Predicting How the Top 10 MLB Free-Agent Sweepstakes Will Be Decided
This is about the time we usually enter the dead zone of MLB's free-agency period, as all the good stuff tends to be gathered up before Christmas.
Take a look out there now, however, and you'll see the four most desirable starting pitchers on the market are still out there, with one of them just now becoming available. Aside from them, there's a good innings-eater, two quality closers and a trio of quality bats.
I'm here to take a stab at predicting what's going to happen with these 10 guys. I have nothing but educated guesses while my crystal ball is out for repairs, but, hey, educated guesses have been known to lead squirrels to nuts every now and again (or so I'm told).
Let's get to it...
Grant Balfour: New York Yankees
Well, one thing we know is that Grant Balfour won't be signing with the Orioles. That bridge is as good as burned after the O's backed out of a two-year, $15 million deal after reviewing his medicals.
It's not all bad, though. According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, there's not a consensus that Balfour is damaged goods. He still has options, including a good one elsewhere in the AL East.
Kevin Kernan of the New York Post has reported that the Yankees are interested in Balfour, and understandably so. David Robertson is without a partner in crime for the late innings now that Mariano Rivera is gone, and that looks like one of the club's bigger weaknesses.
Signing Balfour would take care of it, and allowing him to close would keep Robertson in the eighth-inning role that he's accustomed to and, according to Kernan, wouldn't mind serving again in 2014.
As for the luxury tax, Joel Sherman of the New York Post has the Yankees' 2014 expenditures projected to be easily over $200 million. The only thing that can keep them from being over the $189 million threshold at this point is a lengthy suspension for Alex Rodriguez as a result of the Biogenesis investigation.
If it comes to that, the Yankees can afford the contract Baltimore was ready to give Balfour. If it doesn't, hey, it makes sense for them to go way over $189 million if they're going to be over either way.
Prediction: Signs with Yankees for two years and $15 million
Fernando Rodney: Baltimore Orioles
Fernando Rodney was apparently paying attention to what happened with Joe Nathan, as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that Rodney wants $10 million per year over a multiyear deal.
If the 39-year-old Nathan can get a two-year deal, then surely the 36-year-old Rodney will be able to. It's whether he'll be able to secure as much as $10 million that I wonder about.
Rodney didn't have nearly as good a year in 2013 as Nathan did, as the latter finished with a 2.5 fWAR to the former's 1.3 fWAR. Worse, Rodney's walk rate ballooned from 5.3 percent in 2012 to 12.4 percent.
That was a bit of the bad old Rodney coming to the surface. And since walks equal volatility with closers, it's likely that Rodney will have trouble getting what he wants.
Hence the reason I'm thinking a union between Rodney and the Orioles is a legit possibility.
Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun has reported that the O's have "significant interest" in the veteran closer. He would cost more than they were ready to pay Balfour, but there's still a fair amount of wiggle room between Baltimore's projected payroll and its $92-ish million Opening Day payroll in 2013.
And when it comes down to it, Rodney is the best chance the Orioles have to do something. He would fill a need, and he's more in their price range than Nelson Cruz or Ubaldo Jimenez.
Prediction: Signs with Orioles for two years and $17.5 million
Bronson Arroyo: Minnesota Twins
With Bronson Arroyo, it's not a question of how much upside a team is looking at buying. He's a pitcher who will give you an ERA in the high 3.00s, but he's unlikely to do any better than that.
Arroyo can certainly eat innings, though. That's what interested parties are looking at buying, and there's one interested party that has more incentive than most to pay the price.
That would be the Minnesota Twins.
Per FanGraphs, Twins starters logged fewer innings than any other collection of starters in the bigs last year. And while their offseason has consisted of them signing Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and re-signing Mike Pelfrey, only one of them (Nolasco) topped 190 innings in 2013.
The Twins still have the financial leeway to make a deal work. Factor in Pelfrey's deal, and they have roughly $70 million committed for 2014 and only a couple arbitration cases to settle. Since this is a franchise that had payrolls over $100 million in 2011 and 2012, it could add Arroyo on a market-price deal and still be safely under its high-water mark.
