2014 MLB Free Agency: A Dark-Horse Destination for Each High-Profile Target
You don't have to be an experienced veteran of following Major League Baseball's offseason to know that the "mystery" team does exist. There is a team that will be creeping in the shadows, ready to swoop up and sign the big-name player that had been rumored to be headed to five other ballclubs at one time or another.
Sure, there are always the obvious moves. Dan Haren to the Dodgers. Josh Johnson to the Padres. Ricky Nolasco to the Twins. If you've been paying attention to the rumor mill, those should come as no surprise.
Brian McCann to the Yankees, though? Not so much. Of course, now we know that the Yankees signing any player shouldn't come as a surprise. They have deep pockets, and they're determined to put together a competitor for 2014.
For eight remaining high-profile free agents, I've done a little bit of thinking outside the box and named a dark-horse destination to consider for each.
Carlos Beltran: Detroit Tigers
The Yankees are the favorites to land Carlos Beltran, according to George A. King III of the New York Post. So why even consider other options? Game over. Done deal, right?
Wrong. Beltran isn't expected to choose his next team this week, giving the other competitors for his services some time to decide if he's worth upping the ante. It gives a general manager time to give ownership a great reason why it should stretch the team's budget.
There's no better reason than the fact that the 36-year-old is still one of the best hitters in the game and has been able to stay healthy for three consecutive seasons. He should be able to play right field regularly, and if he can't for any reason, an American League general manager could cite the ability to move him to the designated hitter spot as another reason why the investment comes with little risk.
That American League team yet to be connected with Beltran on the rumor mill and with the resources to go up against the "Evil Empire" is the Detroit Tigers.
After freeing up some money in the Prince Fielder trade, they could have the necessary payroll space to add another big salary for a few seasons. Beltran would also be a great fit in their lineup, replacing Fielder in the No. 4 hole and slotting into the left field spot currently occupied by Andy Dirks, who struggled in 2013.
Robinson Cano: Washington Nationals
Is there anyone out there who really believes Robinson Cano won't re-sign with the Yankees? At this point, they're likely very confident that no one is willing to step up and meet his reported $300 million asking price. Thus, they're going to wait for his price to drop.
While this is likely to happen, so will the chances of other teams getting involved. If his price drops closer to the $200-250 million range, the Tigers and Rangers could find space in their payrolls. So could the Dodgers, Giants and Phillies. Most of those teams have bigger issues to address, though, and they also have solid in-house options for their second base spot.
The team that may be willing to stretch its budget to add what could be the final piece to a legitimate World Series contender is the Washington Nationals.
Without any glaring holes on their current roster, they haven't been connected to too many free agents. And with Anthony Rendon, one of the top prospects in the game heading into 2013, ready for a full season as a big league regular, why would they block him with Cano?
Because Cano is a proven star. Rendon is an unproven 23-year-old with little experience at second base. He could also prove to be a valuable trade chip as long as he's not exposed in an everyday role. In other words, he's not standing in the way of Cano being signed to a mega-deal.
Shin-Soo Choo: Chicago Cubs
All has been quiet on the Shin-Soo Choo front, which isn't unexpected due to his extremely high asking price of $100 million or more.
While most teams are waiting for his asking price to drop, though, it's the perfect time for the Chicago Cubs, after claiming they wouldn't be big players in free agency, to snatch him up unexpectedly.
Back in September, Theo Epstein, the team's President of Baseball Operations, acknowledged that they had a lot of work to do offensively, but free agency wouldn't be the answer for the short term, according to Carrie Muskat of MLB.com.
While signing Choo wouldn't turn the team into a playoff contender, a five-year deal would certainly make him a huge part of the Cubs' long-term plans as they await the arrival of top prospects Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler.
Nelson Cruz: San Francisco Giants
After the San Francisco Giants spent a ton of money to re-sign Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence, and then spent even more to bring Tim Hudson on board as well, no one is talking much about the team's black hole in left field and the need for some more offense in the lineup. But it's there. And the Giants won't make the same mistake as last year, entrusting it to a platoon of light-hitting reserve types.
Adding Nelson Cruz would likely add at least $15 million more to a payroll that already consists of over $120 million in guaranteed contracts to 12 players, but it would be well worth the price if Cruz continues to do what he's done year in and year out since he first began playing regularly in 2009.
