Brewers star Ryan Braun's $105 million, five-year contract extension through the 2020 season seemed like it came out of nowhere, since Braun already had a deal in place that kept him in Milwaukee through 2015.
But a boatload of other 20-something stars actually do appear in line for big new deals, from superb starting pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson and Jered Weaver to hitting standouts Joey Votto, Robinson Cano and Andre Ethier, to superb two-way players Ryan Zimmerman and Shin-soo Choo, to incredible all-around talents Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp.
These young stars and many more appear to be in line at least for reasonably quick attention by their current teams since they can all become free agents after either the 2012 or 2013 seasons. Here is a rundown of the best of the 20-somthings who can become free agents after either of those two seasons. (The young stars whose contracts expire after this season are in most cases too far out the door to consider for extension, while '14 or beyond is generally a bit too far into the future to think about, so I kept the list to the two walk years mentioned.)
1. Tim Lincecum, Giants, free agent after 2013. The Giants need to do something, and fast, or Lincecum's arbitration numbers could get crazy in a hurry. With two NL Cy Youngs already on his mantle, another Cy Young season could shoot Lincecum from $14 million all the way up into the $25 million range. And there would still be another year of arbitration on the docket. Do we hear $30 mil in '13? Even if he only repeats last year's good-but-non-Cy season in which he went 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA, he'd still likely get close to $20 million next year. The Giants have to avoid this potential arbo mess any way they can. The Freak has led the league in strikeouts three years running and could make it four this year (he's again averaging more than 10 K's per nine innings). If there were any questions about his small stature, they have already been answered. The Seattle product is believed to be quite comfy in San Francisco, and they love him there. So it's hard to imagine the Giants not figuring something out, even if it's a sky-high contract. Deal or no deal: deal.
2. Robinson Cano, Yankees 2B, free agent after 2013. The Yankees have options for 2012 and '13 at $14 million and $15 million, respectively, and will of course pick them up for one of the game's best players. Word is, GM Brian Cashman once suggested he lamented giving options that high in a conversation soon after Scott Boras took over as Cano's agent, and Boras supposedly offered to wipe them away, knowing full well that Cashman wasn't about to let Cano become a free agent any sooner. The Yankees' extension policy now is to wait until all players and club personnel become a free agent to act. But there is no reason to think the Yankees would let this homegrown superstar walk away in the prime of his career. Deal or no deal: deal (but after Cano files for free agency).
3. Joey Votto, Reds 1B, free agent after 2013. Hard to believe, but the 2010 NL MVP so far is improving on his league-leading on-base percentage (from .424 to .500) and slugging percentage (from .600 to .627). This winter he signed a lucrative three-year, $38 million deal to wipe out his arbitration years, but his rate will skyrocket after '13 as a cornerstone player for a franchise that appears to have turned the corner. His agent, Dan Lozano, is on his own now, and his well-watched Albert Pujols negotiations could be instructive. Votto, a quiet sort who has battled depression, seems comfortable in Cincinnati. The Reds are doing a nice job of locking up their stars, including Jay Bruce this winter. Deal or no deal: deal.
4. Josh Johnson, Marlins SP, free agent after 2013. His $39 million, four-year deal goes through 2013 and bought out two years of free agency, a wise move by the Marlins. But his next contract should easily dwarf that one. Looking in the stands at Sun Life Stadium, the Marlins wouldn't seem to have the funds. But they are moving next year to a brand-new facility close to downtown Miami, and even as things stand, they are a profitable organization. Baseball also wants to see teams that have consistently cashed big revenue-sharing checks to spend on players, and the Marlins seem to have the sense to know which ones are worth it. Johnson, who has been the best pitcher in the National League so far this year (3-0 with a 1.06 ERA and a ridiculous 13 hits allowed in 34 innings), definitely is. Agent Matt Sosnick, who also has Ricky Nolasco, has managed to do deals with the Marlins in recent years. Deal or no deal: deal.
