Free Agency started for Major League Baseball last week and this intense period of speculation about how much top players are worth, and who will pay for their talents, is at fever pitch.
Pitching phenoms, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, are getting the most buzz and each is expected to get a minimum contract of $150 million over six or seven years. Contracts for the big bats of Victor Martinez, Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez might reach the $100 million mark.
Last year second baseman (then with the Yankees) Robinson Cano was handed a bank-breaking contract with the Seattle Mariners of $240 million over ten years. Nobody is expecting those gaudy numbers this year. Free agency technically never ends, but the big name players’ contracts conclude at the end of each season and they are usually scarfed up by the beginning of February.
Expect the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox to be the big players in this free agency market. What will be the surprising move of the winter? Will there be a big blockbuster trade made? I will attempt to answer some of these questions.
Jon Lester was one of the best pitchers in the game this year. His left-handedness makes him an even more attractive option. Although Lester struggled some the previous two years, going 24-22 with a 4.28 ERA in 2012 and 2013 combined, he turned it around in 2014, with a 16-11 record, posting career bests in ERA with 2.46, WHIP at 1.10, and 220 innings pitched. The former Boston Red Sox ace was traded from Beantown to Oakland at the July 31 trade deadline this year.
While the A’s struggled down the final stretch of the season, Lester excelled. The biggest rumors have Lester returning to Oakland, signing with the Chicago Cubs, or even returning to Boston where he played for eight-plus years. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein probably has an inside edge with the lefty ace, as he was with the Red Sox when they drafted Lester. Boston is rumored to have offered six years for his services, but I believe Lester winds up in Chicago because of his close ties to Epstein.
Tiger Max Scherzer is the other big name pitcher on the open market this year. The 2013 American League Cy Young winner reportedly turned down a six year $144 million extension offered by Detroit Tigers back in March. Coming off a year where he went 21-3 with a 2.90 ERA and .97 WHIP, it was a risky move for Scherzer, but the gamble appears to have paid off. Scherzer’s numbers were down from 2013, but only slightly, posting a 3.15 ERA and 1.17 WHIP to go along with an 18-5 record. The right-hander is rumored to want a contract worth $200+ million. Expect the Tigers to remain in the hunt until the very end but I predict the Chicago Cubs swoop up Scherzer for big money.
James Shields is an interesting case. The veteran right-hander pitched well for the Kansas City Royals the last two seasons, with a combined record of 27-17 and a 3.19 ERA and 1.21 WHIP over the same two years. But Shields failed to live up to his nickname of “Big Game James” throughout the 2014 postseason, with an ERA north of 7 in the World Series. While that won’t stop teams from pursuing Shields, it likely will have an impact on the money Shields will earn. Kansas City is desperate to re-sign their ace, but I think his value proves to be too high for them and he signs with the New York Yankees.
Detroit’s Victor Martinez is the best pure hitter available in this year. The 36-year-old DH had a career year in 2014, reaching career highs in batting average at .335, 32 home runs, 103 RBI’s, and on-base percentage of .409. In an age where high strikeouts are becoming the norm, Martinez struck out just 40 times in 150 games. Because of his spectacular performance, Martinez was named a finalist for the 2014 American League MVP. His age is the reason some teams may be hesitant to give Martinez a big long-term contract. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has said re-signing Martinez is their highest priority, and proved it Wednesday night. Martinez and the Tigers agreed to a 4 year $68 million deal.
Hanley Ramirez was one of the best shortstops in all of baseball but injuries have hampered this former phenom. The bat is still there, hitting for a .283 average this past season for the Los Angeles Dodgers with some power. He collected 13 home runs and 71 RBI’s this season. The soon to be 31 year old Ramirez has expressed a willingness to shift over to third base or even play left field, perhaps in an effort to help make him an attractive option to more teams. So far the Boston Red Sox have been the only team rumored to be interested in the veteran infielder. If the Red Sox sign him, it would be a homecoming of sorts as Ramirez was a top prospect for Boston before being traded to the Marlins for pitcher Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell. I believe Ramirez “comes home” and signs with the Red Sox.
Pablo Sandoval aka the Kung Fu Panda will be an attractive player for many teams, including the Boston Red Sox. Multiple reports including one from ESPN says the Red Sox are “all in” on signing the 2012 World Series MVP. Sandoval is surprisingly nimble for his size and has a cannon for an arm, making his defense an underrated skill. Sandoval has had injury problems in the past but did play in 157 games this past season for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Sandoval hit 16 home runs and 73 RBI’s this year, along with a .279 average, and .325 on base percentage. But he stepped up big time in the playoffs. Sandoval was clutch, hitting .400 or better in both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. The Giants will try to sign Sandoval but I predict he also signs with the Red Sox as part of Boston’s major overhaul.
The first free agent to sign this offseason was 35-year-old outfielder Michael Cuddeyer just signed with the New York Mets on Monday, inking a 2-year $21 million contract. Cuddeyer played for the Colorado Rockies the last three seasons after 11 years with the Minnesota Twins. Cuddeyer was named to just his second All-Star appearance in 2013 and won the National League batting title that same year. But the veteran outfielder played only 49 games in 2014, thanks to three separate stints on the disabled list due to various injuries. If he is healthy, look for Cuddeyer to be a steady producer in the Mets lineup in 2015.
Free agency is a fun and wild part of baseball. All the wheeling and dealing and posturing by agents, players, GMs and owners is exciting to watch and to predict where players will wind up and what kind of deals will be cut. I expect this year to be no different.