MLB Free Agency: The Best Free Agent at Each Position This Winter
Call it Albertageddon. Call it CCpocalypse. Call it having a Fielder Day. One way or another, with three (Jose Reyes says four) elite free agents headed for the open market this winter, there have been very few offseasons in recent vintage with such a stratified marketplace taking shape.
Not only is there a massive gap between the top tier of free-agent targets and the others, but a similar gap is blooming again between baseball's haves and its have-nots.
So, let's do a little exercise: What if you wanted to build a team strictly with this crop of free agents? What if you had Yankee money, but not the Yankees' cadre of overpaid, aging stars, and you wanted to field a full lineup without waiting to build an expansion franchise? That team may not win, but it would be awfully fun to construct. Here is the dream lineup composed solely of impending free agents.
Catcher: Ramon Hernandez
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He'll be 36 next May and has not been a star since 2006, but Hernandez has thrived in a timeshare behind the dish in Cincinnati the past two years. He retains some of the pop that once made him so valuable and has gotten better working with pitchers in his old age.
1st Base: Albert Pujols
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Pujols presents more risk than about anyone cares to admit, but he remains a steady and stunning run-producing presence. His drop in a handful of stats this season has largely been due to some bad batted-ball luck and an ill-advised shift (here's a guess he doesn't mean to do it, but still...) toward ground balls instead of flies.
Pujols will post a near-1.000 OPS for another few years, and he's probably the best fielding first baseman in the game, so whatever the downside risk related to sheer money and age, he will make a positive difference wherever he goes.
2nd Base: Kelly Johnson
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It will probably cost a draft pick to get him, but Johnson is a worthwhile consideration for teams in need of help around the keystone sack. He's an average fielder there, which is of better than average value given the position. He's sometimes a superstar and sometimes a league-average regular, but Johnson's upside outweighs the bad. He'll find a comfortable deal somewhere, even after a rough 2011.
3rd Base: Aramis Ramirez
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The Chicago Cubs look to be undecided over the question of Ramirez's $16-million option for 2012, but if recent reports are accurate, Ramirez will not stay for just that single season anyway. He can opt to decline the Cubs' offer to exercise the option, trading $16 million over one year for $30 million or better over three seasons.
In all but two of the past eight seasons, Ramirez has provided an elite bat at the hot corner even as his defense has gotten worse by the hour. He can still stay there if some team wants him, though, and he should provide an .850 or better OPS at whichever position he agrees to play.
Shortstop: Jose Reyes
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The mega deal Carl Crawford signed with Boston last winter set up Reyes for a near-$150-million payday after 2011. Crawford's performance since then might have actually hurt Reyes a fair bit. Reyes has had a huge season, raising his value anew. Injury concerns, though, spurred by Reyes' persistent hamstring problems, have lowered it right back. He could land in a lot of different places, for a wide array of possible contracts. It's just hard to predict where this one is going.
Left Field: Josh Willingham
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Willingham is a heck of a hitter, and as outfielders go, he's really a heck of a hitter. He has power, draws walks when the opponent begrudges him hittable offerings and is more athletic than he looks. That doesn't mean you want him in left field, but with the market thin, you may not have a choice.
Besides, Willingham can handle left field, just not especially gracefully.
Center Field: Coco Crisp
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Crisp has lost perhaps a-sixth of a step—hardly important for many players but much more so for his speed-oriented game. Crisp has never been an elite hitter, but he can still run and field in one of baseball's biggest center fields. He's a potential asset in the right place, but the real challenge is to ensure Crisp stays on the field, uninjured and out of trouble.
Right Field: Carlos Beltran
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In a resurgent full season this year, Beltran has flashed the elite production that made him so famous in his younger days. He figures to go right on hitting in 2012, but he certainly cannot play center field anymore and will need to keep thumping to be a valuable bat from the corners.
Designated Hitter: Prince Fielder
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As good as David Ortiz has been this season, Fielder is a better all-around hitter for the long term. Fielder is much younger, has the same kind of power upside and is not afraid to walk whatsoever. Batting is his only skill, though, so an AL team might have substantially more interest than one from the senior circuit.
Starting Pitcher: CC Sabathia
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Sabathia's weight is the only thing that might give him pause as he decides whether or not to opt out of his contract after this season. An industry consensus has emerged that such hurlers present undue risk. Bobby Jenks, who has missed tons of time this year after signing an offseason deal thanks to a bad back and a pulmonary embolism, is not helping Sabathia's case.
That said, he remains a superstar southpaw pitcher, second in WAR for pitchers since the start of 2006. He's durable, built much better than Jenks and similar players and is a true stud. He should get nine figures from someone if he tests the waters.
Relief Pitcher: Jonathan Papaelbon
Just a year ago, Papelbon's indicators all pointed toward decline—maybe disaster. His walk rate shot up for the third straight season, his strikeouts remained static and his ERA ballooned to 3.90.
In 2011, on the cusp of a free-agent payday, Papelbon has righted himself in a huge way. His strikeout-to-walk ratio for the year is 7.50. He has dropped his ERA a run and a quarter and he ranks fourth among relievers in WAR this year. Add to all that his World Series pedigree and relative youth, and you have a recipe for a big deal in the K-Rod/Rafael Soriano neighborhood.