5. Jered Weaver, Angels SP, free agent after 2012. Weaver, the best in the AL so far -- by a lot -- is all but a goner in two years. Agent Scott Boras is selling him as the "Maddux of this generation,'' and while that would have seemed to be obvious hyperbole heading into this season (and probably still is), Weaver does indeed look like Maddux so far this year (6-0, 0.99 ERA), only with more strikeouts. Scouts count three different fastballs and two distinct curveballs for this master magician. The Angels don't have a history of keeping their own prime free agents anyway, and they have to have an inkling that this ship has sailed. There's no point even suggesting a Felix Hernandez/Justin Verlander type deal now ($80 million-plus for five years as a four-year pitcher) because that won't be in the ballpark. Got to think a new Dodgers owner, assuming there is one, could be in position here for the Simi Valley product to jump to his true hometown team.Deal or no deal: no deal.
6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 3B, free agent after 2013. His first five-year deal, for $45 million, has worked out nicely. But the Nationals paid twice that ($18 mil a year) to free agent Jayson Werth, who's a terrific player but not as good either offensively or defensively as Zimmerman. Both sides seem to want to stay together. The question is whether the Nats will want to pony up what it would take, a $20-million-a-year deal for several years, a la Troy Tulowitzki, Braun, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer, other positional stars who signed before free agency. The Nats-owning Lerners may be skittish after hearing the criticism following the big Werth deal. But they have little choice here. Zimmerman is exactly the type of player that GM Mike Rizzo, a fan of superior defense, wants to build around. Deal or no deal: deal.
7. Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF, free agent after 2012. GM Ned Colletti is believed to want to lock up Ethier, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw (who has until after 2014), and there was some preliminary discussion along those lines this spring with Ethier. But the Dodgers' situation is currently too messy to conceive of anything that major getting done in the immediate future. The clock is ticking though, and Ethier, a consistent and clutch producer on a 24-game hitting streak (he's hitting .380 thus far this year), should be given a chance to stay with the National League's marquee franchise, whether it's the decision of embattled owner Frank McCourt, the just-appointed Dodgers monitor Tom Schieffer or the next owner. It's hard to believe that Colletti originally got Ethier for Milton Bradley, and you know he certainly wants badly to keep him in the fold. Deal or no deal: deal.
8. Matt Kemp, Dodgers OF, free agent after 2012. He's been as brilliant as folks predicted so far, and perhaps new manager Don Mattingly and/or coach Davey Lopes have been positive influences. The Dodgers surely don't forget that he started similarly in a statistical sense last year -- though so far his big beginning isn't accompanied by those occasional offsetting goofy plays and brain cramps. At his best, Kemp is a top-five player in the game, and so far this year he's been just that, with five home runs, 18 RBIs and a .378 batting average. Although, it's hard to exactly figure his value since he has lacked Ethier's consistency so far. Two things play in the Dodgers' favor here: 1) Colletti and agent Dave Stewart did a reasonable $35 million, three-year deal with Chad Billingsley, and 2) there are those who can't see Kemp going too many other places. As one competing executive said, "Where could you see him playing besides New York and Los Angeles? Can you see him in Pittsburgh?'' Deal or no deal: deal.
9. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals SP, free agent after 2013. Of course he'd be a lot higher on this list had he been healthy now. Instead, he's out for the year after blowing out his elbow. The good news is that 90 percent of pitchers come back strong from Tommy John surgery, which is why competing executives seem to think the Cardinals will pick up Wainwright's unusual $21 million, two-year option. That's only the first hurdle. The Albert Pujols negotiations are the main order of business for St.Louis now, and the outcome could affect everything else. But Cardinals people seem to love Wainwright, so it might not stop with the two-year option.Deal or no deal. Deal.
10. Josh Hamilton, Rangers OF, free agent through 2012. Healthy and at his best, there may be no better player in the big leagues. The question is: Can he stay healthy? And if so, for how long? Hamilton, who turns 30 next month, currently is out a couple months with a broken arm suffered when sliding into home plate, a bizarre injury that one competing exec said shouldn't be considered indicative of any trend because it was a freak occurrence. But the Reds were so concerned about the former drug addict's ability to stay healthy that their medical people practically ordered that he be dealt, which he was, to Texas after the 2007 season. He was offered $24 million for three years a few years back, and is currently in his first year of a $24 million, two-year deal signed after winning the AL MVP last year. There were oh-so-brief long-term talks over the winter, which were tabled when they wisely worked out the two-year deal. He should receive a high annual salary befitting his vast ability, but as one competing exec pointed out, "The ones who get eight- and 10-year deals play 140 games a year.'' Hamilton also might feel that it's best not to uproot himself after re-establishing his star in Arlington, a spot which may be good for him because it carries less temptation than some others. Both sides would seem to have a strong desire to get something done.Deal or no deal: deal.
