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2012 Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 20-1

Jun 24, 2011, 10:00 AM EDT

Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols AP

Honorable mentions
Nos. 111-81
Nos. 80-61
Nos. 60-41
Nos. 40-21

Here are the top 20 members of this winter’s free agent class. Remember, I’m not including either Robinson Cano or Yadier Molina based on the assumption both will have their options picked up. Also, I’m ranking players based more on what kind of contracts I think they’ll receive than how much I personally believe they’re worth.

(All ages as of April 1, 2012)

* denotes players with contract options

20. Aramis Ramirez (33 – Cubs): Ramirez picked up his $14.6 million player option to remain with the Cubs this year. The team won’t exercise his $16 million option for 2012, and it’s pretty much certain that he’ll be looking at a paycut in free agency. Ramirez, one of the game’s most consistent hitters in his first six years with the Cubs, has seen his OPS slip from the .900 range to .746 in 2010 and .727 so far this season. That the next best third basemen on the market are Casey Blake, who might have his option picked up, and Wilson Betemit will really help Ramirez’s market, but he still might have to settle for a one-year deal unless he puts together a stronger second half.

19. J.J. Hardy (29 – Orioles): After two down seasons, the first of which included a trip to the minors and pushed back his free agency timetable by a year, Hardy has been on a tear for the Orioles, hitting .304/.366/.532 through 171 at-bats. He’s a fine defensive shortstop, so as long as he’s posting a .700 OPS, he’s a solid regular. At .900, he’s an All-Star. If he holds on and finishes this year in the .800-.850 range, he could be in line for a four-year, $30 million deal as a free agent. The Orioles would much rather sign him to a two-year extension since prospect Manny Machado should be ready by 2014.

18. Roy Oswalt (34 – Phillies)*: Back problems have robbed Oswalt of his best stuff this year, and he’s currently 4-6 with a 3.79 ERA through 13 starts. The Phillies hold a $16 million option for 2012 that they won’t pick up unless Oswalt looks better in the second half. Oswalt also has the ability to terminate the option if he’d rather pursue a multiyear deal. Oswalt, though, probably won’t seek a particularly long-term pact, and even though he’ll be just 34, he might just decide to walk away from the game if his back doesn’t start feeling better.

17. Carlos Beltran (34 – Mets): He seems a bit older and maybe he even plays a bit older now after his knee woes, but Beltran won’t turn 35 until after next season begins. With the way he’s bounced back offensively — he’s currently hitting .279/.371/.485 — he’s put himself in line for at least a two-year deal if he can finish the season healthy. Of course, that’s a big if for a guy who was limited to 81 games in 2009 and 64 last year. In a weak outfield class, he’s worth $12 million-$15 million per year.

16. Ryan Dempster (34 – Cubs)*: Dempster controls his destiny with a $14 million player option for 2012. Since his horrible April looks like an aberration – he has a 3.38 ERA over his last 10 starts, pulling his season mark down from 9.58 to 5.46 — he might be able to go back out on the open market and get $36 million for three years. His decision figures to come down to whether he wants to remain a Cub or not. There’s been talk of him being traded this summer, but since he has full no-trade protection given his status as a 10-and-five player, he’s in control of his destiny there, too.

15. Nick Swisher (31 – Yankees)*: If any free agent outfielder is going to get a four-year deal this winter, it would be Swisher. He’s young at 31, he’s perfectly capable in the outfield and he’s a safe bet to give a team 20 homers and a nice OBP for a few more years. Swisher, though, does have an old player’s skill set, and it’s possible he won’t age very well as he reaches his mid-30s. Fortunately, the Yankees can just pick up his $10.25 million option for 2012 rather than have to make a $30 million-$40 million decision on him.

14. Mark Buehrle (33 – White Sox): Everyone has always sort of figured that Buehrle, a Missouri native, would finish his career with the Cardinals. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t intend to pitch into his upper-30s, and his next contract might be his last. Still, the Cardinals aren’t likely to have a lot of money to spend for pitching unless they decide to let Adam Wainwright go and, even though he’s slipped some, Buehrle likely would command in excess of $10 million per year on the open market. He’ll probably have to take a bit of a discount if he wants to go to St. Louis.

