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November 5, 2012

Painting the Black

The 50 Best Free Agents

by R.J. Anderson

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With free agency beginning at just after midnight Eastern early Saturday, it’s time to look at this year’s class. Along with Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and others, we put together a list of the top 50 free agents available this winter. Some analysis and predictions are also included. You can quibble with the rankings (especially after a certain point) and many of the predictions, but this is meant to serve as a primer for the free-agent period.

1. Zack Greinke (Angels): Greinke may not consistently perform like an ace but he is a durable no. 2 starter with a deep arsenal, and an understanding of how to use it. After trading three top prospects at the deadline for Greinke and then having his club miss the postseason, Jerry Dipoto is in an unenviable position. Dipoto cannot recoup draft picks, which provides further incentive to re-sign Greinke. It seems Dipoto is heading down that path if recent payroll shearing is any indication.

2. Josh Hamilton (Mariners): Hamilton is the toughest player to place. He might be the best player available on talent and production. But ignoring the skeletons in Hamilton’s closest is an unwise decision for interested teams. Handing out a long-term contract is gambling on the human being. The questions about Hamilton’s character and durability should limit his market enough to merit interest from Jack Zduriencik, whose Seattle lineup needs the help. 

3. Michael Bourn (Nationals): For the second consecutive season, Bourn tapered off following the All-Star break. A stellar defender, Bourn is also a capable leadoff hitter who can lead the league in stolen bases in any given year. Washington’s desire to add a true center fielder is nothing new. How they go about fitting Bourn, Mike Morse, and Adam LaRoche into the lineup is the question.  

4. B.J. Upton (Rangers): All the talk about Upton’s potential misses a key point: Upton is already a productive player. His baseball skills sharpened in 2012, making him a better fundamental player, though there’s still room for growth.  Teams have reservations about Upton’s competitive desire, stemming from a series of hustle-related incidents earlier in his career. Despite those concerns, Upton’s blend of power and speed will be enough to catch someone’s eye, and that someone might be Jon Daniels.

5. Nick Swisher (Red Sox): Swisher might have sealed his Bronx fate by bleating about the fans’ treatment of him during the postseason. His devil-may-care attitude rubs some the wrong way, but there is no denying his offensive talents. He does it all at the plate: hitting for decent averages, drawing walks, and smacking home runs—he has at least 20 in each of his full big-league seasons. Add in that Swisher switch-hits and can play multiple positions, and teams with multiple holes like Boston should be interested.

6. Anibal Sanchez (Orioles): Sanchez has thrown between 195 and 197 innings in each of the past three seasons. He throws a number of pitches for strikes and coaxes a generous amount of groundballs along the way. The occasional meltdown, spurred by wavering command, prevents Sanchez from becoming more than a no. 2 or 3 starter. Still, Sanchez would legitimize an Orioles’ rotation that needs some help.

7. Hiroki Kuroda (Yankees): After a big year in the Bronx, Kuroda figured to be one of the more attractive starting pitching options available. His willingness to accept a one-year deal only adds to the shine. But realistically, Kuroda may limit his suitors to the teams he’s played for in the past: the Dodgers and the Yankees.  Expect New York to make a push.

8. Angel Pagan (Phillies): Pagan appeals to teams because he’s good at many things and poor at few. A typical Pagan season includes a decent average, a fair rate of walks, and a few handfuls of triples. There’s not an area where Pagan hurts you. Philadelphia would rather get younger, but Pagan will make his team happy.

9. Kyle Lohse (Royals): If the rumors about Lohse’s potential contract are true, he could become the biggest overpay in the class. Nonetheless, Lohse is a solid middle-of-the-rotation option with a good feel for pitching. Kansas City could use a rotation anchor like Lohse, and he carries the added benefit of postseason experience.

10. Edwin Jackson (Blue Jays): Perpetually in search of a multi-year contract, Jackson is a nice fit in the middle of a contender’s rotation. Durable and predictable, if unspectacular, Jackson rides his fastball-slider combination hard.  Toronto supposedly had a small army of scouts attend his final starts.

11. Dan Haren (Red Sox): Just a year removed from Cy Young votes, Haren saw his reasonably priced option declined by the Angels. His strikeout-to-walk ratio stayed strong during his career-worst year. Does that now make him Joe Blanton, a very hittable strike-thrower? It might, but given his success and durability over the past half-decade he'll get (and deserve) the benefit of the doubt somewhere. The Red Sox reportedly showed interest in trading for him before the Angels declined the option.

12. Mike Napoli (Rangers): Free agency is all about timing. A year ago, Napoli would have been in line to make major bucks. Instead, he may take a one-year deal to rebuild value. The power comes at a cost, as Napoli is prone to racking up strikeouts. He can play two positions, neither well. Texas is the favorite by default.  

13. Adam LaRoche (Nationals): LaRoche, already one of the best cold-corner defenders out there, had a fantastic offensive season. What the Nationals have to decide is how willing they are to believe in the breakout, and whether they’re willing to buy at his value’s apogee. If LaRoche does flee, he could return to Boston, where he played all of six games in 2009.

