It's not even 2014 yet, but the major groundwork for the new MLB season has already been made in what's been a busy offseason.
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the league is on pace to spend more than $2 billion on free agents this winter, way up from the current record of $1.75 billion spent during the 2006-07 offseason.
Virtually all of the top free agents are off the board among position players, although there are still plenty of high-priced arms still looking for teams. At this point, most of those players still available have some question marks, but which ones are worth the risk?
Here's a look at a quartet of free agents who are worth a financial commitment this winter, even if they do have some risk involved.
Of all the notable starting pitchers still on the open market, Matt Garza boasts the most consistent track record of success for his career.
Ben Badler, of Baseball America, reported that a decision on the posting status of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka could come as early as Tuesday or Wednesday. Once Tanaka's situation is figured out, expect the rest of the dominoes to fall in a starting-pitching market that's top-heavy with veteran right-handers.
What separates Garza from others like Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez over the past few seasons has been his consistent results. Aside from his rookie year in 2006, Garza has never posted an ERA higher than 3.95. In all, he has a 67-67 record, 3.84 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 7.9 K/9 ratio—numbers that merit consideration for a healthy long-term deal.
All four of the aforementioned starters are expected to receive bigger contracts than the four-year, $49 million deal agreed upon by Ricky Nolasco and the Minnesota Twins according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports. Whenever there is that big of a commitment involved, it comes with risk, so you might as well put your money on a guy who hasn't been mercurial the past few years.
In this case, that's Garza and not Santana, Jimenez or Tanaka, who might be more talented, but is also an unknown quantity at this point.
At 33 years old and with some baggage, Nelson Cruz presents an interesting option for teams looking for a classic right-handed slugger.
His career numbers suggest he has the best pure power bat on the free-agent market this winter, but Cruz was suspended 50 games in 2013 for his role in the Biogenesis PED scandal. Still, if Jhonny Peralta's four-year, $53 million agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this offseason told us anything, it's that teams will pay top dollar for a player with a clouded past.
According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Cruz was rumored to have turned down a five-year, $75 million contract offer from the Mariners during the winter meetings. While it's just hearsay, Divish's reported rumors give an idea of the strength for Cruz's market.
Even with his lengthy suspension last year, Cruz has batted .272/.331/.511, with yearly averages of 27 homers and 81 RBI since the start of the 2009 season. You can't find that type of power from anyone else unless you execute a big trade, making a sizeable financial commitment to Cruz worthwhile.
When a team knows you're injured, but still wants you in a trade, you've got to be good.
Reliever Jesse Crain was in such a situation in 2013, as he was sent from the Chicago White Sox to the Tampa Bay Rays in a deal near the non-waiver trade deadline, despite being on the disabled list. Unfortunately for Crain, he never recovered from his shoulder injury to pitch for the Rays, severely diminishing his value on the free-agent market this winter.
Crain missed the final three months of the regular season with his shoulder issues, but was one of baseball's top setup men in 2013 before going down. In 38 appearances, Crain posted a 0.74 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and 11.3 K/9 ratio following three strong seasons from 2010 to 2012
The injury questions might limit him to a one-year deal at this point, but the 32-year-old is worth the flier. His type of talent is hard to find in free agency, and with three-plus straight seasons of consistent production, Crain could be a steal in 2014.
Any team who wants to sign Eric O'Flaherty had better be patient.
The left-handed reliever was one of the elite setup men in baseball before going down with a serious arm injury this past season that required Tommy John surgery. The procedure usually has a 12-month recovery period, meaning O'Flaherty could be a big bullpen addition for a team by July.
In 295 appearances from 2009-13, O'Flaherty posted a 1.99 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 7.2 K/9 ratio that was highlighted by his stellar 2011 season, when he became the first MLB pitcher to record a sub-1.00 ERA (0.98) while pitching at least 70 outings (78).
Effective southpaws at the back end of the bullpen are always at a premium, though, so a team would be wise to jump on O'Flaherty early. Clearly, teams want to wait to see how his recovery process is going, but O'Flaherty provides the potential for a great setup man at a discount price.