Predicting Final Landing Spots for Top 10 MLB Free Agents Still Available

Jason MartinezContributor IJanuary 9, 2014

Predicting Final Landing Spots for Top 10 MLB Free Agents Still Available

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    Nelson Cruz's list of potential suitors appears to have diminished.
    Nelson Cruz's list of potential suitors appears to have diminished.Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    There are at least 10 players still remaining on the free-agent market who could make a significant contribution to some team in 2014, including several front-line starting pitchers, a closer and a couple of middle-of-the-order sluggers.

    I've predicted where they'll end up signing based on team needs, payroll space and whether a team would be willing to forfeit a draft pick to sign a player who is tied to draft-pick compensation.

    If you disagree, please feel free to give your opinion in the comments section.

10. Grant Balfour

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    There are two closers left on the free-agent market—Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney—and what looks to be at least three teams (Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners) that could be looking to add a closer.

    We know that the Orioles are one of those teams because they had agreed on a two-year deal with Balfour before they backed out due to medical concerns.

    While we can't totally scratch Baltimore off the list as potential landing spots for Balfour, I'd call it highly unlikely at this point considering he was expected to discuss with the players' union the potential of filing a grievance against the club, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.

    That would leave the Yankees, who expressed interest in Balfour after his deal with the Orioles fell apart, according to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post, and the Mariners, who had interest in Rodney earlier in the offseason, according to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports. Balfour posted a 2.56 ERA with a 3.6 BB/9, 9.4 K/9 and 62 saves for the Oakland A's over the past two seasons. 

    While both teams have invested heavily in their 2014 team this offseason, it's hard to argue against the Yankees having more on the line and more to lose from not solidifying the back of their bullpen.

    The safer pick to be Mariano Rivera's successor in New York has to be Balfour rather than Rodney, who was a mediocre reliever prior to arriving in Tampa Bay in 2012. The uncertainty of how he'd fare in a new environment should have the Yankees heading in the other direction.

    Prediction: New York Yankees

9. Kendrys Morales

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    There are plenty of reasons not to want to sign Kendrys Morales. He's limited defensively and would cost any team that signs him a draft pick.

    And even though he's a good hitter, his production isn't all that great for someone who is limited to being a first baseman/designated hitter.

    After missing most of the 2010 season and all of 2011 recovering from a severe ankle injury, Morales has posted a .786 OPS with 22 homers and 30 doubles per season in 2012-2013. That's solid production for the middle of the lineup, maybe even in the No. 5 spot.

    But considering he turned down a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer from Seattle, his asking price will be at least that much. That is not the type of money any small- or even mid-market team is willing to spend on a pretty good hitter who doesn't offer much else.

    Taking a look around the league, it's difficult to find a fit.

    The Baltimore Orioles make a lot of sense in the American League, while the Milwaukee Brewers are the lone National League team thin enough at first base to pony up for Morales.

    As quiet an offseason as the Brewers have had, I can't see them adding Morales, even at a reduced rate, and thinking that turns them into a playoff contender. The Orioles, however, currently look like a playoff contender. Adding another proven hitter to the lineup can only help those chances.

    Ultimately, Morales will regret turning down the qualifying offer because I see him getting less than $14.1 million on a one-year deal. And if he has to take less, he'll go with the better team.

    Prediction: Baltimore Orioles

8. A.J. Burnett

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    While Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage told The Fan Morning Show that he is working under the impression that A.J. Burnett will retire, no decision has been made, and all has been quiet on that front.

    Savage is likely to trying to avoid any distractions that could affect his pitchers who are expected to be in the rotation or compete for a spot.

    The reality is that they haven't been very aggressive in pursuing starting pitching with the expectation that the 37-year-oldwho has a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts as a Pirate over the past two seasonswill retire.

    According to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, a Pirates team official was quoted as saying, "He can still pitch at a high level and we think he only wants to play for us. Seems like a no-brainer."

    With the excitement surrounding the team in 2013 when it made the playoffs for the first time since 1992, it's hard to disagree. The Bucs are a team on the rise, and Burnett could still be a big part of this turnaround.

    Prediction: Pittsburgh Pirates

7. Bronson Arroyo

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    Four teams have offered Bronson Arroyo a two-year deal, but he's holding out for a third year, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe.

    The Baltimore Orioles and Minnesota Twins have each been connected with the 36-year-old right-hander throughout the offseason. 

    Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN recently tweeted that dialogue remains between the Twins and Arroyo. Meanwhile,  Eduardo A. Encina of The Baltimore Sun reported last month that the Orioles were expected to focus on Arroyo and A.J. Burnett because of the stability they'd bring to the staff.

    Still, no team has a bigger need for a durable workhorse than the Cleveland Indians.

    There hasn't been any indication that Cleveland is willing to get into the bidding for any of the top free-agent starters. That leaves Arroyo as the team's best chance to add a potential 200-inning starter to a rotation that includes only one starter—Justin Masterson—who has pitched more than 150 innings in a big league season.

    Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar offer three promising young arms behind Masterson, but there's no telling if that trio can hold up over a full big league season.

    After eight successful seasons in Cincinnati, Arroyo will remain in Ohio as the No. 2 starter on an up-and-coming Indians team.

    Prediction: Cleveland Indians

6. Stephen Drew

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    The market for Stephen Drew has been surprisingly weak. The St. Louis Cardinals opted to sign Jhonny Peralta, and the Pittsburgh Pirates appear to be content with Jordy Mercer as their starting shortstop.

    As a result, the New York Mets have been viewed as the favorite.

    But their front office is divided on Drew, according to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, while Andy Martino of the New York Daily News reported that they didn't want to offer the 30-year-old more than a one-year deal.

