Re-Ranking Top 15 Available MLB Free Agents, Trade Targets Post-Winter Meetings

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2016

Re-Ranking Top 15 Available MLB Free Agents, Trade Targets Post-Winter Meetings

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    The 2016 MLB winter meetings yanked multiple big-ticket free agents and trade targets off the board.

    Ace lefty Chris Sale jumped from the Chicago White Sox to the Boston Red Sox. Mark Melancon shattered the record for a relief-pitcher contract, then Aroldis Chapman shattered it again—and so on. 

    That's the allure of the annual December confab. It invariably alters the offseason landscape.

    Plenty of intriguing, game-changing names remain unsigned or untraded, though. The hot stove will keep crackling until the first spring thaw.

    With that in mind, let's re-rank the top 15 remaining trade and free-agent prizes, taking into consideration age, skill set, track record, position, price tag and/or contract status.

    We're also only considering trade candidates who have been featured in recent credible rumors, so some guys (like, say, Justin Verlander) didn't make the cut.

    Tap the clay off your cleats and proceed when ready.

No. 15: Jason Hammel

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    In a comically shallow free-agent starting pitcher pool, Jason Hammel bobs near the top.

    The 34-year-old right-hander went 15-10 with a 3.83 ERA last season for the Chicago Cubs. His 4.48 FIP hints at a possible backslide, and his 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings won't blow anyone away. He also battled elbow tightness in September.

    Under normal circumstances, that would be enough to bump Hammel from this list. These aren't normal circumstances. 

    Teams in need of starting pitching—which is to say, nearly every team—can either unload top prospects or pick at the bones of the available free agents.

    The New York Yankees showed interest in Hammel in mid-November, per George A. King III of the New York Post, but they're far from the only club that could benefit from his reliable mid-rotation services.

No. 14: Ivan Nova

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    Reread what we just said about the pitching market, and keep your eyes on Ivan Nova as an under-the-radar option.

    The 29-year-old right-hander posted a 4.90 ERA for the Yankees in 2016 but shaved it down to 3.06 in 11 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates after a trade-deadline swap.

    Most strikingly, Nova surrendered just three walks next to 52 strikeouts in 64.2 innings with the Bucs.

    Nova has never pitched more than 170.1 innings in a season and owns a career 4.30 ERA. Someone, though, is going to take a flier on him, and it could pay dividends.

No. 13: Greg Holland

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    The market for closers is shrinking. Melancon and Chapman are signed, and the Kansas City Royals dealt Wade Davis to the Cubs.

    Kenley Jansen is available (more on him in a moment), but not every club is prepared to spend $80 million-plus on a relief arm.

    That bodes well for Greg Holland. The two-time All-Star didn't pitch in 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he compiled a 2.42 ERA and 145 saves in a six-year career with the Royals.

    Holland "looked healthy" but his velocity was down at a November showcase, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post

    He's a gamble. In a world where the Yankees reportedly handed five years and $86 million to Chapman, according to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, Holland could be the offseason's buy-low bullpen commodity.

No. 12: Mike Napoli

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    Mike Napoli posted career highs in home runs (34) and RBI (101) last season with the American League champion Cleveland Indians.

    He's also 35 years old and projects best as a designated hitter, so his market is limited.

    That said, Napoli isn't tied to a draft pick since the Indians didn't offer him arbitration. He has extensive postseason experience to go along with his plus power, and he won a ring with the Red Sox in 2013.

    Cleveland has met with Napoli but was looking to lock him into a one-year deal, per MLB.com's Jordan Bastian

    After his 2016 output, he'll get more than that from someone.

No. 11: Matt Wieters

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    Matt Wieters ranks this high because of position more than recent performance.

    He came back from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and last season posted a ho-hum .243/.302/.409 slash line. He also rated as a below-average pitch-framer, per StatCorner

    The latter fact could be tamping down Wieters' value, as ESPN.com's Buster Olney noted.

    That said, Wieters is a 30-year-old four-time All-Star who hit 17 home runs in 2016 and plays a premium position. Elite catchers are MLB's rarest animal.

    "All the teams kind of check in on catching, and we've been meeting with clubs about him," agent Scott Boras said of Wieters on Wednesday, per Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun

    With Joel Sherman of the New York Post reporting Wilson Ramosthe other top available backstop—is already signed, expect interest in Wieters to ratchet up.

No. 10: Jose Bautista

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    Jose Bautista was limited to 116 games in 2016 while battling toe and knee issues and hit just .234. He's also 36 years old.

