Predicting Where the Top Free Agents Will Land
Now that the 2011 World Series finished its exciting conclusion, baseball fans everywhere turn to the hot stove league to give them their fix of baseball until spring training begins in February. As with every year, there are many interesting free agents who could change the fortunes of any number of teams. Before the actual negotiating between players and teams begin, I made a list of who I think are the top 10 available free agents out there, and have included my thoughts on which team would be their best respective match.
While this is all pure speculation on my part, it will be interesting to see how close my predictions end up coming to reality. I am no front office guru, but I think I have a pretty good feel good player fits for various teams. I also wish there would be a little more common sense used by teams when it comes to free agency. All free agent contracts are based on past production, so anything can happen in the future. Teams that fall too far in love with a particular player because of what they have seen in previous years can end up getting burned. Some teams will be happy with their acquisitions and others will not look back fondly on the fall and winter of 2011. Regardless of the outcome, the time has come to start moving the chess pieces around and try to predict the lay of the land.
Albert Pujols- St. Louis Cardinals: Might as well get the biggest free agent out of the way first. Coming off leading his team to the 2011 World Series title, Pujols likely erased the memory of a regular season that was just a notch below his typical production, and he is now back on track to break the bank in free agency.
The retirement of manager Tony LaRussa may throw a wrench into things, but ultimately it just makes sense for Pujols to return to St. Louis. The Cardinals are pretty desperate to keep the face of their franchise, and presumably Pujols is pretty well settled in with them from having spent the first 13 seasons of his professional career with the franchise. It makes the most sense for both sides to continue this relationship, and as long as clearer heads prevail, it would be a surprise to see him in anything other than a Cardinal uniform next year.
Prince Fielder- Texas Rangers: The Ranger’s high powered offense already drove them to the past two World Series, but adding a weapon like Fielder could really put them over the top. Installing Fielder in Texas would be unleashing him in an optimal environment for half of his games each season. With the lineup they already have, he could be looking at a decent chance at 130+ RBI a year, and would help mask any starting pitching deficiencies the team might have. Also, forced to play in the Texas heat, Fielder might sweat off a few pounds each summer and keep himself in a little better shape, which has to be a concern of any team looking to sign him long-term.
Jose Reyes- Atlanta Braves: A number of teams will be bidding for the services of the speedy shortstop, but the Braves are the one team that could potentially benefit the most from signing him. He would immediately become the table-setter that Atlanta has been missing in recent years, and create a lot more run producing opportunities for their excellent young players like Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Brian McCann. Reyes’ ability to get on base and pile up steals would make the rest of the lineup all the more dangerous.
Signing with division rival Atlanta would also be a little bit of sweet revenge for Reyes, who was one of the players that Mets’ owner Fred Wilpon insinuated was not worth the money he was paid. Sticking it to New York each year at the top of a revamped Atlanta lineup would certainly put a smile on Reyes’ face.
David Ortiz- New York Yankees: Right after Boston was eliminated from playoff contention; Ortiz publically speculated that he might consider playing in New York next year. He quickly backtracked from those comments, and indicated he wants to remain in Boston, but upon further review, he may have been on the right track after all.
Ortiz was quietly one of the more productive players in baseball in 2011. He was 4th in the American League in OPBS, and was consistent from beginning to end. He would be an intriguing piece for the Yankees to add to their already stacked lineup. He would give the Yankees a top level production at a price much lower than what is expected from bats like Fielder and Pujols, who had similar levels of production last year. Ortiz would also serve as a mentor for Jesus Montero, and relinquish the occasional at-bat to the rookie, as he rotated from catcher.
Michael Cuddyer- Boston Red Sox: Cuddyer would be a great fit in Boston, whose serious lack of leadership was exposed at the end of this year’s regular season. While he is not as much of an offensive force as many other available free agents, Cuddyer offers a well respected veteran presence, and also is an extremely versatile player, which are all traits that would be appreciated by the Red Sox.