His PED suspension from 2013 doesn't appear like it will hinder his value much, which will make this a risky deal. But unless he's been using PEDs regularly over the past five seasons, the 33-year-old should still be a pretty good bet to match the .842 OPS and 27 homers he's averaged over that span.
Jacoby Ellsbury: Cincinnati Reds
According to Noel Pineiro of Primera Hora (via the Cincinnati Enquirer's C. Trent Rosecrans), the Cincinnati Reds have interest in outfielder Carlos Beltran. This, of course, could be a tough fit unless they think he can play center field for one season (which is unlikely) or they plan on trading away one of their corner outfielders.
Jay Bruce, as productive as he is at a team-friendly rate, isn't likely to be traded, and Ryan Ludwick, who is still guaranteed $13 million ($8.5 million salary in 2014, $4.5 million buyout in 2015) and coming off a poor season, isn't going anywhere unless the Reds eat most of the remaining salary.
In other words, Beltran to the Reds isn't a great fit. But their interest likely means that they're willing to add a big salary to their books over the next three seasons, which is what it would take to sign Beltran.
And if they can fit approximately $20 million on their payroll through 2016, maybe they'd be willing to extend that through 2019 so they can meet Jacoby Ellsbury's likely asking price, which could be somewhere around six years and $120 million.
If you think this move isn't necessary because Billy Hamilton is the answer, then you are just way too obsessed with speed and stolen bases. As exciting as the 23-year-old is on the basepaths, he had a .308 on-base percentage in his first season of Triple-A and also doesn't have much power to speak of.
That's not a recipe for success in the pros, and it's a reason the Reds won't hesitate to add a proven player that might block his rise to the majors.
Ubaldo Jimenez: Philadelphia Phillies
Ubaldo Jimenez's extended period of mediocrity from mid-2011 to early 2013 won't make him a comfortable signing for any team this offseason. There's no doubt that he's a risk on a multi-year deal, which the 29-year-old will land because he still has great stuff and the recent success (2.41 ERA in last 23 starts of 2013) to back it up.
While the Yankees could make Jimenez their top free-agent pitching priority, with an eye on teaming him with fellow Dominicans Ivan Nova and Michael Pineda in the rotation, another team looking to make a quick turnaround in 2014 could beat them to the punch.
The Philadelphia Phillies would love to add a veteran right-hander to team with lefties Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of their rotation, along with a mentor who can better communicate with Cuban Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who signed a major league deal earlier this year.
Jimenez, who fits the bill in both aspects, could be a fit in the Phillies payroll after they filled their biggest hole on offense with Marlon Byrd, who signed a team-friendly two-year, $16 million deal. Signing a bigger-name free agent to man right field would have been much more costly and could have ended the team's chances of adding another frontline starter.
Mike Napoli: Houston Astros
Mike Napoli returning to Boston, where he played a huge part in the team's third World Series championship in the last decade, almost makes too much sense. But the Red Sox might still feel that Napoli's degenerative hip condition, which didn't affect him one bit in 2013, makes anything more than a two-year deal a huge risk.
Several other teams would disagree, which is why he could end up on his fifth different squad since 2010. It's just not one you might think.
The rebuilding Houston Astros might not be an ideal landing spot for a veteran, unless that veteran just won a championship and is willing to endure a losing season or two before the team has a chance to be really good in years three and four of a contract.
With the Astros headed in the right direction, they could lure Napoli to Houston with a four-year deal that would allow him to be the primary first baseman until prospect Jonathan Singleton is ready to take over. At that time, Napoli would become the primary designated hitter.
It may not be the ideal situation for either in 2014, but the Astros should have plenty of money to spend this offseason, and using some of it to bring in a proven power hitter for the middle of their order could be a step in the right direction.
Ervin Santana: Seattle Mariners
How many teams are willing to give a $100 million deal to a pitcher who has had an ERA over 5.00 in two of the last five seasons? Not many, especially if the Yankees aren't expected to pursue him, as reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.
But it only takes one old team to take the risk, and that one could be the Seattle Mariners, who appear desperate to make a splash this offseason.
While they are focused on hitters, as noted by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, any team with a starting pitching quartet of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and Santana would be a force to be reckoned with in the American League.
Adding Santana, combined with the signing of an impact hitter like Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo, would give the M's a strong chance to end a run of four consecutive losing seasons along with the ability to turn the AL West into a four-horse race in 2014.