MLB Free Agency 2015: Clues to Where the Top 10 Players Will Land

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2015

MLB Free Agency 2015: Clues to Where the Top 10 Players Will Land

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The champagne is scarcely dry in the visitor's clubhouse at Citi Field, and already the MLB hot stove is crackling to life.

    While the Kansas City Royals and their fans bathe in bubbly and confetti, 29 other squads are looking eagerly to the offseason and the raft of available free agents, many of whom will switch uniforms in the coming months.

    Yes, the annual winter meetings are still several weeks away, and a number of marquee names won't cut deals until the new year.

    But it's never too early to speculate. That's what makes this long, cold slog between actual baseball action bearable.

    To that end, let's examine the top 10 free agents of the 2015-16 class and search for clues as to where they might sign.

    The first few names are obvious, but some of the list is open to debate (and please do exactly that in the comments). In curating a top 10, we considered a number of factors, including recent track record, FanGraphs' WAR calculation, relative value of position and skill set (power hitters are at a premium, for example), and postseason performance where applicable.

    You might swap out a player here or there, or disagree with the ranking order, but the point is these are all top-tier talents who will be hotly pursued by multiple suitors and should make a significant impact wherever they end up.

    If you're interested, and of course you are, the MLB Players Association released a full list of the 139 free agents who are ripe for the inking beginning Sat. Nov. 7. Note that a couple of the names on our list—Zack Greinke and Alex Gordon—aren't in the MLBPAA release because they have player options that they're widely expected to decline.

    Things are obviously fluid at this early stage, and there will be plenty of unexpected twists between now and spring training. But based on current rumors and a sprinkling of educated guesswork, here's where 10 of the offseason's most coveted prizes could land.

    Sidle up to the hot stove, and proceed when ready.

No. 10: Ben Zobrist, UTL

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 126 G, .276/.359/.450, 13 HR, 76 RBI, 2.1 WAR

    Ben Zobrist is entering his age-35 season and posted the lowest WAR of his seven full big league campaigns.

    On the other hand, he remains an unusually versatile asset, a switch-hitter capable of manning multiple defensive positions. And he raised his offensive numbers across the board after a trade-deadline swap from the Oakland A's to the Kansas City Royals, then further boosted his stock by hitting .303 with an .880 OPS in the postseason.

    Despite his age, Zobrist could easily command a three- or four-year deal. Expect multiple contenders to give him a look, but the New York Yankees are an especially logical suitor.

    In July, Brendan Kuty of NJ Advance Media reported the A's offered Zobrist to the Yanks for infield prospect Rob Refsnyder and right-hander Adam Warren.

    "I'm not going to do that for a three-month rental," general manager Brian Cashman said, per Kuty.

    Now, however, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post pointed out, New York could use Zobrist to plug its hole at second base and provide a backup option at third base and the corner outfield positions.

    Last winter, the Yankees avoided the big-ticket free agents and instead patched holes with less expensive veterans like Chase Headley. If they follow the same strategy this time aroundor opt to sink the bulk of their resources into upgrading the starting rotationZobrist would be a natural fit.

No. 9: Jordan Zimmermann, RHP

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 13-10, 201.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 164 SO, 3.0 WAR

    Entering the 2015 season, Jordan Zimmermann figured to be one of the premier arms of this free-agent class. And he's still in the conversation, as his presence on this list attests, but he may have dinged his value with an up-and-down campaign.

    In many ways, Zimmermann's season mirrored that of the Washington Nationals. He wasn't terrible overall and looked excellent in stretches. But he wobbled too often, surrendering six or more earned runs in four separate starts and ultimately failed to meet the lofty expectations set for him.

    Still, as a two-time All-Star and 29-year-old workhorse who eclipsed 200 innings for the second time since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2009, Zimmermann will attract plenty of interest. And even if his somewhat underwhelming contract-year output shaves a few dollars off whatever deal he signs, he'll likely get paid like an ace.

    So who's going to pay him? Expect every club with a need for starting pitching to sniff around, including the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, four of baseball's five biggest spenders, per Spotrac.com. And don't count out the possibility that the Nats will bring him back.

