2012 MLB Free Agency: Ranking the 25 Best Players Who Will Be Available
This coming offseason has plenty of big-name free agents that will keep us following baseball news throughout the winter.
Though many of the top players may wind up back with their same team, there will be plenty of players changing uniforms and shifting the balance of power around both the American and National Leagues.
There will be plenty of analysis over the coming month and beyond as to where these players may wind up, who is the best available at each position, etc.
For now, here is my list of the top 25 players that will be available this coming winter.
May Be Available: Jose Valverde
The Detroit Tigers hold a $9 million club option for 2012 on Jose Valverde which they are likely to exercise.
Valverde is 2-4 with a 2.49 ERA this season and he has finished 64 games while saving a league-high 42 games.
It seems incredibly unlikely that the Tigers would buy out his contract and allow him to become a free agent, but technically the possibility does exist and he would be one of the top of free agents if he were allowed to test the market.
May Be Available: Brandon Phillips
The Cincinnati Reds hold a $12 million club option with a $1 million buyout on Brandon Phillips for 2012.
Phillips was an All-Star this season and has put together a very productive season. He is currently batting .298 and has 47 extra-base hits while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
A price of $12 million is a lot to pay for a second baseman, but it seems more likely that the Reds would choose to exercise his option than buy him out and allow him to enter free agency.
May Be Available: Grady Sizemore
Grady Sizemore is another player whose club holds a team option on him for 2012. Sizemore's option is worth $8.5 million with a $500,000 buyout.
In Sizemore's case, the Indians are actually pretty likely to choose the buyout and allow him to enter free agency.
Were it not for injuries the option would have seemed like a bargain. Instead, Sizemore has been limited to just 33 games in 2010 and 63 so far this season.
If he is allowed to enter free agency, he will still be one of the top available free agents based on his capabilities if he can remain healthy over the next couple seasons.
May Be Available: Roy Oswalt
The Phillies and Roy Oswalt have a mutual $16 million option for next season with a $2 million buyout if the Phillies choose to let Oswalt go.
Oswalt had an excellent 2010 season when he posted a 2.76 ERA (1.74 ERA after being traded to Philadelphia) and finished sixth in Cy Young voting.
This season he has been less impressive with a 7-8 record and a 3.72 ERA.
He wouldn't command a $16 million contract in free agency, which is one of the reasons the Phillies could choose to buy him out and save some money.
25) Coco Crisp
At 32 years old next season, Coco Crisp is still a very attractive option at the leadoff position and in center field.
So far this season for the Oakland A's, Crisp is batting .270 with 25 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 40 stolen bases. He certainly is still a disruptive force on the basepaths and also has been excellent defensively in the outfield, posting a .997 fielding percentage.
He should still be able to earn a two-year deal in free agency worth around $10-12 million in total value.
24) Josh Willingham
Josh Willingham will be one of the top right-handed bats available this offseason.
He is approaching his career high in homers. He currently has 23 and his career best is 26. He's also only seven RBI shy of his career-best mark as well.
He has battled some injuries the past few seasons, but has still looked pretty good in the outfield when healthy enough to play defense.
He'll be most valuable to an American League club where he can spend time as a designated hitter, but he'd still be valuable to a National League club on a shorter-term deal.
Regardless of the league, I'd wager a guess of a two- to three-year maximum deal.
23) Michael Cuddyer
At 33 years old next year on Opening Day, Cuddyer may have a few less productive years ahead of him than Josh Willingham, but he has proven to have a healthier track record throughout his career.
Cuddyer should be able to cash in on his ability to stay on the field and produce fairly consistent batting statistics annually.
This year he has a .282 batting average with 18 homers and 64 RBI.
If he's willing to take a pay cut from his $10.5 million contract in 2011, he will probably remain in Minnesota in 2012.
Either way, I'd say he lands a longer contract and better payday than Willingham.
22) Matt Capps
Matt Capps is having a mediocre season this year. Although he has appeared in 63 games and saved 15, he has just a 4.11 ERA.
He's just 28 years old though, and will be in demand this offseason as teams hope he can revert back to his 2007 form when he put together a 2.28 ERA or 2010 when he pitched his way to a 2.47 ERA.
His blown saves this year may have him set up to sign a deal as a setup man this winter.
21) Jonathan Broxton
Jonathan Broxton's injury could not have come at a worse time for him as he prepared for free agency and a new contract for the first time in his career.
Broxton had 36 saves in 2009 and 22 saves last season. His K/9 ratio had never been below 10.5 before this season.
He's only pitched in 14 games all season.
The bone-spur injury in his pitching elbow may have made it necessary for him to sign a one-year contract and rebuild his value next season before re-entering free agency again and seeking a bigger payday.
20) Hisashi Iwakuma
After turning down Oakland's offer last offseason, Hisashi Iwakuma will enter this offseason free to sign with any MLB team he chooses.
