2014 Stats Predictions for This Year's Top 20 MLB Free Agents
If there are two things baseball fans love, it is free agency and statistics. You have to pay attention to numbers in baseball, because they will tell you a story about any given player. There are also patterns and trends to follow in the numbers that can help accurately predict what a player's future will look like.
Free agency is a different animal. It is easy to say Player X will sign with Team Y, but until the bidding starts and payroll ceilings are set, no one knows what will happen.
That's the beauty of this time of year, the idea that anything can happen.
We are going to settle some of the drama for you by offering up expectations for the top 20 free agents next season.
Some of these stat projections will change, for better or worse, depending where players sign. If a hitter goes from a good hitter's park to Petco Park, you can expect a significant drop in production. Keep that in mind when you are looking over these numbers.
As for the rankings of the top 20 free agents, they are strictly my own, based on the order in which I would want to sign a player and his expected level of production for the next five years.
No. 1: Robinson Cano, 2B
2013 Stats: .314/.383/.516, 27 HR, 107 RBI, 81 R, 6.0 WAR (Age: 31)
Robinson Cano is the best all-around second baseman in baseball. He has hit at least .300 with a .500 slugging percentage and 25 home runs every season since 2009.
Finding that kind of consistent production from an up-the-middle player who doesn't figure to age badly because his swing is so simple is rare. Not many teams can afford to sign Cano, who, according to Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com, is asking for $300 million over 10 years, so the market is limited.
If you take Cano out of Yankee Stadium, the power numbers will drop a little because he won't have that short porch in left field. But given his asking price and the Yankees' need, it is hard to see another team making a big enough offer to take him out of New York.
Cano's offense got better last year thanks to a career-best walk rate (9.5 percent), line-drive percentage (26.0) and lowest strikeout percentage since 2010 (12.5 percent). I don't think that trend will continue into his 30s, but it does provide reasons for optimism.
2014 Prediction: .305/.363/.505, 25 HR, 110 RBI, 95 R
No. 2: Shin-Soo Choo, OF
2013 Stats: .285/.423/.462, 21 HR, 54 RBI, 107 R, 20 SB, 5.2 WAR (Age: 31)
Moving from the AL to the NL proved to be a positive for Shin-Soo Choo, who set career highs with a .423 on-base percentage, .393 weighted on-base average and 151 weighted runs created plus.
What didn't work out well was the Cincinnati Reds putting Choo in center field, where his lack of range and poor reads were noticeable from day one. Whichever team signs him should move him back to right field, where he is still below average but still passable.
Regardless, Choo is going to adapt well wherever he goes because of a patient approach. He's walked in 12.2 percent of his career plate appearances and has a .389 career on-base percentage.
The biggest problem Choo has that will only get worse moving forward is hitting left-handed pitching. He hit just .215/.347/.265 against southpaws last year, compared to .317/.457/.554 against righties.
2014 Prediction: .275/.390/.415, 19 HR, 65 RBI, 101 R, 20 SB
No. 3: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF
2013 Stats: .298/.355/.426, 9 HR, 53 RBI, 92 R, 52 SB, 5.8 WAR (Age: 30)
It's safe to say that Jacoby Ellsbury's power spike in 2011 when he hit 32 home runs was a one-time occurrence. He has hit just 13 homers in 208 games since 2012,
While the pop might be gone, the rest of the package is still really good. Ellsbury is a plus defensive center fielder who hits for average, has some on-base skills and steals 50 bases per season when he plays at least 130 games.
Unfortunately, health will always be a question surrounding him. He has missed 116 games the last two years and isn't likely to get stronger as he moves into his 30s.
He also isn't a typical leadoff hitter, having never drawn more than 52 unintentional walks in a season. Once the bat speed goes, it will be interesting to see what kind of player Ellsbury turns into.
But that's not going to be a concern for a few years.
