MLB Free Agency: Previewing the Top 25 Players Who May Be Available Next Year

Anthony LifrieriContributor IFebruary 7, 2011

MLB Free Agency: Previewing the Top 25 Players Who May Be Available Next Year

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    Now that the 2011 offseason is over, we can now look ahead to the 2012 offseason. 

    Several free agents are sure to change the landscape of baseball, and unlike the offseason that just ended, the 2012 free-agent class is far better from top to bottom.

    Here is a list of the top 25 possible free agents.

25. Derrek Lee

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    This is an important year for Derrek Lee.  He can either produce in Baltimore or fade into obscurity. 

    Lee will be 36 on opening day in 2012, way up there in baseball years.  He can still hit and play decent defense, but it seems a matter of time before he is finished.

    If Lee were to have a bounce-back year, he could still find a place in Baltimore, or on another team that needs a first baseman or DH.

24. Johnny Damon

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    Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez are reunited on the Rays and in the AL East.  Damon is a savvy veteran, and a clubhouse leader on multiple World Series Teams.

    Damon can still hit, and is not a complete horror show in the outfield.  He is expected to put up similar numbers to Carl Crawford, and that may not be such an over-projection. 

    Sure he won't steal nearly as many bases as Crawford, or play great defense, but he will still hit for a good average, with some power, while stealing a few bases.  He will essentially be the poor-man's Carl Crawford.

    Damon's skill set will not erode over the course of 2011, and he will probably catch on with someone late in the offseason process of 2012.

23. Manny Ramirez

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    Love him or hate him, Manny Ramirez can still rake.  He also is a person who needs to play, and he will continue to do so for as long as he can.  

    Manny may be a pain in certain locker rooms, but perhaps he is mature enough in the twilight of his career to be a positive influence on younger hitters, like the good people at MLB Network believe he will be.

22. Vladimir Guerrero

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    Guerrero enjoyed a renaissance in 2010, and was rewarded with an $8 million deal by the Orioles. 

    Vlad should rake in Baltimore, and as a result should continue his storybook comeback from 2010.

    While essentially a DH, Vlad can still provide a rare mix of high average and power to any team’s lineup.  This will make him highly sought after and the best DH on the market.

21. Ryan Ludwick

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    Ludwick is an interesting player. 

    He will be 33 in 2012, and at the crossroads of his career.  He needs to prove he can still produce at the level of his St. Louis years to warrant a sizable contract.

    If Ludwick can play to the best of his abilities, he could get a two- or three-year deal. If not, expect him to take a one-year deal from another small market club like San Diego or Kansas City.

20. JJ Hardy

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    Few shortstops have the raw power JJ Hardy possesses.  If he can have one of his better years, it could set him up in a bidding war once Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are off the board.

    Hardy will be 29 next season, and at the top of his career. 

    The Orioles have the money to re-sign him if he pans out.  If not, look for Hardy to sign with the Brewers, Twins or any other mid-market team.

19. Jonathan Papelbon

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    Far and away the most OVERRATED closer in baseball, Jonathan Papelbon has been incredibly shaky over the last three seasons. 

    Pappy was the source of trade rumors over the last year, and may walk from Boston after this year.

    If Papelbon doesn’t pull it together in 2011, he will have to go to a lower market club to close, or another big-market club like the Yankees as a setup man.

18. CJ Wilson

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    CJ Wilson really improved his stock over the last couple of seasons, and another one could make him the most sought-after pitcher in a weak market next offseason.  

    Wilson will be 31 next year and could benefit from playing in less of an extreme-hitters park like the Ballpark at Arlington. 

    A lot of teams will go after Wilson, but the Rangers are probably favorites to extend him.

17. Jonathan Broxton

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    Broxton was once one of the elite closers in the game but had a horrible 2010, when he got into manager Joe Torre’s doghouse.

    If Broxton gets in incoming manager Don Mattingly’s doghouse, Broxton could fade into obscurity.  If he rebounds, he will be one of the most sought after relievers on the market next year.

    Broxton is young and has great stuff.  Every team will be in on him next year to either close or be the primary setup man.

16. Jose Bautista

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    Jose Bautista won the 2010 Roy Hobbs award for coming out of nowhere to become one of the game’s premier power hitters.  Bautista belted 54 home runs last year, and hit a below-average but respectable .260.

    If he can put up another 50-plus home-run season, Bautista could find himself one of the most coveted free agents around.  He can play multiple positions decently, and can provide a middle-of-the-order bat to just about any team.

    However, if he has a down year, he could just take a large contract from a mid-market team willing to gamble he is not a one-year wonder.

15. Jimmy Rollins

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    Jimmy Rollins will be 33 in 2012, and the aging shortstop could find himself on a new team in 2011. 

    Rollins’ production has been down over the last few years, and he has been unable to stay healthy over the course of a season.

    There will be a market for Rollins, but it remains to be seen how many years or how much money he will get. 

    I expect the Phillies to retain him, but only because he’s meant so much to the franchise over the last decade, a la Derek Jeter.

14. Nick Swisher

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    The Yankees should pick up the $10.25 million option on Swisher’s contract for 2012. 

    However, if Swisher’s postseason woes continue, the Yankees might be inclined to exorcise Swisher’s $1 million buy-out clause.

    If the Yankees are even fortunate enough to make the postseason, Swisher MUST produce.  He’s proven he is reliable in the regular season, but all that matters to the Yankees is the playoffs. 

    If Swisher were set free, look for the Red Sox, A’s or any other money-ball team to go after him.

