, which translates to an annual value between $13 million and $15 million. Conveniently, that's where he should end up this winter.

20. Free Agent: Curtis Granderson, OF

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Hitting

    8/20

    Curtis Granderson's plate approach is centered around getting a pitch to drive, and therein lies both his major strength and his major weakness. His strength is that he has a discerning eye. His weakness is that he gets himself into too many pitchers' counts. His strikeout problem is very real, and it's doubtful that it will go away as he gets deeper into his 30s. His patience will save his hitting from oblivion as he starts to lose some bat speed, but only to a degree.

    Power

    20/25

    It's hard to know what to make of Granderson's power following a season in which he barely played because of injuries, but we know he has the typical trappings of a power hitter. He hits the ball in the air a ton, and it's as good as gone if he pulls it to right field. But since power doesn't age well and Granderson is pushing 33, his elite power won't be elite for much longer.

    Baserunning

    10/20

    Granderson has been successful in 18 of his last 23 steal attempts, which is a decent rate. If something good may come from all his time off in 2013, it's that his legs have been preserved. But given his age, it's still likely that his best days as a baserunner are in the past.

    Defense

    9/25

    Here's where things get tricky, as we really don't know for sure if Granderson's next job will be playing center field. It shouldn't be, as the metrics have long been lukewarm on his defense in center field, and he's at an age where his legs might not be able to take it anymore. Given the uncertainty, I'll give him a score that works for both a below-average center fielder and a slightly above-average corner outfielder.

    Health

    9/10

    The health problems Granderson experienced in 2013 were not of the concerning variety. It's not his fault that bones aren't indestructible. But since he is a 32-year-old who has spent his career at a demanding position, he loses a point by default.

    Overall

    56/100

    Even after Father Time collects his due, Granderson is still going to have power to offer, but not much. His hitting is already suspect, and his fielding and baserunning aren't legit strengths either.

    This score puts Granderson right there with Napoli in the high end of the 2-3 WAR discussion and $13 million to $15 million of annual value. That's probably what it will come to for him this winter.

19. Free Agent: Ubaldo Jimenez, SP

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Stuff

    15/30

    Ubaldo Jimenez's fastball velocity is already on a clear downward slope, so it's a good thing that his sinker supplanted his four-seamer as his go-to fastball in 2013. He also upped the use of his slider, which proved to be effective against both righties and lefties. Jimenez is reinventing himself as a sinker-slider pitcher while he's losing velocity, which is a good way for him to go from here.

    Command

    10/20

    It's a good sign that Jimenez's walk rate dipped from 12.2 percent in the first half of 2013 to 7.9 percent in the second half. He was doing a better job of throwing his hard stuff for strikes. I don't want to buy into half a season's worth of work too much, but if Jimenez continues to throw strikes, it's easy enough to buy him as a pitcher capable of maintaining average command.

    Hittability 

    7/15

    Jimenez's second-half surge this season also came with a spike in his strikeout rate. However, in light of his declining velocity, that's not the kind of thing that's likely to last. If he's going to be a sinker-slider guy anyway, then his main emphasis is going to be on getting ground balls rather than punching guys out.

    Workhorse

    15/25

    Jimenez has been good for around 100 pitches per start over the last few years, but ever since 2011, he hasn't been able to go six innings consistently. Improved command should help him turn this around, but the decline of his stuff and hitters' ability to reach him will put a natural cap on his ability to eat innings.

    Health

    9/10

    Jimenez has been on the DL only once before in his career, for a laceration on his thumb back in 2011. The only thing holding his score back here is the knowledge that pitchers don't get healthier as they get older, and Jimenez is entering his 30s, a huge danger zone for pitchers. 

    Overall

    56/100

    This is a better score than the one I gave Jimenez in my original MLB 500. I'm banking on the notion that his ability to reinvent himself into less of a power pitcher and more of a control artist will be worth the trouble as the years pass and will help him become a better workhorse as a result. 

    This score puts Jimenez right there with Napoli and Granderson in the $13 million-$15 million annual value discussion. After his strong second half, it wouldn't be a surprise if Jimenez actually gets something like that.

18. Trade Target: Dexter Fowler, CF

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    The Rumor: Troy Renck of The Denver Post wrote in late October that the Rockies "seem ready to listen more realistically" to offers for Dexter Fowler, and that they even believe Carlos Gonzalez could handle center field.

    Hitting

    15/20

    Fowler is one of the more disciplined hitters you're going to come across, rarely going outside the zone and taking his share of walks. These skills have the potential to go well with his advancing age. While his .390 BABIP in 2012 is a clear outlier, Fowler does have BABIP-friendly contact habits. He'll lose some of his hitting prowess as he gets older, but he should have three or four more prime years left. He is only 27 after all.

    Power

    10/25

    Fowler's power naturally plays a lot better at Coors Field than it does on the road, so removing him from the premises will have an impact on his pop at the plate. This is to say nothing of the fact that 2013 was Fowler's worst power year since 2009, as far as ISO goes. Already a fringy power hitter, it's doubtful he will be getting any better—especially if he's traded away from Coors Field.