2014 Prediction: .285/.340/.410, 12 HR, 60 RBI, 85 R, 45 SB
No. 4: Masahiro Tanaka, SP
2013 Stats in Nippon Professional Baseball League: 24-0, 1.27 ERA, 212.0 IP, 168 H, 6 HR, 183-32 K-BB, 0.943 WHIP (Age: 25)
It remains unclear when Masahiro Tanaka will be eligible to sign with an MLB team, but when he does, the price will likely skyrocket because his age and potential are greater than any free-agent starter on the market.
I have only seen Tanaka pitch through videos on YouTube, which are often showcases for the best things a player can do. But the quality of the stuff, which includes a plus fastball-splitter combination and a solid slider, could give him the requisite three weapons to get hitters out.
Tanaka isn't going to be Yu Darvish, so ignore any and all comparisons to the Texas hurler. I envision him as a very good No. 3 starter because there are some command issues, but a 25-year-old with three pitches is a nice package.
2014 Prediction: 3.50 ERA, 175.0 IP, 170 H, 20 HR, 165-60 K-BB*
*No W-L prediction since it depends on which team he signs with.
No. 5: Brian McCann, C, New York Yankees
2013 Stats: .256/.336/.461, 20 HR, 57 RBI, 43 R, 2.7 WAR (Age: 30)
Unlike the top four free agents on this list, Brian McCann has a home for the 2014 season after signing a five-year, $85 million contract with the New York Yankees.
McCann's offensive numbers have dipped the last two years, as he battled shoulder problems in 2012 and was recovering from shoulder surgery in 2013. If you believe he's fully recovered, then a return to his career line of .277/.350/.473 is not out of the question.
However, I am not willing to go that far. McCann is obviously a huge upgrade for the Yankees behind the plate. He could fall out of bed and hit better than the .213/.289/.298 New York's backstops hit in 2013.
McCann has had an OPS under .700 against left-handed pitching in two of the last three years and goes from a division with two terrible teams (Mets, Marlins) to the toughest division in baseball. He will benefit from the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, but to think he will find more than 25 homers is pushing it.
2014 Prediction: .260/.335/.455, 24 HR, 85 RBI, 70 R
No. 6: Ubaldo Jimenez, SP
2013 Stats: 13-9, 3.30 ERA, 182.2 IP, 163 H, 16 HR, 194-80 K-BB, 1.33 WHIP, 3.2 WAR (Age: 30)
Of all the players on this list, Ubaldo Jimenez is the toughest to predict because I don't know how much of his success at the end of the year was the result of mechanical changes and how much was making five of his last eight starts against the Twins (twice), White Sox (twice) and Astros.
Jimenez did quiet his mechanics in the second half of 2013, and he still has a low-90s fastball that can touch 95-96 and a plus slider.
But should we completely dismiss the second half of 2011 (5.10 ERA), all of 2012 (5.40 ERA) and the first half of 2013 (4.56 ERA) just because the last two months of the season looked so good?
These are all legitimate questions, though I am more inclined to believe Jimenez pitches closer to the guy we saw at the end of 2013, because there is less noise in the wind-up and more command of the fastball.
2014 Prediction: 3.75 ERA, 185.0 IP, 175 H, 18 HR, 180-75 K-BB
No. 7: Stephen Drew, SS
2013 Stats: .253/.333/.443, 13 HR, 67 RBI, 57 R, 3.4 WAR (Age: 31)
Stephen Drew is going to get hurt this offseason because of the draft compensation attached to him, but he might also be one of the most underrated assets available.
As long as he can stay healthy, Drew is a plus defensive shortstop with power who draws enough walks to offset the swing-and-miss in his game. Teams should covet this kind of player, even if the market dictates a three- or four-year deal for $10-12 million per season.
2014 Prediction: .240/.310/.410, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 45 R
No. 8: Ricky Nolasco, SP, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats: 13-11, 3.70 ERA, 199.1 IP, 195 H, 17 HR, 165-46 K-BB, 1.21 WHIP, 3.0 WAR (Age: 31)
Ricky Nolasco went from being the third-best starter in the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation to forgotten man in the blink of an eye. A brutal September (6.66 ERA) was enough for Don Mattingly to lose all faith in the right-hander.