    But here's another intriguing possibility: the Chicago Cubs.

    Zimmermann is a native of Wisconsin and, as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal posited in August, "might prefer to return to the Midwest."

    During the general managers meetings last November, word leaked that the Chicago Cubs were "in talks" to acquire Zimmermann, per Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. The buzz was killed by multiple sources, including Nats GM Mike Rizzo, who told James Wagner of the Washington Post it had "no basis." 

    Now, however, with a trip to the National League Championship Series whetting their appetite, the Cubs could look to add Zimmermann to a rotation that already boasts veteran lefty Jon Lester and NL Cy Young hopeful Jake Arrieta, and get themselves over the long-elusive championship hump.

No. 8: Alex Gordon, LF

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 104 G, .271/.377/.432, 13 HR, 48 RBI, 2.8 WAR

    Even as he basks in the glow of the Royals' World Series win, Alex Gordon will decline his $12.5 million player option for 2016.

    Why wouldn't he? He's 31 years old and widely regarded as one of the best defensive left fielders in the game. Even without eye-popping power numbers, the three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner should make a mint on the open market.

    Is Kansas City, the franchise that drafted him, willing to pay up?

    "I want to be back, trust me," Gordon said, per KCTV's Chris Oberholtz. "This is my home. I love Kansas City. I love the fans. I love everything about Kansas City. I couldn't see myself anywhere else. So, I hope it works out." 

    "I hope it works out" is one of those lines that should be accompanied by a cartoon cash register sound effect. Gordon wants more money and years, period, and the small-market Royals, Fall Classic revenue notwithstanding, may be unwilling or unable to oblige.

    Sherman cited the Astros and Cubs as possible suitors, but he tossed in the Boston Red Sox as another, eyebrow-raising possibility.

    "[Boston] probably has too many outfielders for too few spots," Sherman wrote. "But executives tell me that Red Sox officials have always liked Gordon and so has new Boston president Dave Dombrowski from his time in the AL Central as the Tigers' GM."

    It might seem an odd play for the Red Sox, considering their need for starting pitching and the outfield glut Sherman referenced.

    But Boston will be looking for a wholesale overhaul after a hugely disappointing 2015 season, and a well-regarded player with a championship pedigree could prove too tempting to pass up.

No. 7: Chris Davis, 1B/OF

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    GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 160 G, .262/.361/.562, 47 HR, 117 RBI, 5.6 WAR

    After a disappointing 2014 marred by an oblique injury, an amphetamine suspension and diminished production, Chris Davis reestablished himself as one of the game's top power bats.

    The big lefty swinger, who'll turn 30 in March, led all of baseball with 47 home runs. And while he also struck out an MLB-leading 208 times, he figures to command top years and dollars in a league that's starved for mashers.

    CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported that Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos "has taken an interest" in re-signing Davis, but there's zero chance Davis won't test the market.

    And as Nelson Cruz did last winter, there's also a good chance Davis may bolt from Baltimore for a bigger payday elsewhere.

    That could be almost anywhere. Davis can play first base as well as the corner outfield spots, and there isn't a team in either league that would say no to a 40-home run bat in the middle of its lineup.

    The Houston Astros are an interesting option. Davis is a native of Texas, and his pop would play well at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. But it remains to be seen if the spendthrift 'Stros are willing to spend after making their first playoff appearance in a decade.

    A reunion with the Texas Rangers, where Davis began his big league career, is also a possibility.

    But another AL West club, the Los Angeles Angels, might be the best fit of all.

    Albert Pujols logged just 95 games at first base last year and will soon need to make the transition to full-time designated hitter. The Angels could also put Davis in left field, as Heyman recently suggested.

    The bottom line: After scoring the fourth-fewest runs in the American League, the Halos should be looking for bats to stack around Mike Trout. And a Davis-Trout tandem would be fearsome, to say the least. 

No. 6: Johnny Cueto, RHP

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 11-13, 212 IP, 3.44 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 176 SO, 4.1 WAR

    It was an uneven season for Johnny Cueto, who arrived in Kansas City at the trade-deadline cavalry and proceeded to vacillate between mediocre and occasionally brilliant.

