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2016 MLB Free Agents: Top Rumors and Predictions for Marquee Stars

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2015

Kansas City Royals pitcher Johnny Cueto (47) celebrates the end of the top of the eighth inning of Game 2 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the New York Mets Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)
David Goldman/Associated Press

Free agency in Major League Baseball has to be an agonizing event, though it's also the most excited fans will get before games actually begin.   

It's painful because rumors constantly swirl, often contradicting each other, so no one knows what is true and what is just white noise. Finding the right balance between agents or teams trying to drive the market in their favor is critical. 

As rumors for this offseason's top free agents continue to pick up steam, being able to make predictions about where they will land becomes easier. It's certainly not a foolproof venture because it only takes one "mystery team" to bring complete insanity to the whole thing. 

While the world waits for agents to find a mystery team in the market, here are the latest free-agent rumblings and predictions based on what's being said. 

Johnny Cueto Price Set

David Goldman/Associated Press
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It speaks volumes about how deep this year's crop of free-agent starting pitchers is that the consensus No. 4 arm available, Jordan Zimmermann, just got $110 million over five years from the Detroit Tigers. 

Zimmermann's deal also helped set the market for the next arm above him on the totem pole, Johnny Cueto, with ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick reporting the right-hander has set his bar high:

Jerry Crasnick @jcrasnick

Clubs in the Johnny Cueto market believe he's looking for a $140-160M payout. That's Cole Hamels-Jon Lester territory.

This makes sense considering Steve Gilbert of MLB.com reported Cueto turned down a six-year, $120 million offer from the Arizona Diamondbacks last month. 

While there are no absolutes in free agency, especially with pitchers, Cueto could be considered the biggest wild card in the bunch. He finished the season on the highest of high notes, throwing a complete game two-hitter in Game 2 of the World Series. 

However, taking a more cynical approach, Cueto's line from the game wasn't dominant. He struck out four and walked three, so the Kansas City Royals defense did most of the work. Credit him for making the necessary pitches, but it was a team effort. 

Looking at things from an even larger perspective, Cueto was essentially a replacement-level pitcher after the Royals acquired him. The 29-year-old had a 4.76 ERA with 101 hits allowed and 56 strikeouts in 81.1 innings over 13 starts with Kansas City. 

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

That also helps inform the options for Cueto, as his greatest individual success came in the National League. Most of his reported suitors thus far have been NL teams, with Jon Heyman of CBS Sports saying the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs have contacted Cueto's camp. 

The only AL team Heyman mentioned is the Boston Red Sox, though ESPN.com's Buster Olney reported on Nov. 25 their focus right now is on David Price, who agreed to a deal with the team on Tuesday, per the Boston Globe's Pete Abraham

The Chicago Cubs don't seem likely to invest the kind of money Cueto wants in a pitcher who as recently as May needed an MRI to confirm there was no structural damage in his elbow. The Dodgers are likely to focus all their energy on retaining Zack Greinke and/or targeting Price before seriously engaging Cueto. 

The San Francisco Giants are an interesting suitor because they had nearly $57 million come off the payroll when 2015 ended and desperately need an impact pitcher behind Madison Bumgarner. Cueto would also be pitching in a big park with the NL's best defense last year behind him. 

Prediction: Cueto signs six-year, $142 million deal with Giants

Ben Zobrist Too Rich for Mets?

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

There are better baseball players than Ben Zobrist for sure, but few can provide value like the uber-utility man who can play any position except catcher or pitcher.

Because of Zobrist's versatility, it's no surprise that he's a hot commodity this winter, with ESPN.com's Adam Rubin noting the 34-year-old's popularity may hurt one of his biggest suitors.

"Make no mistake, the New York Mets are interested in free agent Ben Zobrist," Rubin wrote. "Still, if Zobrist is capable of landing a four-year deal, it very likely will be elsewhere."

The Mets make too much sense for Zobrist that it's scary. They have an opening at second base with postseason hero Daniel Murphy being a free agent and are poised to be in the playoff mix for a long time thanks to all their young starting pitching.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported on Nov. 29 that Zobrist is the Mets' "No. 1 target" this offseason, but the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, San Francisco and others are in the mix. One of those other teams, according to ESPN.com's Jesse Rogers, is the Chicago Cubs. 

