The Reiter 50: Price, Greinke, Heyward lead list of top free agents
This is it: We’ve hit the mother lode. The eighth installment of the Reiter 50, SI.com’s annual ranking of the off-season’s top 50 domestic free agents, is not only the best in the history of this modest institution, it is also reflective of what is arguably the most talented class of the free agency era. It’s got everything: recent Cy Young winners (David Price, Zack Greinke), sluggers in their prime years (Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Chris Davis) and even five different players who not so long ago were ranked as either the game’s No. 1 or No. 2 prospect by Baseball America (Upton, Price, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward and Matt Wieters). They’ve produced handsomely and waited for their freedom. Now it is time for them to reap the rewards in what is sure to be historic fashion.
The free-for-all will officially begin on Saturday, Nov. 7. Here are the top 50 names that clubs should consider (along with their ages in 2016), as well as a brief analysis of each player and the destination that makes the most sense.
Thanks to Johnny Cueto's late-season struggles, Price alone represents the cream of this year's fecund free-agent crop. He is a power southpaw whose ERA and strikeout rate were even better this year than they were when he won the AL Cy Young Award with the Rays in 2012. The Yankees are committed to thrift these days, but they could make an exception for Price. The hefty contracts of Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira won't come off the books until next season, but next winter's starting pitching class looks thin outside of Stephen Strasburg, and New York could spend that money (and much more) a year early.
Expensive free-agent pitchers who are already a couple of years into their 30s are usually risky propositions. Almost none of them, however, put up one of the best single-season ERAs in league history, as Greinke did in 2015. This one is easy: The Dodgers can't afford to lose Greinke, but the good news is that they can afford pretty much everything else.
Conventional stats don’t suggest that Heyward is this year's top offensive talent, but they don't take into account his elite defensive and base-running skills. One number that really matters is his age: At 26, he's as old as many rookies and still has plenty of room to blossom as a power hitter. The moribund Phillies might be a surprising destination for him, but new general manager Matt Klentak could pay up for a long-term building block—and Heyward could insist on an opt-out clause that he could exercise after a few years if Philadelphia’s turnaround doesn't happen.
As Mets fans continue to hope that the club will retain Cespedes after his magical three months in Queens, the reality is that there's almost no way it will happen. New York’s owners simply will not be able to match the nine figures he will command, and perhaps they shouldn't try: His .805 OPS over his four full seasons doesn't scream superstar, and he is a bit injury-prone. Meanwhile, the Angels—who traded for three separate outfielders last summer to slot in with Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun, with uninspiring results—could view Cespedes as the final piece of a lineup that is built to win now and worry about paying out a possibly onerous contract later.
Upton is what he is—a slugger who strikes out a lot (an average of 144 times over his eight full seasons). That hasn't matched up with what everyone once thought the former No.1 pick might be, which is a once-in-a-generation talent. But clubs will value not only his productive current form, but also his relatively young age. New Seattle GM Jerry DiPoto, in particular, could see him as the missing link between a talented yet disappointing club and contention. Even though Upton blocked a trade to the Mariners three years ago, they seem much closer to the postseason than they were then, and a huge offer could also help change his mind.
Zimmermann was continually overshadowed in his own rotation by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and (more recently) Max Scherzer, but the righty has been a model of consistency for five full years now, in which he's averaged 31 starts, 13 wins and a 3.14 ERA. Last year was his worst full season by ERA, WHIP and winning percentage, but in the two previous years, he finished in the top seven in NL Cy Young voting. The Cubs' four-game NLCS loss to the Mets clearly showed that they need another top-line starter behind Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, and Zimmermann makes sense unless Chicago sets its sights even higher.
Davis's value has yo-yo'd over the past three years. In 2013, he was one of the best hitters in the league (.286/.370/.634, 53 homers); in ‘14, he struggled (.196/.300/.404 with 26 homers) and was slapped with a 50-game suspension for failing a test for amphetamines late in the season. His 2015 performance, though, should represent a fair indicator of what's to come for him, and the first thing will be a $100 million-plus contract. He'd look good in Boston, where his immense power will enable him to reach the deep rightfield seats with regularity. That’s the kind of power the Red Sox will need to replace 39-year-old David Ortiz, likely sooner rather than later.
Gordon is the face and the heart of the defending World Series champions, but he simply does not fit the financial profile of the type of player that the Royals ever sign. Parting will be sorrowful, but it's virtually inevitable. His elite glove work in leftfield would make the Astros' excellent defense even stronger, and his character (and now championship-level experience) would fortify their clubhouse. Offensively, Gordon would give the Astros’ lineup, largely constructed of powerful free-swingers, some much-needed balance: His .377 on-base percentage in 2015 would have led Houston's regulars by nearly 25 points.