11. Zack Greinke, Brewers SP, free agent through 2012. The talented right-hander who won the AL Cy Young award with the Royals in 2009 has had a rocky beginning with the Brewers, breaking a rib while playing pickup basketball and missing the first month. He seemed anxious to get to Milwaukee, which should be a decent fit for a player with an anxiety disorder. Owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to try to lock up his stars. But Greinke hasn't even thrown a pitch there yet, and he seems to get a wandering eye if things aren't going as hoped. CAA made the Braun deal with Attanasio and seems to have a foothold in Milwaukee. Close Call. Deal or no deal: deal.
12. David Wright, Mets 3B, free agent after 2013. The Mets hold a club option for 2013 at $16 million, which isn't cheap, but on a one-year deal, so there's no guarantee they exercise it (though the guess here is they will). One Mets person once called Wright "our Jeter,'' which shows how they feel about him. Of course, circumstances change, the Wilpons have severe financial issues and the new front office regime may have different ideas. The guess here is, though, that they'll trade Jose Reyes, or let him leave, but try to keep Wright. This is no certainty, though, considering the finances involved. Deal or no deal: Deal.
13. Cole Hamels, Phillips SP, free agent after 2012. The former World Series MVP, who led the NL in WHIP in 2008, seems to be back in form. At 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA, he's the game's best No. 4 starter, but he's also the only one of Philly's vaunted four starters still in his 20s (he's 27). The Phillies organization has done a terrific job of maximizing its revenues in recent years and has shown its keen interest in top starting pitching. Deal or no deal: deal.
14. Matt Cain, Giants SP, free agent after 2012. A few numbers-crunchers claim that he's lucky to have had so much success, but baseball people know better. It's no fluke when a pitcher puts up 21 1/3 scoreless innings in a postseason, as Cain did last year. He goes from $7 million this year to $15 million next year on the three-year, $27.5 million deal that erased one free-agent year. While he's not the star that Lincecum is, he is a major part of the fabric of the team and city, and a major plus in the clubhouse. Deal or no deal: deal.
15. John Danks, White Sox SP, free agent after 2012. He's an excellent pitcher who has thrived in a tough ballpark, who just turned 26 this month, and who should have plenty of choices come free agency. The talks to this point have yielded little or no belief that anything will get done before then. The White Sox want to point to the Billingsley deal as a fair comp; Danks' side seems to have their eye on a much bigger prize. While he isn't a proven No. 1 like Hernandez or Verlander (he has made no All-Star teams and garnered no Cy Young votes), it might take that kind of deal to alter his free-agent course, considering how very good free-agent pitchers get paid.Deal or no deal: no deal.
16. Nelson Cruz, Rangers OF, free agent after 2013. A throw-in in the 2006 deal that sent Carlos Lee to Texas, he took a few years to develop. But he has blossomed into an all-around star, with strong defense, decent speed and plenty of power (he's ninth in the AL in at-bats per home run this year). He has excellent makeup, too. Understandably, Texas would like to keep him around. Deal or no deal: deal.
17. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians OF, free agent after 2013. The Korean-born five-tool player seems almost hidden in Cleveland. How many people know that he's a rare player to have hit .300 as a 20-20 man in each of the past two seasons? The Indians have assembled a decent nucleus of young players, but it's questionable whether owner Larry Dolan is anxious to dive back into big-money, long-term deals after mixed success with Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Jake Westbrook. Deal or no deal: no deal.
18. Jonathan Sanchez, Giants SP, free agent after 2012. You get the picture: San Francisco won a championship on almost exclusively home-grown talent, and the bill is coming due soon. Sanchez has been a consistent strikeout pitcher, finishing fourth and third in strikeouts per nine innings the past two years (he's third again this season) and emerging as a star last year under pitching coach Dave Righetti, when he led the league by allowing 6.6 hits per nine innings. But is the Giants' cash supply limitless? Deal or no deal: no deal.