In other words, it's good to be Zobrist right now because having that many suitors means his price will go way up. 

The Braves don't feel like a legitimate player unless they blow every other suitor out of the water with an offer. Atlanta's front office has spent the last year trading away MLB talent to build up the farm system, so why would a 34-year-old want to spend his few remaining good years with a rebuilding team?

The Nationals, Giants, Mets and Cubs are fits for Zobrist because they have legitimate playoff aspirations and can spend some money.

The Cubs would likely have to make another move—like dealing Starlin Castroif they sign Zobrist because they already have too many players for too few positions. 

The Nationals have multiple positions to fill with Dan Uggla, Ian Desmond and Denard Span being free agents. Zobrist would also provide the team insurance for third base if injury-prone star Anthony Rendon misses time in 2016. 

The Giants would likely need Zobrist to play the outfield because they are set on the infield with Joe Panik at second base, Brandon Crawford at shortstop and Matt Duffy at third base. 

Yet all factors being considered, despite Rubin's report, the Mets still seem like the safest bet to land Zobrist. He got on base at a .359 clip last year, which would have been second among New York's regulars at the end of 2015, behind Curtis Granderson (.364).

In addition to not having Murphy under contract, the Mets aren't going to retain Yoenis Cespedes. They need another bat to support Granderson, David Wright and Michael Conforto to avoid another situation like early last year, when Lucas Duda and Wilmer Flores were hitting third and fourth. 

Money will certainly be a factor for the Mets, but this franchise has an opportunity to do something special in 2016 with just a few tweaks. 

Prediction: Zobrist signs four-year, $60 million deal with Mets

Cardinals Not Hot For Chris Davis?

Nick Wass/Associated Press

One of the most talked-about connections between player and team this offseason has been between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chris Davis. 

Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports reported on Nov. 20 the Cardinals already had discussions with agent Scott Boras about Davis, with the team being "intrigued" by his ability to play the corner positions in the infield and outfield. 

While St. Louis isn't known for being a notorious spender in free agency, Morosi added that could change this offseason thanks to a new television deal:

The Cardinals are poised to spend heavily in free agency this winter, thanks to revenues from their new local television contract with FOX Sports Midwest, and Davis appears to be a good fit for their long-term plan. He could become their everyday left fielder in 2017, as Matt Holliday -- another Boras client -- doesn't have a guaranteed contract with the club beyond 2016.

However, Crasnick reported on Tuesday that the Cardinals' interest in Davis is being "overblown," and the slugger is "not [general manager] John Mozeliak's top priority."

Looking at it from a distance, it's not hard to understand why the Cardinals would be skittish about Davis. He's been great in two of the last three seasons, posting 12.6 FanGraphs wins above replacement and 100 homers in 2013 and 2015. But his 2014 was a disaster with a .196/.300/.404 slash line. 

For the talk of Davis' versatility, he does have the ability to play more than one position but was a below-average right fielder in 253.1 innings with minus-three defensive runs saved

Davis' best defensive position is first base, which causes problems in St. Louis because Matt Adams is a solid hitter who was undone in 2015 by injuries that limited him to 60 games. 

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported the Boston Red Sox have had internal discussions about pursuing Davis, though he added it will likely depend on the team being able to find someone to take Hanley Ramirez. 

With a limited market at the moment, as well as knowing how Boras loves to play things, Davis will likely end up signing with some out-of-nowhere team in mid-January. 

Right now, though, Mozeliak's talk about not having significant interest in Davis comes off as executive speak. The Cardinals are facing a lot of questions with Jason Heyward and John Lackey being free agents and Lance Lynn out for next season after having Tommy John surgery. 

Starting pitching may be the Cardinals' likely target this offseason, but don't forget the team finished 24th in runs scored and 25th in home runs last year. It needs to get impact on both sides of the ball this winter. 

Prediction: Davis signs five-year, $80 million deal with Cardinals

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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