Prediction: Signs with Twins for two years and $23 million with a vesting option for a third year
Kendrys Morales: Los Angeles Angels (After the Draft)
Kendrys Morales probably should have accepted the qualifying offer the Mariners made him.
Sure, that would have meant making just $14.1 million in 2014, but it's hard to see Morales doing any better than that at this point. That he's more of a DH than he is a first baseman all but takes him out of the equation for the National League, and American League clubs have reasons to be wary of him.
Morales' OBP over the last two seasons is a modest .329. And while it's easy to point to his big home ballparks as power suppressors, he actually hit for more power at home over the last two seasons than he did on the road.
Peter Gammons spoke to one general manager who envisioned Morales remaining on the market until after the draft happens in June. As bold as that sounds, it's actually realistic. Morales will shed himself off his ties to draft-pick compensation if he waits until after the draft, and he would bar himself from getting another qualifying offer at the end of the season.
The Angels strike me as a team that could end Morales' misery. With Mark Trumbo gone, they have neither a DH nor Albert Pujols insurance. Morales would solve both needs, and waiting until after the draft to sign Morales would allow the Angels to keep a precious draft pick.
Since Morales would be a quick fix, it would be a one-year deal for a prorated salary. To that end, there's one figure that comes to mind as being fair.
Prediction: Signs with Angels after draft for prorated $14.1 million
Nelson Cruz: Seattle Mariners
Nelson Cruz and the Mariners should go ahead and get it over with.
As ESPN's Jerry Crasnick noted earlier in December, Cruz has been linked to Seattle from the get-go this winter. And at this point, there's no obvious fit for Cruz elsewhere.
There's no room for him in Texas now that the Rangers have Shin-Soo Choo. Cruz would fit nicely in Kansas City or Baltimore, but the Royals have already spent more than usual, and the Orioles should be chasing pitching (i.e. Rodney) instead of hitting. Maybe there's a fit in New York with the Mets, but they've already added two outfielders in Chris Young and Curtis Granderson.
Seattle, on the other hand, still makes sense. Cruz could fit in left or right field, and he would give the Mariners the right-handed power they didn't have in 2013 (.130 ISO from RHBs). Corey Hart is a new guy in town, but he's no sure thing after having two knee surgeries in 2013.
The Mariners should be in no rush to match the $75 million price tag Jon Heyman says Cruz has placed on himself. Since his market is lacking in obvious suitors, the Mariners might be able to wait him out to the beginning of spring training and sign him to something much more reasonable.
Prediction: Signs with Mariners for four years and $52 million
Stephen Drew: Boston Red Sox
For a guy who had a higher fWAR than all but seven other shortstops in 2013, the market for Stephen Drew has been surprisingly quiet.
It doesn't help that the Cardinals filled their shortstop need by signing Jhonny Peralta. The Mets still need a shortstop, but Ken Rosenthal says they feel that landing Drew would require them to overpay him.
So, what once seemed like a long shot now almost feels like a foregone conclusion: Drew returning to the Red Sox.
Red Sox manager John Farrell recently told WEEI.com that "both sides would like to see" Drew talks come together, and there's still a place for him on the left side of the club's infield. Signing him would allow Xander Bogaerts to play third base and would turn Will Middlebrooks into tradeable depth.
Drew is probably looking for a four-year deal after Jhonny Peralta was able to get one. The Red Sox have shown a preference for three-year deals, though, and it's not hard to imagine them luring back Drew on one of those with a good AAV and an option for a fourth year.
Prediction: Signs with Red Sox for three years and $42 million with a club option for a fourth year
Matt Garza: Los Angeles Angels
There are days when Matt Garza looks like an ace, but the best fit for him is in the middle of a solid rotation rather than at the top of a mediocre-to-bad rotation.
To this end, the Angels seem like the perfect match.
Garza has been linked to the Angels on more than one occasion, with Joel Sherman going so far as to say that they and the Diamondbacks are the two favorites to land the right-hander.
The trouble with the Arizona fit is twofold. The D-Backs rotation needs depth more than it needs talent. Also, Arizona already has over $82 million committed for 2014, putting it pretty close to its 2013 Opening Day payroll before arbitration expenditures.
