MLB's Top Free Agents, Trade Targets Still Available at Every Position
Now that the calendar reads January, we're closer to the start of 2014 spring training than we are to the final out of the 2013 World Series.
As such, a select few of baseball's top free agents are playing the waiting game as they look for work for the new season. Likewise, many well-known players are on the trading block following a winter rampant with rumors.
But there are still a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Arizona and Florida to make moves. The market might be thinning now, but there are some quality players available for the right price. Here's an updated look at the top free-agent or trade targets in baseball, broken down by position.
*All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.
C: John Buck
John Buck might not get on base enough, but he possesses rare power for a catcher in today's MLB landscape. The 33-year-old free agent spent most of 2013 with the New York Mets before wrapping up the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In 110 contests, he batted .222/.288/.365 with 15 homers and 62 RBI. Those power numbers are very similar to the figures put up by Jarrod Saltalamacchia in 2013 (.273/.338/.466, 14 homers, 65 RBI), which allowed him to sign a three-year, $21 million with the Miami Marlins.
But Buck is five years older than Saltalamacchia and doesn't have the same ability to hit for average, so he won't be in the same stratosphere as far as contract demands go. Still, Buck has shown power throughout his 10-year career and doesn't appear to be slowing down, making him the best catcher option at this point of the offseason.
1B: Kendrys Morales
Maybe Kendrys Morales is having second thoughts about the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer he rejected from the Seattle Mariners earlier this winter. With pitchers and catchers set to report in a few weeks, Morales is still looking for work, and his name hasn't popped up much in the MLB rumor mill.
Now that he comes with high draft-pick compensation attached, Morales will be hard-pressed to find a deal with the same average annual value, especially a multi-year contract. The Cuban remains a solid option in the middle of the lineup for any team but hasn't been the same dominant force he was since injuring his leg in a freak accident at home plate in 2010.
In the last full season before his injury, Morales batted .306/.355/.569 with 34 home runs and 108 RBI, making him one of the elite hitters in baseball. In the two seasons since making his recovery, Morales has a .275/.329/.457 slash line with yearly averages of 22 home runs and 76 RBI.
While the drop-off in production is notable, the 30-year-old Morales is still a force with the bat. It's just a matter of finding a team that is willing to meet his demands on the market, which might not happen any time soon.
2B: Brandon Phillips
There is no doubting that Brandon Phillips is one of baseball's best second basemen, but at what cost?Phillips' name was floated heavily at the start of the offseason as a big-name trade chip, but he hasn't been moved so far.
That doesn't mean the Cincinnati Reds aren't trying to unload him. They have reportedly had discussions with the New York Yankees about Brett Gardner (via ESPN New York) and Los Angeles Dodgers briefly about Matt Kemp (via the New York Post's Joel Sherman), with Phillips as the returning player in a trade package.
While Cincinnati has been rebuffed both times, it's clear that Phillips is still on the trading block. The biggest snag has been his contract, as he is owed $50 million over the next four seasons.
Phillips is an elite defensive second baseman and one of the game's best on offensive as well. In 2013, he batted .261/.310/.396 with 18 homers and 103 RBI, but it's a big risk to expect that he'll be able to keep up that production and live up to his contract at the age of 32.
3B: Michael Young
The third base position in free agency was one of the thinnest entering the offseason, and Michael Young remains the top option unsigned on the market.
Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies fans might laugh at the notion that he's still considered a third baseman, as his defense was poor in 2013 and turned him into one of baseball's least productive everyday players, using WAR as a metric.
At 37 years old, Young doesn't have much range in the infield, and he might be better served to play in the American League where he can spend some time at designated hitter.
As recently as 2011, Young led the AL in hits (213) while batting .338/.380/.474 with 11 home runs and 106 RBI. But his production has dipped considerably since then, as he posted a .279/.335/.395 slash line with eight homers and 46 RBI in 147 games in 2013.
Young is a proven MLB contributor who would bring a nice veteran presence to the clubhouse, but he might be better served as a platoon man at this point of his career.
SS: Stephen Drew
It's been more than a month since Jhonny Peralta inked his four-year, $53 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, and Stephen Drew is still looking for work.
Drew and Peralta entered the offseason as the top shortstop options available on the open market, but the reliable Peralta was able to secure a nice payday earlier than the oft-injured Drew. The shortstop is certainly talented with the glove and the bat but has missed 197 games combined the past three seasons.
According to Marc Carig of Newsday, the Mets have stayed in contact with Drew's agent, Scott Boras. New York seems like a logical landing spot for Drew, as Ruben Tejada and Omar Quintanilla struggled mightily at shortstop for the Mets in 2013.
Drew showed he still had plenty of pop in his bat this past season (.253/.333/.443 with 13 homers and 67 RBI) while making some slick plays with the glove. Still, he is a major injury concern going forward at 30 years old.
OF: Nelson Cruz
Like Kendrys Morales, Nelson Cruz might be having second thoughts about the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer he declined from the Texas Rangers earlier this offseason.
Cruz has undoubtedly been the top right-handed hitting power bat on the free-agent market all winter long, but his high contract demands, 50-game suspension due to his role in the Biogenesis scandal and attached draft-pick compensation make him an unattractive option for many teams.
Over the past five seasons in Arlington, Cruz has posted a .272/.331/.511 slash line with yearly averages of 27 homers and 81 RBI. That's the type of power that many teams covet, but the 33-year-old is also limited on defense and has a few factors working against him as he looks for work.
SP: David Price
Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price ended the 2013 season telling reporters he expected to be traded this winter, but it's the first week of January, and he still hasn't traded uniforms.
As Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times noted in December, the Rays don't appear to be in a hurry to deal Price, who is set to hit free agency following the 2015 season. Topkin speculates the Rays still haven't received an adequate return package while discussing possible deals for the 28-year-old former Cy Young winner.
In an offseason where the free-agent market includes unsigned players like Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka and others like Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, Price has the best track record of them all. Since becoming a major contributor in 2009, the talented southpaw has a 71-39 record, 3.21 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 8.1 K/9 ratio.
Tampa Bay is a low-budget operation, so it is clearly awaiting a quality trade package that features MLB-ready talent. Price will come at a high cost for any team, but he would provide a bona fide ace for years to come.
RP: Grant Balfour
The fiery Australian closer is still looking for a new team after negotiations with the Baltimore Orioles broke down at the last minute earlier this offseason.
According to CBS Sports' Matt Snyder, Balfour agreed to terms on a two-year, $15 million deal with the O's, but the club backed away at the last minute due to shoulder concerns. Some, including Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, argued that was a cop-out by a team that got cold feet.
While the circumstances regarding Balfour's shoulder are cloudy, he's undoubtedly the top closer option available as a free agent. Given his reasonable market value, Balfour is also a more attractive option than Philadelphia Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, who is on the trading block, per CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury.
Balfour has been a consistent and productive reliever since his breakout season with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 (51 games, 1.54 ERA), posting a 2.74 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 9.7 K/9 ratio in that span. For the past two years, Balfour has converted 62 of 67 saves for the Oakland Athletics, including a franchise-record streak of 44 straight.
The Orioles situation might have hurt his market value, but Balfour remains a valuable back-end bullpen option at 36 years old.