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MLB Free Agents 2011: Albert Pujols and the Top 30 Stars Who Could Be Available

Doug MeadCorrespondent IApril 21, 2011

MLB Free Agents 2011: Albert Pujols and the Top 30 Stars Who Could Be Available

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    When St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood rejected a trade that would have sent him to the Philadelphia Phillies following the 1969 season, his actions opened the floodgates and started the era of free agency in baseball.

    Previous to 1975, the reserve clause in baseball stated that players were property of the teams that originally signed them, and they were subject to contract renewals with the same club without their authorization. When pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally finally demanded free agency in 1975 and won their cases through arbitration, the baseball landscape was changed forever.

    Now, some 36 years later, there will be dozens of free agents who will be vying for as much money as they can get, either with their own team or whatever team deems their services more valuable.

    So, just who are the free agents who will be available at the end of the 2011 season? While not necessarily a class loaded with superstars, there are stars at the top of the list who will absolutely command top dollar for their services, chief among them, Albert Pujols.

    There is always the possibility that many of the players on the current list could sign extensions with their teams before the end of the season. However, once the season ends, for many players it’s “may the best bidding offer win,” so to speak.

    We will take a look at the current list of top players in Major League Baseball who will be looking for big bucks at the end of the season.

    For continuing coverage of Major League Baseball, follow Doug on Twitter @Sports_A_Holic.

Honorable Mentions

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    J.J. Hardy, Shortstop: Signed to a one-year, $5.85 million contract by the Baltimore Orioles in December, J.J. Hardy will need to prove he can stay healthy and regain his power stroke in order to get any kind of a decent contract for next season. Hardy is currently on the 15-day DL for a strained oblique.

    Jimmy Rollins: The Philadelphia Phillies exercised their team option on Rollins for $8.5 million for the current season. Indications are that Rollins isn’t going anywhere.

    Jorge Posada: Ditto with Posada, now in the final year of his four-year, $52.4 million deal that pays him $13.1 million this season, he will absolutely retire as a Yankee.

30. Aaron Hill: Toronto Blue Jays

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    Aaron Hill is an interesting case in terms of free agency. Signed through this season, the Blue Jays held team options for the following three seasons. However, on April 1, the Blue Jays declined the options. They can still exercise options for the 2012-2013 seasons for $16 million, but have not indicated whether they will do that.

    Another option is a negotiation of a restructured deal. However, considering Hill’s subpar 2010 season and the fact he is to undergo an MRI on his tight right hamstring, there is no guarantee that Hill will be back in Toronto next season.

29. Yadier Molina: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Molina is in the final year of his four-year, $15.5 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards hold a team option for 2012 in the amount of $7 million.

    It may seem like a no-brainer to exercise the option, but does it depend on what the Cardinals do with Albert Pujols?

28. Joel Pineiro: Los Angeles Angels

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    Joel Pineiro, in the final year of his contract with the Los Angeles Angels that will pay him $8 million, has yet to make an appearance this season. Pinerio was placed on the 15-day disabled list on March 22 with right shoulder tightness, and was scheduled to throw three innings in extended spring training on Wednesday afternoon.

    Pineiro’s health will go a long way in determining his value beyond this season. Pineiro also missed two months of the 2010 season with an oblique strain.

27. Aaron Cook: Colorado Rockies

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    Starting pitcher Aaron Cook, due to make $9.25 million in his 10th season with the Colorado Rockies, has a mutual option in 2012 for $11 million, with a $500K buyout.

    Considering Cook’s horrible luck with injuries over the last year, that buyout option could become a real possibility. Last season, Cook missed the last month when he fractured his left lower leg on a line drive hit back through the box by Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds.

    This spring, Cook was experiencing shoulder tightness early in March, then broke his right pointer finger, landing him on the 60-day disabled list.

    Cook is due to come off the DL on May 21, and the remainder of the year may determine Cook’s fate with the Rockies.

26. Edwin Jackson: Chicago White Sox

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    Edwin Jackson will be another intriguing case in terms of free agency in 2012. Jackson, in the last year of his contract that will pay him $8.35 million, has been largely inconsistent in the past year and a half.

    However, in four starts this season, Jackson is 2-1 with a 3.75 ERA. With Mark Buehrle also facing free agency at the end of the season, and general manager Kenny Williams already fretting over this year’s payroll, Jackson will essentially be auditioning for the rest of the season.

25. Grady Sizemore: Cleveland Indians

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    Center fielder Grady Sizemore, who recently returned to the lineup after missing most of last season with a left knee injury, appears to be running loose and free, and is hitting .500 with a homer in his first three games back.