Wieters hasn't quite become the superstar—"Mauer with Power"—that was expected of him. But if not for the Tommy John surgery in 2014 that also compromised this season, he might have already reached the 25-homer, 100-RBIs territory that, for a catcher, is rarified air, and his defense and game-calling are held in high regard, making him by far the best catcher available this winter. Yes, he's from Atlanta, but a free agent's hometown rarely seems to matter as much as the dollars that are dangled to him. The bigger reason the rebuilding Braves might sign him is they need someone with a power bat who will also be able to help develop the many high-caliber–minor-league arms they've assembled.
Did three rough months in Kansas City cost Cueto $100 million in free agency? Before his late July trade from the Reds to the Royals, he was on Price's level, but after he went 4–7 with a 4.76 ERA in 80 innings with K.C., it's hard to imagine a club making an enormous commitment to him amid questions about his health and ongoing effectiveness. Still, between 2011 and ’14, Cueto was probably the game's most underrated starter, with a 2.48 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. One possible option: a shorter-term deal (even at a high average annual value) that might allow him to re-establish himself. He could be the wild card in a Rangers rotation that should already be formidable with Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels at its top.
Leake, who split 2015 between the Reds and Giants, sits at the top of a deep second tier of free-agent starters. He won't strike many batters out, but his sinker induces grounders at a high rate (51.8% of the time this year, 15th among starters), and he's had a 3.59 ERA over the past three years even while pitching (mostly) in a hitter's park in Cincinnati. That he is young and ineligible for a qualifying offer also raises his stock. Toronto will lose as many as three members of its staff this winter—free agents Price and Marco Estrada and the likely-to-retire Mark Buehrle—and he could be a much-needed replacement.
Fowler is the top true centerfielder on the market, and the top leadoff hitter too: His .346 on-base percentage this year was actually the lowest mark of his seven full seasons, and it was still quite strong. Cubs president Theo Epstein has already said that he will make re-signing Fowler an off-season priority, and that makes a lot of sense, as he is an ideal tablesetter for Chicago's young and powerful lineup.
Desmond probably cost himself more money this year than anyone besides Cueto. After three straight 20-homer-20-steal seasons, his walk year quickly proved more a balk year, and both advanced and traditional metrics (he made 27 errors) suggested that his defense fell off, too. But he's still the valedictorian of a weak shortstop class, and his decreased price might mean that the Padres could be able to afford him. Given that San Diego traded its erstwhile shortstop of the future, Trea Turner, to the Nationals last spring, a match between the Padres and Desmond almost seems like fate.
Chen steadily improved during his four years in Baltimore. He is a control artist—no American League pitcher threw as many as his 377 innings over the past two seasons while issuing fewer than his 77 walks—but his wicked changeup still allows him to maintain a relatively strong strikeout rate. Even if the Dodgers re-sign Greinke, they will still need at least one more starter, and Chen would slot in nicely as a No. 4 behind Hyun-jin Ryu, who should return from a shoulder injury.
Estrada was a revelation in what was so far his only year in Toronto. Even after he took no-hitters into the eighth inning in consecutive June starts and successfully staved off elimination in two separate postseason games this October, he remains somewhat underrated, largely because he's a command-and-control guy who rarely breaks 90 mph. The Jays, though, know his value, and with rotation spots to fill, they will likely try to bring him back.
Parra is the sort of athletically gifted player who does everything well (although advanced metrics suggest his defense declined this year), but nothing to such an outstanding level that he attracts much notice. Even so, he retains the potential and gifts for a major breakout over the next couple years. He just sounds like a Cardinal, and if St. Louis doesn't retain Heyward, he'd make for a bargain replacement in the outfield.
Murphy's legendary playoff run—at least up until the World Series—certainly upped his stock, but the truth was that it was already higher than you might think. His age, contact skills (a league-best 14:1 plate appearances-to-strikeouts rate in 2015), burgeoning power (.533 slugging percentage after Aug. 1) and positional flexibility (even though he doesn't play anything particularly well) already made him both the best second baseman and the best third baseman on the market. The Angels could use help at both positions, as well as a lefty bat in a heavily righthanded lineup.
