In MLB, free agency is a swinging door. Too often, fans (and even some GMs) think of it solely as a way to add players. Small-market franchises who lose players like Prince Fielder and Carl Crawford every winter know well what many small businesses know, too: It's more efficient to retain a longtime client (or in this case, player) than to sign a new one. All else being equal, or even close to equal, every MLB team should strive to keep its better players even as they near the free-agent market.
Inevitably, though, every team faces the specter of losing a key player at some point each offseason. This year, even the New York Yankees have that sort of dilemma before them, as they prepare to do what it takes to keep CC Sabathia even if Sabathia opts out of the final four years of his contract.
In what follows, you'll find the most important pending free agent on every MLB roster, and a prediction of whether or not their incumbent team hangs on to them.
Hill came over in a trade with Toronto that lent the D'Backs the depth they needed to finish off the rest of the NL West. He has been an instrumental part of that success, batting .314/.387/.496 in 139 plate appearances with Arizona. Hill's $8 million option is suddenly something the team might ponder, but the most likely scenario is this:
- Diamondbacks decline club option.
- Team offers Hill arbitration so as to get a draft pick in return if he leaves.
- The two sides agree on something in the two years, $12 million range.
Prediction: Stays put
Atlanta is in upheaval, and the chances of free agents sticking there got a lot slimmer when their season ended on this remarkably bitter note. Gonzalez could be a casualty of that sentiment, but just as likely, the Braves will simply be unable to afford to keep him.
After two solid seasons of providing offensive value (despite his horrendous OBP) and with a sparkling defensive reputation in hand, Gonzalez could get $3 million on the free market. Atlanta needs to trim payroll wherever they can, and giving the shortstop job to prospect Tyler Pastornicky would be a good way to do it.
Free-agent migration is just like any other kind of migration. For a player to move there must be push factors (nudging him out of town) and pull factors (attracting him to another team). In Guerrero's case, the frustration of Orioles fans might create a mild push, but there will be little pull at his projected asking price—still north of $5 million. Re-signing with Baltimore would be the best move for Guerrero, and keeping him would not hurt the Orioles a bit.
If any season can send a free agent hurtling out of town, it's this one. The Sox's September collapse seemed to hit Ortiz harder than anyone else, and it would be understandable for each side of this prospective negotiation to hold off a month or so and let things get a bit less raw.
In the end, though Jonathan Papelbon is almost certainly headed out of town, Ortiz figures to be back. He is so invested in this team that his playing anywhere else is nigh unfathomable.
All manner of rumors are already out there regarding Ramirez. He intends to test the market, and will apparently decline his side of the option year on his contract even if the Cubs exercise it at $16 million. His market value is no higher than that, but Ramirez says he values stability more than sheer money, by which he really means that this is a great time for him to cash in once more on a multi-year deal. The Marlins seem very interested.
Neat narratives about Buehrle wanting to play for his hometown Cardinals already have people wondering whether he will depart this offseason, especially now that Ozzie Guillen is gone and the Sox's big experiment has flopped. The only trouble is that the Cardinals don't figure to be very interested in a major outlay for an extra starter this winter. Albert Pujols will occupy most of their attention and resources.
Renteria has been part of an ugly year for the Reds at shortstop. The team's collective production at that position (a .599 OPS with seven home runs) is one reason they disappointed with a 79-83 record. Renteria stands in the way of prospect Zack Cozart, who came up only briefly before getting hurt but who the Reds hope to depend on next season.
Okay, so free agency will not adversely affect the Indians much. Fukudome, brought aboard in July to help with the team's unsuccessful playoff push, is really a spare part for this squad. He's almost too good a fit for Oakland for that signing not to happen, but even if it doesn't, Fukudome does not figure to return to Cleveland in 2012.
Giambi's 2011 has been reminiscent of Jim Thome's 2010: A left-handed former superstar slugger has one last and spectacular hurrah, albeit in a part-time role, and reminds everyone how great he once was. Thome came back to Earth a bit in 2011, and so will Giambi in 2012—if he even finds employment. He should do so, but whether or not it's with Colorado depends upon whether they succeed in finding someone better or not.