Overall, though, he had one of his best seasons. His 3.70 ERA was the lowest since 2008 and his 3.34 fielding independent ERA was a career low.
Unfortunately, Nolasco's 0.77 home-run rate was also a career low, even though his ground-ball rate dropped from the previous two seasons. That means he's giving up more fly balls that stayed in the park because he had the luxury of pitching primarily in two of the biggest stadiums in baseball (Marlins Park, Dodger Stadium).
The soon-to-be 31-year-old has value as a solid No. 3 or good No. 4 starter, but he isn't likely to duplicate his 2013 performance. He could be a good fit in the Minnesota Twins' spacious park after reportedly agreeing to a four-year, $49 million deal, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.
2014 Prediction: 4.05 ERA, 190.0 IP, 188 H, 25 HR, 145-40 K-BB
No. 9: Ervin Santana, SP
2013 Stats: 9-10, 3.24 ERA, 211.0 IP, 190 H, 26 HR, 161-51 K-BB, 1.142 WHIP, 3.0 WAR (Age: 31)
The Kansas City Royals took a chance trading for Ervin Santana last year, and it worked out wonderfully for the team and the player. The Royals got the good version of the right-hander, while he was able to rebuild his value enough to demand a four- or five-year contract.
Trying to find consistency with Santana is a lesson in futility. The pitching-depleted Los Angeles Angels gave up on him after a 5.16 ERA and 39 homers allowed in 2012.
The biggest difference for Santana in 2013 was keeping the ball around the strike zone. His walk rate went from 3.08 per nine innings in 2012 to 2.18 last year. His fastball also picked up a little steam, averaging 92.4 mph compared to 91.7 in 2012.
Santana still gives up a lot of homers, despite pitching in spacious Kaufmann Stadium last season, so look for that ERA to spike again in 2014.
2014 Prediction: 3.90 ERA, 185 IP, 29 HR, 155-50 K-BB
No. 10: Mike Napoli, 1B
2013 Stats: .259/.360/.482, 23 HR, 92 RBI, 79 R, 3.9 WAR (Age: 32)
Mike Napoli is on the market again after a stellar season in Boston that saw the right-hander stay healthy, prove to be a very good defensive first baseman and continue to get on base while driving the ball with authority.
The questions about his health will always persist because of the hip condition found in his physical with the Red Sox last year, but any concerns should be put on the back burner because he played 139 games in 2013.
Right-handed power is difficult to find, and Napoli has been one of the most consistent performers in that department, with at least 20 homers and .343 OBP every season since 2008. He's going to continue striking out at an alarming rate, but the rest of the package is so good that he will be a valuable asset in 2014.
2014 Prediction: .245/.345/.450, 26 HR, 80 RBI, 70 R
No. 11: Matt Garza, SP
2013 Stats: 10-6, 3.82 ERA, 155.1 IP, 150 H, 20 HR, 136-42 K-BB, 1.236 WHIP, 2.2 WAR (Age: 30)
Matt Garza would have been in line for a much bigger payday if he stayed in the NL Central all season instead of moving to the hitter-friendly environment of Texas that exploited his inability to generate ground balls.
It also doesn't help that Garza has only pitched 259 innings the last two years due to injuries. Before that, he had three consecutive seasons of at least 198 innings, but his ERA was lower than 3.90 just once in that span.
Another concern is Garza's ground-ball rate, which I touched on earlier. It plummeted from 47.3 percent in 2012 to 38.6 percent last year. He's still a quality pitcher, but he isn't better than a No. 3-4 in a good rotation.