Samardzija is another player who had a poor walk year: His ERA jumped significantly from the 3.61 he’d posted from 2011 to ‘14, which was partially a product of Chicago's poor defense, but not entirely. His strikeout rate, an average of 8.8 per nine over the previous four seasons, plummeted as well, to 6.9. The good news is that he threw pretty much as hard as ever—his fastball sat at 94 mph and scraped 98. Perhaps a change of scenery (and better fielders behind him) is all he needs. The Giants—whose rotation needs buttressing behind Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Jake Peavy—could provide both.
Really? Zobrist behind Murphy? Yes, mainly because Zobrist is four years older, and also because their offensive numbers aren’t that far apart, with the real possibility that Murphy has reinvented himself as a more powerful hitter. But Zobrist is clearly valuable, both for his bat and for his defensive versatility. He could reunite with Andrew Friedman, his former GM in Tampa Bay and now the president of baseball operations in Los Angeles; there, he could play mostly second base and also serve as a steady leader in an offense that could use one.
The story for Kazmir has been the same the past two years: He's excellent in the first half, in which he's pitched to a combined ERA of 2.43, and then falters after the All-Star break, with a combined ERA of 4.60. Perhaps he gets tired; after all, he's not very big, measuring in at just 6'0" and 185 pounds. But Kazmir is a hard-throwing lefty, and those are in short supply, particularly in Baltimore, whose incumbent rotation and minor-league system feature no southpaws of any particular note.
Kendrick might never win the batting title that scouts used to predict for him, but he's still an extremely consistent contact hitter, having finished with batting averages between .279 and .297 in each of the past seven seasons. Despite a disappointing 2015, the White Sox might be closer to contention than it appears, and though their winter will undoubtedly be quieter than last year's, the addition of Kendrick could fill a hole at second base that has been problematic for years.
Iwakuma has been quietly excellent since he came over from Japan four years ago: He finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2013, and his cumulative 1.04 WHIP since then trails only those of Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, Jake Arrieta, Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke, genuine aces all. Iwakuma’s price will be depressed by his age and the fact that he missed significant time in 2015 due to a couple of injuries—a strained finger and a strained lat—but neither suggests long-term trouble. The Tigers are reloading, not rebuilding, and he would fit in well behind Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez on a reasonably short-term deal.
Span's numbers suggest that he ought to be a highly coveted leadoff man. The problem is that he played in only 61 games in 2015 due to a number of injuries, the last a torn hip labrum that ended his season in August. Even so, he should be healthy by spring training, and might by then be a Giant, with whom he'd be a good stylistic match.
Soria began the season as the Tigers' closer and ended it as the setup man for Mark Melancon in Pittsburgh. He prospered in both roles and enters free agency as the most attractive available reliever. While he'd undoubtedly like to close again, the Dodgers, with their deep pocketbooks and shallow bullpen, could give him closer money to set up for Kenley Jansen.
Rasmus more than earned the one-year, $8 million deal the Astros gave him last January. He set a career high in home runs and was even better in the playoffs, hitting .412 with four homers and a 1.760 OPS in six games. A return to Houston can't be ruled out, but the lefty swinger would also look good in San Diego, which currently gets almost all of its power from the right side of the plate.
Lackey was simply fantastic for the Cardinals after being acquired from the Red Sox in a 2014 deadline trade. But perhaps the best part about his 2015 season, in which he became St. Louis’ rotation stalwart after Adam Wainwright went down, was that he made a base salary of the major league minimum due to a contractual option that was activated after he missed all of ’12 due to Tommy John surgery. He's set to cash in now, despite his age, and a return to Boston makes sense. The Red Sox' rotation compiled a poor 4.39 ERA last year, and a familiar veteran would help stabilize a young staff.
After a belated breakout in 2014 (.293 with 21 home runs), Pearce struggled mightily at the beginning of this past season. By May's end, he was hitting .189 with six home runs and 18 RBIs, but then marginally re-established his value thereafter. Even so, the Orioles will be among the clubs that free agency will hit the hardest, and re-signing the versatile Pearce—who played first base, second base and in the outfield last year—would soften the blow of the likely departures of Chris Davis and Matt Wieters.
The side-arming O’Day has been simply phenomenal for the Orioles: Over four seasons in Baltimore, he has a cumulative 1.92 ERA, improving each year, and he's almost as tough on lefties (.210 batting average against in 2015) as righties (.192). He's clearly one of the two best relievers on the market—some might have him ahead of Soria—and it wouldn't be an off-season if the Tigers weren't looking for bullpen help.
