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MLB Offseason 2014: Fan's Guide to Free Agency, Top Storylines and More

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2013

MLB Offseason 2014: Fan's Guide to Free Agency, Top Storylines and More

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Many words get used to describe the offseason in Major League Baseball, but looking at what awaits us this year, the one I keep coming back to is "uncertainty."

    Look at the crop of free agents, potential trade chips, possible suspensions, players returning from suspensions and foreign players looking for big contracts if you don't believe me. All of this screams of an unclear and volatile offseason that will get crazy in a hurry. 

    In an effort to put some method to the madness, we are going to take care of you by offering a primer. We are going to talk about some of these free agents, trade rumors and all of the notable stories you will want to follow in the coming months. 

    Just because the World Series is over doesn't mean the action stops. The hot stove is getting ignited and will only get hotter the deeper into winter we go. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Where Are the Top Free Agents Going?

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Doesn't it seem like this year, more than any other, teams are going to be conservative when it comes to handing out big contracts?

    We have seen what has happened the last two years with players like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder signing monster deals only to see their production fall off in a hurry. 

    Fielder is the most productive player in the group, yet just had the fewest home runs (25) and OPS (.819) since 2005. 

    This year's top free agents include Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. Cano figures to get the biggest deal, though it's unclear how many years or dollars teams would be willing to throw at a 31-year-old second baseman. 

     

    Robinson Cano

    I don't see a scenario where Cano leaves the Yankees. They still desperately need him and are capable of beating any potential offer if they so choose. Brian Cashman won't go overboard like he has in the past with Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira, but a six-year deal in the $160-170 million range might be enough to keep Cano. 

    It also doesn't help Cano's cause that the Dodgers reportedly aren't interested in him, according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. Of course, that's what they say now. Let's see what happens at the winter meetings in December. 

     

    Jacoby Ellsbury

    Ellsbury has a long injury history, including missing 144 games in 2010 and 88 in 2012, to overcome. He is also a player whose best tool is his speed. At 30 years old, that can be a dangerous combination. 

    Jon Heyman of CBS Sports lists a number of teams as having "interest" in Ellsbury, though that can be a misleading term because once bidding starts and prices go up, interest could wane quickly. 

    One team that makes sense, both from a need and financial perspective, is Washington. The Nationals need an offensive boost, especially at the top of the order. Denard Span was a disappointment in his first season with the team. 

    Ellsbury could solidify the top of Washington's order, getting on base ahead of Bryce Harper, and bring his stellar defense to the National League.

     

    Shin-Soo Choo

    Choo, 31, is a glorified platoon player. He had an OPS of .885 with Cincinnati in 2013, but just .612 against left-handed pitching. His defense has been declining for years and got progressively worse this season when the Reds asked him to play center field. 

    I honestly don't know what to predict with Choo because his market won't become clear until Ellsbury signs. If I had to guess, I would say keep an eye on the Tigers even though they already have a crowded outfield. 

    We know Detroit's ownership and front office are not shy about handing out money if it helps the team win now, which this franchise is geared to do. 

     

    Brian McCann

    McCann is a great hitter (.823 career OPS, .461 slugging in 2013) who shouldn't stay behind the plate for much longer, complicating the value any interested teams have in him. If someone believes in his ability to keep hitting and/or as a catcher, he could get close to $100 million.

    If not, I wouldn't be surprised to see McCann turn into one of the better bargains of the offseason.

     

    Ervin Santana

    Santana would scare me. He's never been consistent and is coming off a strong year (3.24 ERA in 211 innings) playing in a spacious park with a great defense behind him.

    Starting pitching will always get paid, but I wouldn't trust Santana on anything more than a three-year deal.

     

    Despite my feelings that teams will be conservative, we have seen in the past what happens when desperate clubs get in a bidding war. All it takes is one ridiculous deal to a second-tier free agent to change the market. 

The Trade Market

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    David Price

    Price is the name to watch on the trade front. He is one of the five best pitchers in the AL and under team control for two more years, though his salary will escalate exponentially through arbitration.

    The Rays know they can't afford to re-sign Price when he hits free agency after the 2015 season, so they could do what they did with James Shields last year when he had two years remaining on his contract.