13. David Ortiz (36 – Red Sox): Except for teammate Adrian Gonzalez, Ortiz has been as productive as anyone in the league the last two months, hitting .335 with 15 homers and 37 RBI in 172 at-bats since the beginning of May. He really wanted a multiyear deal last winter, but it looked like the Red Sox were being smart in just exercising his $12.5 million option. Now he’s going to be able to force them to commit for multiple years if they want to keep him. Designated hitters are always replaceable, but Big Papi just wouldn’t look right in any other uniform. Maybe the two sides will be able to settle at $25 million-$28 million for two years.

12. Heath Bell (34 – Padres): It’ll be interesting to see if Bell’s age is held against him when he reaches free agency. He’s three years older than Jonathan Papelbon and four years Francisco Rodriguez’s senior. Jonathan Broxton is seven years younger than Bell. Bell has the best track record of the group these last three years, but he’s also had Petco Park working in his favor (even if his road numbers are outstanding) and he hasn’t had to deal with the pressure that comes with closing for a large-market team. Given the modest workload he enjoyed in his 20s, I like Bell’s chances of lasting as a quality closer for another three or four years. Since he’ll probably go cheaper, he looks like a better investment than Papelbon.

11. Brandon Phillips (30 – Reds)*: $12 million is a whole lot to pay for a second baseman, but in the Reds’ case, it’d seem smarter to pick up Phillips’ option than to give him the four- or five-year extension he’s going to want to forgo free agency. Phillips will likely use Dan Uggla’s five-year, $62 million deal with the Braves as a benchmark; though the two are very different players, one could argue they’ve been similarly valuable. Uggla was a bad idea at that price, though, and Phillips isn’t worth it, either. He’s an excellent defender, but his career-high OBP is .332 and he’s unlikely to suddenly take a step forward offensively.

10. Edwin Jackson (28 – White Sox): It’s the free agents that are perceived as having upside that often go for more than anyone expects. Jackson is 52-57 with a 4.60 ERA in his career, but he threw a no-hitter for the Diamondbacks last year and he’s struck out 726 batters in 966 innings as a major leaguer. He was one of the AL’s best starters for three months in 2009, and he was very good down the stretch last season after being traded to the White Sox. Some team is going to pay him and hope that he’ll finally put it together for six months. I think $30 million for three years is the bottom end, with $60 million for five years being a real possibility if he ends up with a sub-4.00 ERA this year.

9. Jimmy Rollins (32 – Phillies): Jose Reyes has really stolen the show, and for the moment anyway, no one seems to care that Rollins, too, is a free agent this winter. Rollins’ offense has fallen of pretty dramatically; from 2004-08, he posted OPSs of at least .770 every year, whereas he’s come in at .714 and .694 in the two years since. This year, he’s at .709. Offense is down across the league, but that’s still a tumble. On the other hand, it’s almost all power: Rollins actually has a pretty impressive 64/72 K/BB ratio in 642 at-bats the last two seasons. In his MVP season in 2007, he had an 85/49 K/BB ratio in 716 at-bats. As a plus defensive shortstop, a .330-OBP guy and an excellent basestealer, Rollins still has plenty of value. My guess is that he re-ups with the Phillies for around $50 million for four years.

8. Chris Carpenter (36 – Cardinals): Carpenter gave the Cardinals nothing in 2007 or 2008, but his five-year, $63.5 million extension hasn’t worked out so badly for the team: he’s 35-20 with a 3.07 ERA over the last three seasons. The Cards hold a $15 million option for 2012 that includes a $1 million buyout. With Carpenter sitting at 2-7 with a 4.26 ERA right now, it’s no given that it will be picked up. However, a strong second half would make it a pretty easy call. A healthy Carpenter, even coming off a season in which he posted an ERA in the 4.00-4.30 range, would likely command $30 million for two years.

7. Jonathan Papelbon (31 – Red Sox): Pay no attention to the 4.03 ERA: Papelbon’s stuff is just as good as ever and he’s getting more swings and misses than he has in years. The 39/5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings is a better illustration of how he’s throwing. Of course, it’s still going to be a big risk giving him a four-year deal. $45 million for three years may be the magic number for the Red Sox. If it’s going to be more than that, perhaps they’ll move on and try to sign Ryan Madson or Jonathan Broxton to pair with Daniel Bard. I’m guessing some team will go four.

6. Grady Sizemore (29 – Indians)*: It’s a shame about Grady, who ranked as one of the AL’s very best players while hitting .279/.380/.499 with 85 homers in 1,917 at-bats from age 23 through 25. In the three injury-plagued years since, he’s hit .238/.323/.423 with 25 homers in 730 at-bats. I still view the Indians’ $9 million option for 2012 as a no-brainer if he finishes the season healthy. He hasn’t been worth that kind of money with his performance so far this year (he’s at .235/.308/.470 in 166 at-bats), but there’s reason to hope he’ll yet reemerge as at least a $15 million player down the line.

