Jose Reyes and Prince Fielder, two of the three most prominent free agents this coming winter, are off to monster starts in their walk year, but while Albert Pujols has had just a so-so beginning (by his standards) and is now sidelined with a fractured wrist, baseball insiders suggest Pujols will still make by far the biggest score among the trio of superstars headed to the open market.
There was wide variation among four neutral experts (two executives and two agents) polled, with Pujols predicted to score as little as a $180 million contract by one anonymous agent and as much as a record $300 million by another agent. (The two executives had Pujols somewhere in the $200 millions.) Guesses for Fielder ranged from $105 million by one agent to $175 million by one executive. Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who famously predicted Reyes wouldn't get Carl Crawford's contract ($142 million over seven years) may be heartened to hear that one executive pegged Reyes for a $75 million deal but not too thrilled that an opposing executive guessed exactly twice that much for the multitalented shortstop -- that's right, $150 million.
Here is a snapshot of where things stand with the vaunted free-agent trio, in ascending order of predicted contracts (included is where each predicting expert stands plus my own prediction).
"I think he will beat Crawford,'' said the executive who predicted $150 million over seven years. "He's younger plus he plays an impact position. He's one of the impactful players in the game right now.''
Reyes, 28, leads the National League with 113 hits, a .341 batting average, 14 triples and 61 runs, not bad considering his big stated goal was merely to stay injury free. "I just want to be on the field,'' Reyes said. "A lot of people before this year were not sure I I could stay healthy.''
Reyes followed four terrific, injury-free seasons from 2005-08 with two interrupted by injury and ailment, and while those hurts seemed to be fairly freakish, concerns about them were expected to keep his total haul well below a number commensurate with his vast ability. And even now, with his injury-free year, some detractors will project a negative, namely that his perfect health is related to his free-agent status.
But the executive who foresaw a $150 million deal for Reyes isn't alone in expecting a Crawford deal or better, as two other execs not in the survey also have suggested in recent days that he'd be in that ballpark. It's hard to imagine the Mets going there after Wilpon's loose-lipped comment to The New Yorker, and it seems unlikely at the moment that the two biggest-spending teams will make the push. People familiar with the Mets thinking suggest they were weighing a five-year deal for Reyes, at least initially.
There should be plenty of outside action on a player who is not only of the game's best defensive shortstops but probably the best leadoff hitter. One scout said simply and admiringly about Reyes, "He is Mozart.''
The price, though, could be adversely affected without multiple big-market teams in the mix. Crawford was helped by the presence of the Red Sox and Angels and perceived presence of the Yankees (whose brass dined with Crawford right before he signed with Boston). People familiar with the Red Sox's game plan suggest they won't likely make another huge positional purchase this winter after adding Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez last winter. Meanwhile, the Yankees have Derek Jeter with three years to go on his contract (though one executive surmised that if Jeter were to agree to change positions for anyone, it'd be Reyes, and Reyes, who has a home on Long Island, has professed a love for New York).
Reyes is such a dynamic player that teams may come out of the woodwork, however. The Giants would be a perfect fit for Reyes in the eyes of many, while the Nationals, Orioles (if they don't re-sign J.J. Hardy), Phillies (if they don't hold onto Jimmy Rollins), Cardinals (though Pujols is obviously the priority), Reds, Brewers and A's look like more possibilities.
Agent No. 1: $140 million, 7 years Agent No. 2: $120 million, 6 years Executive No. 1: $150 million, 7 years Executive No. 2: $75 million, five years My prediction: $142 million, 7 years.
Like Reyes, Fielder, just 27, is saving his best for his walk year. The Brewers' star is leading the NL with 21 home runs (tied with the Dodgers' Mat Kemp), 68 RBIs and a 1.037 OPS.
One executive said the obvious comp is Mark Teixeira, who got $180 million over eight years from the Yankees after the 2008 season, and he predicted Fielder would get $175 million for seven years. That exec liked the fact Teixeira is a switch hitter and "impact defender'' but suggested "inflation'' would push Fielder to a higher yearly salary. That exec also said about the large-bodied Fielder, who is listed at 5'11". 275 pounds, "He is the youngest of the three players. But there are concerns about how he will age.''
One agent took it a step further. Before ultimately predicting $150 million over six years, that agent said, "Although I'd said the AAV (average annual value) would have to be over $20 million, I wouldn't give him more than a three-year deal. He'd deserved $25 million a year over seven or eight years if he were physically fit. But I could see him ballooning to 320 pounds. There's no excuse. I don't care how strong he is. You give the guy $200 million, and jelly donuts might start looking better and better.''
Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, responded to the criticism, saying, "Nobody asked him to apply to be a runway model. His body is functional. He's there to perform a function, and he does it very well with a short, square body. He's like Warren Sapp. He has extreme skill, he has great strength and he's a tremendous athlete. Being a little shorter and a little squarer is actually an advantage, not a disadvantage. This is a business where you're graded on your durability and your ability to perform.''