    Sizemore is signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012 for $8.5 million. The option escalates to $10.5 million if Sizemore wins a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger award, or if he makes the All-Star team. 

    However, depending on Sizemore’s continuing recovery and production, the Indians can also opt to buy out for $500K.

    At just 28-years-old, and being the face of the franchise, it would seem silly for Cleveland to part ways with Sizemore. But, one never knows…

24. Michael Cuddyer: Minnesota Twins

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    Michael Cuddyer is in the final year of his contract that will pay him $10.5 million. A member of the Minnesota Twins for his entire 11-year career, Cuddyer has been invaluable in terms of his versatility, leadership and popularity.

    However, how far does that value extend? With the Twins ponying up for Joe Mauer earlier this year, and Justin Morneau due to make $28 million over the next two seasons beyond 2011, will the Twins retain Cuddyer?

23. Raul Ibanez: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Left fielder Raul Ibanez is in the final year of his contract with the Phillies, due to make $11.5 million this year. By the time his contract is over, Ibanez will be 39-years-old.

    With declining power numbers last year, and the dollars committed to Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard, Ibanez's only hope with Philly is to take a vastly reduced deal or hit the market and take his chances.

22. Casey Blake: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Right now, anyone who has an expiring contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers is in limbo, especially with the news that MLB has taken over day-to-day operations of the club while owner Frank McCourt sorts through his debt/divorce debacle.

    Third baseman Casey Blake is signed through this season and is due to make $5.25 million. The Dodgers have an option in 2012 for $6 million along with a $1.25 million buyout. But at this point, anything is up in the air.

    Blake, who will be 38 in August, may definitely be looking at a buyout at this point.

21. Rafael Furcal: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Shortstop Rafael Furcal, currently on the disabled list with a broken left thumb, is likely to miss at least another 4-6 weeks and, with the option available on his contract, may be the out that the Dodgers will be looking for.

    Furcal is in the final year of his contract that pays him $12 million. However, if he reaches 600 plate appearances this season, his option for next season at $12 million will automatically kick in.

    Given the current Dodgers situation, it is unlikely Furcal will be back. Furcal had also indicated that he would consider retirement, but has since backed off slightly from that statement. In any event, Furcal will draw interest from several teams, but at a reduced price.

20. Derrek Lee: Baltimore Orioles

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    First baseman Derrek Lee, 35-years-old, signed a one-year, $7.25 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles during the offseason and is off to a slow start thus far, hitting .220 with one homer and two runs batted in over the first 16 games of the season.

    Lee signed a reduced contract to play for the Orioles and, with declining power numbers last season (19 HR, 80 RBI) Lee will need to show that his skills have not reached deterioration levels in order to either re-sign with the O’s or possibly another mid-market team.

19. Aramis Ramirez: Chicago Cubs

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    Ramirez, a longtime fixture at third base for the Cubs, is also coming off a down year, hitting 41 points below his career batting average. Ramirez is due $14.6 million this year, with a club option for $16 million next season.

    My guess is that the Cubs will exercise the $2 million buyout option, and Ramirez will be available. Any number of teams will be interested, including the St. Louis Cardinals, unless David Freese pays off the Cardinals’ patience in him.

18. Nick Swisher: New York Yankees

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    Nick Swisher has become a valuable part of the New York Yankees offense, hitting .288 with 29 home runs and 89 runs batted in last season, similar numbers to 2009 but with a higher batting average.

    This season, Swisher is hitting .269 thus far with no homers and eight runs batted in after 15 games, and he is due $9 million, with a club option for $10.25 million next season.

    Considering other right field options, it’s highly unlikely that Swisher won’t be back with the Yankees next season.

17. Jason Kubel: Minnesota Twins

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    The two players who play right field for the Twins, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, are both free agents at the end of this season. It’s unlikely the Twins will sign both, and no guarantee that they’ll sign either.

    Like Cuddyer, Kubel has played his entire career in Minnesota and, if push comes to shove, Kubel would be the cheaper option for the Twins. Kubel is due $5.25 million this season.

    If general manager Bill Smith opts to not sign either player, Kubel will get plenty of looks, especially in the American League with his value at right field and designated hitter.

16. Jose Valverde: Detroit Tigers

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    In January 2010, closer Jose Valverde signed a two-year, $14 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, with a club option in 2012 for $9 million.

    While Valverde wasn’t lights-out last season for the Tigers, he did save 26 games and posted a 3.00 ERA. So far this season, in seven appearances, Valverde has yet to give up a run, allowing just three hits in 6.2 innings.

    Unless Valverde completely blows up this year, I would be shocked if the Tigers declined his option for next season.