5. C.J. Wilson (31 – Rangers): The Rangers lost a left-handed ace to the Phillies last winter, but not without a fight. They’ll wage another war this winter to keep Wilson, who figures to draw interest from the Yankees, Nationals and anyone else willing to spend big money on a top-of-the-rotation left-hander. With a 7-3 record and a 3.17 ERA through 16 starts, Wilson is on pace to put up a line nearly identical to his 2010. I think he’s a pretty big injury risk, so I wouldn’t recommend going big to sign him. However, as things stand now, he’s in line for a five-year, $80 million deal similar to what John Lackey got from the Red Sox and A.J. Burnett received from the Yankees.

4. Jose Reyes (28 – Mets): Reyes has been a $15 million player in 3 1/2 of his eight big-league seasons. He was worth at least that much each season from 2006-08, and he’s been worth quite a bit more in the nearly half of 2011 that’s in the books. The other 4 1/2 seasons included his fine rookie half-season, two years in which he was injured and ineffective (2004 and 2009) and two seasons in which he was a clear disappointment, yet still a pretty good regular thanks to his speed and defense (2005 and 2010). The team that signs Reyes this winter is going to be paying $20 million per season with no real expectation that he’ll be worth it in all of them. $140 million for seven years, which is essentially Carl Crawford money, looks like a good guess.

3. CC Sabathia (31 – Yankees)*: Sabathia has been everything the Yankees hoped he’d be in amassing a 49-19 record and a 3.30 ERA the last three years. He said last year that he had no intention of opting out of the final four years of his deal, but it makes all kinds of sense for him to do so, assuming that he finishes the season healthy. The Yankees aren’t going to want to risk losing him, and I can’t imagine they’d balk at adding a couple of more years to his deal. Sabathia would make $92 million for four years if he declines to opt out. I expect that he and the Yankees will work out something that will put him at about $150 million for six years.

2. Prince Fielder (27 – Brewers): Joel Zumaya is actually the youngest pitcher set to become a free agent this winter. Fielder is the youngest hitter after declining to give up any free agency time to sign a long-term deal with the Brewers. He’s turning in a whale of a season with freedom looming. He’s not going to hit 50 homers, like he did in 2007, but his current 1.033 OPS would be a career high. That Fielder is also whale-like in stature makes giving him a long-term deal a scary proposition, particularly for an NL team. But he’ll probably get at least $150 million for six years and he might match Mark Teixeira’s eight-year, $180 million deal with the Yankees.

1. Albert Pujols (32 – Cardinals): Pujols has struggled to find his swing this year, but he was hitting .317 with eight homers in 17 games this month before suffering a fractured left wrist Sunday. He’ll be back in six weeks, but I wonder if his power will return right away or if that might not come back until next year. Regardless, Pujols is going to get the biggest contract of any free agent this winter. That he’s more than four years older than Fielder can’t just be thrown out, but given their builds, there’s a good chance Pujols will still be the better player a half-dozen years down the line. He’s simply a unique talent, with three MVPs and four runner-up finishes through 10 major league seasons. I don’t think it will get him $300 million, but $220 million-$240 million for eight years would be suitable.

  1. tinker61 - Jun 24, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    Good article all around. However there are two schools for thought on the CC Sabathia situation. First, He was given that Opt Out clause in case he or his wife wanted out to go back home to he west coast. Second, CC has not been a dominate this season as in the past. I think he has to look at his options in the light of the reason for the Opt Out clause. If he in fact opts out for more money, that goes beyond what the clause was meant for. Plus, He less than the dominate pitcher this season that he has been in the past. The Yankees have some stud minor league pitchers waiting in the wings. Plus. CJ Wilson would be another Yankees option for less money. The Yankees just might tell Sabathia that he’s violated his terms of agreement according to why the clause was allowed since he an his wife have made no secret of how much they both love the area, so find a home.

    • bigyankeemike - Jun 24, 2011 at 11:50 AM

      There is NO way the contract that Sabathia signed mentions any reason for him wanting to opt out, only that he HAS the option to opt out. Should this happen, there would be no grounds that the Yankees would have to deem CC in violation of his contract.