    Ultimately, he left his mark on the Royals, authoring a complete-game victory in Game 2 of the World Series. Now, he'll almost assuredly parlay that—and the impressive resume he built with the Cincinnati Reds—into a sizable contract somewhere else.

    As with every marquee free-agent arm, the list of possible destinations is long. But throw the Red Sox to the front of the pack.

    In August, Cueto was asked by WEEI.com's Rob Bradford about the possibility of signing with Boston. Tellingly, the right-hander used the Sox's Hanley Ramirez as a translator.

    Specifically, Cueto addressed rumors that Boston considered trading for him last winter. 

    "Yeah, that's what I think," he said, per Bradford. "I think, 'I'll wait for Boston.'"

    He won't have to wait for anyone. But watch for the Red Sox and Dombrowski to make an aggressive play, and don't be surprised if Cueto's former translator is soon his teammate.

No. 5: Justin Upton, LF

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 150 G, .251/.336/.454, 26 HR, 81 RBI, 3.6 WAR

    On the one hand, Justin Upton is a power-hitting three-time All-Star and former No. 1 overall pick who won't turn 29 until August and is a Gold Glove finalist in left field.

    On the other hand, he's never quite lived up to his potential. Upton has exceeded the 30-home run plateau once, in 2011, and has struck out more than 150 times in each of the past three seasons. 

    As with every hitter on this list, teams will be lining up to kick Upton's tires. Slick-fielding outfielders in their late-20s with plus power don't hit the market every year.

    While we just talked about the Yankees' recent free-agent restraint, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News convincingly made the case for why the Bronx Bombers should pursue Upton:

    Yoenis Cespedes will be the sexiest free-agent name this winter...but the 28-year-old Upton should be more intriguing to a Yankees team desperate for help against lefties. Upton's .893 OPS against southpaws since 2008 is the eighth-highest among righthanded-hitting outfielders, making the three-time All-Star an ideal fit. To add Upton, the Yankees would need to find a taker for one of their outfielders in a trade, most likely Brett Gardner.

    If the Yanks come calling, expect the Red Sox to do the same, among many others. And yet, don't ask us why—there's just something about Upton in pinstripes that makes sense. 

No. 4: Jason Heyward, RF

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 154 G, .293/.359/.439, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 23 SB, 6.0 WAR

    There is so much to like about Jason Heyward.

    He's 26 years old and won't turn 27 until August, making him the youngest player on this list.

    His ultimate zone rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS) ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in baseball, respectively, last season.

    And while he hasn't hit more than 20 home runs since 2012, he's swiped at least 20 bases in three of the last four seasons.

    We're talking about a fast, slick-fielding, still-burgeoning player. And a contract that touches double digits in the years department wouldn't be out of the question, though Heyward may seek an opt-out clause in the event he finds his power stroke and moves into the next echelon, earnings-wise.

    Essentially every club with two nickels to rub together will be linked to Heyward given his age and abilities, but watch out for the Cardinals to keep him in Missouri.

    In 2009, the Cards traded for another star outfielder, Matt Holliday, then proceeded to sign him the following winter to a seven-year, $120 million contract, the richest in franchise history to that point. Now, according to Heyman, St. Louis is expected to try to re-sign Heyward and "could go a bit beyond" the Holliday deal.

    While the Cardinals often sit out the big bidding wars, and Heyward's price could spike to ridiculous heights, don't be surprised if they flutter into the picture.

No. 3: Yoenis Cespedes, CF/RF

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 159 G, .291/.328/.542, 35 HR, 105 RBI, 6.7 WAR

    After a trade-deadline swap from the Detroit Tigers to the New York Mets, Yoenis Cespedes went on an absolute tear. He even garnered some NL MVP chatter, despite playing just 57 games in the Senior Circuit.

    Then, in the postseason, Cespedes' bat turned frigid, especially in the World Series, when he went 3-for-20 with zero extra-base hits.

    That shouldn't hurt his free-agent value too much. He just turned 30 on Oct. 18, and he posted the seventh-highest WAR among position players. 

