Final free agents waiting for Tanaka fallout to sign

Monday December 23rd, 2013

Ervin Santana recorded a career-best ERA of 3.24 for Kansas City last season.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After a frenzied start to this offseason's free agent market, in which general managers seemed to confuse very pricey baseball players with Black Friday door busters, things have slowed down considerably in the last two weeks. By the time the game's power brokers had descended upon Disney World for the Winter Meetings, which began on December 9, 29 members of the Reiter 50 --'s annual ranking of the top free agents available -- already knew where they would be playing next year. Since then, however, just seven more have signed, and that means that there are about as many who remain available as there usually are this time of year. There were 14 of them still looking for work last Christmas, and 14 currently.

All but three members of the group are pitchers, and developments -- or a lack thereof -- in the pitching market are a central reason for its general cooling off. A decision as to the fate of the Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka, the market's top pitching property and No. 5 overall on the Reiter 50, has been continually delayed, thanks in large measure to unexpectedly extended negotiations between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball related to the implementation of a new posting system. Now that they have agreed to a maximum fee of $20 million, Tanaka's Japanese club, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, might not post him at all -- and you can't blame them, as the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters got nearly $52 million for Yu Darvish two years ago. Even so, no MLB club wants to commit to a lesser free agent starter with Tanaka still potentially available. The availability via trade of the Rays' David Price and the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija has also given them pause.

While MLB executives consider the question of whether or not Tanaka will be posted to be a true toss-up -- one told this weekend that his guess is that Tanaka will be kept in Japan -- his best fit remains the same as it was a month and a half ago: the Yankees. Even though signing him would very likely push their payroll past the luxury tax threshold of $189 million that they have long hoped to avoid.

A resolution of Tanaka's future will likely create a domino effect in which most of the other remaining free agents are locked down in rapid succession. And clubs can find invaluable pieces even at this point in the offseason. Last winter, for example, Mike Napoli didn't formally sign with the Red Sox until January, and Francisco Liriano did not become a Pirate until February. Here are the other 13 members of the Reiter 50, besides Tanaka, who are still available, and the destinations that now make the most sense for them:

Ervin Santana, SP

Original rank: 7
Old best fit: Royals
New best fit: Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks' big splash so far this offseason came via trade, when they acquired Mark Trumbo from the Angels on Dec. 10, but they seem to be waiting out the free agent market. They've spent just $3.5 million, on one year of Eric Chavez. The man GM Kevin Towers might be waiting for is Santana. A return to the Royals is unlikely, as Kansas City has already committed $62 million to Omar Infante and Jason Vargas. Arizona could use a veteran, No. 1-type starter to front a fairly deep and young rotation that will also include Patrick Corbin, Brandon McCarthy, Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill.

Ubaldo Jimenez, SP

Original rank: 8
Old best fit: Orioles
New best fit: Orioles

Jimenez's periodic command issues are concerning, but when he's at his best -- such as during the second half of 2013, when he had an ERA of 1.82 -- he is a bona fide ace. Baltimore's only signing so far has been reliever Ryan Webb, who got $4.5 million over two years, and the Orioles have some money to spend. If they want to build upon their first consecutive winning seasons since 1996 and 1997, they still ought to look to Jimenez, as a rotation fronted by Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris simply isn't good enough to genuinely contend in the AL East.

Matt Garza, SP

Original rank: 9
Old best fit: Angels
New best fit: Angels

The former Ranger is the only one of the big three domestic starters who did not receive a qualifying offer from his old team, meaning that he will likely be the first of them off the board once the Tanaka situation is resolved. The Angels, who have so far committed just $18.5 million to two free agents (Raul Ibanez and Joe Smith), still make sense. Though they received two starters, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Trumbo, Garza would represent a high-end No. 3 behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson on a club that always seems on the cusp of a breakthrough.

Nelson Cruz, OF

Original rank: 10
Old best fit: Royals
New best fit: Mariners

The Royals don't need Cruz anymore, not after acquiring Norichika Aoki from the Brewers. The Rangers' signing of Shin-Soo Choo means that Cruz won't be going back to Texas. The Mariners, however, are clearly in win-now mode and could use a righthanded power hitter. Their everyday lineup at the moment includes six lefthanded batters (Dustin Ackley, Robinson Cano, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager) and a seventh -- Justin Smoak -- who is a switchhitter who struggles mightily when he bats from the right.

