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.
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.
LaRoche and the Nationals are both prioritizing a reunion, but, as reported by the
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two others to watch
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.
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.