      Having said that, if I’m CC, I’d opt out. The Yankees will overpay to keep him. It’s what they do.

      • tinker61 - Jun 24, 2011 at 12:27 PM

        I never ONCE said the reason for the clause was in writing. I also read that Cashman gave the clause to close the deal just in case Sabathia or his wife was unhappy in New York. That reason was given in every single publication that wrote about the Sabathia signing. For that reason ONLY, I said if he opts out, he’s not doing it for the reason the clause was added. So, who guarantees that the Yankees overpay……TWICE.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 24, 2011 at 3:58 PM

        For that reason ONLY, I said if he opts out, he’s not doing it for the reason the clause was added. So, who guarantees that the Yankees overpay……TWICE.

        How have they overpaid him already? Breakdown:
        Year – Salary – WAR – +/-
        ’09 – $14M – 6.3 – +$15M
        ’10 – $23M – 5.1 – -$2.4M

        So in two years, he’s been worth almost $13M more than his contract has paid, and they are overpaying him?

  2. uyf1950 - Jun 24, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    I want to preface this comment by saying to spudchukar (AKA: Devil’s Advocate) that my comment is based purely on the premise of Matthew’s blog and potential FA.
    I would love to see C.J. Wilson in Yankee Pinstripes. Having said that I think the chances realistically are less than 50/50. I do think the Ranges will put on the all court press to sign him before FA. I think will will ultimately come down if CJ Wilson has enjoyed his time in Arlington and if the Ranger make him a good faith offer. So we will have to see.

    About CC and the possibility of him opting-out. I think ultimately he will. I also think ultimately the Yankees will offer him 1 additional year and take on and extra $1M to the remaining years. Making his “new” contract 5 years running through 2016 for $125M +/-.

    Those are just my opinions.

    • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Jun 24, 2011 at 1:49 PM

      Would the Steinbrenners make CJ cut his hair? Hippie!

      If the Yankees did sign him, they would have a rotation of CC, AJ, CJ, maybe they could claim JC Romero, sign RA Dickey and accumulate an all-initial pitching staff!

    • spudchukar - Jun 24, 2011 at 3:10 PM

      When it comes to Free Agency, nothing and no one is out of the Yankee’s reach. I just disagree on trade possibilities. Why Seattle would want to trade Bedard, at this time is beyond me, but for argument sake let us say they would. Who would the Yanks trade in return. Sanchez would probably get it done, as would either Banuelos or Betances. But no one else seems to be valuable to the Mariners. It is a tough call, but if the Yanks want to be serious players in 2011, somebody treasured will have to go.

      • uyf1950 - Jun 24, 2011 at 3:34 PM

        spudchukar, my friend. I think your reply is in the wrong blog. This blog is about possible 2012 FA. Not additions to rosters for the 2011 season. I just want to make sure we are on the same page. Also, about Bedard the conversation the other day was the same thing, if he’s available via FA. I’m not sure I understand why you keep wanting to insert 2011 possible trades into to this list of possible 2012 FA.
        I’ll make this general concession then maybe we can move on. Of course if a team wants to get someone of value they in all likelihood have to be willing to give up something of value. The only caveat for example to that would be in my opinion someone say like Beltran of the Mets. If the Mets want to move him with his salary they can’t expect to get much in return IF the acquiring team is to pick up most if not all of his inflated salary. Now can we move on, my friend.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jun 24, 2011 at 4:01 PM

        It is a tough call, but if the Yanks want to be serious players in 2011, somebody treasured will have to go.

        They have the second best record in the AL, 3rd in MLB even though two of their five starting pitchers are on the DL, and two of their top four relievers are on the DL. What more needs to happen for them to be “serious players”?

        And if I were Seattle I’d trade Bedard while his value is high before his arm falls off.

      • spudchukar - Jun 24, 2011 at 4:41 PM

        To UYF, mi amigo, I do not recall ever doubting the Yanks ability to acquire players by FA. I have played the AKA DA when it comes to trades. That was all I meant, and I thought you were referring to our last conversation about Bedard, but it is all clear to me now that I understand your interest was in Bedard via FA. I agree about Beltran, but my guess is that he will be graded as a Type A, FA so the Yanks will probably have to do better than a first-round pick.

