It's never too early to look ahead to the off-season, and as Ben Reiter notes in his list of the winter's ten best free agents, this year's group is star-studded and set to make some serious money.
I’ve ranked baseball’s top 50 free agents for SI.com in each of the past seven winters, so I can say with confidence that this upcoming off-season’s crop is the best I’ve ever considered, and possibly the best ever, period. This is an era in which teams seek to lock in their young stars with long-term contracts that extend through their prime years, but reports of free agency’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
We’re just five months away from the official graduation of a class that might include a half-dozen of the top 21 in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement for pitchers, as well as a host of All-Star caliber offensive players, particularly outfielders. In fact, I’d have likely ranked no fewer than six players—possibly as many as eight—ahead of the No. 3 player on last year’s Reiter 50, former Royal (and current Padre) James Shields.
A lot can change between now and early November. Players can get hurt at the worst possible moment; they might choose to re-sign with their current clubs, or they might be traded as non-contenders seek to extract whatever value they can from them. Still, it is not too early to look ahead to a class that will undoubtedly be the most richly compensated of any in baseball’s history. While my rankings will certainly change over the next several months, here is my current top 10.
The lefthanded Price is the definition of an ace, and, at 5–2 with a 2.70 ERA, he’s having his best season since he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2012. He’ll be 30 next season, so he should have several prime years ahead of him. Just as Max Scherzer was last winter’s prize, a Tigers starter will likely be the top free agent available—and the best compensated—in a second straight off-season.
Cueto might be the most underrated starting pitcher in the game. Over the last five years, the 29-year-old has a cumulative 2.50 ERA and a 1.05 WHIP (to Price’s 3.12 and 1.11), and he’s shown better control than ever this season, walking just 1.6 batters per nine. While the 5'9" righthander might be continually downgraded because of his height—clubs are scared of righties under six feet—he’s a very close No. 2 to Price. He will likely play for two new teams in the next five months, as the fourth-place Reds will seek to extract a heavy price for him at the trade deadline.
The big knock against Upton remains his strikeout rate—he whiffs in a quarter of his at-bats—but still he’s been everything the Padres hoped when they acquired him from the Braves last December. He’s batting 294, and his 12 homers and 38 RBIs have him on pace for his first 30-100 season. That production, and the fact that he won’t turn 28 until August, will make him the clear-cut top offensive player on the market.
Zimmermann has never technically been the No. 1 pitcher in the Nationals’ stacked rotation, but he’s shown both the durability and results of one, starting 32 games in each of the last three years with a record of 45–22 and an ERA of 2.96. While his ERA this season (3.18) is still strong, a precipitous drop in strikeout rate—from 8.2 to 5.9 per nine—is cause for some concern. Still, his track record and youth (he’ll still be 29 on Opening Day 2016) speak for themselves.
The guy who is third in the NL in ERA, at 1.92, might be no better than the fourth-best–free-agent starting pitcher available? Really? Yes, primarily because Greinke is two years older than the three players ahead of him, and two years is a lot for a starting pitcher. The 31-year-old can opt out of the three years and $71 million remaining on his contract after this season, and he surely will if he stays healthy and continues to perform to his current standard.
The game’s No. 1 prospect in 2010 has continued to disappoint, albeit moderately, in his first year in St. Louis, as he’s batting .251 with five homers and 17 RBIs. Strangely, his traditionally stunning defense in right has also seemed to have disappeared; after FanGraphs pegged him as the game’s second-best defender last year, with an Ultimate Zone Rating of 24.1, he’s only slightly better than average this season. Even so, he ranks this high because the potential for superstardom remains, and because he won’t turn 26 until August. He might become the sixth $100 million player in this class.
Gordon was the only player whom FanGraphs ranked as a better defender than Heyward last season (his UZR was 25.0), and the market no longer undervalues contributions in the field. The 31-year-old’s .256 average, six homers and 25 RBIs have him on pace to match last year’s offensive output, when he finished 12th in the AL MVP voting.
Cespedes, the 29-year-old Cuban who signed a four-year deal with the Athletics in 2012, is already with his third team, but he might be putting together his best offensive season, as he’s batting .300 with eight homers, 30 RBIs and an AL-best 18 doubles. After missing 60 games due to various ailments during his first two seasons in the U.S., he also appears to have figured out how to stay healthy, having played in 152 games in '14 and every one so far this year.
A 20–20 player in 2012, '13 and '14, Desmond must have figured he was in for a massive payday after this season. But his '15 started terribly—he batted .217 with one homer and five RBIs in April—and even after an improvement in May, he is still at .239 with five homers, 17 RBIs and a single steal. His defense has also regressed at the age of 29, as he is, according to FanGraphs, the majors' second-worst regular shortstop this season, ahead of only Oakland's extremely error-prone Marcus Semien. But Desmond is still a shortstop in a class in which the second-best option will probably be Asdrubal Cabrera or a 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins, and he’s got plenty of time to reestablish his value.
Wieters, 29, is another player who will benefit from the position he plays, as quality free-agent catchers are always few and far between. Though he’s played in only four games this season after returning from Tommy John surgery, he’s batting .375 with a double, a triple and a home run in those, and he’ll be much further along in his recovery come winter. He rounds out the top 10 ahead of a host of other options that prove that this year’s free-agent class will be not only strong, but deep.
The Next 10 (in alphabetical order): A.J. Burnett, Pirates, SP; Chris Davis, Orioles, 1B; Doug Fister, Nationals, SP; Dexter Fowler, Cubs, CF; Howie Kendrick, Dodgers, 2B; Scott Kazmir, A’s, SP; Adam Lind, Brewers, 1B; Jeff Samardzija, White Sox, SP; Denard Span, Nationals, CF; Ben Zobrist, A’s, 2B.