At this stage of his career, Penny is a classic back-end starter, the kind of guy on whom you take a cheap flier hoping he can simply give you some stability in the fifth starter's role without totally blowing it every time.
Penny's 5.30 ERA is ugly, but he has managed 10 average or better starts, and the Tigers are 16-15 when he pitches. He may not be back, but he will have the same role somewhere next season, and he should fill it neatly again.
Whispers that Vazquez could retire have only grown louder since Ozzie Guillen got to town. These two worked together during Vazquez's White Sox tenure, and the active strikeout leader frustrated Guillen to no end. A terrific second half will make Vazquez a mildly hot commodity this winter, but if he plays, expect it to be somewhere else in the National League.
Prediction: Gets the heck out
Barmes may have set himself up to get a total value of over $10 million on a two or three-year deal this winter, having played very good defense at shortstop and hit enough to make that matter. The Astros are dumb, but not stupid, and they would love to retain their underrated shortstop. He has a strong case as the best current Astros player. All that said, he likely will not be back, as Houston is in no position to keep him if he gets a better offer elsewhere.
Prediction: Finds, boards rescue boat, leaves Titanic behind
When it's crucial that you retain Bruce Chen, you may lack pitching depth. Still, given that the Royals do not want to unduly tax the arms of their pitching prospects, Chen is an important cog for the 2012 team. He need not repeat his 3.77 ERA; that looks very unsustainable. If he can rack up 150-plus innings for the Royals again, though, he will still have major value as a stopgap.
Pineiro would be a major asset to a Dead Ball-era team, but here in the present, a strikeout rate of one every 10 batters is not viable. Pineiro still gets ground balls and has decent control, but he no longer misses bats, and that will render him fairly ineffective for the rest of his career. The only scenario in which the Angels keep him is if they somehow, inexplicably and indefensibly, really and truly do not fire Tony Reagins. They probably won't fire him, though.
Prediction: Stays, pitches, as they say, to contact
Despite a nifty 3.07 ERA, pitching-independent numbers suggest that after adjusting for luck, home park and other factors outside Kuroda's control, he has been an only slightly above-average pitcher this season. That will not stop teams from bidding for his services, of course, because Kuroda misses bats, does not walk people and has been very consistent during his time in LA. He took a one-year deal to stay with the Dodgers last fall before even testing free agency, but this time, he might get an offer elsewhere he simply cannot refuse.
Prediction: Gets out of Frank McCourt's web
Prince Fielder is better than good. He's the best value available on the market this winter. He mashed three home runs in one game on Tuesday to finish with 38 on the season, but that is not his most impressive stat. Consider: Fielder had always struck out in about one-fifth of his plate appearances, not bad for a slugger. This season though, he cut that rate to scarcely 15 percent of the time. He walked 107 times; he fanned only 106.
He will be beating the living crap out of the ball somewhere else next year in all likelihood, but Fielder has been a revelation and a huge part of the Milwaukee Baseball Revival.
Prediction: Takes the money and runs—okay, jogs
Cuddyer is a cornerstone guy for the Twins in the clubhouse and on the field, not least because he is versatile enough to play where needed when players like Justin Morneau go down for long stretches.
A 99-loss season is a hellish thing to go through in baseball, and Cuddyer could leave town out of simple frustration. It says here, though, that the Twins will pony up and keep their best right-handed bat at a handsome salary.
Prediction: Stays at home, where the heart is
Winning a batting title looks good on a free agent's resume, and Reyes must know that well, because he asked to be pulled from the final game of the year in order to ensure he would win. Ted Williams he ain't—it was on the 70th anniversary of Williams playing both halves of a double-header and getting six hits to secure a .406 season that Reyes made his less magnanimous choice—but Reyes is in line to make major money this winter.
Prediction: Gets more money elsewhere, takes it
Sabathia's contract, signed in December 2008, included an opt-out clause after 2011. Given what has transpired within the market since, Sabathia is a lock to use it after the season. He is owed $92 million over four years from 2012 onward, but by opting out, he should get well into nine figures on a new deal.