Cabrera's prime was relatively brief, and he's never matched the two-year run he had for the Indians in 2011 and ‘12 when he batted .272 and averaged 20 homers and 80 RBIs. But this season was his best since then, and he will benefit from the fact that the market is light on shortstops. Three different players started at least 25 games at short for the Twins last year, and none of them did particularly well; Cabrera could solidify the position for a surprisingly up-and-coming club.
Kennedy, like most of San Diego's staff, suffered at the hands of the Padres' brutal fielders, but some of his peripherals remained positive: His strikeout rate was eighth-best in the National League’s eighth best, and he lost nothing as far as velocity. The Diamondbacks, with a young and explosive offense, figure to be in on virtually every starting pitcher on the market, but the higher-ranked options will probably prove too expensive for them. Kennedy finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 2011 as a Diamondback, and a return to Arizona wouldn't be a bad result for either side.
Clippard's season ended on a sour note, as he walked two eighth-inning batters to spark the Royals' comeback in Game 4 of the World Series. His postseason numbers generally weren't good (five earned runs in 6 2/3 innings), but he was otherwise dependable during a regular season that he began as Oakland's closer, and he's been a top setup man for seven years now, with a 2.68 ERA during that time. At least a dozen teams might want him, and the Mariners—whose bullpen ranked 25th in the league with a 4.15 ERA—should be among them.
It was a comeback year for the injury-prone Anderson, as the former top-10 prospect topped 30 starts and 175 innings for the first time since his rookie year in 2009. He no longer has the velocity to be a truly top-end starter, but he can throw four pitches for strikes, and he's particularly adept at using them to induce ground balls; he did so a remarkable 66.3% of the time this season, the highest rate for any pitcher since 2006. The Mariners might be after a veteran lefty to slot in between or behind Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, and he would fit the bill nicely.
Jackson has regressed since his breakout season for the Tigers in 2012, when, at 25, he batted .300 with 16 homers, 12 steals and an .856 OPS. But he retains both speed and potential, and he's a strong defender. The Royals could lose two starting outfielders from their championship run, Alex Gordon and Alex Rios, and Jackson would represent a cost-effective attempt at a replacement.
Madson threw his first major league pitch in nearly 3 1/2 years on April 6 and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. His ERA was better than it ever had been when he was a shut-down setup man and closer for the Phillies, as was his WHIP, and he pitched more innings than he had in either of his last two full seasons. Madson proved a very wise investment at a salary of $850,000, and now he will command much more. The Blue Jays, who are going to convert top setup man Aaron Sanchez into a starter and will need someone to pitch the eighth in front of Roberto Osuna, may be the team to pay him.
After a miserable first half in which he batted .224 with two home runs and 27 RBIs, it seemed as if there would be no way that Chicago would even consider picking up Ramirez’s $10 million option for 2016. He rebounded to exceed his career norms after the All-Star break, posting a .757 OPS, but the White Sox declined the option anyway—probably because their No. 1 prospect, Tim Anderson, should be playing short for them by mid-summer. The Mets could bring the Cuban aboard as a clear upgrade on the incumbent tandem of Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada.
Gallardo was ultimately effective for the Rangers, posting the best ERA of his career in Texas. But there were other causes for concern going forward: His strikeout rate plummeted to 5.9 per nine innings, and his fastball averaged a career-low 90.5 mph. Still, if there's anyone who can bring back a pitcher's mojo, it's Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who revitalized the careers of Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, among others. He could do the same for Gallardo's missing strikeout stuff.
Byrd is getting up there in age, but his late-career outburst continued in 2015, as he reached 23 homers for the third straight year after never having done it before. Even so, clubs would certainly be right to wonder if his power is sustainable. That might open the door for a short-term contract with the penny-pinching Rays, whose young rotation rivals the Mets' in its quality but who need more corner power to compete in the AL East.
Fister was one of several Nationals who had atypically poor seasons heading into free agency: His ERA jumped from 2.41 in 2014 to 4.19 this past season, and he actually lost his starting gig altogether in early August. But despite a miniscule 5.5 strikeout-per-nine ratio, his ERA was an excellent 3.11 from 2011 to ‘14, largely due to excellent control that deserted him a bit in ‘15. A change of scenery (and a big ballpark) could benefit him, and Oakland would provide both.
Bastardo is a rare type of bullpen weapon: a power southpaw who is murder on lefties (.138 BA in 2015) but can capably handles righties (.210) as well. If the World Series showed anything, it was that the Mets need a dependable arm to set up Jeurys Familia, and Bastardo would be just that. That he's a lefthander in a bullpen that was devoid of them is a bonus.