14. Torii Hunter (Yankees): Known in his prime as a glove-first center fielder, Hunter has reinvented himself as an offense-heavy corner outfielder these past few years. Hunter is a smart player and used his remaining athleticism to record a career-high seven bunt hits. There is an inherent risk with Hunter’s age (he turns 38 in July), but regardless of age the Yankees are rarely ones to shy away from productive players.

15. Shane Victorino (Braves): Little-known fact about Victorino: He hails from Hawaii. Who knew? Victorino’s high-energy approach tends to earn him fans. A poor 2012 season aside, Victorino does a lot of things well. He typically hits for average, draws some walks, steals bases at a high efficiency, and plays solid defense. Atlanta will be in the market for a center fielder to replace Bourn. They tend to value character, and Victorino would seem to fit the bill.

16. Melky Cabrera (Red Sox): Here is everyone’s favorite one-year deal candidate. Cabrera has posted back-to-back solid seasons, all the while proving he can play ball provided he stays in shape. If the switch-hitting Cabrera does opt for a pillow contract, the Red Sox could be the perfect landing spot.

17. Ryan Dempster (Brewers): Dempster’s struggles with the Rangers aside, he remains a solid no. 2 or 3 starter. He uses smart sequencing to set batters up for his slider. Milwaukee could use another veteran in its rotation with Shaun Marcum also hitting the open market.

18. Brandon McCarthy (Cubs): McCarthy’s season ended prematurely after a batted ball struck his head. Thankfully, McCarthy is okay. He excels at throwing strikes and generating groundballs. McCarthy is an injury risk based on his past shoulder issues. Chicago isn’t close to competing, but getting McCarthy on a reasonable deal to team up with Matt Garza would make sense.

19. Ryan Ludwick (Reds): After disappearing for most of the past two seasons, Ludwick reemerged as an all-around hitter. What teams have to figure out is how much of Ludwick’s breakdown and subsequent breakout stem from the ballparks in which he played. Without an obvious answer in sight, bet on the Reds to retain Ludwick’s services. 

20. Rafael Soriano (Tigers): Soriano’s post-save celebration—an aggressive untucking of his jersey—has become his staple as much as his fastball-slider combination. He works at his own pace during spring training and on the mound. The results are hard to knock, however. He is a bit of an injury risk, having missed time in the past with elbow issues. The Tigers have said they are not interested in top-priced closers, which would eliminate Soriano and his reported four-year, $60 million price tag. Detroit may change its mind if Soriano is still out there in February.

21. Russell Martin (Yankees): Martin is the top backstop. He’s better defensively than Napoli, being especially skilled at receiving the ball. Martin can hit a fair bit as well, though his strikeout rate continues to increase. The Yankees have Gary Sanchez a few years away, so signing Martin to serve as the bridge makes sense.

22. Stephen Drew (A’s): Drew is arguably the best shortstop available (depending on how teams view Marco Scutaro's position heading forward). He has not lived up to his draft hype, but he is a solid-to-above-average player with more bat than most shortstops. Trading Cliff Pennington may have adumbrated the A’s plan to keep Drew at shortstop.

23. Marco Scutaro (Giants): After a miserable stint with the Rockies, Scutaro landed with the Giants and got back to what he does best: making contact and grinding out walks. He reemerged as a solid player during the Giants’ World Series run, and could be in line to return to the Giants. If history repeats itself, expect Brian Sabean to keep Scutaro around for one year too many. 

24. Shaun Marcum (Padres): Marcum is a middle-of-the-rotation starter with consistent performances (his ERA over the last three seasons has ranged from 3.54 to 3.70). Durability is the big concern, along with environment. Marcum is a soft-tossing right-hander with fly-ball tendencies. He would fit Petco Park.

25. Kevin Youkilis (White Sox): Youkilis is the top third baseman available, but questions about his vitality going forward will weigh down his market. The White Sox lack an obvious alternative, so Youkilis could wind up back in Chicago. For fun: Imagine the articles written if Youkilis signs with the A’s.

26. A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox): After belting a career-high 27 home runs, Pierzynski is in a weird position. He’s old enough that the market is unlikely to believe his breakout is genuine. Add the annoyance factor and Pierzynski is probably returning to the White Sox.

27. Jeremy Guthrie (A’s): Guthrie entered the season as an underrated middle-of-the-rotation workhorse. Struggling in Colorado is a forgivable sin, and Guthrie looked much better with the Royals. The A’s are losing Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy and could benefit from an underrated veteran arm.

28. Mike Adams (Brewers): Adams had an uncharacteristic season but remains one of the league’s top set-up men. The Brewers will be without Francisco Rodriguez and could use some help at the back of the bullpen given John Axford’s inconsistency.

29. Cody Ross (Red Sox): Ross has always thrashed southpaws and scuffled against right-handers. Nothing changed in 2012. Ross’ ability to play each outfield position is an added benefit.  Expect Boston to bring the league’s top bat-flipper back.

