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MLB Free Agency Preview

Tony Consiglio breaks down the best upcoming free agents in Major League Baseball

San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval

Only the World Series now stands in the way of baseball’s offseason. Twenty-eight teams are already making plans for next season, and they all have their eyes on at least some free agents. This year’s crop of available players may not be the deepest it’s ever been, but there is still plenty of talent available, especially among pitchers.

There are numerous front-end starters available, as well as a handful of relievers who can be a shutdown option late in games. Offensively, the stars are fewer and farther between. Because of the relative shallow pool of position players, organizations in need of significant help will need to get creative to find it.

In advance of the upcoming free agency period, here is a position-by-position breakdown of this offseason’s notable available players.

Catcher

Best Available: Ryan Doumit, Nick Hundley, Russell Martin, A.J. Pierzynski

The catching position isn’t particularly deep this offseason. Martin stands as the best of the bunch, and could command a decent payday from a team in need of an impact catcher. His 5.5 WAR only trailed MVP-candidate Jonathan Lucroy among major league backstops. He’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career, setting a new high in WAR, while his .290 average and .832 OPS were his second best. Hundley and Doumit weren’t great offensively this year, but could provide a steady veteran presence on a multi-year deal. Pierzynski could be productive in a supporting role with a team needing experience at the position.

Others Available: J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, Gerald Laird, Jeff Mathis, David Ross, Geovany Soto

Teams in Need: Cubs, Dodgers, Mariners, Mets, Pirates, Rays

First Base

Best Available: Billy Butler, Michael Cuddyer, Adam LaRoche, Adam Lind, Victor Martinez, Michael Morse

For a position at which teams like to have a power bat, this crop of free agents doesn’t provide much. However, Martinez is the exception to the rule. He’s coming off another big year with Detroit, hitting .335/.409/.565 with 32 homers and 103 RBIs, and leading the league in OBP, OPS, and intentional walks. He is a great bat to have in any lineup, though he is probably best suited for an American League team at this point in his career. He turns 36 in December and should spend at least some time as a DH. Among the rest, LaRoche is the steadiest of the bunch, having hit at least 20 home runs in the nine seasons in which he played in more than 110 games. Cuddyer has turned into one of the better hitters in the National League over the last couple seasons, with a .331 average and 30 homers in 179 games. Morse is coming off a successful year in San Francisco, hitting .279/.336/.475 with 16 home runs, but is injury prone. Lind and Butler could provide a reliable first baseman who can hit for average with the occasional power stroke.

Others available: Daric Barton, Mike Carp, Lyle Overbay, Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds

Teams in Need: Brewers, Marlins, Padres, Pirates, Tigers

Second Base

Best Available: Emilio Bonifacio, Rickie Weeks, Ben Zobrist

Rays’ everyman Zobrist leads this shallow second base crop. Since 2009, he has played in no fewer than 146 games in a season, and over the last six years he has 211 doubles, 28 triples, 99 homers, and 95 stolen bases. He may not even reach the free agent market this offseason if the Rays decide to pick up his $7.5 million option. Aside from him, there is little to get excited about at this position. Weeks is coming off a good season, but he has been hampered by injuries in each of the last two years. Bonifacio is versatile and can provide plenty of speed to a team’s lineup, though he can have trouble putting a full season together.

Others available: Rafael Furcal, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts

Teams in Need: Braves, Nationals, Orioles, Padres, Rays, Yankees

Third Base

Best Available: Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval

Sandoval is sure to command big dollars on the open market. He is consistently strong offensively and also quite good defensively. And that’s just in the regular season. But he’s making his way through another great postseason, in which he’s been great during his career. In 32 playoff games, he has hit .325/.372/.548 with 10 doubles, six home runs, and nine walks. Ramirez was an all-star this season, finishing the year with a .285 average and 39 extra-base hits in 133 games. He and the Brewers could agree on a $14 million mutual option for next season. Headley was long one of the few stars of the Padres’ lineups, and was traded to the Yankees this season. However, over the last two years, he has largely struggled, managing to hit just .246, though his 3.5 combined WAR last season was good for 11th among third basemen in all of baseball.

