With the postseason wrapping up tomorrow, MLB’s offseason will officially be underway. As a Rangers fan, this has been a longtime coming. And by longtime, I mean since, like, the end of May.
Your list of the top-10 free agents this winter would probably differ from mine, because there is obviously a bit of subjectivity involved in any list, or ranking, but hey, so what? People just can’t help themselves. We love lists!
This comes from MLB Trade Rumors, and for the sake of being practical, I’m keeping off Ben Zobrist (who owns a $7.5 million option that Tampa Bay is surely to pick up), Johnny Cueto (with a $10 million option), Hisashi Iwakuma ($7 million), and Nick Markakis ($17.5 million). I’m operating under the assumption that each of those respective teams will pick up the options.
So with that said, here we go:
10. Koji Uehara — For the #10 spot, I easily could have chosen any number of #3 starting pitchers. Brandon McCarthy would’ve been a popular choice. Fact is, starting pitchers, even #3-#4 starters, are more valuable from a pure innings-pitched perspective than almost any reliever I could put on here. That I added Koji obviously means I have a high opinion of him, and his numbers make it a reasonable argument. In 2014 he carried a 32.1% strikeout rate to go with a minuscule 3.2% walk rate, which is somehow worse than his masterful 2013 where he posted a 38.1% K rate with a 3.4% BB rate. His fWAR was down heavily in 2014 (+1.4) compared to ’13 (+3.3), but that mostly had to do with his HR rate more than doubling, from 6.8% to 14.3%. The modern baseball era loves pitchers who strikeout a ton of hitters and walk next to none, and Koji certainly satisfies that recipe.
9. Melky Cabrera — Clearly MLB fans care about PEDs, don’t they? I mean, with how much players are shamed for allegedly taking them, it has to be a big deal, doesn’t it? Haha wait no, I’m just kidding! All fans care about are guys who perform well on the baseball field. In 2014 Cabrera posted a respectable .301/.351/.458 (125 wRC+) triple slash line, good for +2.6 fWAR. After receiving a two-year, $16 million commitment from the Blue Jays for the 2013-’14 seasons, I won’t be surprised if that number kicks up a bit, and I’d love to see the Rangers sign him for something in the three-year, $30 million range, though it may take more.
8. Nelson Cruz — buyer beware: he was signed to a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles in their very hitter-friendly environment. He rewarded them by blasting 40 HRs in route to a .271/.333/.525 (137 wRC+) triple slash, but we know how players perform in contract years. Some team is going to pay him $12-$15 million average annual value for 3-4 years, and it’s going to be a terrible move. At age-34, Cruz is basically a glorified designated hitter, a guy who will hit for power with a mediocre OBP who does literally nothing else well. He can’t play defense, he can’t run, and has a proven track record for breaking down.
7. Pablo Sandoval — I’m not a huge Sandoval fan, but the man produces and I can’t hate on that. In six full big league seasons he’s been worth better than 20 wins according to FanGraphs, and if the Giants end up winning the World Series, I can’t envision a scenario where he doesn’t end up with them. Even if they don’t, San Francisco have to be the heavy favorites to re-sign him anyway.
6. Russell Martin — Catching is such a precious commodity. There isn’t a position in baseball with a wider gap between elite and very good, very good and average. There are a handful of guys at the top — like Posey and Molina and Lucroy and Perez — then the next tier — like Martin and Gomes — and then the group falls off dramatically. Russell Martin is a very good defender with a great bat for a catcher, which is reflected by the elite +9.4 fWAR he generated in Pittsburgh over the last two years. It’s hard to project catchers in their 30’s, but Martin seems to be a pretty safe bet to be well above league average for the next three years, and that’s extremely valuable.
5. Victor Martinez — The best bat on the market, Martinez — like Nellie Cruz — is a designated hitter with minimal utility in the field at this stage of his career. In 2014 at age-35, he hit .335/.409/.565 (166 wRC+), good for +4.4 fWAR in spite of being worth -21.2 runs on defense. That’s damn impressive. Whomever signs him is likely to pay more money than he probably deserves in the WAR/$ paradigm, but he’s nonetheless one of the very best hitters in MLB, even at his advanced age.
4. Hanley Ramirez — His defense at shortstop is eroding, but that’s not to say he was ever that good of a defender in the first place. If your team is interested in signing Hanley, they are signing him for his bat, a bat that is still fully functional. In nine big league seasons — a couple shortened due to injury — Ramirez has produced +40.2 Wins Above Replacement, about +4.5 fWAR/year. 2015 will be his age-31 season, so his health concerns logically figure to get worse as he continues to age, but even at that you’re looking at a guy with a very realistic shot of crossing the 60-win threshold to be worthy of Hall-of-Fame consideration, even if he has to shift over to 3rd base in the next couple years.
3. James Shields — Don’t let my ragging on Shields during the postseason fool you: he’s still a quality starter, just not quality enough to be “Big Game James” good. Shields is remarkably durable, which is probably the biggest thing he has going for him, as he’s logged at least 215 innings in seven of the last eight seasons, and north of 200 each year since 2007. During that span he’s generated +30.0 fWAR, and profiles as a solid #2-#3 innings eater well into his 30’s. (He’s going to be 33 in ’15.)
2. Jon Lester — Unlike the #1 and #3 options on this list, Lester holds the added value of not being attached to draft pick compensation. Whichever franchise signs him will not be responsible for giving up their #1 pick, something that can’t be understated. Jon Lester isn’t quite a #1, not in my eyes at least, but he is one of the very best #2 starters in baseball. Like Shields, Lester is crazy consistent throwing 200 innings a year (he’s done it six of the last seven years), but unlike Shields he has the dominant peripherals that will command $140-$150 million on the open market. In 2014 he struck out 25% of the batters he faced while 5.4%. He’s heading into his age-31 season, so you have to figure he’ll get a deal in the 6-7 year range, with the favorites being the Cubs and Red Sox.
1. Max Scherzer — Along with Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, and maybe a couple others, Max Scherzer is one of baseball’s legit ace starting pitchers. In the last three years he’s been worth +16.5 fWAR, and over his six big league seasons he’s been worth +27.0 wins. These pitchers don’t grow on trees. He might not travel as deep into games as you’re accustomed to for a true #1, but he strikes out a stupid amount of hitters — he’s second in MLB over the last three years in strikeout percentage next to Yu Darvish — and his walk totals aren’t enough to take away from his ridiculous ability to limit contact. If there was a way in hell, and believe me, I would sell my soul to see it happen, to have Scherzer in the Rangers rotation with Yu Darvish, I’d hope Texas would get it done. I mean, I’ve been calling it since before 2013 started, because Scherzer is one of my favorites, so for selfish ego purposes I would love to see it through just so I could say HA I TOLD YOU BITCH. In reality, Texas are dealing with limited resources this winter and have to cover an outfielder and two starting pitchers, and to get Max they’d have to trade away a contract like Adrian Beltre or Elvis Andrus or Shin-Soo Choo, so the odds of it happening are extremely slim. Still, some team is going to pay Scherzer something like $25 million AAV over the next 7 years, and when they do I’m going to be sad it’s not the Rangers.
Anyway, that’s my list. I hope you liked it.