    Wil Myers was the main piece the Rays got from Kansas City for Shields, who is a very good pitcher but not nearly at the level of Price. Tampa Bay's shrewd front office could get a hefty return if it decides to move the 28-year-old.

    It will be a while before a trade market develops for the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, not to mention figuring out which teams have enough quality and depth in their system that will get the Rays to listen. But Price has essentially already resigned himself to the fact his run in Tampa is likely over, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.

     

    Giancarlo Stanton

    The situation with Stanton and the Marlins is always worth monitoring. Joe Frisaro of MLB.com reported that the team still wants to do everything it can to retain the star right fielder.

    Asked if there is any chance Stanton could be traded, a plugged in MLB source said: “I don’t see any scenario.”

    Another insider added the Marlins are looking to build around Stanton.

    Multiple sources see a likely scenario in which Stanton signs a one-year deal for 2014, mainly because the slugger is keeping his long-term options open. And the Marlins themselves have concerns over the slugger’s durability, because he has missed so much the the past two years.

    There are two reasons why I don't think the Marlins can/will trade Stanton now. One, after the debacle that was last offseason, Major League Baseball would have to closely monitor any and all deals happening with this franchise.

    Two, why would the Marlins trade him now when his value is down? Stanton is coming off a disappointing 2013 where he played in 116 games and hit .249/.365/.480 with 140 strikeouts in 425 at-bats.

     

    Mark Trumbo

    The Angels have put Trumbo on the trade block for teams willing to give them pitching in return, according to Buster Olney of ESPN.

    Given the lack of right-handed power in baseball right now, Trumbo might fetch a decent return for teams that need help on offense. You won't find a lot of available players who hit 34 home runs last year and are under team control for the next three years.

    However, power is the only thing Trumbo does offer. He has a .299 career on-base percentage with a terrible approach. What kind of pitcher do the Angels expect to get in return?

The Suspended

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    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    There is a quartet of players who all face questions this offseason.

     

    Alex Rodriguez 

    Rodriguez's appeal for the suspension MLB handed down in August is still pending.

    He has also accused MLB of engaging in a witch hunt following a lawsuit he filed against Bud Selig and the league, according to CBS News

    I am deeply troubled by my team's investigative findings with respect to MLB's conduct. How can the gross, ongoing misconduct of the MLB investigations division not be relevant to my suspension, when my suspension supposedly results directly from that division's work?

    MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred responded with a statement of his own, also in the CBS report, throwing Rodriguez's comments about gross, ongoing misconduct back at him.

    Mr. Rodriguez's use of PEDs was longer and more pervasive than any other player, and when this process is complete, the facts will prove that it is Mr. Rodriguez and his representatives who have engaged in ongoing, gross misconduct.

    Someone is going to be disappointed by the end of the appeals hearing. I don't see how Rodriguez remains suspended for the 2014 season because there is no precedent for it, but MLB clearly feels confident about the evidence it has been able to collect.

    It will also be interesting to see how the Yankees react based on the length of Rodriguez's suspension. Does this put more pressure on them to re-sign Cano? Do they go after a third baseman in free agency or via trade to fill the position?

     

    Ryan Braun

    Braun, who was suspended for the final 65 games of the 2013 season, is coming back. How will the team greet him upon returning? He's still their best player, but the franchise is a mess right now with a barren farm system and little talent in the big leagues.

    Does ownership try to surround Braun with talent to get the Brewers back into contention in the National League Central? How does his return change what the front office tries to do, or does it at all?

     

    Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz

    Peralta and Cruz, who were both suspended 50 games following the Biogenesis investigation, are entering free agency. They returned at the end of the season to help the Tigers and Rangers, respectively, in their quests for a World Series.

    Both players are sure to attract attention because of their track records. Cruz has slugged over .500 in five of the last six seasons and has hit at least 22 home runs every year since 2009. He is not a great all-around hitter, but going back to the lack of right-handed power, Cruz could be a bargain if teams are skittish because of his suspension.

    Peralta is in an interesting spot. He turns 32 in May, had the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.358) and rates as a solid defender at shortstop with an ultimate zone rating of 3.5 in 2013.

    Consistency has never been Peralta's strong suit. He hit .239/.305/.384 in 2012 and posted an OPS of .710 or less in three of the last five years.

