Top Available Free Agent Hitters In 2014
Who are the top free agent hitters this off-season? I’ll give you a list of 10 with some possible suitors, then throw in a few more names that could end up being low-priced value buys. Before I begin, a word of caution: don’t put too much stock in Juan Uribe‘s career year.
1. Robinson Cano: A homegrown product of the New York Yankees, Cano is one of the rarest of players, a power-hitting second baseman. Since he entered the majors in 2005, only Chase Utley has a higher OPS+ among second basemen. The sweet-swinging Cano has very low strikeout rates for a power hitter, and he has steadily improved his walk rate, posting a career best 9.6% in 2013. He’s no slouch with the glove either. Though UZR doesn’t favor him as much as DRS, both metrics give him solid grades over the last four years. Furthermore, Cano has been exceptionally durable, with the lone DL stint of his career coming back in 2006. Of course, Cano will be 31 when the 2014 season begins, a point where most hitters are declining. The power aspect of his game figures to age well, and while the back end of the contract might not look too good, Cano should be able to provide solid value for at least the first few years. Bank on Cano getting 7-8 years at 25-30 million/year. Possible suitors include the Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers (though they are reportedly shying away), Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, and Texas Rangers.
2. Jacoby Ellsbury: When healthy, Ellsbury is one of the top players in the AL. The Boston Red Sox centerfielder has ranked in the Top 10 in WAR two of the last three years. The problem is that Ellsbury rarely stays healthy, and at age 30, this issue is unlikely to improve. In his seven major league seasons, he has only played 145 or more games in three of them. While his 32 homeruns in 2011 won’t be replicated, Ellsbury is an excellent all-around player. Though he doesn’t possess a strong arm, Ellsbury has great speed and range in centerfield. He makes good use of his wheels on the basepaths, where he has led the AL in steals three times, and owns a career 84% success rate. To round out the package, Ellsbury is a solid hitter, with a career .350 OBP and 108 OPS+. Expect him to get a deal for 6-7 years at 20 million/year. Possible suitors include the Red Sox (unlikely), the Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Phillies, Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, and the rival Yankees.
3. Shin-Soo Choo: At age 31, the Cincinnati Reds centerfielder has produced the best offensive season of his career. His .424 OBP is second in the NL to teammate Joey Votto, and Choo ranks third in offensive WAR. Defensively, Choo is weak in centerfield, but he is adequate as a corner outfielder. He has also swiped at least 20 bases in four of the last five seasons, though his success rate in 2013 is a dismal 65%. Choo’s value is in being an on-base machine. Since his debut in 2005, his .389 OBP is 10th among active players. Choo should get 4-5 years at 15-18 million per year. With the Reds unlikely to afford him, interested parties include the New York Mets, Cubs, Mariners, San Francisco Giants, and Rangers.
4. Hunter Pence: Like Choo, Pence is having his best year later in his career. After a disappointing 2012, the 30 year-old Giants rightfielder has rebounded in a big way. His 25 homeruns matches a career-high, and his 21 stolen bases is his best mark. He ranks 8th in the NL in offensive WAR. Pence has a reputation as a great teammate and leader, qualities that will certainly help him this offseason. Furthermore, his only DL trip was as a rookie in 2007. He’ll likely see 5-6 years at 15 million/year. If the Giants can’t resign him, the Rangers, Mariners, and Royals would be interested.
5. Brian McCann: The Atlanta Braves 29 year-old catcher has recovered from a 2012 season where he posted a career-worst .230/.300/.399 BA/OBP/SLG line. Since his 2005 debut season, McCann’s 117 OPS+ is 6th among active catchers, and of the five in front of him, only McCann is a full-time catcher. Defensively, McCann is solid. While throwing runners out is not his strong suit, he has a good reputation as a game-caller, and he also blocks and receives pitches very well. McCann won’t receive a deal on the level of Mauer or Posey, but 4-5 years at 14-17 million seems likely. At that price, the Braves will be hard-pressed to re-sign him. The Blue Jays, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Rangers, and Red Sox could all be looking for a backstop this offseason.