2014 Prediction: 3.85 ERA, 175 IP, 18 HR, 145-55 K-BB
No. 12: A.J. Burnett, SP
2013 Stats: 10-11, 3.30 ERA, 191.0 IP, 165 H, 11 HR, 209-67 K-BB, 1.215 WHIP, 4.0 WAR (Age: 37)
A.J. Burnett is an interesting free agent because he's already said his future is with the Pittsburgh Pirates or retirement, per Matt Snyder of CBS Sports. The Pirates didn't make him a $14.1 million qualifying offer, which likely means they need him to take a discount if he wants to return.
The right-hander couldn't have picked a better time to be a free agent. He has all the leverage coming off arguably the two best years in his career. His 3.30 ERA in 2013 tied a career low, and his 209 strikeouts were his most since 2008.
He's also become a ground-ball machine, leading the NL with a 56.5 percent rate in 2013. At 37 years old and coming off the disastrous turn in New York, Burnett isn't likely to find a deal longer than two years. That could make him a steal in this market, if he chooses to play.
2014 Prediction: 3.50 ERA, 190.0 IP, 14 HR, 185-60 K-BB
No. 13: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
2013 Stats: .273/.338/.466, 14 HR, 65 RBI, 68 R, 3.6 WAR (Age: 29)
Jarrod Saltalamacchia peaked at the right time, having the best season of his career in a walk year. It also helps that Brian McCann, the No. 1 catcher on the market, has already signed.
Power has always been Saltalamacchia's calling card. He's hit at least 14 homers and slugged at least .450 the last three years—excellent numbers for a catcher. He is also 15 months younger than McCann.
It isn't realistic to expect Salty to hit .273 with a .338 OBP again, because his batting average on balls in play of .372 was 50 points higher than his career mark. He did have the highest line-drive percentage of his career (28.6), so there are some reasons for optimism.
2014 Prediction: .240/.307/.410, 19 HR, 65 RBI, 60 R
No. 14: Curtis Granderson, OF
2013 Stats: .229/.317/.407, 7 HR, 15 RBI, 31 R, 1.4 WAR (Age: 33)
Curtis Granderson's career is clearly trending downward. His average, on-base and slugging percentages have dropped the last two years. He also struck out in more than 28 percent of his plate appearances during that span.
Last year was a lost year, starting in spring training when he suffered a broken finger. Granderson was limited to 61 games, giving him some value as a bargain in this market because the power is still there.
He hit 84 home runs combined in 2011 and 2012, so even with the increase in strikeouts, Granderson should still be good for 20-25 homers if he plays in 140 games.
Prediction: .235/.320/.430, 25 HR, 70 RBI, 65 R
No. 15: Jhonny Peralta, SS, St. Louis Cardinals
2013 Stats: .303/.358/.457, 11 HR, 55 RBI, 50 R, 3.6 WAR (Age: 32)
The St. Louis Cardinals generated some unwarranted controversy when they signed Jhonny Peralta to a four-year, $53 million contract because of his 50-game suspension.
They needed to upgrade at shortstop, Peralta fit into their price range and he signed a contract that was offered. How dare they follow the protocol put in place!
On the field, Peralta is hard to figure out. He's the definition of consistently inconsistent, having five seasons with an OPS over .770 and four under .710 since 2005.
It's a little surprising he's stayed at shortstop as long as he has because the body and range don't jump out at you. But Peralta is able to make enough plays to rate as average. As long as he stays there, he's an above-average player because of the bat.
Moving to the National League Central, with poor pitching staffs in the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, will help showcase the good version of Peralta. Another feather in his cap was destroying left-handed pitching last year (.964 OPS).
2014 Prediction: .270/.335/.430, 14 HR, 60 RBI, 54 R
No. 16: Carlos Beltran, OF
2013 Stats: .296/.339/.491, 24 HR, 84 RBI, 79 R, 2.0 WAR (Age: 37)
As age has caught up to Beltran, he's had to find different ways to keep his performance up to snuff. His walk rate of 6.3 percent was the lowest since 1998, when he played just 14 games with Kansas City.
Even though there was a time when it appeared Beltran's career would be derailed by injuries, he has played at least 142 games in each of the last three years and hit 56 homers the last two years.
