If Christmas for a baseball fan is the reporting of pitchers and catchers, then I would venture to say New Years would be the Baseball Winter Meetings — lovingly known as “Hot Stove.” December 9 – 12 will be a glorious time when Baseball Jesus shines upon us all and we learn where the biggest names of free agents are going to be delivered under a team’s Yuletide tree for the upcoming year.
And there was my muse for this wonderful addition of “The Hit List“: Who are the Top Free Agents in Baseball for 2013-2014?
SPW Prediction: Tigers
9. Nelson Cruz — My summary of the 2013 Texas Rangers? For 109 games, Nelson Cruz was crushing it, almost as if he knew his career depended on it. Then, MLB suspended him among the Biogenesis imbroglio for 50 games. Of course, Cruz manned up, admitted it and took the 50 games. He comes back just in time for Game 163 and goes a whopping oh-fer. Thanks for playing and showing your dependence on the juice, Nellie. We hardly knew ya. However, at the age of 33 with 27 taters, 76 RBIs and a .833 OPS last year, Nelson Cruz is appealing among the Winter Meeting free agents. He won’t be bought for his fielding prowess, as we witnessed in the 2011 World Series. The boy can hit and a few AL teams can use a DH. As for me, I’ll continue to wear his uniform proudly thanks to the 2010 ALCS and his crushing of the Yankees. PEDs or not, we’ll always have Arlington.
SPW Prediction: Royals
8. Mike Napoli — Mr. Naptober is back on the free agents market and MLB owners couldn’t be happier. He gets a one-year deal to prove himself with the Rangers and creates hysteria among the Texas faithful. He gets the same one-year proving ground in Boston, and well, you see how that is still going. The Rangers wanted to keep him but didn’t want to give him a base. The Red Sox offered him first base and a one-year, $5 million prove-it contract to back up Big Papi and … he gets a ring. Without a hometown discount — largely because he shouldn’t have to offer one — Napoli won’t be a catcher any longer. His knees can’t handle it, his stats show different (23 HRs, 92 RBIs and one huge clutch in the postseason) and frankly, Ortiz hearts his backup (and that righteous beard). So, enjoy Beantown, sir.
SPW Prediction: Red Sox
7. Brian McCann — This year’s Winter Meetings free agents are chock-full-o’ catchers. From A.J.P. to Russell Martin, there are battery mates abundantly prime for poaching. Probably none more coveted than Brian McCann of the Braves. He is a big left-handed bat and a lifetime .277 hitter overcoming a nasty shoulder injury. McCann has clubhouse leadership potential, something many teams could use next year with veterans looking for new homes. Few of those teams need the troika McCann offers — left-handed, defensive catcher and an impressive DH. Sure, there has been a trend with these predictions, but I promise this is the last time. Despite signing Geovany Soto for the bulk of catching duties, guess who I like for this big guy?
SPW Prediction: Rangers
6. Masahiro Tanaka — Okay, okay. This is the last Rangers reference: The last major-league touted talent from Japan creating this kind of hullabaloo was Yu Darvish, who showed his mettle getting final nods for this year’s AL Cy Young. While Tanaka isn’t said to have that Darvish talent, the kid went 24 and 0! I don’t care if you are in the California Penal League like Ricky Vaughn, that is no easy task. Along with his salty 1.27 ERA and .943 WHIP, it’s easy to see why Tanaka is getting a fair amount of love among 2013 free agents. With a mid-90s heater and a nice splitter, Tanaka is going to demand a pretty penny. Oh yeah, and in the Nippon League (Japan’s Majors), he has thrown 30 complete games. While Los Dodgers and the Cubs will up this ante, there’s only one home for this guy. Unfortunately.
