- Which free agents will break the bank this off-season, and where will the market's top players end up? For the ninth straight year, Ben Reiter ranks the best available players, including the best fit for each of them.
Because the Cubs and the Indians pushed the World Series to seven games, baseball’s free agents don't become available to the highest bidder until Tues., Nov. 8—the same day on which Americans will make an even more fraught decision.
Alas, as many voters would say about this year’s presidential election, the market is short on attractive options. Whereas last year’s class was the best in the now nine-year history of the Reiter 50—SI.com’s annual ranking of the top 50 free agents—this winter’s is among the worst. Stephen Strasburg’s decision to sign a seven-year, $175 million extension with the Nationals last May has left the winter entirely devoid of available top-end starting pitchers, and eagle-eyed observers will note that it includes not a single true shortstop, either.
Things are not always as they seem, however. Each of last year’s clear-cut top three options—pitchers David Price and Zack Greinke and outfielder Jason Heyward—disappointed in their new homes, but players down the list—like Dexter Fowler (No. 12), Ian Desmond (No. 13), Marco Estrada (No. 15) and especially Daniel Murphy (No. 17)—excelled. Desmond and Fowler are available again, and they’re ranked here along with 48 other names that clubs should consider (ages listed are for the 2017 season), along with a brief analysis of each player and the destination that is his most logical.
Position: OF | Age: 31
Current Team: Mets | Best Fit: Phillies
2016 Stats: .280/.354/.530 (.884 OPS), 31 HR, 86 RBIs, 3 SB
After an attractive long-term suitor failed to materialize last winter, Cespedes gambled on himself, signing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Mets that included an opt out after the first. We have a winner: He ended up making $27.5 million from New York for 2016, and after a season in which he set a career-high in OPS—thanks largely to a personal-best walk rate of 9.4%—he enters a weaker market as the clear-cut No. 1 option. Many clubs will chase him—keep an eye on the power-starved Giants—but the darkhorse Phillies could emerge with both a centerpiece for their rebuild and having leveled a devastating shot at their NL East rival.
Position: RP | Age: 29
Current Team: Cubs | Best Fit: Nationals
2016 Stats: 4–1, 1.55 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 14.0 K/9, 36 Sv
Chapman lost nothing, performance-wise, in a season he started a month late due to his domestic violence suspension and that was split between the Yankees and the Cubs. In fact, he never before threw his fastball harder, averaging a career-best 100.4 mph with the pitch. At the same time, he showed better control than ever, dropping his walk rate from 4.5 to 2.8 per nine. An improving Chapman is a concerning thought to opponents, and while the Nationals should try to sign him to stabilize their long turbulent ninth innings, they'll have competition from his two 2016 teams, among others.
Position: 1B/DH | Age: 34
Current Team: Blue Jays | Best Fit: Red Sox
2016 Stats: .263/.357/.529 (.886 OPS), 42 HR, 127 RBIs, 2 SB
The Blue Jays got astonishing production out of what turned out to be the four-year, $37 million contract they gave Encarnacion (one that began in 2013): He hit 151 homers and drove in 440 runs over the course of the deal, ranking third and second, respectively, in baseball over that span. By the end of this past May, when he had just 10 home runs, it seemed as if he might be on course for a disappointing walk year, but he quickly returned to his slugging form. The Red Sox, now with a sizable hole at designated hitter following the retirement of David Ortiz, could use that kind of power in their lineup. Can you say "New Papi?"
Position: RP | Age: 29
Current Team: Dodgers | Best Fit: Dodgers
2016 Stats: 3–2, 1.83 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 13.6 K/9, 47 Sv
Jansen, who joined the Dodgers' organization as a catcher 12 years ago, throws essentially one pitch: a cutter that averages 93.5 mph and can scrape 98. It is, however, a simply dominant one, as hitters batted .185 against it this season, helping Jansen to a year in which he had 104 strikeouts against only 11 walks. Aroldis Chapman's singular stuff keeps him ahead of Jansen, but not by much. The Dodgers have no reason whatsoever to let Jansen walk.