    An unnamed Mets official told Adam Rubin of ESPN.com that it's "highly likely" Cespedes will sign with another team. Again, basically every club could use a power bat, so look for Cespedes to churn early and often through the rumor mill.

    One team that could be a factor if it's willing to open the checkbook is the Miami Marlins.

    Fresh (though that's not the right word) off a lackluster season, the Fish recently hired Don Mattingly as their new skipper, the first step back toward respectability for a perennially floundering franchise. 

    Inking Cespedes, who'd be an instant hit with Florida's Cuban population, would be another stride in the right direction.

    The Marlins "like" Cespedes, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, though his six-year-plus, high-dollar demands could well be "too costly."

    On the other hand (fin?), this is the same franchise that signed Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million deal last November, so anything is possible.

No. 2: Zack Greinke, RHP

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 19-3, 222.2 IP, 1.66 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 200 SO, 5.9 WAR

    Zack Greinke finished 2015 with the lowest regular-season ERA of any qualifying pitcher in the 21st century. If ever there was a reason to walk away from more than $70 million in guaranteed money, that's it.

    Assuming Greinke does opt out of his deal with the Dodgers—and it's a near certainty—he'll be one of the most coveted arms in a crowded free-agent field.

    Greinke just turned 32, and while L.A. will make at least some effort to sign him, it's possible the Dodgers will turn their attention elsewhere (more on that in a moment).

    If they do, their archrival, among others, could be waiting to swoop in.

    It's no secret that the Giants, who did their typical odd-year thing and missed the postseason, need starting pitching to supplement stud southpaw Madison Bumgarner.

    There is more than a tenuous connection between Greinke and the Giants, as John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out:

    Greinke isn’t a prototypical Dodger if only because he loves the Giants. The manager, the players, even the park (1.78 ERA in four starts). He had a good time at the All-Star Game when his catcher was Buster Posey and his manager was Bruce Bochy, who picked him over Madison Bumgarner to start, and said he didn’t know who to root for in last year’s World Series because he liked the Giants’ players so much.

    And the Royals were his first team.

    None of that means Greinke will automatically don the orange and black. The Giants will still have to open their wallet and pay the cerebral ace well past his prime. Visions of Barry Zito may be dancing in the heads of casual San Francisco fans at this point.

    Greinke, though, is no Zito. He'd pair with Bumgarner, much the way he paired with Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, to form a deadly righty-lefty duo. And he'd get the Giants back on track for an obligatory even-year resurgence. 

No. 1: David Price, LHP

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 18-5, 220.1 IP, 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 225 SO, 6.4 WAR

    David Price wasn't quite the October savior the Toronto Blue Jays were hoping for when they acquired him at the deadline, though the Jays did break a 22-year playoff drought (the longest in North American pro sports) and advanced to the American League Championship Series.

    Granted, Price surrendered 18 earned runs in 23.1 postseason innings. But more importantly, he eclipsed 200 strikeouts and 200 innings for the second consecutive year and paced the Junior Circuit in ERA.

    Would it have been better if the former and possibly future AL Cy Young winner had brought a Commissioner's Trophy to Canada? Sure. Does that diminish his status as a game-changing free-agent arm? Not really.

    Price figures to be the trendsetter this winter, the one pitcher mentioned before all others and, in the final analysis, the contract that sets the market. 

    Where will that fateful contract come from? "Who knows" is the short answer, but one distinct possibility is the Dodgers.

    They've got the gaudy budget, sure, but they also have at the helm president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who once upon a time drafted Price while serving as general manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.

    Might Friedman go all in to get his man again, even at the expense of Greinke?

    L.A. "tried and failed to land [Price] at the trade deadline," as CBS Sports' David Brown notes. Heck, it's even possible the Dodgers could ink Price and Greinke, or another of the offseason's available hurlers. 

    They'll have to wade into a bidding war. But after falling short of a title yet again, here's betting they're willing to do, and spend, what it takes to improve.

    Such is the benefit of nearly bottomless pockets.

    All statistics current as of Nov. 2 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.