    Still, Joey Bats clubbed 22 home runs and looked, in flashes, like the guy who has made six All-Star teams and boasts four top-10 AL MVP finishes.

    He won't land anything close to the five-year, nine-figure deal he was reportedly seeking in February, per TSN's Rick Westhead. The Toronto Blue Jays, however, are "in talks" to retain Bautista's services, per FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman. Those talks, Heyman added, came after the Indians began sniffing around.

    Multiple suitors usually means a multiplying price tag. It's still possible, despite his age, that Bautista could net a contract in excess of two years.

No. 9: J.D. Martinez

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    Reports of a Detroit Tigers sell-off may have been exaggerated.

    The Tigers made zero impact trades at the winter meetings and weren't even featured in many plausible rumors.

    Still, Detroit is sitting on a trove of tradable talent, including outfielder J.D. Martinez.

    The 29-year-old hit .307 with 22 home runs and a .903 OPS in 2016 and is signed for an affordable $11.75 million in 2017.

    He makes sense for multiple teams, including the San Francisco Giants, though they may have reached their budget ceiling after signing Melancon, per Daniel Brown of the Mercury News.

    Speaking of budgets, the Tigers are trying to tighten the belt but won't trade from a place of desperation, according to general manager Al Avila.

    "We would like to shed some of that payroll," Avila said, per Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press. "But if it's not a deal that we feel is fair, there's no demand to dump the salary."

No. 8: Ian Kinsler

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    Most of what we just said about Martinez applies to Ian Kinsler.

    The Tigers want to unload salary. Kinsler is owed $11 million next season with a $12 million team option and $5 million buyout for 2018.

    He's also an enticing piece after hitting .288 with 28 home runs and winning a Gold Glove at second base in 2016.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers seem like a fit, but Kinsler can block a swap to L.A. and nine other teams under his no-trade clause, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal.

    "If one of the 10 teams happens to call and wants to talk about it, we're open to talking about it," Kinsler's agent, Jay Franklin, said, per Rosenthal. "(But) they're going to have to extend him for us to waive the no-trade."

    Kinsler will turn 35 in June, so an extension could be a tough sell. As for his current production? Virtually every team would buy on that.

No. 7: Mark Trumbo

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    If you like long balls, Mark Trumbo is your man.

    He hit the most homers in baseball last season—47 of them, to be exact—and now his eye-popping power is available to the highest bidder.

    The Colorado Rockies are interested, even after signing outfielder Ian Desmond, per Rosenthal. The Orioles, meanwhile, have already extended a four-year offer, per MASNsports.com's Roch Kubatko.

    Trumbo slots best as a designated hitter, though he sports 12 defensive runs saved in his career as a first baseman, per FanGraphs

    That expands his market somewhat, as does the fact that he's only 30 years old.

    His .303 career on-base percentage doesn't leap off the page. He's prone to the strikeout. Those home runs, however, cannot be ignored.

No. 6: Ryan Braun

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    Being the subject of persistent trade rumors is tough. Just ask Ryan Braun.

    "Not knowing 100 percent where [I'll] be playing is hard," the Milwaukee Brewers outfielder said in November, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "It definitely complicates things."

    For now, Braun remains a Brewer. He's under contract for $76 million through 2020 with a mutual option for $15 million in 2021 and a $4 million buyout. That's not a ludicrous sum by today's standards, but the rebuilding Crew would undoubtedly like to shed some of that salary and get an injection of young talent in return.

    This is a good time to sell on Braun, who's entering his age-33 season and hit .305 with 30 home runs and a .903 OPS in 2016.

    The Dodgers discussed a deal for Braun at the 2016 trade deadline, per Bob Nightengale of USA Today, and could still be a fit. His right-handed pop would be a welcome addition to L.A.'s lefty-heavy lineup.

    It's possible Milwaukee will hold onto Braun at least until the 2017 deadline. But as the free-agent outfield options dwindle, expect his name to keep cropping up.

No. 5: Andrew McCutchen

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    At several points during the winter meetings, it seemed like Andrew McCutchen's days as a member of the Pirates were over.

    The Washington Nationals were the main rumored pursuer of the former National League MVP, including a report from Heyman. The Nats, however, acquired outfielder Adam Eaton from the White Sox instead.

    On Thursday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington made it sound like the plan was to keep McCutchen all along.