15. Matt Capps: Minnesota Twins

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    Matt Capps is certainly in a unique situation with the Minnesota Twins. Traded by the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline last season to help the Twins in the 2010 race for the American League Central title and beyond, Capps shined in the closer's role, contributing 16 saves with a 2.00 ERA.

    This season, Capps was relegated to the setup with the return of Joe Nathan from Tommy John surgery. However, Capps was handed the closer's role once again after Nathan blew two straight saves over the weekend. Nathan will take the time to rebuild his arm strength, while Capps will continue to be featured as the closer.

    If Nathan proves unable to come all the way back from his elbow issues, it’s likely that Capps will be retained by the Twins next season.

14. Jonathan Broxton: Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Last year, closer Jonathan Broxton was a tale of two seasons. Lights out the first half, miserable the second half.

    This season, Broxton appears to be leaning toward the second half of last season, with a 6.14 ERA and five saves. While Broxton hasn’t blown any saves, he hasn’t exactly exuded confidence, either.

    Don Mattingly begs to differ, however, telling MLB.com, "To me, he's getting better. I want him to be finishing games. I like to see more of a 'hit-this' type attitude. His velocity is better and he seems more confident in himself. I know he's giving up runs, but I like the way he's throwing. I like him. It looks to me like he's gaining confidence."

    Broxton is due to make $7 million this season. He won’t be making $7 million with the Dodgers next season with a 6.14 ERA, that’s for sure.

13. Heath Bell: San Diego Padres

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    It’s hard to see Heath Bell in a Padres uniform next season—not while they continue to carry the second or third lowest payroll in the majors.

    Bell has been money at the closer position, notching 89 saves in the last two seasons and starting off this season with five saves and a 1.12 ERA.

    Bell will be paid $7.5 million this season, and he will command much more if he continues his lights-out approach. There will no doubt be several teams vying for Bell’s services.

12. Mark Buehrle: Chicago White Sox

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    Mark Buehrle has spent his entire 12-year career with the Chicago White Sox, compiling a 149-111 record with a 3.85 ERA. Buehrle is due $14 million this season, with a vesting option of $15 million for 2012 if he is traded.

    Late in March, just before starting the opener, Buehrle addressed his contract with ESPNChicago.

    “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It is kind of weird because this is where I’ve been my whole career and you kind of know each year you’re coming back. Obviously it has to come to an end whether it’s this year or five years down the road. It’s kind of weird.”

    It will be weird for White Sox fans as well to see him in another jersey. However, there is no doubt that Buehrle will find suitors on the open market, including the Angels and Rangers.

11. Jonathan Papelbon: Boston Red Sox

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    An All-Star four years in a row, Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon went through a rough 2010 season, with an ERA of 3.90, well above his career ERA of 2.21, and eight blown saves. Papelbon clearly needed a rebound year in 2010, and was in fact the subject of trade rumors during the offseason as well.

    With a current salary of $12 million, most assume that Papelbon’s days in Boston will be over after the 2011 season, if not sooner. With Bobby Jenks brought in from the Chicago White Sox, and setup man Daniel Bard waiting in the wings, the Sox clearly have options.

    Papelbon will get looks from other teams, especially if he does in fact rebound from last year’s numbers.

10. Chris Carpenter: St. Louis Cardinals

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    After a career that started in Toronto with high hopes, St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Chris Carpenter has endured quite a bit over his 14-year career.

    Carpenter was wildly inconsistent during his six seasons in Toronto, and the potential was never achieved. In 2003, Carpenter sat out the entire season after signing a contract with the Cardinals due to a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.

    After three effective seasons, including winning a Cy Young award in 2005, Carpenter once again went on the shelf, this time with a torn ulnar collateral ligament requiring Tommy John surgery.

    Carpenter once again returned, and has regained his effectiveness, winning 33 games in the past two seasons. Now, with Adam Wainwright shelved for the season with the same Tommy John surgery, Carpenter is the ace.

    Carpenter is due $15 million this season, with a club option next season for $15 million. However, much like Yadier Molina, mentioned earlier on this list, will the upcoming Pujols salary negotiations affect what the Cardinals do with Carpenter? If so, plenty of teams will come calling.

9. C.J. Wilson: Texas Rangers

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    C.J. Wilson, now the current ace of the Texas Rangers pitching staff, will make $7.05 million in 2011. If he continues on his current path, there’s no reason to think the Rangers wouldn’t want him back.

    However, it could certainly become a bidding war for his services. Wilson could become the most sought-after pitcher of the offseason. After a 15-8 season with a 3.35 ERA, Wilson has started strong in 2011 as well, with a 2-0 record and 3.08 ERA.

    With Nolan Ryan at the helm, the Rangers value pitching more so than at any time during the history of the franchise while in Texas.