Position: 3B | Age: 32
Current Team: Dodgers | Best Fit: Dodgers
2016 Stats: .275/.339/.493 (.832 OPS), 27 HR, 90 RBIs, 4 SB
Offensively, Turner is basically Daniel Murphy: a slap hitter who transformed himself into a slugger after he turned 30. Until two years ago, his career high for homers was seven; he's hit 43 the past two seasons. Unlike Murphy, though, Turner is also an above-average fielder and could double his erstwhile teammate's three-year, $37.5 million deal from last winter—probably thanks to the Dodgers, who also value his competitiveness.
Position: OF/DH | Age: 31
Current Team: Orioles | Best Fit: Blue Jays
2016 Stats: .256/.316/.533 (.849 OPS), 47 HR, 108 RBIs, 2 SB
There are many things that Trumbo does not do well: play defense, run, draw walks, hit for average, hit lefties (strangely, as he bats righthanded). But he did blast four more bombs than anyone else in 2016, and power gets paid. The Blue Jays could be short 88 homers from last season if their three free-agent sluggers depart. They will be interested.
Position: OF | Age: 31
Current Team: Rangers | Best Fit: Orioles
2016 Stats: .285/.335/.446 (.782 OPS), 22 HR, 86 RBIs, 21 SB
Desmond famously "lost" about $80 million by turning down a long-term contract offer from the Nationals a few seasons ago, only to have to settle for an $8 million pact with the Rangers last winter after a poor contract year for Washington in 2015. To his immense credit, though, the former shortstop returned to his previous 20–20 standard and learned an entirely new position on the fly, playing at worst a decent centerfield. The Orioles won't be turned off by a second-half decline in which he hit .237, as they badly need an outfielder with not just power but also speed.
Position: C | Age: 29
Current Team: Nationals | Best Fit: Angels
2016 Stats: .307/.354/.496 (.850 OPS), 22 HR, 80 RBIs, 0 SB
Ramos's out-of-the-blue breakout ended disastrously for him when he suffered a torn right ACL on Sept. 26—an injury that seemed to doom both Washington's playoff chances and his own prospects in free agency. Not so fast on that second conclusion, though: It's the second time he's ruptured the same ligament, but those heal, and the team that ends up with him should get Ramos for at least a marginal discount and then benefit from several years of one of game's few all-around catchers. The Angels have been looking for one of those forever.
Position: CF | Age: 31
Current Team: Cubs | Best Fit: Nationals
2016 Stats: .276/.393/.447 (.840 OPS), 13 HR, 48 RBIs, 13 SB
Fowler joins Yoenis Cespedes and Ian Desmond as another guy who reached last spring disappointed—he was a free-agent a year ago before returning to the Cubs on a one-year, $13 million deal—but is poised to do much better after surpassing his career high in OPS+ and improving in centerfield, too (thanks in part to better positioning). The Cubs' surplus of outfielders means Fowler will likely move on, and the completely barren shortstop market means the Nationals will probably move Trea Turner back to that position, where he starred in college, thus leaving centerfield open.
Position: OF | Age: 30
Current Team: Dodgers | Best Fit: Astros
2016 Stats: .281/.345/.405 (.750 OPS), 10 HR, 37 RBIs, 8 SB
Having refashioned himself from a high-strikeout slugger who hit 32 homers in 2012 into a well-rounded threat, the lefthanded-hitting Reddick might have been No. 2 on this list had it been made on May 19, when he was hitting .322 with an .860 OPS. Then he broke his left thumb in May and struggled after being traded on Aug. 1 to the Dodgers, with whom it took him a month for him to find his groove. Still, his youth and stable skillset place him in the top 10, to the likely surprise of the more famous player directly beneath him. He could wind up with the Astros, where he'd be an antidote to Houston's heavily righthanded and high-strikeout lineup.
Position: OF | Age: 36
Current Team: Blue Jays | Best Fit: Mets
2016 Stats: .234/.366/.452 (.818 OPS), 22 HR, 69 RBIs, 2 SB
Back in February, reports—denied, if unconvincingly—suggested that Bautista had demanded a deal of least five years and $150 million from the Blue Jays. He won't get close to either figure—not as a 36-year-old whose OPS dropped by nearly 100 points from 2015, is quickly declining in the field and missed 46 games with a number of ailments to his lower extremities. Reeling from the loss of Cespedes, the Mets could dangle a high-money, low-years contract to Bautista—who will probably linger on the market—in an attempt to save face with their fans.