Others Available: Alberto Callaspo, Jack Hannahan, Donnie Murphy

Teams in Need: Astros, Brewers, Blue Jays, Giants, Nationals, Royals, Yankees

Shortstop

Best Available: Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, Jed Lowrie

As with many of the other infield positions, the free agent market at shortstop is thin. Ramirez is the best of the bunch, having gotten his career back on track in Los Angeles. The big issue, though, is that he still has injury problems. He played in just 128 games last season after managing only 86 the year before. However, when he is on the field, he can still be a dynamic force. Cabrera is only 28, but has been declining since 2011. In the last three seasons, he’s hit just .251. Drew is coming off the worst season in his career, but he was doomed after missing out on Spring Training and the first two months of the season when he became a victim of declining a qualifying offer. Lowrie, while capable as a starter, is a near lock to end up on the disabled list at some point during the year.

Others available: Mike Aviles, Clint Barmes

Teams in Need: Athletics, Dodgers, Mets, Padres, Reds, Yankees

Left Field

Best Available: Melky Cabrera, Ryan Ludwick, Michael Morse

Cabrera is lined up to score the biggest contract of the left field crop. He reinvigorated his career after his year in Toronto, finishing fifth in the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year Award voting. He hit .301/.351/.458, and his .808 OPS was sixth-best among all left fielders. After his PED scandal following his 2012 All-Star season with San Francisco and a down year with the Blue Jays, he should command a healthy contract this offseason. Otherwise, Morse is an option as a left fielder for a team that sees him as an everyday option there. Ludwick has a $9 million mutual option with Cincinnati, but even when healthy, he has been inconsistent, posting a negative WAR in each of the past two seasons.

Others Available: Mike Carp, Chris Denorfia, Jonny Gomes, Alfonso Soriano, Josh Willingham, Chris Young

Teams in Need: Giants, Mets, Orioles, Padres Rangers, Reds, Royals, Tigers, Twins, White Sox

Center Field

Best Available: Emilio Bonifacio, Colby Rasmus, Denard Span

For teams that need a center fielder, finding one via the free agent market this offseason will prove to be tough. Span would be the best option, but he may not even hit the market. The Nationals hold a $9 million club option, which may keep him in Washington. As a leadoff hitter who hit .302 with 31 stolen bases, 39 doubles, and 94 runs, he may not be going anywhere. Rasmus has some power, but has hit higher than .225 just once in the last four seasons and has struck out more at least 116 times five years running. Bonifacio could play center for teams that have no better options, however he has played just 167 games there during his eight year career.

Others Available: Grady Sizemore, Chris Young

Teams in Need: Braves, Cubs, Mets, Pirates, Rangers, Rays, Tigers, Twins

Right Field

Best Available: Norichika Aoki, Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter, Nick Markakis, Alex Rios

Of all position players, right field provides the most talent on the free agent market with several players who would make viable targets. Cruz will likely be the most attractive after his monster year in Baltimore. He led all of baseball with 40 home runs and his 108 RBIs were fourth-highest, while also adding 32 doubles. Meanwhile, the Orioles are expected to decline their $17.5 million option for Markakis, though they would like to keep him around. He has been nothing but steady, appearing in at least 147 games in all but one of his nine seasons. He is a career .290/.358/.435 hitter and can hit leadoff. Cuddyer played 35 of his 49 games in right field and his .332 average last season would have led the all MLB right fielders for the second straight year if he qualified. Rios saw his power disappear and speed decline last year with Texas, though, he still hit .280. Aoki had another solid season during his first year in Kansas City, hitting .285, which is right about at his career average, while swiping 17 bags. Hunter will turn 40 in July, but has shown little sign of slowing down. He still hit .286 last year with 17 homers and 83 RBIs while playing in 142 games.