It would be in his best interest to sign with an AL team so he can DH part time and take pressure off his old legs. He has worn down in the second half the last two years, seeing his OPS go from .924 to .742 in 2012 and .879 to .758 in 2013.
Beltran still makes a lot of hard contact, with a career-high 23.9 percent line-drive rate last year, so even though the average will come back to earth a bit, the power is still there.
2014 Prediction: .270/.345/.460, 22 HR, 75 RBI, 60 RBI
No. 17: Hiroki Kuroda, SP
2013 Stats: 11-13, 3.31 ERA, 201.1 IP, 191 H, 20 HR, 150-43 K-BB, 1.162 WHIP, 3.8 WAR (Age: 39)
Hiroki Kuroda is in a scenario that closely resembles A.J. Burnett's, where he will either return to New York or retire.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the Yankees "have moved from gloomy early in the offseason to more upbeat that Hiroki Kuroda will return for another year."
Kuroda has been consistent in his brief six-year MLB tenure, throwing at least 183 innings every year except 2009 and having an ERA no higher than 3.39 in the last four years. He's not a power pitcher, but he boasts excellent control of four pitches that prevents him from getting hit hard.
He did have an ERA over 5.00 in August and September, allowing 74 hits and eight home runs in 61.2 innings. It's possible that's just a blip on the radar or a sign that age is catching up to him. I'm inclined to think the latter because he was so good from April-July.
2014 Prediction: 3.60 ERA, 190.0 IP, 175 H, 18 HR, 140-40 K-BB
No. 18: Nelson Cruz, OF
2013 Stats: .266/.327/.506, 27 HR, 76 RBI, 49 R, 1.5 WAR (Age: 33)
Despite the absurdity of Nelson Cruz reportedly seeking $75 million over four years, per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, he does have some value as a power-only right-hander.
He's never been a great hitter and has no value as a defensive player in right field, but the 33-year-old has hit at least 22 homers every season since 2009. Despite playing 109 games last year, Cruz still hit 27 homers.
Pitchers with any kind of breaking ball can fool Cruz, which is going to hurt him moving deeper into his 30s when the bat speed declines and he's forced to cheat on fastballs inside. But that's more of a long-term concern.
2014 Prediction: .255/.320/.475, 25 HR, 80 RBI, 55 R
No. 19: Bartolo Colon, SP
2013 Stats: 18-6, 2.65 ERA, 190.1 IP, 193 H, 14 HR, 117-29 K-BB, 1.166 WHIP, 3.9 WAR (Age: 40)
In the days before there were advanced metrics used to evaluate players, Bartolo Colon might actually have warranted a multi-year deal from someone because of his wins and ERA last year.
It's a good thing those days are behind us, because Colon has benefited greatly from playing most of his games in Oakland's spacious park. Having Seattle and Houston in the division also hasn't hurt.
Colon is basically a one-pitch guy at this point, throwing the fastball nearly 86 percent of the time last year. He needs a big park and great defense behind him to succeed.
2014 Prediction: 4.00 ERA, 160.0 IP, 170 H, 17 HR, 100-30 K-BB
No. 20: Juan Uribe, 3B
2013 Stats: .278/.331/.438, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 47 R, 5.1 WAR (Age: 34)
A little luck on balls in play helped Juan Uribe have his best offensive season since 2009, though a walk and strikeout rate that were on par with his career totals suggests that it won't be duplicated.
Uribe has always had some power in his swing, not to mention the most exciting follow-through you will ever see, but lacking an approach has prevented him from consistently showing it in games.
The 34-year-old has always rated well as a defensive player, but he took his game to another level in 2013. He was credited with 15 runs saved and an ultimate zone rating of 24.0.
Considering the offensive barrier required to play third base, Uribe isn't going to be a 5.0 WAR player again. But if he can keep his stocky body in check, he could be worth 2.5-3 wins in 2014.
2014 Prediction: .255/.310/.400, 15 HR, 60 RBI, 48 R
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