With icy sprinkles of snow beginning to fall upon the Northeast, it could only be time for one thing: Hot. Stove. Season. For baseball junkies, nothing warms up a dreary fall day like hearing your team made a huge splash in the free agent market, or swung a major deal to upgrade their roster. Before we examine the best available players among the current lot of free agents, let’s break down the early returns from this past week.
Rangers trade 2B Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for 1B Prince Fielder and $30 million cash.
A major shakeup among the American League pennant contenders. Pretty straightforward logic here: The Rangers are looking to get Jurickson Profar into the lineup everyday, and add a big bat to offset the likely loss of free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz. The Tigers are fed up with Fielder’s postseason woes. While he remains one of the finest sluggers in the majors, Fielder has posted an abysmal .333 slugging percentage in the playoffs, nearly .200 points below his regular season clip. To top it off, Fielder hit just one home run in 101 plate appearances during his five postseason series with Detroit. The Tigers have the pop in their lineup to survive losing Fielder, and now boast one of the top double play combinations in the game with Kinsler and José Iglesias. (Side note: I can’t bring myself to analyze this trade without pointing out the spectacular coincidence that is this ESPN Sunday night baseball promo from 2010).
Cardinals trade 3B David Freese and RHP Fernando Salas to the Angels for OF Peter Bourjos and minor league outfielder Randal Grichuk.
The Cardinals seem poised to hand over second base to the infamous Kolten Wong, who must redeem himself after getting picked off to end Game 4 of the 2013 World Series. Matt Carpenter, who proved to be a sensation for St. Louis this season by leading the majors in runs, hits and doubles, will fill the void at third left by Freese’s departure. Bourjos greatly improves the Cardinals outfield defense, after logging several web gems during his four-year stint with the Angels[ref]Here’s one worthy of note.[/ref] Los Angeles is hoping Freese can seal the revolving door at third, and perhaps add to his legendary postseason resume if the Angels push for a playoff berth. Still, the Angels biggest need is starting pitching, and would do well to pursue RHP’s Ervin Santana or Matt Garza. The price will likely be high, but LA has shown a willingness to spend money in the past. If they want to contend in the tight AL West, they may have to break the bank.
Giants sign RHP Tim Hudson to a two-year deal worth $23 million.
Hudson returns to the Bay Area where his lengthy career began. The three time All-Star and 15-year vet is expected to be ready for spring training after missing the final two months of 2013 due to a right ankle fracture. With Barry Zito finally off the payroll, the Giants may have been looking to rectify their massive mistake by bringing in a different arm from the early 2000 Oakland A’s three headed monster of Zito, Hudson and Mark Mulder. Hudson adds veteran depth to a rotation that witnessed off years from rotation mainstays Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and featured only one pitcher with a Wins Above Average higher than 1.0 (Madison Bumgarner, 2.2 WAA).
Yankees sign C Brian McCann to a five-year deal worth $85 million.
Well that’s more like it. The Yankees dug deep into their pockets to lock up the best available catcher on the free agent market, and most importantly, keep him from signing with the Red Sox. McCann is a top five catcher in terms of offensive production, and he’s not a bad signal caller either. While McCann will have to shave his beard, maybe the new backstop should consider growing out a Thurman Munson-style mustache? Yankees fans must be drooling over the thought of the seven-time all-star and left handed slugger testing Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. McCann has hit at least 20 home runs in each season since 2008.
Cardinals sign SS Jhonny Peralta to a four-year deal worth $52 million.
It looks like the Cardinals are getting their holiday shopping done early this year. With a blockbuster trade already completed, the Cards added Peralta to boost their offense from a position of much need. With Carlos Beltran still fielding deals from potential employers, Peralta will shore up the St. Louis lineup in case Beltran skips town. He’s a solid defender at short and even dabbled in left field for the Tigers late last season. Peralta has maintained a solid level of offensive consistency throughout his 11-year career, and managed to play in 140+ games from 2005-2012. He was on his way to achieving that feat yet again in 2013 before he received a 50-game suspension from the league for his involvement in the Biogenesis clinic. It’s always risky to invest a multi-year deal in an admitted steroid user, as the possibly deterioration of their abilities will linger. But the level of consistency Peralta has achieved makes him a smart signing.