There's still some distance between the Angels and the luxury tax threshold with $134.5 million committed for 2014. And with Garza, they don't have to worry about giving up a draft pick. He was barred from a qualifying offer when he was traded at the deadline.
It'll cost the Angels to land Garza, but he's the guy their rotation needs behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to contend for the 2014 AL West title.
Prediction: Signs with Angels for four years and $68 million
Ubaldo Jimenez: Chicago Cubs
More so than with Matt Garza and Ervin Santana, you get the sense that Ubaldo Jimenez's fate hinges on what happens with Masahiro Tanaka.
Teams in on Tanaka will be looking for a young pitcher with ace upside. Jimenez is nowhere close to being on Tanaka's level, but he occupies that same sort of niche.
He's younger than Garza and Santana, for one. For two, Jimenez teased ace upside very recently with his remarkable run in the second half of 2013, as he posted a 1.82 ERA with a 3.7 K/BB in 13 starts.
If there are any clubs out there that view Jimenez as a fallback option for Tanaka, his strong second half makes for a solid bit of promise worth investing in. One team that could take the leap is the Cubs.
It's Tanaka that Chicago wants. So much so that David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com says that the Cubs won't let themselves be outbid for the Japanese right-hander. The catch, however, is that it could be hard for them to convince Tanaka to climb aboard a train that's still being constructed.
If Tanaka spurns the Cubs, they could look to invest some of the money they had set aside for Tanaka into another pitcher. Jimenez could catch their eye, as he's young, talented and affordable enough (given his iffy track record) to fit into their long-term goals.
Prediction: Signs with Cubs for four years and $64 million
Ervin Santana: Detroit Tigers
Ken Rosenthal raised some eyebrows when he reported in early November that Ervin Santana is looking for over $100 million. That's a lot of money for a pitcher who looked broken as recently as 2012.
No doubt Santana's desire for that much money is genuine. Him asking for it, however, could just be a way of communicating that something like $75 or $80 million over five years would do the trick just fine.
And at that price, I can see one of Santana's more curious suitors taking the bait: the Tigers.
Darren Wolfson of 1500ESPN.com linked the Tigers to Santana earlier in December. It's an odd fit given that the Tigers already have Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez signed to big-money contracts and Max Scherzer due for one of his own, but the latter's status could be what's driving Detroit's interest.
Scherzer is just a year away from free agency, and it's no wonder that he hasn't been in a rush to sign an extension this winter. He's coming off a Cy Young-winning season, and he stands to be the top pitcher on the market next year if the Dodgers give Clayton Kershaw an overdue extension.
Maybe what the Tigers are thinking is that they'd rather have Santana for $15 million per year than Scherzer at $25-plus million per year. That would make it easier for them to extend Miguel Cabrera when his time comes, and they also have to worry about Austin Jackson and Rick Porcello getting expensive.
Short version: As crazy as it sounds, it could happen.
Prediction: Signs with Tigers for five years and $80 million
Masahiro Tanaka: New York Yankees
It's official. After a fair amount of bad noise, Masahiro Tanaka is coming to MLB after all.
The Dodgers would seem to be the favorites to land the 25-year-old right-hander. Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times (and plenty of others) has noted the club's interest in Tanaka, and you just get the sense that the Dodgers have been a bit too quiet this winter.
My horse, however, is the Yankees.
It's been noted that the new posting system hurts the Yankees, as the $20 million maximum bid will require them to put more money into Tanaka's contract if they want to land him. That means more money that will count against the luxury tax.
However, we noted earlier that the Yankees are already looking at being over the luxury tax in 2014. And while they'd still have a shot at being under if an A-Rod suspension complements a deal for Balfour, they'd also still have a potentially crippling weakness on their hands.
Hiroki Kuroda is really the only top-of-the-rotation pitcher the Yankees have. CC Sabathia started his inevitable decline in 2013, and there's a limit to how much Ivan Nova can be trusted. Going all-in on Tanaka would allow the Yankees to patch things up nicely and could easily be worth their while in the end.
If it comes to a bidding war between the Dodgers and Yankees, the Dodgers would surely be the first to back out. With Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dan Haren lined up, they can afford not to land Tanaka.
Prediction: Signs with Yankees for six years and $114 million (plus $20 million posting fee)