While the majority of this offseason's top free agents have signed, including 24 of the top 30 according to the Reiter 50, the annual list of the offseason's top 50 free agents compiled by SI.com's Ben Reiter, there are still a handful of key players searching for a team for the coming season. Among those remaining free agents are five of Reiter's top 20 -- Michael Bourn, Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano, and Shaun Marcum.
Four of those five (Bourn, LaRoche, Lohse and Soriano, all of whom ranked in Reiter's top 10) have seen the market for their services slowed by the draft pick compensation attached to their price. All four were offered and declined qualifying offers from their 2012 teams. As a result, they would cost any of the other 29 teams not only their top unprotected draft pick (the top 10 picks in the draft cannot be lost to free agent compensation), but the corresponding bonus pool money associated with the lost pick.
That's not a loss of actual dollars, but of spending power. Per the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams are allowed to spend a limited amount of money, referred to as their "bonus pool," to sign all of their draft picks with each spot in the draft being associated with a certain bonus amount. Teams can spend less on higher picks and more on lower picks if they so desire provided they stay within their allotted total amount, but losing the comparatively large amount associated with a top pick greatly reduces that ability, so losing a draft pick in order to sign one of the four aforementioned free agents could have ramifications beyond that single pick. The ten teams with protected picks in this June's draft are the Astros, Cubs, Rockies, Twins, Indians, Marlins, Red Sox, Royals, Pirates (compensation for failing to sing their top pick in 2012) and Blue Jays. They would forfeit their next pick and the associated bonus amount instead.
With all of that in mind, here is a look at the latest rumors and best fits for those top five free agents still on the market as well as a quick look two other big names that may be back in play.
1. Michael Bourn, CFReiter 50 Rank: 42012 Team: Braves
There hasn't been much heat on Bourn this offseason, though the Rangers and Mariners have been mentioned as teams that have shown some interest, while the Red Sox and Cubs reportedly checked in on him earlier in the offseason. The Rangers have lost Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli (well, almost, see below) and their top hitting acquisition this winter has been Eli Whiteside. Still, Bourn may not be a great fit for a team that could get by in center with some combination of righthanded Craig Gentry's speed and defense and lefty-swinging Leonys Martin's bat. The Mariners would forfeit the 12th overall pick in the draft to sign Bourn, which seems absurd for a team going nowhere in the near future. The Cubs have a protected pick, but Bourn doesn't make sense for them, as they should give prospect Brett Jackson every opportunity to stick as their everyday centerfielder. The Red Sox' interest may have hinged on the trade market for Jacoby Ellsbury, which they no longer seem to be exploring.
Best fit: Braves. When the Braves signed B.J. Upton in late November it seemed to guarantee Bourn's departure, but two weeks ago, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman tweeted that the Braves were looking for a "leadoff type" leftfielder. If Bourn can't find a long-term deal elsewhere, it would make a lot of sense for Atlanta, which wouldn't have to worry about draft pick compensation, to give him a shorter deal to play center and lead off while pushing the defensively inferior Upton to left.
2. Adam LaRoche, 1BReiter 50 Rank: 62012 Team: Nationals
LaRoche and the Nationals are both prioritizing a reunion, but, as reported by the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore last weekend, LaRoche is growing frustrated with the slow pace of their talks. Those discussions reportedly hinge on a third year which LaRoche wants and the team, which have offered two years, doesn't want to guarantee. LaRoche told Kilgore that his agents are "talking to a few other teams . . . to keep things open in case Washington doesn't work out."
However, the Nationals still appear to have the upper hand in terms of leverage as they already have Mike Morse on the roster to play first base, and because LaRoche declined his qualifying offer.
Best fit: Blue Jays. The Jays have a protected first-round pick, are going for broke in 2013 and their current first-baseman, Adam Lind, has hit .246/.296/.428 (93 OPS+) over the last three years. That said, Toronto might be maxed out in terms of payroll given that it already has more than $100 million in commitments for both 2013 and 2014, with both years guaranteed to set a franchise record in player payroll. Look for LaRoche and the Nationals to meet in the middle via an option for 2015.
3. Kyle Lohse, SPReiter 50 Rank: 92012 Team: Cardinals
Crickets. If there is a team eyeing Lohse, they're doing a great job of keeping it a secret. The Red Sox reportedly had some interest, but that was before they signed Ryan Dempster. I wrote in early December that the Angels, who had also shown some interest, would be a good fit for Lohse given his fly-ball tendencies and their home-run-suppressing ballpark and stellar outfield defense, but that was before the Halos signed Joe Blanton and traded for Jason Vargas. There's no room at the inn back in St. Louis as the Cardinals have Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal all angling for the Opening Day rotation.
Lohse has been too good over the last two seasons (30-11, 3.11 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.13 WHIP, 3.18 K/BB, 399 1/3 innings in 63 starts) not to land a job, but given his age (34), the 4.82 ERA he posted over his first seven major league seasons and the draft pick compensation signing him would require, he seems to have landed in free agent limbo.