Still on the stove
1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
As he continues to ascend into the prime years of his big league career, Ellsbury has developed into one of the most dynamic outfielders in the league. He’s stolen 50+ bases three times in his career, and consistently ranks among the league leaders in stolen base percentage. At this point it seems unlikely he’ll return to Boston, which has the young Jackie Bradley, Jr. as an in-house replacement. More likely landing spots are the Rangers, Yankees, Mariners or Giants. Texas needs to replace Nelson Cruz and David Murphy in their outfield, as well as the lineup durability lost by dealing Ian Kinsler. The Yankees, must have Ellsbury on their radar as a possible replacement for Curtis Granderson, but may be unable to afford his asking price with Robinson Cano negotiations ongoing. Ellsbury would slide perfectly into the Giants’ lineup, though either he or current CF Angel Pagan would have to move over to left field. And the Mariners lineup has been the laughingstock of the big leagues in recent years, so pretty much any outfielder would be an instant upgrade. It’s going to take a serious investment to lock up Ellsbury. He’s the most eligible Scott Boras client this offseason, which may mean he will hold out till late in the free agent period for the best offer containing the most guaranteed cash.
Best case: Ellsbury signs a five-year deal worth $120 million with Texas, who look to keep him away from other AL contenders.
Best bet: The Giants sign Ellsbury and move Pagan to left field, giving them a proven leadoff hitter to set the table in 2014.
2. CF Shin-Soo Choo
Excluding an injury shortened 2011 season, Choo has established himself as one of the most consistent outfielders in the majors. Coming off a 2013 season where he drew a career high 113 walks out of the leadoff spot, he supplies durability that would provide an instant upgrade to any contender. A three-time member of the 20/20 club, Choo is an above average defender who can play all outfield positions and hit anywhere in the lineup. The Reds still have ambitions of resigning Choo, but would likely have to find a suitor via trade of second baseman Brandon Phillips in order to make a deal. More likely landing spots are the Rangers or Yankees. These teams should be targeting Choo over Ellsbury since each already have capable center fielders in Leonys Martin and Brett Gardner, and could comfortably slot him into a corner outfield position. Like Ellsbury, Choo will surely be approaching teams with a multi-year deal in mind similar to the mega deals signed by Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth years ago.
Best case: The Reds wheel-and-deal and make the room to resign Choo, bringing back their table-setter at the top of the lineup.
Best bet: Texas splurges and signs Choo to a five-year deal, completing the re-tooling of their lineup that went cold during a miserable 12-16 month of September.
3. RF Carlos Beltran
It’s not often that an eight-time all-star and three-time gold glove winner, who has 40 career postseason RBI, hits the free agent market. Plenty of teams could use Beltran’s potent bat and postseason heroics, which continued this postseason when he drove in 15 runs for the Cardinals. The Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Royals should all be in on Beltran who can slot into a corner outfield position and is good for 20 homers and 80 RBI while hitting from both sides of the plate.
Best case: The Royals bring back Beltran, who won the AL Rookie of the Year award with KC in 1999, adding a veteran presence and proficient switch hitter to upgrade their lineup.
Best bet: The Yankees and Red Sox try to outbid each other for Beltran’s services, and the veteran slugger benefits with a huge payday from a two year deal.
4. 2B Robinson Cano
Cano is the best free agent available this offseason and is in an unbelievable bargaining position. He’s a world-class talent at a position that most teams would love to fill with a player that has his ability. He’s finished in the top six in AL MVP voting each of the last four years, while making the AL All-Star team during each of those seasons. Furthermore, Cano hasn’t missed more than three games in a season since 2006, and has posted an incredibly impressive average WAR of 7.4 over the last four seasons. We could go on all day showering him with compliments, but it’s not necessary. Cano is a certified slugger, a wizard in the field, and rarely misses a ballgame. The Yankees would be foolish to let him skip town.
Best case: Other than a rumor appearing to lack credibility that he met with the Tigers last week, there doesn’t seem to be any sign that Cano will sign with anyone other than the Yankees.