The Yankees are the incumbents and the richest of his suitors, but the Red Sox have every reason to get very serious about pitching this winter. With the Sox as leverage, Sabathia could really run up a huge number, but actually leaving for Boston seems unlikely.
Prediction: Stays, but gets a monster raise
This should be one of the really interesting things to watch as free agency nears. The A's expect resolution of their push for a new ballpark soon, and assuming they get it, they would start cutting ties with potentially expensive assets like Willingham and go into a rebuilding mode in preparation for that new park.
If they get blocked, though, the team could ink Willingham to a multi-year deal and look to add other solid players in the hopes of generating some renewed interest in A's baseball there in Oakland.
Prediction: Heads for a more stable environment, hits 30-plus home runs
A case could be made here for Roy Oswalt, but it's likely that Rollins will be more critical to the Phillies' future. He's still a great defender at a premium position, and he still hits, although not quite as well as he once did. Having been surprisingly underpaid for a long time, Rollins is going to want eight figures in annual average value on this new deal, but the Phillies can swing that without straining their payroll beyond its capacity.
Maholm posted a 3.66 ERA in 162.1 innings this season, and surprisingly, he did so in fairly sustainable fashion. He doesn't miss a ton of bats, but he keeps the ball down and on the ground, and his control has always been there. Maholm should be back with Pittsburgh next season—he's still not a candidate to pitch for a lot of better teams in harsher run environments—but he deserves a small raise.
Bell chose a poor time to start losing steam. His free-agent stock is way down relative to last season. He doesn't seem to mind. He has said more than once that he would give the Padres a big hometown discount, and even hinted that he might accept arbitration if the team extends the offer. At this point, that actually looks like the most likely scenario.
Prediction: Stays for less than he could make elsewhere
Too little, too late, but Beltran (who was having a sensational comeback season in New York) got even better after a trade to the Giants. Though he started slowly and got hurt, Beltran finished at .327/.373/.558 in orange and black.
The Giants will try to retain him, because they always need offensive help, but Beltran will have many suitors and Scott Boras always follows the money. Boston beckons.
Prediction: Heads East
The M's don't really have a significant pending free agent, so I thought I would just point this out: Milton Bradley is still getting paid. A lot. Or at least he was.
Prediction: Never plays professional baseball again.
Technically, yes, Pujols had a down year in 2011. It was, in fact, his worst season as a pro. He also may be much older than he says he is, and teams will consider that as they submit their lofty bids for his services this winter.
Still, El Hombre es un Maquina. He does everything well, and in this, his worst season, he still hit 37 homers. The Cardinals probably have a better chance of keeping him now than if he had gone nuts this year.
Prediction: Searches far and wide, but ends up discovering that there's no place like home
I don't even want to talk about this, because Rays fans deserve to bask for a day or two in the glory of Wednesday night. But Damon is probably gone after the season. He always goes to whichever team pays him the most, and after a decent season with Tampa Bay, Damon figures to get interest from someone who can pay him more than the Rays.
Wilson's sparkling seasons since moving to the starting rotation make him a candidate to get $75 million or more on the market this winter. The Rangers want to be the team to give it to him. They love Wilson and have plenty of resources.
Unfortunately, they will not be able to match the offers from Boston or the Yankees for Wilson's services. Wilson might give them a small discount, but whichever AL East beast does not end up with Sabathia might well overpay Wilson drastically just to keep pace.
Prediction: Moves on
Johnson took a meaningful step backward from his 2010 studliness this year, but he remains a solid defensive second baseman with power and some OBP skills. When the Jays acquired him, it looked like an Alex Anthopoulos special: Johnson is a better candidate than was Aaron Hill to net the team a draft pick or two after the season if he signed elsewhere. At this point, though, Toronto might be best served to just keep him.
This is obviously a case of a team not being especially impacted by potential free-agent departures. It's also a case of Wang stepping up this season and making himself relevant for the first time since 2008. He is a marginal talent, but a solid option for the back end of what will be a very good Washington rotation in 2012. The two sides are already talking about a contract to keep him in D.C.
Prediction: Signs on without even exploring free agency