    Baserunning

    13/20

    Fowler has been caught stealing 42 times compared to the 83 times he's been successful. It's a good thing he gets around the bases well, as only a handful of players generated more baserunning runs in 2013. Age will impact his legs, but it's doubtful that he'll really start slowing down until he hits his early 30s. 

    Defense

    12/25

    The defensive metrics aren't particularly fond of Fowler's defense in center field, and he doesn't pass the eye test either. For a guy who's such a good athlete, there are times when he seems to be moving in slow motion. He passes for being a decent fielder now, but it's hard to imagine him getting any better.

    Health

    6/10

    Fowler has a history of wrist issues and has been dealing with nagging injuries on a near-nonstop basis since 2009. He plays a demanding position and he's not getting any younger, so his injury track record isn't ideal.

    Overall

    56/100

    There's much to like about Fowler's approach at the plate, and his baserunning is solid, but his power and defense are both shortcomings that aren't going to improve.

    A score like this puts Fowler in the same camp as the other 56s, meaning an annual worth between $13 million and $15 million. That's probably what will be waiting for him in free agency after his 2015 season.

17. Free Agent: Ricky Nolasco, SP

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Stuff

    15/30

    With his 31st birthday coming up in December, Ricky Nolasco is already sitting in the 90-91 mph range with both his four-seamer and his sinker. Since he's been hanging steady in that range for the last couple seasons, it's fair to expect him to hang on. Nolasco also has a slider, curveball and a splitter, with his slider rating as the best of the bunch. It's not an overpowering arsenal, but the depth of it is worth some consideration.

    Command

    10/20

    Nolasco owns a career walk percentage of 5.5. His walk percentage in 2013 was, naturally, 5.5. This doesn't mean he was pounding the strike zone, however, as both his first-pitch strike percentage and zone percentage took a tumble. What he was doing was more like pitching around the zone. While it worked for him in 2013, it won't work as well once the scouting report gets out and Nolasco's stuff becomes a little less crisp.

    Hittability 

    6/15

    Nolasco's strategy of toying with the strike zone in 2013 did pay off in more swings and misses on pitches out of the zone, which, in turn, helped him rescue his strikeouts from a sharp decline. He's still a guy who can be hit hard, however, and a one-year spike in strikeouts is hard to trust. 

    Workhorse

    17/25

    Nolasco's ability to eat innings has never really wavered over the years, as he's been good for six innings per start like clockwork ever since 2008. At the same time, he's never averaged more than 100 pitches per start in a season. Given that and what we're about to discuss next, it's not asking a lot for Nolasco to maintain his status as a solid workhorse in the future.

    Health

    9/10

    Nolasco had some serious trouble with his elbow back in 2007, but he managed to avoid surgery. The only real injury scare he's had since then involved knee surgery in 2010. I can't give him a perfect score here, given what we know about the ability of older pitchers to stay healthy, but Nolasco is definitely in good shape for a guy his age.

    Overall

    57/100

    Nolasco is nothing special as a pitcher now, and he's not going to be anything particularly special in the future, but he's in good health and has what he needs to continue to eat innings, and that's an invaluable skill.

    A score like this casts Nolasco close to a 3-WAR player worthy of close to $15 million annually. He won't actually get that much in free agency, so he could prove to be a solid bargain buy.

16. Free Agent: James Loney, 1B

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Hitting

    20/30

    James Loney settled into a nice niche in Tampa Bay in 2013, hitting .299, thanks to an approach geared toward making contact and hitting the ball on a line. He ended up hitting more line drives than anyone. While he might be able to do that again in 2014, he's eventually going to have to deal with a loss of bat speed that could make him wishing he was better at working the count for walks.

    Power

    12/35

    Here's where Loney has an advantage over most first basemen, as there's hardly any point in wondering how his power is going to age. He already has below-average power for a first baseman, as he's never hit more than 15 home runs and has never been much of a doubles machine either. He will lose power in his 30s, but the decline for him won't be too severe.

    Baserunning

    5/10

    The best thing to be said about Loney's baserunning is that he's good at playing it safe. He made only two outs on the bases in 2013 and has made a total of five outs on the bases over the last two seasons. Since there's no reason that his instincts for caution shouldn't decline with age, Loney should age fine in this department.

    Defense

    12/15

    Loney is one of the more sure-handed first basemen out there, as well as one of the rangier first basemen in the business. Only Adrian Gonzalez has more range runs above average over the last two seasons. The fact that Loney still has good range so close to 30 bodes well for him, so I'll give him the same score I initially gave.

    Health

    9/10

    Loney's next trip to the DL will be his first as a big leaguer. While age tends to wear players down, he plays a position that goes relatively easy on the wear and tear, so he only loses a point here because he's about to enter his 30s.

    Overall

    58/100

    After looking finished in 2012, Loney now has the look of a hitter who could age well. He doesn't have to worry so much about age sapping his power, and his ability to make contact and hit the ball on a line should allow him to remain consistent at the plate.

    This score puts Loney close to 3-WAR territory; thus, he should be worth $15 million in annual value. He'll sign for less, so could be a bargain buy for a team willing to sign him for multiple years.