Iwakuma could be one of the top starting pitching options available this offseason, but the shoulder injury he suffered earlier this season may cost him the salary he was anticipating when he chose to stay in Japan for an extra season.
He had a good season for Rakuten, going 10-9 with a 2.82 ERA, but he is on the wrong side of 30 and concerns over repeat injuries to his shoulder could arise.
19) Jason Kubel
Jason Kubel is a little bit of an interesting free agent to watch this season.
He's hitting for better average than he did last season (.280 this year, .249 last season) but his power had dipped slightly (taking into consideration that he has played significantly fewer games this year). He averaged a home run every 24.7 at-bats in 2010 and one every 29.4 at-bats this season.
He's still a good option for a three-year contract though at just 29 years old.
18) Erik Bedard
Despite missing most of 2009 and all of 2010, Erik Bedard has rebuilt his value and looked good this season.
He has put together just a 5-9 record split between Seattle and Boston, but his ERA is a very respectable 3.50.
Bedard is a little bit of a risky signing due to his past health problems, but he should still command a three-year contract this offseason. He'll be 33 years old on Opening Day next season.
17) Francisco Rodriguez
When the Brewers acquired Francisco Rodriguez, the first thing they did was restructure his contract with K-Rod's agent, Scott Boras. The new contract made his $17.5 million vesting option a mutual option with a $3.5 million buyout.
As good as K-Rod has been throughout his career, it is hard to imagine the Brewers exercising his option and paying him $17.5 million, especially when he has not saved a single game since they acquired him from the Mets, serving as primarily a setup man.
He's got a lot more saves left that in arm; I just highly doubt they will come pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers.
16) Ryan Madson
Ryan Madson has been a solid closer for Philadelphia this season, closing 28 games for the first-place Phillies.
With the versatility to pitch either in a setup role or as a closer, Madson figures to be able to cash in on a three- to four-year deal this offseason, taking him into his age-35 season.
15) Hiroki Kuroda
Despite being the owner of an 11-15 record, Hiroki Kuroda has pitched well this year, posting a 3.18 ERA for the Dodgers.
He chose to stay in LA on a one-year deal last winter for $12 million.
Unless he chooses to stay with the Dodgers again this offseason, he should command at least a two-year deal worth around $20-24 million.
14) Aramis Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez has shown consistent production this season, batting .306 with 24 homers and 87 RBI. His OPS has jumped from .745 in 2010 back up to .868 this season.
Despite his good season, though, the Cubs will still decline his $16 million club option and buy him out for $2 million.
The lack of other third base options on the free-agent market this offseason will certainly help him take advantage of the market and score a new deal, but it will likely be at a pay cut from his current $14.6 million salary.
13) Lance Berkman
Lance Berkman made his decision to spurn the Oakland Athletics' offseason multi-year contract offer in favor of a one-year make-good deal with the Cardinals look genius with his play this season.
He has posted a .285 batting average with 30 homers, his most since 2007 when he hit 34 for the Astros.
Despite being 36 when the season begins next season, Berkman should still find a two-year deal this offseason at an annual raise from his current $8 million contract.
12) Carlos Beltran
Carlos Beltran has rebuilt his value this season, posting a .298 batting average with 17 homers and 76 RBI split between the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants.
This is the best Beltran has played since 2008 when he hit 27 homers while batting .284 for the Mets.
He has proven that the knee problems are behind him and he is still capable of playing the outfield.
He'll be 36 next season, but a two-year contract in the $20-24 million range is not out of the question for the Scott Boras client.
11) Mark Buehrle
Mark Buehrle, who will turn 33 before next season starts, has posted an 11-7 record with a 3.34 ERA this season for the Chicago White Sox.
He had a vesting option for $15 million for 2012 if he had been traded, but since he remains on the White Sox, he will hit the open market this offseason.
Buerhle stated in a Chicago Tribune interview two years ago that he does not intend to pitch into his late 30's, so this could be his last contract. I'd expect him to try to cash in on one last big payday before he calls it a career.
10) David Ortiz
David Ortiz has managed to make the Red Sox' decision not to offer him a long-term deal last offseason a bad choice.
He has been on fire this season, batting .319 with 29 homers and 92 RBI.
He is in a position to squeeze a multi-year deal out of Boston this offseason despite being 36 when next season begins.
I just can't envision Ortiz playing anywhere else but Boston, but he will certainly listen to other options and weigh his options to leverage the deal he wants from the Red Sox.
9) Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson's 11-9 record, and more importantly, his 3.78 ERA, are likely to earn the righty a long-term contract this offseason.
Jackson has plenty of potential and upside, having thrown a no-hitter for Arizona and been dominant in stretches throughout his career.
He has improved this season since being traded to St. Louis, posting a 3.44 ERA in eight games started (compared to 3.92 ERA in 19 starts for the Chicago White Sox).