    Since that would make almost no sense for either side, considering the Mets aren't expected to be a strong playoff contender in 2014, it's looking more and more likely that he stays put in Boston. 

    The Red Sox, with youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks penciled into the starting shortstop and third base spots, respectively, might feel more comfortable bringing Drew back into the mix.

    Allowing Bogaerts and Middlebrooks to battle for the third base job and allowing the one who falls short to begin the season in Triple-A isn't a bad thing.

    Depth is important, although having Middlebrooks to use a trade chip after he puts up huge numbers in Triple-A once again would allow the team to go after an impact player at the trade deadline. After all, he has 19 homers and 62 runs batted in over a span of 69 games there in 2012-2013.

    Prediction: Boston Red Sox

5. Nelson Cruz

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    Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    As Charlie Wilmoth of MLB Trade Rumors pointed out recently, there are several reasons why teams could be shying away from outfielder Nelson Cruz, including poor defense, a projected decline in performance, his connection to the Biogenesis scandal and the draft-pick compensation tied to him. 

    Factor in what was believed to be a four-year, $75 million asking price, according to Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe, and it's quite understandable why he's still available on the free-agent market.

    If his price comes down, though, which is very likely at this point in the offseason, teams with a need for some middle-of-the-lineup power could jump aggressively into the mix. The team with the biggest need could be the Detroit Tigers, who have a handful of candidates who don't appear to be great fits behind Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the middle of their order.

    Unless they feel comfortable with some combination of Austin Jackson, Ian Kinsler, Torii Hunter, Alex Avila, Andy Dirks and rookie Nick Castellanos hitting in the No. 5 spot, they'll push hard to sign Cruz. 

    The Tigers could also feel comfortable offering him a multiyear contract, knowing that they'd have plenty of at-bats available in the designated hitter spot with Martinez likely departing as a free agent after the 2014 season. 

    Prediction: Detroit Tigers

4. Ubaldo Jimenez

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    Early in the 2013 season, Ubaldo Jimenez appeared well on his way to being one of those free agents looking to land a one-year, incentive-based deal to rebuild his value after a couple of rough seasons.

    Then something clicked.

    Over his last 23 starts, the 29-year-old was ace-like with a 2.41 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 138 innings pitched. He put an exclamation point on his season with a 13-strikeout performance over 6.2 strong innings in his last start of 2013. If he wasn't already, it ensured he would be lumped in with Matt Garza and Ervin Santana at the top of the free-agent market for starting pitchers.

    What that means now is that, like Garza and Santana, he remains unsigned, awaiting the fate of Masahiro Tanaka.

    His rough stint from mid-2011 to late May of 2013, however, could be enough of a concern that he won't be able to match the contracts that Garza and Santana will eventually sign.

    While that could be good news for teams that are unwilling to spend close to $100 million, it also gives the New York Yankees a better chance of landing two of the top four starters available. 

    Prediction: New York Yankees

3. Matt Garza

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    The market is strong for Matt Garza, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, due to the lack of draft-pick compensation for a team signing him and his prior success in the AL East.

    Like Ervin Santana, his price could also rise once the teams that are focusing most of their attention on Masahiro Tanaka can turn their attention elsewhere.

    While the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels were said to be the favorites for the 30-year-old Garza last month, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Toronto Blue Jays could benefit most from his services.

    Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote that the Jays were the favorites to land either Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, but with a projected rotation full of uncertainty, it's consistency and reliability that they need more than anything.

    Compared to Jimenez and Santana, who each had awful seasons in 2012 and have no prior experience pitching in the AL East, Garza would appear to be the best fit. 

    Prediction: Toronto Blue Jays

2. Ervin Santana

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    For a starting pitcher who was one of the best in baseball last season, Ervin Santana has gotten very little mention on the rumor mill.

    The Toronto Blue Jays are the favorites to land Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, but that could change once teams that lose out on the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes shift their attention elsewhere.

    So unless a team like the Blue Jays signs the 31-year-old Santana at his price anytime soon, it's likely that he waits for Tanaka to sign and hopes that the extra bidders will help to boost his price.

    While the New York Yankees can't be counted out on signing another starter, even if they do land Tanaka, they won't be aggressive enough to sign Santana.

    The Seattle Mariners, who were showing continued interest in Santana last month, according to Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports, will make one more big splash to land the right-hander and head into 2014 with a rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Santana, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. 

    "Is that good?" you ask. Yes, that is like "one of best rotations in baseball" potential.  

    Prediction: Seattle Mariners

1. Masahiro Tanaka

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    From the sound of things, Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka could be at the top of the priority list for several teams. This is great news for Tanaka, who is expected to command at least $17 million per season, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today.

    We'll know which team wanted him the most very soon—clubs have until 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 24 to reach a deal with the right-hander.

    Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported Thursday that Tanaka is expected to meet with as many as 12 teams by Friday. The Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees are all believed to be included in that group. 

    The Seattle Mariners, who already outbid the Yankees for Robinson Cano, could have "one big move left," from what Jayson Stark of ESPN is hearing. David Kaplan of CSN Chicago heard from an MLB source that, after a very quiet offseason up until now, the Cubs will not be outbid for Tanaka. Buster Olney of ESPN thinks that the Astros would be a perfect fit.

    In the end, I believe the Yankees will wind up with the 25-year-old. Not only can they afford him, they have the biggest need at the top of their rotation.

    From Tanaka's point of view, the Yankees play in the biggest market and on one of the biggest stages, which is likely important to a young player who has the potential to be one of the biggest names in the game.

    Having fellow countryman Hiroki Kuroda in the same rotation and Ichiro Suzuki as a teammate should also help make his transition a much smoother one without taking away from his spotlight. Kuroda has never been a player who attracts much attention, while Suzuki's days as a major league star are well behind him.

    Prediction: New York Yankees