MLB Free Agency: Position Players
At this stage of the game, the Hot Stove is more of a space heater, gently whirring in the background, keeping your feet warm and helping you get circulation going to your extremities. Players are deciding whether to accept or decline player options. Teams are deciding to whom to extend qualifying offers. And everyone is trying to figure out how much money and time they want to commit to players in their 30s, almost all of whom will certainly begin declining before their contract is finished.
Yesterday, I wrote about the starting pitching options. This is the strongest area in free agency this year, with three aces, a slew of mid-rotation arms, and some high-risk, high-reward starters all in play.
However, there is less to choose from among the available bats, and the really good ones are all on the wrong side of 30.
Perhaps as important as the players' statistics are the two columns headed by "Age" and "QO." Most of the players listed above are all in their 30s, which is typically when they start to decline in this supposedly non-steroid-y era of ours.
The other important column, QO, stands for "qualifying offer." Players who received a qualifying offer (that is, a one-year offer worth $15.3 million) can either accept that offer and come back to the team on that deal, negotiate a long-term contract, or decline both and test free agency. If a team's player rejects the qualifying offer, that team will receive a non-protected first round pick from whatever club signs that player as a free agent. If the signing team's first round pick is in the top-10 of the 2015 MLB Draft, it is protected, and the signing team will relinquish a second round pick.
Of the players listed above, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez and Russell Martin would all require the team that signs them to relinquish a draft pick to do so. It is a factor that the signing teams must take into consideration when deciding whom to sign.
At first base, Adam LaRoche is the best player available, with a Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) of 1.6 and a nERD of 1.55, meaning a lineup full of LaRoches would produce 1.55 runs a game more than a lineup of average players. Michael Cuddyer, Mike Morse and Mark Reynolds are among the other options at first base.
At second base, the pickings are slim. The Brewers' Rickie Weeks is the most attractive option, but he posted just a 1.2 fWAR and a nERD of 0.80. Mark Ellis, Brandon Hicks, and Kelly Johnson could get some play as role players. For teams needing a shortstop, Ramirez is the player to go after, but would require a team to relinquish a draft pick to sign him. Clint Barmes, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, and Jed Lowrie are the other options there.
And at third, there are two quality free agents, which is why I put them both in the table above. Sandoval, the Giants' playoff hero, will certainly see his postseason resume come into play during negotiations. He's also just 28 years old (he seems a lot older than that, right?), but teams worry about his weight and, of course, the qualifying offer. The Yankees are hot to re-sign their third baseman Chase Headley to a multi-year deal. His offense slipped in '14, but his defense remained among the best at that position, providing 4.4 wins above replacement last year. Hanley Ramirez could play third in a pinch, as could Mark Reynolds. Alberto Callaspo, Donnie Murphy, and Chris Nelson are less impactful options.
In the outfield, there is surprisingly little to go around. Melky Cabrera is the best of the bunch among left fielders, seemingly putting his PED suspension behind him and proving himself an effective player. However, he has a QO attached to him as well. The more intriguing name among left field options is Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas who, at just 23, is seen as a terrific power-hitting prospect. The Phillies, Rangers, Giants and Tigers are seen as the front-runners to land his services. Morse, Jonny Gomes, Jason Kubel, Ryan Ludwick, Alfonso Soriano, and Delmon Young are other options.
If you need a center fielder, you're going to have to try and find one someplace other than free agency. The best option is Colby Rasmus, who had a horrible 2014 season, finishing with a nERD of just 0.27 and an fWAR of 0.6. But he was very good in 2013 and, at just 28 years old, is among the younger options among position players in free agency this year. He's a potential buy-low candidate. Emilio Bonifacio, Chris Young, and Nyjer Morgan are the only other potential center field candidates.
Right field might be the deepest position at which to find help among position players this year. Baltimore's Nick Markakis is the best available player, provided you don't want Nelson Cruz roaming around the outfield on a regular basis (which you don't). Alex Rios is 33 years old, but if he can be had on a two-year deal, his .709 OPS would be helpful for a contender. Nori Aoki had a very solid season for the Royals and would be a good fit for a lot of teams as well. And the ghost of Torii Hunter should continue to roam somewhere on a one-year deal.
For American League teams, two of the game's best power hitters will be on the market. Nelson Cruz led the Majors in homers with 40, and his 137 weighted runs created (wRC+) was among the best in the American League. He can play the outfield if need be but is most ideally suited as a designated hitter.
Perhaps the best pure bat on the market is Detroit's Victor Martinez, who put up an insane 4.4 fWAR as a designated hitter. His .411 weighted on base average (wOBA) was best among all AL hitters, and his 166 wRC+ was 2nd in the American League. However, both Cruz and Martinez are both in their mid-30s and both would require a team to give up a draft pick to get them. Two teams are going to pay a lot of money for the first couple years of production, with the knowledge they'll likely get slammed on the back end of the deal. Kansas City's Billy Butler would be a cheaper option.
And at catcher, Russell Martin's surprise season is going to net him a very nice deal from someone. However, at 32 years old, he's on the back-side of his career and has a QO attached to him as well. But you don't see a lot of catchers with an fWAR of 5.3 hit the market all that often, and for teams in need of a solid backstop, he's the guy. J.P. Arencibia, John Buck, and Geovany Soto are other potential starters at catcher.
There are some useful bats in there. Unfortunately, most of them are older and will cost some combination of draft picks as well as a ton of money and commitment.
Teams understand that the best way to build a franchise is through the draft and by taking the occasional plunge into the international market. But for teams who are just a player or two away and have payroll flexibility, free agency can still be a valuable tool.
Let the bidding begin.