It’s time for the final chapter in our rundown of the winter’s free agents. I don’t think there will be any controversial choices in the top 10 below. All will get multiyear deals if they want them, and none should have to settle for less than $10 million per year.
10. Hiroki Kuroda (Dodgers - Age 36) - Which starting pitcher in this year’s free agent pool has the lowest career ERA? Kuroda actually beats out Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte with a 3.60 mark in three seasons since arriving from Japan. He’s also coming off his best season, as he finished 2010 with a 3.39 mark and 159 strikeouts in 196 1/3 innings. Durability is a concern, particularly since Kuroda is turning 36 in February and will want a three-year contract. The Dodgers might have taken themselves out of the running to re-sign him when they gave Ted Lilly a $33 million deal.
9. Paul Konerko (White Sox - Age 35) - Konerko didn’t actually set any new highs in the traditional categories this season, but it was still a career year for the 34-year-old. He hit .312-39-111 and finished with a 977 OPS that topped his previous best of 932 from 2006. While he’s long been a fine regular, Konerko had never come in higher than ninth in the AL in slugging or OPS until finishing fourth in both categories this year. The well-timed campaign will probably see to it that he gets at least $25 million for two years this winter. However, it’s worth remembering that he’s the same age as Lance Berkman and Derrek Lee and he hasn’t been as productive as either over the course of his career.
8. Victor Martinez (Red Sox - Age 32) - Many wondered whether Martinez might be looked at as a first baseman by the time he reached free agency, but most signs point to him remaining a catcher for at least another couple of years. He does struggle to throw out basestealers, but he grades out fine elsewhere. With their visions of landing Joe Mauer having been quashed months ago, the Red Sox will make an attempt to re-sign their catcher. The Tigers, Rockies and Orioles are also thought to be interested, with only Baltimore likely to try to turn him into a first baseman/designated hitter right away. It’ll probably take about $36 million over three years to sign him.
7. Mariano Rivera (Yankees - Age 41) - The only question here is the length of the deal. Rivera, long the game’s highest-paid reliever, just finished up a three-year, $45 million contract, and he’s certainly not in line for a paycut after finishing with a sub-2.00 ERA for the seventh time in eight years. Even at 41, he has a case for another three-year deal, and while the Yankees could always call Derek Jeter’s bluff if he balks at a shorter contract, Rivera probably wouldn’t have much trouble finding big-time suitors if he really wanted to put himself on the market. If he settles for $30 million over two years, it’d be out of loyalty.
6. Derek Jeter (Yankees - Age 36) - This has the potential to be the most interesting negotiation of the winter, though Jeter and the Yankees probably won’t let it come to that. Maybe it wouldn’t make sense for any other team to give Jeter more than a three-year, $24 million contract, but the Yankees aren’t going to embarrass the face of the franchise by asking him to take that much less than what Alex Rodriguez is making. My thought is that the Yankees should hold the line on three years, but offer him $15 million per year. It’d be fitting if he and Rivera received the same salaries.
5. Adrian Beltre (Red Sox - Age 31) - Held back by playing in pitcher’s parks, Beltre was always underrated in his down years, as he combined a solid bat with outstanding defense in third base. Finally getting a chance to play in a hitter’s park, Beltre hit .321-28-102 for the Red Sox. Of course, it wasn’t his career year; Beltre had a 1017 OPS during his remarkable 2004 season with the Dodgers. But the 919 OPS he had this year far outclasses anything else he’s done. His third highest OPS was an 835 mark set way back in 2000, and he’s been over 800 just one other time in his 12 full seasons. So the bidders probably won’t be fooled; everyone is going to expect him to decline in 2011. But since he’s just turning 32 in April and he remains an elite defender, he should be a major asset for several more seasons. He’s worthy of a four-year contract, and he could get $12 million-$13 million per season.
4. Adam Dunn (Nationals - Age 31) - Dunn has made himself a more attractive property by trading walks for singles. Whether he’s actually any better of a player for it is a different question. Dunn hit in the .260s with 38 homers in both of his seasons in Washington, but his OBP dipped to .356, which was nearly a career-worst mark for him. Dunn’s stock is also higher now because he’s merely a poor defensive first baseman, rather than a league-worst defensive left fielder. He doesn’t want to DH yet, so signing with a team that will keep him at first could be a priority. He’s likely to aim for $55 million-$60 million over four years, though he may have to settle for $45 million for three.
3. Jayson Werth (Phillies - Age 31) - Consecutive seasons of 159 and 156 games have gone a long way towards dismissing concerns about Werth’s durability. The 1997 first-round pick didn’t establish himself as a regular until 2008, but over the last three seasons, he has the sixth-highest OPS among major league outfielders. He’s also an above average defender in right field, though agent Scott Boras’ claims that he should be looked at as a center fielder can probably be dismissed. The benchmark for Werth will likely be the four-year, $66 million contract Jason Bay received from the Mets last winter. That deal will be worth $80 million over five years if the 2014 option vests. Werth will probably shoot for the full $80 million guarantee. Whether he gets it could hinge on involvement from the Yankees and/or the Red Sox.
2. Carl Crawford (Rays - Age 29) - From an OPS standpoint, Crawford has never had a year as good as any of Werth’s last three. He does bring a whole lot to the table, though. Crawford is the game’s best defensive left fielder and a premier basestealer. Plus, his .307/.356/.495 line this season was far from shabby. He also has youth on his side, and his best seasons may yet be ahead of him. The total package figures to get him the longest deal of any free agent this winter. $17 million a year for six years would make him just the eighth outfielder to get a nine-figure contract. Everyone expects the Angels to make a serious run at him. Unclear is whether the Yankees or Red Sox will do the same.
1. Cliff Lee (Rangers - Age 32) - OK, so he’s not the greatest postseason pitcher ever. Lee’s poor World Series still probably didn’t dial down the interest from the Rangers or Yankees at all. He’s the one elite starting pitcher available this winter, and he has no concerns about his arm to drive down his price tag. It’ll probably be a two-team race, as the Rangers’ new ownership tries to make a big splash and keep him away from the team Texas beat to advance to the World Series. To do so, they’ll almost certainly have to commit at least $20 million per year for five seasons. The Yankees went all of the way to $161 million for seven years to land CC Sabathia, and while they probably won’t be willing to give Lee such a lengthy deal, they could offer to match Sabathia’s $23 million-per-year salary.