8) Heath Bell
Heath Bell has been one of the best closers in all of baseball the past three seasons, and should cash in on that accomplishment this offseason.
I personally found it a bit curious that the Padres did not choose to deal him at the trade deadline, suggesting (at least in my mind) that they expect Bell to re-sign with them this offseason.
He posted 42 saves in 2009, 47 in 2010 and 36 saves so far this year.
Although another reliever remains on this list, Bell is probably the best value at closer available for the production you can expect.
7) Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins is another player similar to David Ortiz in my mind. Not in terms of production or future contract status, but in that I can't imagine him playing in another uniform other than the Phillies'.
Rollins is still productive, batting .268 with 14 homers, 22 doubles and 28 stolen bases. He is a plus-defender at shortstop as well.
If he chooses to look outside of Philadelphia he could become an excellent consolation prize for any teams that loses out on their pursuit of Jose Reyes this offseason.
Rollins will be 33 years old next season but should still command a four-year contract this offseason.
6) Jonathan Papelbon
Jonathan Papelbon will wind up being the highest-paid closer this offseason wherever he ends up.
Papelbon is 4-0 this season with 29 saves and a 2.75 ERA. For his career he is 23-18 with 217 saves and a 2.29 ERA.
He's in line for a raise over his $12 million contract this season, although it seems unlikely that he will re-sign with Boston.
Papelbon should earn a four-year contract at around $15-16 million per year.
5) C.J. Wilson
C.J. Wilson is set to cash in on his 15-6 season and 3.13 ERA so far this season.
Wilson is certainly a top-of-the-rotation lefty. He also went 15-8 with a 3.35 ERA in 2010, his first season as a starter after five seasons in the Rangers bullpen.
He should draw interest and offers from plenty of teams this offseason as the market is always favorable for top left-handed starters.
Is a five-year contract out of the question for a 31-year-old (age on Opening Day 2012) starter? I'd guess not, but I expect the Rangers to overpay to keep him.
4) Jose Reyes
Jose Reyes is hands down the best shortstop on the market this season.
He has been worth every penny of the five-year $33.75 million contract that ends this season.
His .335 average this year is a National League-best and he has also added a league-best 16 triples and 28 stolen bases.
Reyes will sign a deal worth more in total value than Jayson Werth signed (seven years, $126 million), and likely will approach or exceed the contract Carl Crawford signed (seven years, $142 million).
Seven years looks like the standard; the real question is how much above the $20 million-per-year average does he earn and from whom?
3) C.C. Sabathia
I realize I could have included C.C. Sabathia in the "may be available" slides at the beginning, but does anyone actually realistically believe he is going to pass the opportunity to opt out of his current contract and cash in a few additional seasons?
Sabathia has been spectacular since joining the Yankees in 2009, posting a 19-8 record in 2009, 21-7 record in 2010 and a 19-7 record so far this season. He has a 2.97 ERA this season as well as 211 strikeouts.
Sabathia can opt out of his contract now while he is still in his prime and tack on a few years to the end that he may not be able to command down the road. It's a smart play for him, and it should result in a slight annual raise as well.
He will likely be able to tack on an additional two to three years at around a $25 million per season average. Not too bad for a guy that only plays every fifth day.
Of course by opting out, he technically will become available to all 30 teams, not that he'll actually leave New York though.
2) Prince Fielder
Prince Fielder expanded his market when he declared he would be willing to consider occupying the designated hitter role and playing for an American League team earlier this year.
He is the youngest free-agent impact hitter that will be available this winter and he has had a great contract year.
He is batting .293 with 31 homers and 108 RBI so far with games still remaining.
Fielder is going to command a $20-23 million annual salary; the real question is how long of a term given his weight and long-term concerns about it may affect his abilities in the field?
Six to eight years will likely be his goal. I'd expect to see him land at the lower end there around six years, possibly five. I have no doubt he will be productive throughout his contract though. He has not played in fewer than 157 games in any season he has played so far.
1) Albert Pujols
The prized jewel of the 2011 free-agency class, Albert Pujols has rebounded from his early season struggles and put together another strong season.
He is batting .295 (a career worst...most players would kill for that average) with 34 homers and 85 RBI. His OPS is also a career worst this season at .916. The fact that his career worsts would be career years for the overwhelming majority of major league players illustrates just how unique a talent Pujols truly is.
He will be 32 at the beginning of next season, but should still be an elite hitter for at least another five or six seasons, and a very good hitter even into his late 30s and early 40s if he chooses to play that long.
Pujols is a three-time MVP and four-time MVP runner-up. He's also a nine-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner.
He's the most marketable player in Major League Baseball and will be rewarded for his on- and off-field contributions in his next contract.
He may not earn the $300 million salary he was reportedly seeking prior to this season, but he should still wind up the highest-paid player in the game before next season begins.
My best guess has him signing for around $240 million for eight years ($30 million average salary).
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