    Are teams going to evaluate Cruz and Peralta differently because of their PED-related suspensions?

    I would be surprised, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors when these owners and executives get together to discuss contracts.

The Foreign Market

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    Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

    When you look at the crop of free-agent pitchers, with guys like Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and A.J. Burnett, it doesn't instill much confidence. It gets even worse when teams know they will have to commit four or five years to get them to sign.

    That's why the most lucrative contract handed out to a pitcher this offseason could go to Japan's Masahiro Tanaka. He's a 25-year-old right-hander whose stuff makes him look like a potential No. 2 starter, according to Ben Badler of Baseball America.

    No other pitcher on the market can match Tanaka's combination of age and stuff, but there is also the volatility that comes with importing an unknown quantity into Major League Baseball. Daisuke Matsuzaka was supposed to be an ace when he signed with the Red Sox.

    Tanaka will go through the posting system, though Badler's report also notes there could be changes in the way that gets handled.

    According to sources, one of the changes could include a system in which the posting fee would be capped, which in theory would give more money to the player rather than the Japanese team and allow MLB to count more money against the luxury tax. In turn, multiple teams could then be allowed to win the posting rights and compete for the player, but that system could also drive up costs for owners. Nobody seems certain what the future of the system will bring.

    Those changes would likely have to be implemented soon, or else the current system where teams post a bid and the Japanese team takes the highest one will remain in place.

    Regardless, when you have a weak pitching market and a young arm with projection, there are certain to be a number of teams getting in on the action. It all depends on how high the posting fee goes and what Tanaka will sign for.

    Yu Darvish set the record, generating the highest posting fee at $51.7 million, when the Texas Rangers won his rights two years ago. He signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the team a few weeks later.

    It wouldn't be surprising to see Tanaka's total fee cost more than the $111.7 million Darvish got when you consider inflation and desperation among teams to land high-quality pitching.

    I don't think Tanaka's ceiling is as high as Darvish's, which isn't meant to downgrade him. Darvish has some of the best raw stuff in baseball and is a No. 1 starter, so his contract looks like a bargain.

    Tanaka might benefit from Darvish's success, but one way or another, it seems likely he will be pitching in MLB next season.

Teams to Watch

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    Rangers GM Jon Daniels figures to have a busy offseason.
    Rangers GM Jon Daniels figures to have a busy offseason.Cooper Neill/Getty Images

    The offseason is when teams put plans in place to compete for a championship. Some are building for the immediate future, while others have long-term goals. All of them want to make moves, but they have to be right financially.

     

    Houston Astros

    For instance, the Astros aren't going to spend $100 million on three or four players because their goals are to build through the draft and farm system. We will start to see some of those efforts pay off in 2014 when, presumably, players like George Springer, Jonathan Singleton and Mike Foltynewicz debut.

     

    Tampa Bay Rays

    Teams that figure to be active in trades and/or free agency include the Tampa Bay Rays, who own the best trade chip in David Price. We know they aren't afraid to make a bold move and more often than not find a great deal for those players.

     

    New York Yankees

    The Yankees are always a threat to spend big in free agency, especially coming off a season like the one they endured in 2013. I don't think they will go crazy, but I can see Brian Cashman re-signing Robinson Cano and adding one of the top starters (Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana).

    I wouldn't be excited about Garza or Santana in Yankee Stadium with that short porch down the right-field line if I were a New York fan.

     

    Washington Nationals

    Another team I want to see this offseason is Washington. The Nationals were heavy favorites to win the National League in 2013 but were undone by a porous offense. Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury would give them exactly what they need at the top of the order.

    We know from his past deals with Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg that Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has no issue working with Scott Boras on long-term deals. (Boras represents both Ellsbury and Choo.)

     

    Texas Rangers

    Texas figures to be a player in free agency or the trade market, though we still don't know what the team's plans are for Jurickson Profar. If he remains with the Rangers, they have to play him every day next year.

    If the Rangers want to upgrade their offense, especially after losing Josh Hamilton last year and (likely) Nelson Cruz this year, Profar is a great piece to dangle. He is just 20 years old and didn't get a fair chance in 2013 because Ron Washington had no idea what to do with him.

     

    If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter. 


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