Freese's reputation has been coasting on the 2011 postseason heroics he performed with the Cardinals for a while now, but his free-agent stock will benefit from two factors. One is that 2015 was easily his best season in three years. The other is that there is really no other starter-level third base option behind him on the market. With Lonnie Chisenhall now entrenched in the outfield and Giovanny Urshela not likely to hit enough to be a long-term solution, Freese might wind up back in the Midwest with Cleveland.
Through June 20, Aoki was doing exactly what the Giants signed him to do: He was batting .317 and getting on base at a .383 clip while playing strong outfield defense. His season fell apart after that, due to a broken leg and then a concussion, but he should be healthy by spring and should again provide strong fielding and on-base skills. While the Nationals have succession plans in place at most spots, their outfield depth looks a bit questionable, and Aoki could shore it up.
Young is half a decade removed from the days in which he was a 30-homer-30-steal threat, but he still retains some pop, particularly against lefties. In 175 plate appearances against southpaws in 2015, he batted .327 with seven homers, 24 RBIs and a .972 OPS. That makes him a strong platoon or bench bat, and he could return to New York to fill that role for a few more seasons.
The World Series proved to a national audience what the Mariners and Royals already knew: Young's renaissance is real. His arm troubles behind him, he's thrown 50 more innings over the past two seasons than he did over the previous five, and he was a valuable spot starter and reliever for Kansas City in 2015, one whose excellent command makes up for his lack of strikeout stuff. A return to the world champions, whose only area of weakness is the rotation, is logical.
Unlike many players whose value is tied to their legs, Davis's speed hasn't deserted him: He was successful on 69% of his stolen base attempts in 2015. He also posted his best OPS since ‘09 while playing above-average defense in the outfield. He'd be a valuable platoon bat and possibly a regular starter for an Indians team that doesn't have much in the outfield after Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Napoli was terrible in 98 games with Boston (.207/.307/.386, 13 HR, 40 RBIs) but was revitalized after a trade back to Texas, where he posted a .908 OPS. If the Orioles fail to re-sign Chris Davis, he'd make for a much cheaper replacement, and one who would particularly prosper in the hitters' haven that is Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Sipp, an underrated cog in a much-improved Astros bullpen, is a southpaw whose three reliable pitches—a slider and a changeup to go with his fastball—allowed him to be nearly as effective against righties (.613 OPS against) as lefties (.599). The Twins' bullpen has no lefties at all, other than closer Glen Perkins, and Sipp could combine with Kevin Jepsen to form a dominant setup corps.
Avila played in just 67 games last season due to a lingering left knee injury, and if healthy, he could recapture some of the power that allowed him to hit double-digit home runs in three of the four preceding seasons. But it's really his defense that puts him at the top of a second tier of free-agent catchers that includes Chris Iannetta, Dioner Navarro, A.J. Pierzynski, Jarrod Salatalamacchia and Geovany Soto; among other skills, he's thrown out 34% of base stealers in each of the past two seasons. While his father, Al, is now the GM of the Tigers, James McCann seems entrenched there, and Avila’s defense and leadership could prove attractive to the demanding Mike Scioscia in Anaheim.
Happ was a more aggressive pitcher after being traded from the Mariners to the Pirates, relying far more on his fastball. The results were excellent: In 11 post-deadline starts for Pittsburgh, the lefty went 7–2 with a 1.85 ERA and struck out nearly 10 batters per nine—an astounding improvement for a 32-year-old whose career strikeout rate hovered around 7.5 per nine. Both Happ and the Pirates would be wise not to mess with a good thing.
An All-Star just two years ago when he slugged 27 homers and drove in 83 runs, Brown—once Baseball America's No. 4 prospect—was designated for assignment by the Phillies in October. That's what happens when you bat .233 with a .634 OPS over the last two seasons. The power potential is still there, however, and Brown is young enough to represent an enticing low-risk, high-reward gamble. Atlanta hit just 100 home runs as a team in 2015, the fewest in the majors; the Braves should jump on power potential wherever they can find it.
Now that LaTroy Hawkins has announced his retirement, Colon should be the game's oldest player next year. The continuing results generated by his rubber arm earn him the last spot on this list over contenders such as Craig Breslow, Stephen Drew, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum, John Jaso, Kelly Johnson, Colby Lewis, Mark Lowe, Justin Morneau, David Murphy, Dioner Navarro, Alex Rios, Jimmy Rollins, Juan Uribe, Chase Utley and Will Venable. If Colon returns to the Mets, he could start until Zack Wheeler returns from Tommy John surgery, then act as a regular swingman thereafter.