19.Brian McCann, Braves C, free agent after 2013. The guess here is the Braves pick up the five-time All-Star's $12-million option in 2013. Players seem to love playing in Atlanta, and we'd have to assume that's the case with McCann, a Georgia native whose first long-term deal will be for seven years once that option is exercised. Two years rom now Chipper Joens will presumably be retired. Can't imagine letting the Braves letting McCann go. Deal or no deal: deal.
20. Ian Kinsler, Rangers 2B, free agent after 2013. While he's certainly no Robinson Cano and probably also a notch below Dustin Pedroia, he's among the handful of better all-around second basemen in the game. Despite a 5.3 WAR in 2008 and a 30-30 performance in '09, he has been overshadowed in the AL by Pedroia, his former rival at Arizona State, and also by Cano. But there's no disputing his all-around skills, including unusual power for the position. Alexei Ramirez, who got $32 million for four years, could be a comp. Kinsler has a $10 million option for 2012, which the club will pick up, making his original long-tem deal a six-year contract. Deal or no deal: deal.
21. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins SP, free agent after 2012. The Marlins wisely bought out one year of free agency with the $26.5 million, three-year deal for a pitcher who has proven to be a big winner (he's 56-39 after starting this year 2-0). Deal or no deal: deal.
22. Justin Morneau, Twins 1B, free agent after 2013. The 2006 AL MVP would be higher on the list based on past performance, but he turns 30 in a matter of days and he hasn't been himself since suffering a concussion last year. He showed how much he loved being a Twin in signing on $80 million, six-year extension before the 2008 season. The assumption is, he regains his former form. But he also seems to hate Target Field as a hitter. Deal or no deal: no deal.
23. Shaun Marcum, Brewers SP, free agent after 2012. Despite a fastball that rarely touches 90 mph, he has complied a very solid 39-26 record with a 3.79 ERA pitching until this year in the treacherous AL East. The Brewers may be more inclined to try to keep Greinke and the homegrown Yovani Gallardo, though. Deal or no deal: no deal.
24. Hunter Pence, Astros OF, free agent after 2013. After winning his arbitration case for $6.9 million this year, he could be in line for $10 million or more next year. The enthusiastic player with all-around tools and consistent power (exactly 25 home runs in each of the last three years) seems to be becoming the face the franchise. The wild card is a possible new owner coming in. Deal or no deal: deal.
25. Corey Hart, Brewers OF, free agent after 2013. The two-time All-Star outfielder loves Milwaukee and took a very fair deal (the same one Nolasco got, coincidentally). With their farm system depleted to obtain Greinke and Marcum, Milwaukee may need to hold onto their fine nucleus. Deal or no deal: deal.
26. Yadier Molina, Cardinals C, free agent after 2012. There's a team option for $7 million next year (with a $750,000 buyout), but the Cardinals may as well pick that up now because you know they will. The game's best defensive catcher is so indispensable that GM John Mozeliak said shortly after ace pitcher Adam Wainwright was lost for the year that Molina is the player they could least afford to lose (of course, they have another key player by the name of Pujols). That said, Molina is a thick-bodied catcher, so you wonder whether he could do better than a four-year deal. Deal or no deal: deal.
27. Brian Wilson, Giants RP, free agent after 2013. He became a symbol for the wacky champions with his black beard and firey demeanor. The Giants have strong revenues, and want to keep their stars happy. Deal or no deal: deal.
28. Matt Garza, Cubs SP, free agent after 2013. He's only been a Cub for a month so his ties to the team can't be too strong. While Chicago gave up a decent amount to get Garza (as it turns out throw-in The Legendary Sam Fuld may be the key to the deal for the Rays, though pitching prospect Chris Archer has a very high ceiling), Garza is used to moving already. He's played for three teams, so what's a few more? Deal or no deal. no deal.
29. Carlos Quentin, White Sox OF, free agent after 2012. He appears to be back to his near-MVP form of 2008, when he suffered a self-inflicted injury in a fit of frustration. Two so-so-years followed, but he has a 1.032 OPS and league-leading 59 total bases thus far. The intense Stanford man has vowed to avoid future tantrums, and the guess here is that he will. But the up-and-down nature of his career thus far makes this one a tough call. Deal or no deal: no deal.