8. Robinson Cano: New York Yankees

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    Second baseman Robinson Cano has become one of the elite hitters in the American League. Signed for $10 million this season, the Yankees hold club options for the next two seasons. While many teams may drool over the possibility of Cano hitting free agency, the Yankees will no doubt not let that happen.

    Bank on Cano being in Gotham for years to come.

7. Roy Oswalt: Philadelphia Phillies

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    The number three starter for the Phillies, Roy Oswalt, is signed for $16 million this season, with the Houston Astros picking up approximately $7 million.

    Oswalt’s contract includes a $16 million mutual option for 2012 with a $2 million buyout. Unless Oswalt completely flops in 2011, I don’t see the Phillies not picking up the option, or Oswalt declining it either.

6. Carlos Beltran: New York Mets

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    To say that the New York Mets are a mess financially is akin to saying that Frank McCourt just needs a little financial help.

    Saddled with ridiculous contracts under the Omar Minaya era, the Mets are already throwing away money this year on players no longer on the roster (Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez) or for players who may be injured all year (Johan Santana).

    Carlos Beltran, in the final year of a seven-year, $119 million contract, will most assuredly be gone by the end of 2011, and there is probably nothing in the world that will stop that from happening.

    Beltran seems to be fully recovered from injuries that saw him appear in only 145 games in the past two seasons. A good showing this season will increase his chances of signing a decent deal somewhere else, but certainly nothing even close to his last contract. At 34-years-old and with balky knees, Beltran could wind up back in the American League as a designated hitter/part-time outfielder.

5. Jose Reyes: New York Mets

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    Just about everything previously said about Carlos Beltran applies here as well. Reyes also appears to be totally healthy and off to a nice start this season, one of the few bright spots for the New York Mets.

    Reyes is currently hitting .299 with one homer, six runs batted in and six stolen bases in the team’s first 17 games. Reyes is due $11 million this year and, unless the Wilpon family finds a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket, Reyes’ ticket out of New York is essentially punched.

    Take your pick of teams that will be bidding for his services.

4. Francisco Rodriguez: New York Mets

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    I wonder what the over/under is for K-Rod’s next explosion?

    Seriously, Rodriguez has gotten off to a decent start after injuries and domestic assault charges that got in his way last season. He is due $11.5 million this year, and his contract is guaranteed at $17.5 million next season if he finishes 55 games this season, a combined 100 games finished in 2010-2011, and if he is declared healthy at the end of the 2011 season. We assume that means physical health, of course.

    You think the Wilpons will be on the horn with manager Terry Collins at the end of the season to monitor K-Rod’s end of game appearances?

3. CC Sabathia: New York Yankees

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    The case of CC Sabathia may be the most intriguing of this entire list.

    Sabathia is signed with the New York Yankees until the end of the 2015 season, and is due to be paid $23 million this season. However, Sabathia has a clause that allows him to opt out of the contract after three years, which would be the end of this season.

    If he opts out, there would obviously be a massive bidding war for his services, including the Yankees. But, who else? The Red Sox, Phillies and Angels may be the only teams that can afford Sabathia aside from the Yankees, and the Phillies are already front-loaded with Lee, Halladay and Oswalt, if they pick up Oswalt’s option. That’s about $70 million per year for just three players, never mind their position players.

    The Dodgers and Mets are obviously out of the mix, considering their current financial issues. So the pool is small for Sabathia to pick from.

    I mean, honestly, how much more do you need?

2. Prince Fielder: Milwaukee Brewers

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    Ever since first baseman Prince Fielder burst onto the scene with the Milwaukee Brewers in late 2005, he has done nothing but impress. In five full seasons, Fielder has only missed 13 games and, last year, despite a somewhat down year, Fielder still managed a .401 on-base-percentage and led the National League in walks with 114.

    Fielder is already off to a fast start in 2011, leading the NL in runs batted in with 19, with a batting average of .368.

    Fielder will be paid $11 million this season, and will likely command somewhere north of $20 million next season and beyond. Whether or not the Brewers will be his final destination is anyone’s guess.

    However, the trio of Fielder, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks form the nucleus of a powerhouse offense for the Brewers, and no doubt no one in Milwaukee wants to see that broken up anytime soon.

1. Albert Pujols: St. Louis Cardinals

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    Was there really any question that Albert would be number one on this list?

    Many have speculated that Pujols will become the first $30 million man in baseball, and that could very well be up to his current team to make that happen. The Yankees are already locked in with Mark Teixeira at first, as is Philadelphia with Ryan Howard.

    As attractive as Pujols is on any team’s lineup, the fact remains that very few teams actually have the resources to compensate Pujols according to his worth.

    Pujols will remain a Cardinal. Plain and simple.

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