Others Available: Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Young

Teams in Need: Blue Jays, Giants, Mariners, Orioles, Pirates, Reds, Royals, Yankees

Starting Pitchers

Best Available: Wei-Yin Chen, Johnny Cueto, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jon Lester, Francisco Liriano, Max Scherzer, James Shields

Starting pitching is the position at which big money will be spent this winter. While it’s hard to call any of the available position players superstars, that’s not the case among starters. Lester and Scherzer would be the ace of any rotation, while Shields is not far behind. Though he wasn’t quite as untouchable as he was in his Cy Young season of 2013, Scherzer reaffirmed his status as one of the best pitchers in the league, notching 18 wins and a 3.15 ERA while topping 250 strikeouts for the first time in his career. Lester was one of the few bright spots for the Red Sox before his trade to Oakland where he continued to dominate, completing the best season of his career. His postseason track record will only make him more attractive. Shields will likely come a bit cheaper than either of his American League counterparts, but he’s still earned a big payday. He has never failed to throw more than 200 innings in his eight full seasons and eclipsed the 10-win mark each time.

There is also no shortage of solid second-tier options, though many may not even reach the open market. Iwakuma has been a formidable 1a in Seattle behind Felix Hernandez. Even after missing the first month of the season with a finger strain, he still set a career high for wins to go with a 3.52 ERA. However, Seattle owns a $7 million option, so it is highly unlikely he leaves the northwest. Cueto also has a team option. His is worth $10 in Cincinnati, and after his year, he’ll likely be staying put as well. He was one of only three pitchers to hit the 20-win mark, and was also top-five in ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts. Chen, too, will likely be back in Baltimore if the team exercises its $4.75 million option. He lead the team with 16 wins. Liriano, though, has no such option. While he does come with an injury risk, he has been excellent in his two seasons with Pittsburgh. He managed to throw more than 160 innings each year and had a 3.20 ERA over those two seasons.

Others Available: Jorge De La Rosa, Jason Hammel, Aaron Harang, Hiroki Kuroda, Justin Masterson, Brandon McCarthy, Jake Peavy, Ervin Santana, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young

Teams in Need: Astros, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Rangers, Red Sox, Rockies, Twins, White Sox

Closers

Best Available: David Robinson, Sergio Romo, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Huston Street, Koji Uehara

For teams that need a ninth inning arm, there are options. Among them, Rodriguez is coming off the best year. He returned to the dominating form that he established with the Angels 10 years ago, finishing with 44 saves in 49 chances. David Robertson replaced the greatest closer off all-time in Mariano Rivera, and rose to the challenge, going 39-for-44 in save opportunities. But with Dellin Betances looking like he could step into that role, New York could let Robertson walk. A.L. East rival Boston is facing a similar decision with Uehara. After one of the best seasons for a closer of all-time in 2013, he struggled through the second half of 2014, eventually losing his job. Romo also lost his job during the year, but is an established closer, and has been very good this postseason. Street set a new career high with 41 saves between the Padres and Angels, though L.A. holds a $7 million dollar option for next season. Soriano also has a club option, but at $14 million, the Nationals may decline it, especially after he lost the closer’s job in September. He still finished the year with 32 saves.

Others Available: Casey Janssen, Joakim Soria, Jason Grilli

Teams in Need: Dodgers, Nationals, Rangers, White Sox, Yankees

Relievers

Best Available: Burke Badenhop, Zach Duke, Luke Gregerson, Andrew Miller, Pat Neshek, Darren O’Day, Joakim Soria

The headliner of the bullpen group is Miller. He became a rock in the Boston bullpen before his trade to Baltimore, where he was even better. He finished the year throwing 62.1 innings and had a 2.02 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and .119 BAA. His 14.87 K/9 rate was the best in baseball. For a non-closer, he should command a huge salary. Badenhop is another Red Sox reliever who will be a popular free agent after posting a 2.29 ERA in 70.2 innings. Neshek turned in an All-Star season, ending the year 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA. Duke also turned in a solid season from the N.L. Central and may be the top lefty available next to Miller. Gregerson is a reliable set-up man, and had a career-best 2.12 ERA this year. O’Day and Soria were both great late-innings options for their teams, but the Orioles and Tigers are expected to pick up their options.

Others available: Craig Breslow, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Luke Hochevar, Jim Johnson

Teams in Need: Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Rangers, Red Sox, Rockies, Tigers, Yankees

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