Ranking the best hitters left on rapidly thinning free-agent market
While we await the first major pitcher contract of this offseason, the market for free-agent hitters is already down to the dregs. This week's signings of Nelson Cruz, Torii Hunter and Nick Markakis mean that 11 of the top 19 position players on Ben Reiter's list of the 50 best free agents have found their homes for 2015. With the winter meetings coming up next week, expect the heat on top trade targets such as Matt Kemp and Justin Upton to rise considerably in the coming week. But for those teams planning to stick to free agency, here are the five leading options still on the market.
1. Melky Cabrera, LF
Cabrera, who has played for five teams in the last six years, has had an unusual journey to this point. Traded from the Yankees to the Braves in December 2009, he was lousy for Atlanta and non-tendered after the 2010 season. That reportedly motivated Cabrera to get in shape, resulting in a breakout age-26 season with the Royals in 2011. Traded to San Francisco that November, he was even better for the Giants in 2012, winning the All-Star Game's Most Valuable Player award and batting .346. Things went off the rails, however, when he tested positive for testosterone in August, suggesting that the non-tender may have been too much motivation. Cabrera was suspended for the rest of the season, and San Francisco went on to win the World Series without him.
That PED suspension ruined Cabrera's hopes for a monster free-agent contract that winter. Instead, he settled for a two-year, $16 million pact with the Blue Jays. His first season in Toronto was undermined by a tumor on his spine that caused weakness in his legs, and he played only 72 games. Cabrera, who turned 30 in August, rebounded this past season to hit .301/.351/.458 (126 OPS+), which is almost an exact match for his combined line over the last four seasons, his lousy 2013 included. Cabrera is an erratic fielder and was never much of a base stealer, but he does offer speed and can spot in centerfield in an emergency.
2. Chase Headley, 3B
Throw out Headley's career year in 2012, in which he hit 31 home runs, posted a 145 OPS+, led the National League in RBIs and finished fifth in the MVP voting. That was a spike year, a fluke. He has never hit more than 13 home runs in any other season or had an OPS+ above 116. He is, however, an outstanding defensive third baseman who switch-hits effectively. In the four years prior to 2012, he averaged 2.0 Wins Above Replacement and hit .269/.343/.393, but that slash line was tamped down by Petco Park and corrects to a 106 OPS+ over that span. In his two seasons since 2012, he has averaged 3.6 WAR while hitting .246/.338/.387, which works out to a 109 OPS+.
That's the hitter teams are bidding on heading in to his age-31 season. When you factor in his glove, however, Headley is a three-win player, and there's always the chance that his production could improve in a friendlier hitting environment. That's not a star, but it's a valuable everyday contributor in the middle of the defensive spectrum.
3. Colby Rasmus, CF
Rasmus is this high on my list largely because he's a centerfielder who just turned 28 in August and was once considered a top-10 prospect. He is also still in his prime, plays a key defensive position and has a lot of raw talent. His performance on the field, however, has been maddeningly erratic. Since what looked like a breakout season in 2010 at the age of 23, he has hit just .236/.302/.430 (99 OPS+) and averaged just 126 games over the last four seasons. His plate approach is a mess -- his strikeout rate has risen each of the last two seasons, and he struck out in 33 percent of his plate appearances in 2014.
Still, he has obvious power (.224 isolated slugging over the last two years), is occasionally an above-average defender in center and his injuries have been minor and unrelated. The possibility of Rasmus putting it all together, even for just one season, is still too tempting for teams to ignore.
4. Mike Morse, 1B/OF
Morse's line for the Giants this year was an almost exact match for his career numbers: .279/.336/.475 vs. .281/.335/.473. Correct for the decline in offense across the league and for pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, however, and that 2014 performance is more impressive (130 OPS+ to 121 OPS+ career). The point is that Morse is a reliable source of offensive production -- when healthy. The problem is that Morse, who will be 33 in March, has averaged just 107 games per year over the last three seasons due to a variety of muscle strains.
Then there's the issue of where teams can play him. A terrible outfielder, Morse is best suited to be a designated hitter, but he seems to be legitimately uncomfortable in the role, hitting .217/.243/.268 without a home run in 148 career plate appearances as a DH between the regular and postseasons. That leaves first base, where Morse's height (6-foot-5) and experience in the infield (he was a shortstop in the minors, believe it or not) work to his advantage. The downside is that the standard for offense is higher there than anywhere else on the diamond, and Morse has not consistently proven he can deliver at that level.
5. Kendrys Morales, DH
The 31-year-old Morales lacks Morse's defensive versatility: He is a designated hitter, period. Yes, he can spot at first base, but you don't want him playing there every day. That rules out the NL. Yet, despite a brutal 2014 campaign in which he didn't sign until June, he should still be a valuable commodity in the American League. Those teams should look to his .275/.329/.457 (121 OPS+) performance in 2012 and '13. That performance is a good match for his career rates (.271/.324/.460) but, again, more valuable in context (his career OPS+ is 114). Having played for the Angels, Twins and Mariners, Morales has never made his home in a hitter-friendly ballpark. It would be interesting to see what might happen if he did.
Morales is a better option than Nori Aoki or Alex Rios. The former will be 33 in January and is an erratic rightfielder whose power numbers have declined sharply in his brief major league career; the latter will be 34 in February and has averaged just 1.6 WAR per year since 2009. Morales is also going to do more to lift an offense than any of the three top shortstops available. Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew and Jed Lowrie would obviously be more valuable to a team with an opening in the middle of its infield, but they are league-average bats at best and, with the exception of Drew, are substandard fielders.