With Stephen Strasburg off the market, who will be the best players available in this coming off-season's free agency? Ben Reiter picks his top 10 from a barren market.
The dust has now settled from last week’s concussive news of Stephen Strasburg signing a seven-year extension with the Nationals, just six months before the 27-year-old ace was due to become a free agent. That contract landed Strasburg $175 million, an amount that would almost certainly have been even larger had he hit the open market (although he does have two valuable chances to opt out, after the third and fourth seasons of the deal). It has also unveiled a significantly altered free agency landscape.
Strasburg would have been the No. 1 player on the Reiter 50, SI.com’s annual ranking of the game’s top 50 free agents, which this fall will reach its ninth installment. His absence means that one year after an off-season for the ages, an unusually thin market will now be gaunter than any in recent memory, particularly as far as starting pitchers. Clubs looking for rotation-toppers will be out of luck, as their options will now include only the aged (42-year-old Bartolo Colon, 41-year-old R.A. Dickey, 36-year-old Rich Hill) and the disappointing (31-year-old Clay Buchholz, 29-year-old Andrew Cashner, 28-year-old Brett Anderson).
The pitching-needy will have to wait until next year, when defending NL Cy Young Jake Arrieta comes free, and especially until the year after that, which could include Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, Mets ace Matt Harvey, three-time NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, defending AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel and 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price (not to mention defending AL MVP Josh Donaldson, defending NL MVP Bryce Harper, Cubs rightfielder Jason Heyward, Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones and Gold Glove-winning third baseman Manny Machado and 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen).
We’re still a long way off from the Yankees giving a billion dollars to Fernandez and Harper, though. Here’s an early look at this fall’s top 10—now not only Strasburg-free, but also devoid of Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who signed a three-year extension on Tuesday.
1. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets
After a long-term suitor never materialized, Cespedes—No. 4 on last winter’s Reiter 50—was forced to settle for a three-year, $75 million deal to return to the Mets. It was not nearly as tragic a result as some suggested. He’s still the game’s 45th-highest-paid player this year, with a base salary of $17.5 million, and that doesn’t include his $10 million signing bonus, helping him to afford his well-covered progression of cars in spring training. The contract also afforded Cespedes protection: If he regressed or got injured, he had a nice $47.5 million insurance policy, courtesy of New York. If he performed to his recent standard, then he could opt out of the deal and into a far weaker market this off-season.
The second scenario is now extremely likely. After a 2-for-16 start to the season, Cespedes has been on fire. He’s second in baseball in homers (12), fifth in RBIs (32) and ninth in OPS (1.001) and playing perfectly passable defense in both centerfield and left. Now that Strasburg has exited, Cespedes is the clear No. 1 free agent on the market. At 31, he could received a commitment of at least four times what the Mets will now likely never get the chance to pay him.
2. Josh Reddick, OF, Athletics
When I profiled Reddick two weeks ago and explained how he’d quietly reshaped himself into a well-rounded hitter after his 32-homer breakout in 2012, I suggested that he might surprisingly prove the fourth-best free agent this winter, after Strasburg, Cespedes and Jose Bautista. I underrated him. Now past the nagging injuries that compromised his past few seasons, Reddick is batting .314 with four homers, 17 RBIs and a .386 on-base percentage. He might not get much national coverage playing in Oakland, but general managers are certainly paying attention. The number that really gives Reddick the edge over Bautista: six. That’s how many years younger the 29-year-old Reddick is than the Blue Jays’ slugger.
3. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays
It hadn’t been a wonderful 2016 for Bautista even before his cheek made the acquaintance of Rougned Odor’s fist on Sunday: He’s batting just .227 with seven homers and 28 RBIs and is putting up his worst OPS+ (132) since 2009, the season before he belatedly hatched as a monster. Back in February, the six-time All-Star was reportedly seeking a five-year, $150 million extension from Toronto. He publicly denied those numbers, but it wasn’t the worst negotiating tactic for the savvy 35-year-old to reset sights that high, even if unintentionally. There’s still plenty of season left for him to turn things around (and to ice that jaw), but it’s a bad time for someone of his age to show some signs of decline.
4. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Yankees
Decline? The 28-year-old Cuban hasn’t demonstrated anything of the sort after returning from his domestic violence suspension. His fastball is sitting at 99.8 mph, and he’s thrown three straight perfect outings after allowing a run in his Yankees debut. The real question is whether he will finish the season in New York along with fellow dominant relievers Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller. At 16–22, the Yankees don’t seem to be going anywhere, and having a three-headed Cerberus chained up in the bullpen isn’t valuable if there aren’t many wins to close out. With Chapman's suspension now behind him, New York could expect to be offered a better package for him now than the four generally uninspiring pieces it gave up to acquire him less than five months ago.