30. B.J. Upton, Rays OF, free agent after 2012. The pressure is on him after two disappointing offensive seasons in a row in which he hit a combined .239 with a .317 on-base percentage. Rays people are hopeful he'll improve after seeing signs of maturity in spring training. Tampa's front office also loves defense, and Upton is one of the best centerfielders in the game. But at some point, their patience may wear thin. It's up to him. Deal or no deal: no deal.
31. Mark Reynolds, Orioles 3B, free agent after 2013. He could become a free agent a year earlier if the Orioles don't exercise his $11-million option for 2013. He's a streaky hitter who's better than he's shown so far -- he's hitting just .178 in his first year in Baltimore -- not to mention a fine defender. The University of Virginia product is home now. But thanks to the high strikeout totals, Orioles people don't seem much more enamored at the moment than Arizona's new regime was. He has time to change that opinion, however.Deal or no deal: no deal.
32. Huston Street, Rockies RP, free agent after 2013. The Rockies like him, so there's a decent chance they'd exercise his $9 million option for 2013. But two years is a long time to look down the road for a veteran closer, and the Rockies are very good at finding relievers. Deal or no deal: no deal.
33. Grady Sizemore, Indians OF, free agent after 2012. That assumes he remains healthy enough for the Indians or whatever team he's on to pick up his $8.5 million option for next year. Hard to believe he's to the point where he's last on the list, as five years ago a lot of GMs would have named him one of the best few players in the game. Unfortunately, injuries have taken a toll on this great talent. Deal or no deal: no deal.
• A war of words has broken out between Dodgers owner McCourt and MLB, as McCourt senses, surely correctly, that MLB wants him out. He claimed that his proposed TV deal with Fox has already been vetoed by MLB, while MLB COO Rob Manfred said nothing has been definitively told to him. Baseball doesn't appear to love the TV deal, believed to be worth as much as $3 billion, or especially the idea that McCourt would take a big up-front payment, presumably to pay off his wife Jamie in the unsettled divorce case. Meanwhile, Fox must love the deal; it seems anxious to keep McCourt around, so anxious that it gave McCourt a basically unsecured personal loan of $30 million to keep him afloat. A lowball deal with Fox could affect other major-market teams with TV deals upcoming, which must worry MLB.
• TV magnate Burt Sugarman is one name believed to be in the mix among potential buyers of the Dodgers. He is married to TV spokesman Mary Hart, and the pair are longtime Dodgers season ticket holders. Century City based- investment banker Jason Reese is another name in the mix. Another is billionaire Ron Burkle, who's teaming with former Dodgers great Steve Garvey, a good front man who does have a few stains on his resume, including paternity cases and bankruptcies.
• Bartolo Colon continues to turn back the clock. He hit 96 mph as late as the sixth inning on Wednesday in pitching eight innings of a 3-1 victory over the White Sox, who have been surprisingly soft-hitting so far.
• Ailing Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes told SI.com that he felt "tightness'' and "soreness" in his arm and he even used the word "shooting'' to talk about the feeling, but he stopped short of using the word pain. He said that the soreness starts earlier when he's pitching and lingers more now. The Yankees said he might have thoracic outlet syndrome, and he was referred to a thoracic surgeon.
• Rangers closer Neftali Feliz is expected back late next week. And Josh Hamilton is said to have a better outlook during this stay on the disabled list than in the past, and could be back closer to six weeks than eight.
• Jake Peavy, who says he only feels "OK,'' is scheduled to have two tuneups at Triple-A Charlotte before a possible start for the White Sox. Peavy, a former Cy Young winner, called the ordeal a "humbling experience'' and "a grind mentally.''
• The Yankees' Nick Swisher still has no home runs and is hitting .208. He's taking extra BP but said he believes that his main problem is that pitchers are throwing him "15 out of 20 breaking pitches'' and that it's incumbent upon him to prove that he can hit them.
• Can't blame Roy Oswalt for going home to attend to the needs of his family after a tornado ripped through his Mississippi hometown again, a year after another tornado ruined his home. Several months ago MLB replaced his NLCS MVP trophy that was destroyed last year.