SPW Prediction: Yankees
5. Jacoby Ellsbury — If any one of the 2013 free agents had baseball stock, Jacoby Ellsbury’s spiked through the spreadsheets during the World Series. With a nice .781 OPS and .298 BA, he ranks average among outfielders in hot stove discussions. Leading the majors with 52 stolen bases makes him a blazing hot commodity among free agents. There are several teams that would drool for a leadoff hitter with his range and gazelle-esque speed. He brings with his resume and p0stseason loveliness, a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove, an All-Star nod and a second place finish in the AL MVP race. And then there’s a second-place finish that is even more impressive than that — he landed behind Robinson Cano in the coveted WAR (Wins Above Replacement). In other words, this guy was the most precious player on his team in total contributions. MVP. WAR. Either way, he’s a nice get in free agency. Also, he’s from Oregon.
SPW Prediction: Mariners
4. Ubaldo Jimenez — One reason why free agents love the Winter Meetings because everyone gets a clean slate and most owners forget the crap sandwich some players fed his fans years prior. Take Ubaldo Jimenez, who has been meh at best. I don’t know if that’s because the MLB Network doesn’t cover games in Colorado, or the best season he had was a nice 2010 with a 19-8 and 2.88 ERA record (his only All-Star year). However, this year, Jimenez’s work from the mound screamed “Stud” as he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings in the second half of 2013. Add to that a peppered 1.82 ERA, and it is Ubald-who? He’s a new guy and demanding new money. The Indians want to keep him with a $14 million, one-year “please-effing-stay-in-Cleveland” offer, but we’ll see how that goes since Jimenez wants something long-term. And now that he is on the ripe side of 30, who can blame him? Among the faves that want him, give him a long-term contract and the opportunity to the big haas on the mound, you have a winner.
SPW Prediction: Orioles
3. Robinson Cano — Our own Todd Kaufmann covered this possible newest $300 million man in his column. And while I won’t repeat what Todd eloquently penned, I can tell you few teams will be able to sniff that asking price. Cano brings numbers, and with numbers (.899 OPS, 27 HRs, 107 RBIs in 2013), he brings butts in seats. Among teams that require that kind of ass count (someone needs to talk to SABR about making that an official statistic), many want to pay that kind of coin for it — fewer actually can. Add to that he has been in the MVP voting every year since 2010, and I think we know what team can afford his precious behind on second base. It’s that Empire State of Mind feel to it. You know, as his agent would say when he’s not violating MLB bylaws and such.
SPW Prediction: Yankees
2. James Loney — Yes, I didn’t stutter. I meant Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney. Do not sleep on this cat because his game is so nice and so very underrated. I have a team that will go unmentioned (because I’ve already promised earlier in this post) that would sacrifice a limb and an overrated infielder for this dude. His 2012 season wasn’t great. In fact, it sucked. And because of that lackluster performance, Loney got a one-year qualifying contract worth $3 million. And then came the 2013 postseason where his defense and his bat was on display. Loney earned love among free agents shoppers with a .375 against the Indians and Red Sox — not with power but with aim. He can drive the ball to either gap and loves the extra-base grab. If you want power on first, you may pass on Loney. If you want consistency and clutch, Loney will command a three-to-four-year deal. And with Morneau seeking greener pastures elsewhere, I see steel in this guy’s future.
SPW Prediction: Pirates
1. Shin-Soo Choo — While this guy’s agent can talk a long walk on a short bridge, fully engulfed in flames for all I care, Shin-Soo Choo is going to command top dollar in the free agents market. Why? The bases love him. From 112 walks to a .423 OBP, Choo is the little engine that could (see what I did there). With power, speed and accuracy against anyone in the MLB who isn’t left-handed (his serious Achilles heel), Choo is attractive by clubs that are looking for immediate impact or rebuild. There are countless opinions on the Reds, Tigers, Yankees, Dodgers and Mets but none of those teams are as desperate for everything Choo offers as one — one abysmal, ridiculous team that wants to impress people for that aforementioned ass count stat. Enter the new prince of free agency.
SPW Prediction: Astros