        To Church… the DL situation would sure give me pause. Without a major move, I just don’t see how the Yanks can keep up with the Red Sox. You can make the case for Wild Card, but Tampa Bay refuses to go away. Remember their August schedule is absolutely brutal, and while the Rays’ isn’t much easier, they are younger, and have youngsters who are more MLB ready than New York’s. I marvel at the Yankee play to date, and while you are certainly correct to point to their current record, maintaining a .589 winning percentage without help in the second half seems more hopeful than realistic.

      • uyf1950 - Jun 24, 2011 at 5:04 PM

        spudchukar, my friend. I’m not at all sure the Mets will hold on to Beltran for the entire season. In fact I seriously doubt they will. If I’m correct and the Mets want to trade him before the trade deadline and they are not willing to eat a good portion of his salary I think they can expect very little in return in the way of prospect. No team including the Yankees are going to make a trade for him this season absorb his huge salary and part with even a quality prospect. Now if they want to eat a substantial portion of his salary and move him by the trade deadline that’s a different story then I think a decent prospect is something I think they can expect. That’s just my opinion.

      • uyf1950 - Jun 24, 2011 at 6:17 PM

        spudchukar, my friend. If I may just address your comment to Church. As I seem to recall you also had doubts about the Yankees being able to keep pace once the started on the road trips. Well we all saw they did pretty decently on their west coast trip and did very well on their most recent road trip to Chicago and Cincinnati. Fans continue to underestimate the Yankees and that is never a good idea. One more comment if you will allow me. Sure the Yankees could use some help. But some of that help is just around the corner when players like Hughes, Colon, Chavez, etc… get off the DL. Take my word for it if you don’t think the Red Sox are holding their collective breaths a little you are mistaken. Their starting rotation right now is in shambles. How would you like to have Wakefield and Aceves as 2 of your starters. Also, Lester has looked nothing like he did last year and the same thing applies to Buchholz. Then they have the dynamic duo catching combined they don’t equal on even decent catcher. Now take a look at there supposedly “uber” bullpen that Theo was assembling this past spring. Wheeler and Jenks for all practical purposes have been busts and certainly can’t be relied upon. Bard isn’t very consistent and Papelbon some days he looks great and some days he looks terrible. So tell me again, Boston doesn’t have issues that need to be addressed. In my opinion and it’s just that my opinion every team that’s in contention has issues the need to be addressed and if they aren’t are potential roadblocks to them going deep into the playoffs.

        One side note. You are correct the Yankees schedule does get tougher, but the good thing is that when August and September comes around the Yankees will be much more at full strength and fresher then they are now. That too is just my opinion.

  3. indyralph - Jun 24, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    “I don’t think it will get him $300 million, but $220 million-$240 million for eight years would be suitable.”

    I think the last three words might need to be “should be expected.” This Cardinals’ fan would love nothing more than for that to happen and then have Pujols put up the 5-7 WAR per year from ages 33 to 40 to make it reasonably “suitable”. But that seems like pretty absurd expectations for the player and also factors in some degree of salary inflation. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that my team will likely overpay to keep one of its greatest players ever, or somebody else will overpay to drag him away.

  4. Richard In Big D - Jun 24, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    Wilson getting $80 mil for 5 years is a far cry from a couple of years ago, when the Rangers had their closer carousel going full tilt (is he a closer? a setup man? a 7th inning guy?). Based on CJ’s public persona, and the relationship he seems to have with Nolan Ryan, I’m thinking a hometown discount can be had, if needed…

  5. buckybadger - Jun 24, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    I know Pujols is the better player and the bigger name but is he really a better FA than the younger Fielder. I would sign Fielder for less and probably get the same amount of production out of him. If Fielder wanted any chance at the HOF he would stay put. He will hit 50-100 more HRs at Miller Park than he would in a lot of other parks.

    • spudchukar - Jun 24, 2011 at 4:42 PM

      He is a DH, ready to happen, and in Baltimore his HR output wouldn’t suffer.

  6. hittfamily - Jun 24, 2011 at 4:19 PM

    I kept waiting to see BJ Upton on the list, but never saw him. He is signed through 2011, which makes him a free agent at the end of the year. I suspect he will get anywhere from 7-10 mil per year on a 3 or 4 year deal, which would put him in the top 20. I am not an expert on this, so I would love to hear others opinions, but a 26 year old center fielder who will hit 20 hr’s and steal 40 bases is pretty valuable.

    • Matthew Pouliot - Jun 24, 2011 at 7:26 PM

      Upton still has one more year of arbitration left. He’d certainly be a very intriguing free agent, given his youth and tantalizing upside.

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