Boston already has as solid a core offense as exists in baseball, so they really don’t have a need to sign a major bat in free agency. However, signing Cuddyer would fill a hole in right field left by the departing J.D. Drew, and also provide some much needed glue in the clubhouse.
Yu Darvish- Seattle Mariners: Seattle is typically not a major player in free agency, but Darvish, the Japanese pitching sensation, is a player they might want to consider for making an exception. With Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda, starting pitching is already the strength of the team that has one of the weakest offenses in baseball, but signing Darvish and his powerful righty arm makes sense for Seattle on multiple levels.
Ichiro is the face of the franchise and has always attracted a strong Japanese following for Seattle, but he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Seattle has capitalized greatly on the marketing opportunities he has provided them, and Darvish would be a way to bridge them to the future. Additionally, having a starting rotation headed by King Felix, Pineda, Darvish, and a youngsters like Taijuan Walker would make them the envy of baseball, and able to focus on other areas of improvement for the team.
Aramis Ramirez- Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers are unlikely to be able to compete financially to retain Prince Fielder, but there are other moves they could make to continue being competitive in the NL Central. Chief amongst those moves would be signing Aramis Ramirez.
Still just 32 years old, Ramirez could reasonably be expected to make up 85-90% of Fielder’s typical production at less than half the price for the next several years. He would also be a major upgrade at third base, where the Brewers got lackluster numbers from incumbent Casey McGahee in 2011. Ramirez is not known for his defense, but is still an elite hitter. Bringing in another big bat to complement Ryan Braun would keep Milwaukee in the hunt for another divisional title in 2012.
Mark Buehrle- New York Mets: Never a star, Buehrle has been the model of consistency over his career. He has won 10 or more games for 11 consecutive seasons, and is pretty much a lock for 210 innings and an ERA of around 4.00 every year. He would be a good fit in New York’s spacious Citi Field, and also bring some consistency to New York’s rag-tag starting rotation. If the Mets could get Buehrle to agree to a reasonable deal, he would immensely help in shoring up their starting rotation next year.
Jonathan Papelbon- Boston Red Sox: Sometimes the easiest thing is to admit that a free agent player is a good fit, and just get a deal done. Papelbon has performed well as a top-flight closer in the pot boiler atmosphere of Boston. Now that he has rebounded some from a stretch several years ago where he seemed to throw nothing but fastballs, Papelbon is as consistent a closer as teams will find outside of Mariano Rivera.
While flame throwing Daniel Bard has had flashes of brilliance, it would be rash for the Red Sox to hand him the closer role. Rumors have indicated they may even try Bard as a starter in 2012, but at the least, he could remain as one of the more dominant set-up men in the majors. The smartest thing to do would be to retain Papelbon, assuming Boston is not outbid by a team willing to offer prohibitive money, and rely on the surest thing they are likely to find on the free agent market.
C.J. Wilson- New York Yankees: Wilson is a good pitcher, but he should not be mistaken as a number one, top of the rotation type starter. It was just three years ago that Wilson was a middle reliever coming off some injury trouble and in his late 20′s. He will be 31 next year and does not have the track record to suggest that he could be relied upon to lead a rotation for the next 5-6 years. His struggles in the playoffs this year could have also impacted how teams will view him.
Scott Boras will make sure that Wilson gets top money, so one team that makes a lot of sense is the Yankees. They have already locked up C.C. Sabathia for the foreseeable future, but need another pitcher to anchor the middle of their rotation. They have already poured a lot of money into A.J. Burnett, but Wilson would be a relatively safe bet to be more consistent if he did not have the pressures of being the top guy.
Free agency is nearly impossible to predict because teams frequently make decisions that defy logic. Teams become obsessed with players and may do whatever it takes to sign them, which can skew the rest of the market. This off-season will provide baseball fans with a lot of kindling to keep the hot stove burning through the winter. Ultimately, decisions will be made, players will sign new contracts, and 2012 destinies will be born. In other words, it will be another typical baseball off-season.
Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach him on Twitter at @RedSoxFanNum1.