6. Curtis Granderson: Plagued by injuries, the Yankees outfielder has managed a .233/.323/.420 line in just 56 games in 2013. Before that, Granderson hit 84 homeruns from 2011-12, easily the most in the majors in that span. At 32, his centerfield defense isn’t quite what it used to be, but he can provide quality defense at the corners. As a pull hitter, Granderson has benefited greatly from Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right. Judging by his average flyball distance, Granderson will see a big drop in power output if he leaves Yankee Stadium, the best homerun park for lefthanded hitters. The Yankees will likely extend a qualifying offer. If Granderson does not accept, expect many of the previously mentioned teams to enter the picture. In the event that he does accept, most teams would be unwilling to sacrifice a draft pick to pry him away.
7. Carlos Beltran: While his troublesome knees have robbed him of his defensive ability, the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder still can hit. At the age of 36, his OPS+ is still a very solid 130. With mega-prospect Oscar Taveras ready to compete for a starting spot, and Matt Adams and Allen Craig already on hand, the Cardinals might not have room for Beltran to fill a full-time role. Beltran would be a strong fit for an AL team where he can DH and fill in with the glove when needed. A repeat of his 2 year/26 million dollar deal is plausible.
8. Mike Napoli: The Red Sox 3/39 deal with Napoli was altered to 1/13 when a physical revealed a hip issue. Limited to first base duty, Napoli has managed a .257/.355/.480 line with a 126 OPS+, good for 9th among first basemen. A generous .360 BABIP has helped cover up a sky-high strikeout rate. With favorable ratings by defensive metrics, Napoli has accumulated a very solid 3.7 WAR. Given his hip issue and a two straight years with a strikeout rate north of 30%, teams will shy away from giving Napoli a long-term deal. The Red Sox could extend the qualifying offer to Napoli, an option that is looking more attractive after his late-season power surge. Potential suitors won’t give away a draft pick to sign Napoli. If the Red Sox let Napoli go, a 2-3 year deal at 10-13 million per year is reasonable.
9. Jarrod Saltalamacchia: After years of part-time play and throwing issues with the Rangers, the 28 year-old Saltalamacchia has emerged with the Red Sox. His career-high 114 OPS+ is 7th among catchers. Like Napoli, Salty is prone to the strikeout, and his career rate is just shy of 30%. After hitting 25 homeruns in 2012, he has hit fewer fly balls and more line drives. His 38 doubles are a career-high, and he has the second highest line drive rate in the MLB. It remains to be seen if this approach and his .362 BABIP are sustainable, but for now Salty provides good offense while holding down a premium defensive position. If the Sox don’t resign him, teams looking for an alternative to McCann will be interested. He is likely to see 3-4 years at 10-12 million a year.
10. James Loney: The veteran first basemen has revitalized his career on a 1-year contract with the Rays. With the highest line drive rate in the MLB, he has managed a 115 OPS+, the best full-season mark of his career. Loney, who has never topped 15 homeruns, doesn’t have much power for a first baseman, and his career .669 OPS against lefties is troublesome. He brings a good glove and a low strikeout rate to the table, and his resurgence with the Rays will have some teams interested in giving him a multi-year deal and a starting role. Expect the Colorado Rockies to be among those interested. A 2-3 year deal at 8-10 million per year is possible.
While these are the top available free agents, there are some possible bargains further down the chain. After the Biogenesis scandal, teams willing to take a flyer on Nelson Cruz or Jhonny Peralta could find themselves a good deal. After not playing in 2013, Corey Hart could be an interesting low-risk signing with a nice track record. In limited playing time, Dioner Navarro had the best OPS+ of his career. He or the veteran Carlos Ruiz could be nice additions at the right price and in the right role. Though the big-name signings get the buzz, low-profile signings often play a key role in shaping contenders.