30. Ryan Madson (Red Sox): It’s unclear how the market will treat Madson after he missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery. Prior to the surgery, Madson was widely viewed as one of the best relievers in the game thanks to his fastball-changeup combination. Boston, and others, would be wise to look into Madson if he seeks a pillow contract.

31. Mariano Rivera (Yankees): Rivera’s return is still in question. If Rivera does pitch in 2013, expect him to wear pinstripes.

32. Andy Pettitte (Yankees): Ditto for Pettitte, who showed he still has enough in the tank to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter.

33. Ichiro Suzuki (Giants): Ichiro hit like his old self during his time in the Bronx. The Giants reportedly had interest at the trade deadline. With Pagan and Cabrera leaving in free agency, another pursuit of Ichiro makes sense.

34. Joe Saunders (Orioles): Saunders isn’t sexy. He makes his starts and slips out of enough jams thanks to timely double plays. The Orioles and Saunders seem interested in keeping the southpaw in town.

35. Joe Blanton (Indians): Blanton is a rank-and-file innings sponge. He produces few thrills, but typically takes the mound every fifth day. Struggles with hittability keep him from being more than a no. 5 starter at this point. Cleveland may roll the dice on stability over youth to keep Terry Francona happy.

36. Jason Grilli (Mets): Grilli’s emergence with the Pirates works against him, too. While Grilli is a solid relief option, he’s a reminder that teams can find similar success stories themselves. The Mets are in need of middle relief help.

37. Jeff Keppinger (Phillies): A compact swing and excellent bat control keep Keppinger annually in the running for the league’s best contact rate. Ideally, a team would sign Keppinger and platoon him. However, the weak third base market will force a team, be it the Phillies, Dodgers, or Marlins, to give Keppinger daily work at the hot corner. 

38. David Ross (Braves): If not for Ross’ age, he'd be more attractive. As it is, Ross is the best backup catcher in the league and he seems content with that role. Anticipate the Braves re-signing Ross, with Brian McCann’s shoulder situation casting doubt on his status for the beginning of next season.

39. Koji Uehara (Rangers): Uehara is good for one trip to the disabled list and a wacky-looking strikeout-to-walk ratio every season. He’s walked 29 batters in 157 career appearances (more than 211 innings). Texas would be happy to have its control specialist back.

40. Joel Peralta (Yankees): Peralta’s claim to fame is a mid-summer ejection over a copious amount of pine tar stored in his glove. “Joey Pine Tar” is an old-school reliever making it work in the new age thanks to moxie and a three-pitch mix. Peralta often pitches backward, but is unafraid to challenge hitters. New York could use a stabilizing presence in the seventh inning and Peralta is AL East-tested.

41. Carlos Villanueva (Mariners): After starting 29 games over the past two seasons, Villanueva is reportedly eyeing a rotation gig. The Blue Jays, perhaps fearful of Villanueva’s tendency to throw offspeed stuff up in the zone, seemed uninterested. Expect Villanueva to get a shot at starting somewhere, with Seattle boasting the Milwaukee connection through Zduriencik.

42. Scott Baker (Twins): Baker underwent Tommy John surgery last April, the climax to a three-year struggle to alleviate a barking elbow. Minnesota will probably stand by their man—they could use the potential rotation help anyhow.

43. Jose Valverde (Rays): Valverde’s disastrous postseason and declining strikeout rate are causes for concern. Yet his idiosyncrasies would fit well on Joe Maddon’s club, and the Rays straighten out inconsistent relievers as well as anyone. Plus, Valverde would represent a ninth inning contingency plan if Fernando Rodney falters.  

44. Kelly Johnson (Marlins): Johnson is coming off another disappointing season, but he still provides some pop at the keystone. He fills a need for the Marlins.

45. Maicer Izturis (A’s): Injuries and the Angels’ infield depth limited Izturis to a reserve role. The switch-hitter could solidify third base for the A’s behind strong defense and a contact-heavy approach at the plate.

46. Jonathan Broxton (Marlins): A solid year setting up in Kansas City and Cincinnati could lead to Broxton landing another closer’s gig. If not, taking the eighth inning role in Miami and serving as Steve Cishek insurance is a decent alternative.

47. Jeremy Affeldt (Giants): Affeldt is one of the key cogs to the Giants bullpen. If Sabean repeats his 2010 strategy, then expect Affeldt to return. 

48. Sean Burnett (Dodgers): You can flip a coin between Affeldt and Burnett. Both are good left-handed relievers. Burnett fits the specialist role on the Dodgers vacated by Randy Choate.

49. Randy Choate (Mets): Choate is one of the most effective left-handed specialists in the game, but the sight of a right-handed hitter blanches his face. As with Grilli, the Mets need the bullpen help, and Choate should come reasonably.

50. Francisco Liriano (Mariners): As big of a wild card as there is. Liriano could compete for a spot on the All-Star team or flirt with unemployment. The Mariners had success transforming Oliver Perez into a reliever and could try their hand with Liriano if other teams fail to express interest in him as a starter. 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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