Albert Pujols has stolen the spotlight in this year’s free agent class, as the three-time NL MVP is set to conclude his current deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. Aside from Pujols though, this year’s free agent class remains one of the better ones.
Here are the 15 most coveted players in the free agent market.
Carlos Beltran appeared to be all but done with his major-league career in 2010, hitting just .255 with seven home runs while appearing in only 64 games. He resurrected his earlier playing days this year, thriving in both New York and San Francisco, despite ailing knees that have hindered him in the recent seasons.
Beltran batted .300 with 22 home runs for the year, posting a 152 adjusted OPS that ranked as the highest of his 14-year career. He is only 34 years old but, with his injury history, he won’t get a lengthy deal.
Expected contract: three years, $35 million
Molina is a blessing to the Cardinals, an offensive and defensive force who has now guided the Cardinals to a pair of World Series appearances (a title in ’06, and maybe one this year) in his seven years as a starter in St. Louis.
Molina had a terrific offensive season in 2011, topping out with 14 home runs, a .305 batting average and a .465 slugging percentage, numbers that earned Molina his third All-Star appearance. Molina has a team option for 2012 that the Cardinals may choose to use, although it would make more sense to simply lock up their backstopper now.
Molina is just 29 years old, and although catchers traditionally don’t receive large contracts (except for Joe Mauer), Molina will be paid well for his position. There’s no reason the Cardinals should not make an attempt to resign him, since quality catchers like Molina don’t grow on trees (well, maybe in his family).
Expected contract: four years, $33 million
Buehrle has several key things going for him as he enters the free agent market: He’s a lefty, he has absolutely no injury history and he’s remarkably consistent. Buehrle has won double-digit games for 11 straight years now; during that span, he is 157-118 with a 3.82 ERA.
Buehrle, 32, just finished a four-year, $56 million deal. He was about what the White Sox expected of him: a quality No. 2 starter (borderline No. 1) who has started between 30-35 games and logged between 204-245.1 innings every years since ’01. He won exactly 13 games each of his past three years. That’s not superstar production by any means and Buehrle’s strikeouts have also dropped off as of recently (a declining strikeout rate is typically the first sign of a pitcher who is aging), so I project a contract similar to his last one, but a little less.
Expected contract: four years, $50 million
K-Rod was a midseason trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he fared very well down the stretch as a setup man, posting a 4-0 record and 1.86 ERA in 31 games. K-Rod has been a regular closer since ’05, and with a 2.51 ERA, he’s going to get some money.
Factor in that Rodriguez is still just 29 years old and Scott Boras is his agent, he will be paid with the best of the relievers (assuming the Brewers don’t exercise his 2012 option).
Expected contract: four years, $50 million
Madson is every bit as good as Rodriguez but K-Rod has been saving games for substantially longer and is two years younger. So why do I have Madson as a more intriguing free agent option?
Free agency is all about the last year and Madson had a lights-out year as a closer in 2011, saving 32 of 34 games with a 2.37 ERA while K-Rod was sent to a Brewers team and used as an eight-inning guy. Madson also has no attitude problems; K-Rod doesn’t have the best history of being a good role model.
Scott Boras is Madson’s agent too, and given that Madson pitched in a high-profile city like Philly, he will spark some interest from teams.
Expected Contract: Four years, $46 million
Nick Swisher is a switch-hitting power bat, which is always a plus for any team that is a contender. He has hit 20 home runs for seven straight seasons now and walks enough for a .360 career on-base percentage.
Swisher just finished a five-year, $26.75 million contract (although there is an option for 2012) that he signed back when he was on the Oakland Athletics. He is just 30 years old, can play first base and both corner outfield positions and has no real injury history.
Given that Jayson Werth – a 32-year old outfielder with just a few good seasons and an injury history – got a $126 million deal with a last-place club, who knows what Swisher could get? Then again, Werth didn’t deserve that deal and there’s no way that serves as the new benchmark for power-hitting outfielders.
Expected Contract: five years, $75 million
Bell has made three straight All-Star teams and he’s averaged 44 saves with a 2.36 ERA since 2009. He was heavily rumored to be traded at last year’s July trade deadline, but ended up staying in San Diego.
The contracts for the other closers in the free agent market will probably dictate Bell’s but I project his to be similar to or better than Madson and K-Rod.
Expected contract: four years, $48 million
Rollins is just the second-best shortstop on this year’s free agent market but he’s still a power and speed threat with a Gold Glove at the toughest defensive position in the game. Rollins is 32 years old and has battled injuries the past few years but it’s tough to find a shortstop of his talent and Rollins is also a natural-born leader and great clubhouse guy.