Best fit: Royals. Sure, Kansas City has already re-signed Jeremy Guthrie and traded for James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana, but Lohse is a better bet for the coming season than all but Shields and would be a huge improvement on fifth starter Bruce Chen. The Royals have a protected first-round pick (eighth overall) and are making the transition (at least in their own eyes) from rebuilding to contending with a team and organization stocked with young talent, making the loss of their second-round pick less significant than it might be for some of the other teams with protected first-round picks. They also have a home-run-suppressing ballpark and a strong defensive outfield, increasing Lohse's chances of success in Kansas City.
4. Rafael Soriano, RPReiter 50 Rank: 102012 Team: Yankees
New Rule: if you're a relief pitcher heading into free agency and your team makes you an offer that will add a draft pick to your price, accept the offer. Teams were reluctant to surrender a draft pick for a relief pitcher before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement put the pinch on above-slot spending. Now that amateur bonuses are so tightly controlled, giving up a pick and a portion of that bonus pool for a relief pitcher is something teams simply won't do. If a team wants a so-called proven closer, Brian Wilson, Jose Valverde and Matt Capps are still out there, but of those three, only Wilson has drawn any interest. With Wilson coming off Tommy John surgery, Soriano has the better projection for 2013, but that draft pick and his distaste for set-up work have all but silenced the market for his services as the latter eliminates a return to the Yankees who were frustrated with his performance in a set-up role in 2011.
Best fit: Tigers. Scott Boras, Soriano's agent, has reportedly been trying to make this match all offseason, but Detroit isn't biting, insisting they'll give fireballing rookie Bruce Rondon the first shot at the closer job and can swap him out for playoff closer Phil Coke or set-up men Joaquin Benoit or Octavio Dotel if necessary. That's exactly the right approach for Detroit to take, but at the same time, there's no other team that so clearly lacks an established closer candidate while also projecting as a strong-enough contender in 2013 to justify sacrificing a draft pick for the marginal upgrade to Soriano.
5. Shaun Marcum, SPReiter 50 Rank: 182012 Team: Brewers
Marcum will not cost his new team a draft pick and thus has been the subject of much interest from clubs including the Indians, Mets, Padres, Cubs and Twins. On Wednesday, the Indians signed Brett Myers with the intention of using him as a starter. That doesn't necessarily mean they're out on Marcum, but it could. The Royals were reportedly interested in Marcum before the trade that brought them Shields and Davis. Given the above about the Royals situation, Marcum would still be a good fit in Kansas City, his hometown.
Best fit: A's. Why not? The A's are trying to hold on to their status as contenders, but for all of the talent in their rotation, there's not a lot of stability. Jarrod Parker should continue to anchor things and Tommy Milone should survive as a league-average innings eater, but both have just one full season under their belts, Bartolo Colon is a science experiment who will turn 40 in May, Brett Anderson has a sketchy injury history and is coming off a post-Tommy John season in which he threw just 41 major league innings (postseason included), and A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily have 15 combined major league starts. Yes, that's six starters, and Marcum has had his own injury issues, but you can never have too much pitching and the A's payroll is down heading into 2013 due to the departures of Brian Fuentes, Kurt Suzuki, Brandon McCarthy and Dallas Braden.
Two others to watch
Mike Napoli, C/1BReiter 50 Rank: 142012 Team: Rangers
Napoli and the Red Sox agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal in early December that would have made Napoli Boston's new first baseman. There was even a press conference scheduled for December 11 to announce the deal, but the presser was cancelled after concerns raised by Napoli's physical about the condition of one of his hips forced the two sides to re-open negotiations. It was believed that the Red Sox were simply seeking to insert language that would protect them in the case of significant time lost to an injury in the hip, but last week brought rumors of the Red Sox "going after" LaRoche while other teams have started to check in on Napoli.
Lance Berkman, 1B/DHReiter 50 Rank: 502012 Team: Cardinals
Berkman was expected to retire this winter, but he admitted in a recent interview with MLB Network that "there are definitely amounts of money that you just can't turn down." Per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, there are multiple teams inquiring as to what it might take to get Berkman to play in 2013, with the Rangers being a particularly good fit for Berkman given their open designated hitter position, hitting friendly ballpark and location in his home state of Texas.
The big question, which Berkman voiced himself, is if any team would be willing to spend the kind of money it would take to lure him away from his family and a potential coaching job at Rice University, his alma mater, given the fact that he was only healthy enough to make 97 plate appearances last year, will be 37 in February and had a down, injury-plagued 2010 as well. The Cardinals paid Berkman $12 million in 2012 and $8 million in 2011, when he had a superb year and finished seventh in the NL MVP voting while helping St. Louis win the World Series against the Rangers.