Position: SP | Age: 37
Current Team: Dodgers | Best Fit: Red Sox
2016 Stats: 12–5, 2.12 ERA, 0.997 WHIP, 10.5 K/9
Hill is definitely the best starting pitcher on the market, which says a lot about both him and the market. Let's focus on the positives. Hill, despite recurring blister issues, was great for the A's and even better for the Dodgers after a deadline trade thanks in large measure to what is without question the league's best curveball. Though he pitched only 110 regular-season innings, he was last seen shutting out the Cubs over six innings in the NLCS. Hill is Massachusetts-born and a two-time Red Sox veteran, but what matters way more than that is Boston's need for high-end starting pitching depth. The Sox are one of the few teams that could stomach an innings total in the low 100s for Hill, as long as they're good ones.
Position: RP | Age: 32
Current Team: Nationals | Best Fit: Giants
2016 Stats: 2–2, 1.64 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 47 Sv
Melancon has an ERA of 1.80 over the past four seasons—in which the former Pirate and National has struck out nearly six times as many hitters as he has walked—and yet he's the third option on the closer market. Still, he's a very good option indeed, especially for the Giants, who suffered an MLB-high 30 blown saves by a formerly dependable bullpen and will be hunting for a renewed late-game stability.
Position: 1B | Age: 35
Current Team: Indians | Best Fit: Indians
2016 Stats: .239/.335/.465 (.800 OPS), 34 HR, 101 RBIs, 5 SB
Working on a discounted one-year, $7 million deal, Napoli became the heart of the AL champions' lineup and the soul of the Indians' clubhouse in his year in Cleveland. While a return is his first priority, he will still test the market, as he should. Still, the relationship worked so well that Cleveland might stretch for a multi-year deal, thereby keeping the club that came so close to a ring intact, as Rajai Davis is their only other free agent of any prominence.
Position: SP | Age: 30
Current Team: Pirates | Best Fit: Rangers
2016 Stats: 12–8, 4.17 ERA, 1.253 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
Ah, Ray Searage. The Pirates' pitching coach/sorcerer helped yet another pitcher exploit his gifts, as Nova went from a 4.90 ERA with the Yankees to a 3.06 mark in 11 starts after a midseason trade to Pittsburgh. Nova's performance was tied to a remarkable improvement in command, as he had a 52/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Pirates—nearly six times better than his control for New York. Even after moving onto another team, the Blue Jays' J.A. Happ showed in 2016 than a Searage-aided turnaround can last, and the Rangers, who are stacked on offense but lack starting pitching behind Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, could hope for the same from Nova.
Position: C | Age: 31
Current Team: Orioles | Best Fit: Braves
2016 Stats: .243/.302/.409 (.711 OPS), 17 HR, 66 RBIs, 1 SB
Wieters will probably never become the superstar many anticipated, but he is a stalwart catcher with power who last year showed that he has recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had in June of 2014, throwing out a strong 35% of would-be base stealers. As a Georgia Tech alum, he has ties to Atlanta—something that normally doesn't matter in free agency but just might have an impact this year, as the Braves will seek to give fans a reason to come out to their new ballpark. More important in the long term will be the fact that Wieters can provide a steadying influence for a young and talented pitching staff.
Position: 2B | Age: 31
Current Team: Mets | Best Fit: Mets
2016 Stats: .282/.347/.476 (.823 OPS), 23 HR, 55 RBIs, 3 SB
He's not Daniel Murphy, but Walker did a credible job of distracting Mets fans from their club's failure to re-sign the second baseman who became an MVP candidate with Washington—at least until back surgery ended Walker's season in late August. Despite missing a good chunk of the second half, the former Pirate tied his career high in homers and set a new mark in OPS (.823). New York will probably have to re-sign him, not just for his production but also to mitigate Murphy-based agony in the long term.