He has told Sports Illustrated he wants a five-year deal but I doubt he will get the deal he wants. Rollins has also said he would take a four-year deal with a fifth year as an option but even that projects high in my opinion. Even so, the Phillies will likely do what they can to bring Rollins back next year and ensure that he retires a Phillie.
Expected contract: four years, $49 million
A few years ago, no one would have expected C.J. Wilson to be one of the most coveted free agent pitchers in the market. Wilson has emerged as the unquestioned ace of the Texas Rangers, and he’s taken them to two straight World Series.
Wilson was 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA this year, and increased his strikeouts while decreasing his walk rate from the year before. Wilson is also a left-handed pitcher and is just 29 years old. Speculation from MLB Trade Rumors has Wilson warranting a $100 million contract. That seems high to me but he will get paid well.
Expected contract: five years, $78 million
Papelbon emerged as a guy with the potential to rank as one of the greatest closers to ever play the game. While there is no denying he has been a phenomenal closer, Papelbon hasn’t been as effective in recent years as early in his career (1.74 ERA from ’06-’09, 3.43 ERA from ’10-’11).
His saves have dropped now for three straight years and he was touched up for two blown saves in the last nine days of this past season. Still, Papelbon is a lights out closer with a 2.33 career ERA and a strikeout rate of 10.7 batters per nine innings; and he’s just 30 years old.
Expected contract: four years, $55 million
It’s safe to say Robinson Cano has passed Chase Utley as the game’s all-around best second baseman. Cano batted .302 with 28 home runs and 118 RBIs this past year and he’s a Gold Glover in the field. He has a .308 lifetime average to go with three All-Star appearances and two Silver Slugger awards.
Cano will be just 29 years old when next season starts and if he resigns with the Yankees he will almost assuredly get more money than he would have anywhere else. Then again, the Yankees do have options on Cano for both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, so if the Yankees don’t sign Cano long-term this offseason, they will likely just exercise the options for $14 and $15 million, respectively.
Expected contract: six years, $115 million
Reyes has been one of the most highly-touted free agents this year and it’s very likely he won’t be back in New York for the 2012 season. Reyes is a superstar of a player at the toughest position in the game, and because he broke into the big leagues so young (20), he’s still just 28 (turning 29 in January).
Reyes has battled hamstring injuries in the past but that doesn’t negate the terrific season he had in 2011: He led the NL with a .337 batting average and 16 triples, scored 101 runs, stole 39 bases, and posted a career-high 143 adjusted OPS. He earned his fourth All-Star appearance of his career.
Expected contract: seven years, $125 million
With Prince Fielder set to become a free agent, the first thing he and his agent will likely point to is the five-year, $125 million deal Philadelphia's Ryan Howard signed. In the two years before Howard signed his extension he averaged the following numbers: 46 HR, 144 RBIs, and a .906 OPS. Fielder has averaged 35 HR, 102 RBIs, and a .925 OPS each of the past two years.
The numbers are comparable – Howard has more home runs and RBIs, but Fielder walks more, hits for a higher average, and thus has a higher OPS. Fielder is also just 27 years old, whereas Howard was 30 when he signed his extension.
Fielder likely won’t return to Milwaukee, but wherever he goes, he should get a contract even greater than that of Howard.
Expected contract: seven years, $165 million
Sabathia is expected to opt out of his current seven-year, $161 million deal with the New York Yankees, even though he has only completed three years of the deal.
He is a perennial Cy Young candidate, a tough lefty who has averaged 19 wins, 240 innings pitched, and 217 strikeouts each of the past five years, all while posting a 3.09 ERA during that span. He’s made five All-Star teams, finished in the top five in Cy Young voting four times, and won the award once.
Sabathia is 31 years old, still with plenty of years remaining in his career, and he may set the benchmark for pitching aces in the future.
Expected contract: six years, $175 million
In what was considered a down year for the slugger, Albert Pujols still hit 37 home runs, drove in 99 runs, posted a .906 OPS and led the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series. He has played 11 years in the big leagues, accumulating a .328 lifetime batting average to go with 445 home runs and three National League MVP awards.
Pujols is one of the most sought-after free agents in the history of the game and he has made it known he would like a ten-year deal worth $300 million. That’s a ridiculous amount of money and it would top the previous record for largest contract ever (Alex Rodriguez, $275 million) by a full $25 million. Still, with the production Pujols has given the Cardinals on a regular basis he may just get what he wants.
Expected contract: nine years, $285 million