5. Kenley Jansen, RP, Dodgers
Jansen has long been the only reliable option in the Dodgers’ bullpen. This season, he’s been phenomenal, allowing a single run and only one walk over 16 1/3 innings so far to go with 13 saves. His strikeout rate, which exceeded 13 per nine over his first six seasons, is at just 9.9, but that might just mean that he’s more confident than ever in his command within the zone; his fastball,which averages nearly 93 mph, is actually up a tick from 2016. He’ll be a fine consolation prize to Chapman, and might surpass him by autumn.
6. Dexter Fowler, OF, Cubs
I thought a 30-year-old–switch-hitting centerfielder with strong on-base skills would be a hotter commodity last off-season; Fowler was No. 12 on my list. But he ultimately spurned the Orioles’ reported three-year, $35 million deal to return to the Cubs for a salary of $8 million with a $9 million mutual option for 2017. Clearly, Fowler wanted the chance to improve his value while hitting atop what promised to be a powerful lineup, with the idea of taking another swing at free agency this year.
So far, so good for Fowler, who is batting .321 with three homers, 19 RBIs, six steals and the game’s 14th-best OPS (.964). Scouts have long questioned his facility in the field—one evaluator told me his reputation is as a player who makes the spectacular play but botches the routine one—but he is errorless so far and on track for the first positive Ultimate Zone Rating of his career. The Cubs will likely want to pick up their half of the option, but Fowler should quickly decline his.
7. Edwin Encarnacion, DH, Blue Jays
As they did with Bautista, the Blue Jays have enjoyed Encarnacion on the cheap, paying him just $9.25 million over the past four years. Over the first three of those, he batted .272, averaging 36 homers and 104 RBIs; that is a team-friendly deal. Unfortunately for Encarnacion, he’s also mirrored Bautista in that his walk year hasn’t gotten off to the best of starts, as he’s hitting .241 with seven homers, 29 RBIs and an OPS of .749 that is down nearly 200 points from last year’s. At 33, he’ll spend the rest of the season trying to convince potential suitors of the same thing as his teammate: That he’s still got it.
8. Mark Trumbo, OF, Orioles
It’s so far been a dream walk year so far for the 30-year-old Trumbo, who has been stellar in his first season in Baltimore: He already has 11 homers and 28 RBIs to go with a .299 batting average that is 46 points above his career standard. Batting average on balls in play can explain some of that—his is .340—but he does hit the ball very hard, as his average exit velocity of 94.9 mph is the majors’ fifth fastest. And any prospective suitors should do what they can to keep him out of the field. But power plays, and power gets paid.
9. Ian Desmond, OF, Rangers
It is possible that no one has ever played the free-agency game worse than Desmond. Two years ago, the former Nationals shortstop turned down a seven-year, $107 million extension, then followed that with by far the worst season of his career in 2015, batting .233 with a .674 OPS. That performance left him to settle for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Rangers, but he wasn't helped by hitting free agency during a shortstop boom in which few clubs are looking to fill the position. The game is loaded with young stars—Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell, Corey Seager, Trevor Story—and 20 of Baseball America’s current top-100 prospects play there.
Though Desmond likely can’t sleep at night without thinking of the riches that might have been his, he has, to his credit, performed well for the Rangers while learning to play in new spots (leftfield and occasionally center). He's also rebounded at the plate, batting .268 with six homers, 25 RBIs, seven steals and an .803 OPS. Though the 30-year-old Desmond will likely never recoup that $107 million, he should have better luck this winter as a credible outfielder who can also play short in a pinch.
10. Rich Hill, SP, A's
Hill pitched a grand total of 153 innings between 2008 and '14, recording a 5.41 ERA in the process. But he parlayed four strong starts with Boston late last year into a one-year, $6 million deal with the A’s. Now, at 36, the southpaw is 5–3 with a 2.68 ERA and nearly 11 strikeouts per nine. This year, that meager track record might be enough to make him the top starting pitcher available. Thanks to Strasburg, he’s six months away from becoming Richer Hill.
The next ten (in alphabetical order): Andrew Cashner, SP, Padres; Bartolo Colon, SP, Mets; Carlos Gomez, OF, Astros; Mark Melancon, RP, Pirates; Colby Rasmus, OF, Astros; Michael Saunders, OF, Blue Jays; Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees; Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers; Neil Walker, 2B, Mets; Matt Wieters, C, Orioles.