Stephen Drew, SS

Original rank: 15
Old best fit: Cardinals
New best fit: Mets

The Cardinals opted to sign the market's other in-demand shortstop, Jhonny Peralta, in late November, and as a result Drew is still looking for a job. While a return to the Red Sox now seems likely -- especially as other teams would have to give up a draft pick to sign him -- the Mets represent a better fit. It is difficult to envision the club returning to respectability any time soon with Ruben Tejada, who had an OPS of .519 last year, as its starting shortstop.

Bronson Arroyo, SP

Original rank: 16
Old best fit: Yankees
New best fit: Yankees

The exceedingly durable veteran has been linked with more teams -- including the Giants, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Reds and Twins -- than almost anyone, but he's still out there, perhaps because he is reportedly looking for a three-year deal that will last until he is 39 years old. A reunion with Cincinnati might be in order, but even should the Yankees sign Tanaka, New York still represents his best fit -- especially because in that scenario, they'll likely have blown through that $189 million luxury tax threshold, and might as well go way, way past it.

Kendrys Morales, 1B

Original rank: 18
Old best fit: Indians
New best fit: Brewers

Morales, a Scott Boras client, turned down the one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer the Mariners tendered him, and it is fair to wonder if that was a poor decision. Even though he had a strong year at the heart of Seattle's lineup (.277, 23 homers, 80 RBI's), he has played only 59 games at first base in the past two seasons, the market seems flooded with DH-types, and clubs are reluctant to part the with draft pick they'll have to give the Mariners. Still, Morales is too good a hitter, and Boras too good an agent, for this to turn out poorly. Last year the Brewers -- the only team yet to spend a dime on a free agent so far this winter -- decided very late to sacrifice a pick to sign Kyle Lohse, and they could do so again for Morales, putting him at first and in the middle of what could be a powerful lineup that will also include Jean Segura, Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez.

A.J. Burnett, SP

Original rank: 23
Old best fit: Pirates
New best fit: Pirates

It has taken Burnett, who will turn 37 on Jan. 3, much longer than anticipated to decide whether or not he wants to retire, and the Orioles are now vying with the Pirates for his services (Burnett lives in Maryland in the offseason). There seems to be little reason for Burnett to walk away now -- not after a season in which he had a career-best 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and a career-low 3.30 ERA -- and little reason for him to leave Pittsburgh, which wants him back even after signing Edinson Volquez to a one-year, $5 million deal on Dec. 11.

Grant Balfour, RP

Original rank: 24
Old best fit: Orioles
New best fit: Yankees

The Orioles are the only team that can [ital.]definitely[ital.] be ruled out for Balfour: The parties agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal, but that fell apart after Baltimore became concerned about the health of their would-be closer's shoulder, leading him to consider filing a grievance. The general consensus is that his shoulder is fine, as evidenced by his 38 saves and average fastball of 93.3 miles per hour last year, and he'll be in demand. The Yankees make the most sense -- with them he can either be a set-up man or join the derby of those seeking to replace Mariano Rivera.

Jesse Crain, RP

Original rank: 43
Old best fit: Rays
New best fit: Rays

Crain had a 0.74 ERA in 38 outings for the White Sox last season, but a strained shoulder meant that he never threw a pitch for the Rays after they traded for him in late July. A return to Tampa Bay, as a closer on a one-year deal, remains logical, as it would allow him to reestablish both his health and his value.

Fernando Rodney, RP

Original rank: 44
Old best fit: Mets
New best fit: Orioles

With Jim Johnson traded to Oakland and the Balfour deal falling through, the Orioles still need a closer. While they could give the job to hard-throwing in-house candidate Tommy Hunter, who saved four games for them in 2013, Rodney is also on their shopping list. He will likely have to drop his asking price from his current $10 million a year, which does seem an awful lot for a soon-to-be 37-year-old who is prone to bouts of wildness.

Eric O'Flaherty, RP

Original rank: 46
Old best fit: Nationals
New best fit: Braves

While Washington still represents a viable landing spot for the 29-year-old southpaw -- even though they recently traded for Jerry Blevins, Blevins is the Nationals' bullpen's only lefty -- a return to Atlanta now seems to make more sense. The Braves have so far spent just $4 million on the market, less than all but three teams.

Scott Baker, SP

Original rank: 47
Old best fit: Cubs
New best fit: Cubs

Baker is another player who must wait for Tanaka, as Chicago will likely be a player for him. Even if the Cubs win that potential sweepstakes, though, they will remain the frontrunner for Baker -- especially if they trade Samardzija -- as the team got just three starts for the $5.5 million it invested in him last winter (it took Baker most of the year to return from Tommy John surgery) and might be able to sign him for even less this time around.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.