Best bet: Once the Yankees finish their own offseason shopping, they hand Cano a blank check. They also agree to give Jay-Z season tickets so he, Beyonce and Blue Ivy can sit in the otherwise empty Yankee Stadium club seats.
5. RHP Ervin Santana
Santana will benefit this offseason from what overall is an average pool of free agent starting pitchers. To help his cause, he’s quietly emerged as one of the more durable pitchers in the game, making 30+ starts in his last four seasons. With Santana eyeing a $100 million deal, it appears unlikely he’ll return to Kansas City next season. He’s more likely to end up with a contender that needs pitching help such as the Orioles, Indians, Yankees or the Angels. If he can’t beat them, Santana might want to consider joining them; the right-hander has just five wins and a 6.34 ERA in 16 career starts against the Yankees.
Best case: The Yankees sign Santana to replace Hiroki Kuroda in their rotation and he never has to face them again.
Best bet: Santana signs with Cleveland or Baltimore and becomes a pivotal pitcher for a Wild Card contender, but doesn’t get the $100 million deal he requests.
6. RHP Matt Garza
Whoever misses out on Santana will likely settle for Garza, who hits free agency after being dealt to Texas before the deadline last season. He’s coming off two consecutive disappointing seasons in which he failed to make more than 25 starts, damaging his value. Garza may not be the frontline starter we’ve perceived him to be in recent years. That being said, he is an excellent pitcher who maintains a 93 MPH fastball and solid SO/9 ratio of 7.9. If he can keep himself healthy, he would be an upgrade for any rotation. The Indians, Orioles, Angels, Blue Jays, Rangers, Rockies and Mariners all need pitching help next season.
Best case: The best years of Garza’s career have come while in the National League; the Pirates bring him into the fold to replace A.J. Burnett in their rotation.
Best bet: Garza, a California native, signs a four year deal with Angels, who are desperate for qualified starters to join Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson.
7. Masahiro Tanaka
I’m not going to front and pretend I know a damn thing about this guy. I don’t watch Nippon Professional Baseball, which makes it tough for me to catch Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles games. I checked out some footage of him on YouTube, and made it priority to find the reel that best incorporates high video quality and hilariously upbeat ’80s music. He clearly has nasty stuff and makes whatever kind of hitters he’s facing miss on a regular basis. His curveball drops several inches impressively and he is able to paint the corners with his blazing fastball. It’s tough to gauge how Japanese pitchers will fare in the majors. For every Daisuke Matsuzaka (current free agent) or Kei Igawa (back playing in Japan, but perhaps still available?), there’s a Yu Darvish or Koji Uehara. If he can throw strikes consistently, he should have much success here in America.
Best case: Owners with deep pockets bid like crazy to bring Tanaka to their town, and the Angels snatch him up as they try to turn it around in 2014.
Best bet: The Yankees oddly haven’t brought back Kuroda just yet despite him being one of their better pitchers in recent years. After missing out on Darvish, the Yanks submit the winning bid for Tanaka and hope Kuroda resigns so they really get their money’s worth out of their Japanese translator next season.
8. Brian Wilson
Wilson may be on the wrong side of 30, but he’s coming off a season where he returned from his second Tommy John surgery to pitch crucial innings for the Dodgers in August, September and October. Assuming his elbow is ready to resume the rigors of closing, Wilson should come at a cheaper price than other closers like Joe Nathan or Grant Balfour. I’d imagine Wilson would seek a multi-year deal for the job security, which is never a guarantee. His resume speaks for himself: three All-Star appearances, high strikeout and save totals, and most importantly a World Series title. Wilson would be a strong fit for the Mariners, Mets, Dodgers, Tigers and Indians. One thing is for sure, there is one team Wilson won’t be joining next season.
Best case: The Tigers add Wilson to their bullpen with a shot at claiming the closers role on a legitimate title contender. Current closer Joaquin Benoit has had more success as a setup man in his career, so the opportunity to overtake him is very prevalent.
Best bet: The Mariners sign Wilson to a two-year deal and hand him the closer’s role in spring training. At least he’ll have some work to do when King Felix pitches.
If you have a bone to pick with anything you read here, tweet me @matt_frank12.
Shouts out to @JMintzHoops for the title inspiration.