13. Edwin Jackson

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    Edwin Jackson is probably the best pitcher that will absolutely be a free agent in 2012.  He’s young (28 in 2012) and could gain a ton of money if he plays to his 2009 form.

    If Jackson has a great year, all 30 teams will take a run at him, and he could position himself for a five-year deal from the Yankees, Mets or other teams that need pitchers. 

    If he has another down year, Jackson will become a reclamation project for a mid-market team.

12. Carlos Beltran

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    Carlos Beltran is another player who can benefit from the walk-year spike.  His last couple of seasons were hampered by injuries, and he now looks like a shell of the player that dominated in the 2004 post season.

    Beltran is only 33 and could still work his way into a three- or four-year deal if he manages to hit 30-plus home runs. 

    Lots of teams could use corner outfielders, and if Beltran is healthy, they could do a lot worse than him.

11. Jose Reyes

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    No player in baseball has more to gain or lose this season than Jose Reyes. 

    This is his walk year, and he needs to prove the critics wrong and show he still has the elite talent level he played at in the middle of the past decade.

    If Reyes can return to his prime numbers, he could become a hot commodity, as several teams will be in the hunt for a new shortstop. 

    If he plays at the lower level he’s become accustomed to, then he will fade into obscurity in 2012.

10. Roy Oswalt

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    There’s a good chance the Phillies won’t pick up Roy Oswald’s $16 million option for 2012. 

    They already have a ton of money committed to Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, leaving the Phillies to make a choice between Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels and Oswalt.  

    While the Phillies could keep all three players, it just seems unlikely.  Oswalt would command a high demand on the market, and is undoubtedly the third- or fourth-best possible free agent starting pitcher on the market. 

    Look for the Yankees and Mets to take a serious look at Oswalt once he is set free.

9. Yadier Molina

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    The Cardinals will probably pick up Molina's 2012 option.  Few catches are the complete package as he is, and will only be 29 in 2012.  

    Still, the option is $7 million, and if the Cards have to devote their entire budget to Albert Pujols, Molina may be set loose on hopes he could be brought back at a lower price. 

    If Molina were to hit the open market, he would command $10 million per year for at least three years.

8. Rickie Weeks

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    Rickie Weeks is one of the two big-Brewers that will be free agent in 2012.  He will be 29 on opening day in 2012, and enjoying what should be the apex of his production.

    The Brew-Crew are favorites to re-sign Rickie, but other teams could get involved. 

    After all, Weeks is one of the best second baseman in the majors, and his rare power-speed combo make him an asset on any team. 

    If Weeks hit’s the open market, this could be the biggest bidding war of the offseason.

7. Grady Sizemore

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    The baseball world would be shocked if the Indians don’t pick up Sizemore’s $8.5 million option for 2012. 

    Still, if Sizemore has another injury-plagued season—or becomes a malcontent—it is possible the Indians decline the option.  

    If Sizemore were to become available, he would be a four-tool player who would be highly sought after if he were healthy. 

    If he is injured again, his stock would be lower, but the big-market teams would still take a run at him.

6. Heath Bell

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    Heath Bell is undoubtedly the best free-agent closer of 2012. 

    He remains one of the best closers in baseball, and if he were to hit the market, Bell could command the largest deal for a reliever in baseball history.

    Expect the Red Sox, Orioles and any big-market team to go after Bell with a vengeance.

5. Adrian Gonzalez

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    Although the Red Sox traded for Adrian Gonzalez, he is not under contract for 2012. 

    If Gonzalez doesn’t sign an extension with Boston, or he does not like playing in the AL East, he would be one of the game’s most enticing free agents.

    Gonzalez is one of the game’s best players, and could help just about any team with his bat and defense.  He will most certainly command a $100 million-plus contract.

4. Prince Fielder

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    Of all the free agents on this list, Prince Fielder is the highest ranked that is likely to change teams. 

    Fielder has stated for the past few years he wants to test the waters of free agency, and will be only 27 on opening day 2012. 

    This puts Fielder right in his prime—and at the height of his demand.

    The Brewers are really in control of their own destiny with Fielder right now.  They loaded up the team for one massive run at a title, and if the Brewers managed to win the Pennant or World Series, could prove to Prince they are committed to winning, and therefore, likely to retain his services.

3. Chris Carpenter

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    No pitcher in baseball has enjoyed a renaissance like Chris Carpenter over the last two seasons.  He was Comeback Player of the Year in 2009, and pitched just as well in 2010.  

    Carpenter has a $15 million option for 2012, which may not be picked up if Albert Pujols commands too much of the Cards’ budget for 2012. 

    IF Carpenter becomes a free agent, he would be the best pitcher on the market unless…

2. CC Sabathia

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    Sabathia’s situation is probably the most interesting of any potential free agent if he has another Cy Young-caliber year. 

    Sabathia’s contract allows him to become a free agent, and leave four years and $92 million on the table after the 2011 season.

    If Sabathia feels he could command more money on the open market, he could be tempted to opt out. 

    The starting pitching class of the free agent market is especially thin in 2012 if all the other pitchers' options are picked up, and the Yankees and other big-market teams would have little choice but to give him more money.

    Hey, it worked for A-Rod, AJ Burnett and JD Drew, so why not for Sabathia?

1. Albert Pujols

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    It is very unlikely the Cardinals and Albert Pujols don’t reach an agreement on a long extension at some point during the 2011 season. 

    However, if talks break down, or Pujols refuses to negotiate in-season, then he will become by far the most coveted free agent of the last decade.

    Pujols is the best player in the game, and all 30 teams would be interested in his services.  He’ll be 32 on opening day in 2012, and should get a deal upwards of 10 years and $300 million without breaking a sweat.