With the off-season in its final weeks, who's still left in free agency, and where will the best player left, James Shields, end up?
With Max Scherzer now a Washington National, James Shields stands as the last premier free agent remaining on the market. So what's the latest scuttlebutt on Shields, and who would join him on a list of the top five free agents still available?
James Shields, RHP
On Tuesday, ESPN's Jayson Stark ran down the reasons why Shields is unlikely to sign with 14 different teams, all of whom have been the subject of speculation regarding Shields this offseason. Add the Nationals, whose rotation is now overstocked, and that's half of all major league teams that are theoretically out of the running.
Who's left? The Twins spent their rotation money on Ervin Santana. The Braves and Phillies are clearly rebuilding. The Rockies are apparently sitting out this off-season. The Mets are broke and well-stocked with starters. The Athletics, Pirates and Rays aren't going to hand out the kind of money it will take to land Shields. The Reds are better off trying to extend Johnny Cueto, who is entering his walk year. The leaves six teams who seem like possibilities, though none have been linked to Shields in the rumor mill.
Angels: Los Angeles is a defending division champion in a pitcher-friendly ballpark unsure of what to expect from Garrett Richards, who is coming off a season-ending knee injury. The team also seems willing to bounce Hector Santiago to the bullpen, has already acquired a rotation prospect in Andrew Heaney -- who has yet to establish himself in the majors -- and has big contracts of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson set to expire after the 2016 season.
Indians: Though plenty talented, Cleveland's rotation doesn't have a single sure thing behind AL Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, who himself is likely to regress. Adding Shields would solidify their tentative status as contenders.
Mariners: Seattle seems poised for its first playoff berth since 2001, but the young arms in the back of its rotation have yet to establish themselves in the majors, and 33-year-old Hisashi Iwakuma is entering his walk year.
Orioles: Baltimore's rotation would appear to be over-filled, and last year's late free-agent pitcher signing, Ubaldo Jimenez, is on the outside looking in despite being the team's second-highest-paid player. Having failed to replace designated hitter/outfielder Nelson Cruz and outfielder Nick Markakis (while also not having spent the money set aside for either), the Orioles could improve on the other side of the ball by signing Shields, who would instantly become their ace. Baltimore could then attempt to flip a displaced starter for outfield help.
Padres: San Diego could crown its off-season upgrades by signing Shields, reducing the need for the likes of Brandon Morrow or Josh Johnson to stay healthy and effective while preemptively replacing Ian Kennedy, who will be a free agent in November.
White Sox: Chicago similarly made a big splash this offseason, but the underside of its rotation is still problematic. As with the Padres, signing Shields could be the difference between being a much-improved also-ran and a legitimate contender. It doesn't seem particularly likely, but given how aggressive the White Sox have been this off-season, they should not be counted out of the running for him.
Francisco Rodriguez, RHP
Rodriguez is the only 2014 All-Star not currently under contract, but being unsigned this late in the winter is par for the course for him. Last year, he didn't sign until Feb. 7, and the year before that, he was a free agent until April 17. Both times, he re-signed with the Brewers, as he did in December 2011. Don't be shocked if he does so again. Rodriguez is still just 33, younger than fellow un-signed closers Rafael Soriano and Casey Janssen, and he has set career highs in strikeout-to-walk ratio in each of the last two seasons. Move him to a ballpark that can help counteract his rising home run rate, and Rodriguez should continue to be a valuable high-leverage reliever
Rafael Soriano, RHP
Soriano posted a 7.29 ERA over his final 23 appearances of 2014, losing his position as the Nationals' closer in early September as a result of those struggles. Stil, his Fielding Independent Pitching suggests 2014 was his best season since he was an All-Star in 2010, his peripherals were solid even after his demotion and he pitched well when called upon in the postseason. Soriano, 35, lacks the dominant strikeout numbers of a typical 21st-century closer and may well have to settle for setup work going forward, but he should continue to excel in that role for at least a few more years.
Everth Cabrera, SS
The 28-year-old Cabrera is a slick-fielding shortstop who hit .264/.339/.352 with 81 stolen bases at an 84-percent success rate as the Padres' starting shortstop in 2012 and '13, making the All-Star team in the latter year. However, his 2013 season came to an early end when he was suspended for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, and his 2014 was a disaster as well. He fell into a deep slump in June, then missed 69 games over the season's final three months due to a hamstring injury. While he was on the disabled list in early September, he was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence of marijuana, found to be in possession of the drug and subsequently charged with resisting arrest.
Cabrera could be sentenced to a year in jail for the last of those charges, and while he seems likely to try to cop a plea, his readiness hearing was recently pushed back to March 23, with his trial date currently set at April 13. In other words, it will be a while before his legal fate, never mind his baseball fate, is known. Nonetheless, if Cabrera can wriggle out of his current legal bind and stay on the straight and narrow going forward, he could re-emerge as a valuable everyday shortstop.
Brandon Beachy, RHP
It's hard to say what, if anything, the 28-year-old Beachy has to offer after the two Tommy John surgeries that have limited him to just five starts since June 2012. But his upside still seems higher than any other of the remaining alternatives, including fellow starters Ryan Vogelsong (who is reportedly on the verge of signing with the Astros) and Chris Young, himself no stranger to chronic injury. Beachy threw for several teams around New Year's and was reportedly close to signing two weeks ago. That he hasn't yet could be interpreted as a sign that his auditions did not go well. Indeed, the Rangers and Braves have reportedly lost interest since, but that could be due as much to his contract demands as his throwing.