    "Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen be in our lineup going forward," Huntington told reporters. "No one changed that. It's unlikely someone changes that going forward. We're not going to close the door, but we're not going to be making calls."

    There's wiggle room in that statement. There will still be interest in McCutchen, provided the Pirates' asking price doesn't soar past the stratosphere.

    The 30-year-old five-time All-Star is coming off a down year in which he posted a career-low .766 OPS. He raised his average 20 points after the All-Star break, however, and hit six of his 24 home runs in September.

    A return to elite production for McCutchen isn't out of the question, and neither is another team laying some legitimate trade chips on that bet.

No. 4: Justin Turner

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    Justin Turner was quietly one of the best third basemen in baseball last season. He hit .275 with an .832 OPS, launched 27 home runs, put up seven defensive runs saved and finished ninth in NL MVP voting.

    Now, he's going to get paid accordingly in free agency.

    Technically, the Dodgers have options at third, including a long-mooted swap for the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria.

    However, as I argued, Turner is probably the better player right now. Signing him will cost only money, whereas a trade for Longoria would drain the Dodgers' farm system.

    There are other possible fits for Turner, but the Dodgers are the most likely landing spot, per Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe

    That makes sense, as the 32-year-old is a Southern California native and a key cog in Los Angeles' offense.

No. 3: Edwin Encarnacion

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    Edwin Encarnacion bashed 193 home runs between 2012 and 2016. He hit 42 in 2016 to go along with 127 RBI. He is, by almost any measure, one of the best pure power hitters in the game. 

    He's also 33 years old and limited defensively. Like Trumbo, he's best suited as a designated hitter, though he can play a passable first base.

    The team that signs him, however, will be looking for a middle-of-the-order bat, a precious commodity in today's MLB.

    Even with his track record, Encarnacion's options may be dwindling, as Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal pointed out:

    Several teams once connected to Encarnacion have taken advantage of a saturated first-basemen market, instead choosing a cheaper option. The Blue Jays signed Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. The Boston Red Sox acquired Mitch Moreland. The Houston Astros added Carlos Beltran. The Yankees brought in Matt Holliday.

    Power hitters such as Mark Trumbo and Mike Napoli are still available as free agents as well, creating a supply-and-demand issue for Encarnacion.

    The Indians, Lewis speculated, could swoop in and nab Encarnacion for less than the four years, $80 million Toronto reportedly offered him in November, according to Heyman.

    That remains to be seen. Encarnacion is still an elite offensive player. At this point, though, the law of supply and demand doesn't appear to be on his side.

No. 2: Jose Quintana

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    The White Sox were arguably the biggest winners of the winter meetings.

    Yes, they said goodbye to Sale and Eaton, but they said hello to a glistening vault of young talent, headlined by the No. 1 position player prospect (Yoan Moncada) and No. 1 pitching prospect (Lucas Giolito) in the game, per MLB.com.

    They've got more trade bait on the big league roster, including left-hander Jose Quintana.

    Quintana was one of baseball's best under-the-radar studs last season, posting a 3.20 ERA in 208 innings and finishing 10th in AL Cy Young Award balloting. Like Sale, he's just 27 years old and signed to an affordable deal that could extend through 2020 with a pair of team options.  

    Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer even made a case for him as a better trade target than Sale. 

    The Atlanta Braves are among the clubs kicking the tires on Quintana, per David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    At this point, Chicago's asking price is apparently too high. As the offseason wears on and the pitching market thins, however, Quintana could begin to look like the last best option for a host of pitching-starved buyers. 

No. 1: Kenley Jansen

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    And then there was one.

    After Melancon signed with the Giants and Chapman with the Yankees, Kenley Jansen is the last elite closer remaining on the free-agent market.

    He probably won't stay there for long. 

    The Dodgers, Nationals and Miami Marlins are all in pursuit, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. Jansen can't match Chapman's blinding fastball, but he'll come close to matching his record payday. 

    His 7.0 WAR ranks fourth among all relievers between 2014 and 2016, according to FanGraphs' measure. During that span, he's posted a 2.32 ERA with 13.77 strikeouts per nine innings next to just 1.84 walks.

    The 2016 postseason became a coming-out party for the game's top super-relievers. Jansen was there, and he proved he belonged squarely in the conversation.

    You can argue a bullpen arm will never be as valuable as a big bat or an ace-level starter. From a statistical and optics standpoint, however, it's tough to make a convincing case against Jansen as the cream of the post-winter meetings crop. 

      

    All statistics and contract information courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.