Hardly anybody is performing better than Fielder, who is also hitting .305, right now. But even if you buy the argument that Fielder's bad body is good for baseball, there's a question about the first-base market, which might not necessarily work to the advantage of Fielder (or for that matter Pujols), with the Yankees and Red Sox having stars Teixeira and Gonzalez already in place. The Cubs look like a possibility for Fielder, the Nationals and Orioles could be, as well, and the Dodgers might be, too, if they got a new owner with money. The Brewers, who a year ago were believed to have made an offer of about $20 million year a year over perhaps six years with a player opt-out, can't be completely ruled out, though some believe their recent $105 million investment in Ryan Braun might preclude a Fielder deal.
Agent No. 1: $125 million, 5 years Agent No. 2: $150 million, 6 years Executive No. 1: $175 million, 7 years Executive No. 2: $105 million, 5 years My prediction: $168 million, 7 years
Pujols, generally considered the game's best player, was offered a nine-year deal for a bit more than $200 million over the winter by St. Louis but was said not to be anywhere close to agreeing to it; he sought to beat Alex Rodriguez's $275 million contract, and at one point his agent, Dan Lozano, suggested a piece of the team be included in the deal. Pujols, 31, didn't appear to be taking much risk in rejecting the offer, as he's been the most consistently great hitter in decades.
But early this year Pujols' performance wasn't up to his usual otherworldly standards (his .855 OPS was off nearly 200 points from his career mark) even before fracturing his wrist, an injury the team has said should keep him out about six weeks, maybe a bit more. Most are expecting the usual Pujols power when he returns, but he probably needs to show it, just to be sure. One executive, who still predicted a $220 million deal for Pujols, called him "the toughest to predict on the off chance he doesn't come back as his usual self.'' But the respect for Pujols is enormous throughout the game, and that exec quickly added, "The track record still stands.'' That record is amazing. Pujols' career OPS of 1.041 is still higher than Fielder's league-leading 1.037 this year.
The agent who saw Pujols actually beating A-Rod at $300 million for 10 years said he didn't believe the wrist problem would have any negative effect on Pujols, that there's plenty of time for Pujols to get back and show he's healthy. That agent said he predicted a record for Pujols because "I don't think (the Cardinals) can afford to let him go.''
A large number of baseball people do envision Pujols staying in St. Louis despite negotiations that went nowhere last winter.
Agent No. 1: $300 million, 10 years Agent No. 2: $180 million, 6 years Executive No. 1: $220 million, eight years Executive No. 2: $240 million, eight years My prediction: $224 million, eight years
• Dodgers owner Frank McCourt's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing is an attempt to stall to keep the team as the June 30 payroll date approached. But there are two issues. One is that Jamie McCourt needs to sign off on the bankruptcy filing since there hasn't been a ruling yet as to whether the team is community property. The other is that MLB can say it must approve any loan, and try to become the financer. McCourt said he has $150 million in financing, but commissioner Bud Selig can invoke baseball rules saying he has the right to block the loan. If MLB/Selig winds up doing the debtor-in-possession financing, MLB will be in position to take the team. Baseball insiders believe that is what's most likely to happen.
• With Francisco Rodriguez ahead of the pace to finish 55 games and thus have his $17.5 million 2012 option vest, the great likelihood seems to be that he will be traded to a team where he'd become a set-up man. Two possible destinations would be the Yankees and Rangers. Even if K-Rod is amenable to setting up, which he appears to be, that doesn't mean the Yankees won't have trepidations about the conversion of another closer to a set-up man, considering the problems encountered by Rafael Soriano in the Bronx so far. One Yankees person called a trade for K-Rod "less than 50-50.''
• Derek Jeter isn't expected to be ready to come off the disabled list when he's eligible Wednesday, as he is still feeling discomfort in his calf. In his absence, Eduardo Nuñez hasn't been nearly as steady at shortstop as Jeter, but Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher has outperformed him at the leadoff spot.
• Davey Johnson, 68, was an interesting call to take over as the interim manager of the Nationals. Johnson is the second senior citizen manager hired in the NL East, following Jack McKeon of the Marlins. Johnson is known as a brilliant baseball mind, but a Dodgers person who worked with Johnson in the late '90s said not to expect a round-the-clock worker at this stage.
• The Orioles are trying to sign J.J. Hardy to a three-year contract extension. Buck Showalter is a big fan.
• John Danks is on the disabled list with a strained oblique muscle, but the White Sox are better equipped to handle the loss of a starter than most teams. Former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who won the game Danks left in relief, gives the White Sox an accomplished potential replacement.
• Adam Dunn's performance his first year in Chicago is perplexing. White Sox people have expressed faith in him, though his 1-for-51 record vs. lefthanded pitchers is astoundingly bad.