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Winter Carnival

Nov. 04, 2013
Nov. 04, 2013

Table of Contents
Nov. 4, 2013

SI.com
LEADING OFF
THE MAIL
WORLD SERIES
JEFF LUKAS
  • HE WAS THE EXACTING RIGHTHAND MAN TO HIS FABLED FATHER, THOROUGHBRED TRAINER D. WAYNE LUKAS. THEN, ONE MORNING 20 YEARS AGO AT SANTA ANITA, SITE OF THIS WEEKEND'S BREEDERS' CUP, HE STOOD IN THE PATH OF A CHARGING HORSE AND LOST EVERYTHING. OR DID HE?

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Winter Carnival

When the Series ends, the free-agent derby begins. Who will shape the market? It's the annual Reiter 50, the names that will dominate the off-season

THIS YEAR'S World Series rosters make it tempting to conclude that an era has ended: that of the megastar free agent who carries his new team to a title. Of the 25 Cardinals active for the Series, three arrived via free agency. The Red Sox, meanwhile, added 28 wins to last season's total only after an August 2012 trade with the Dodgers relieved Boston of four players and $272 million in contract obligations.

This is an article from the Nov. 4, 2013 issue

But free agency isn't dead—it's just different, as more teams see the wisdom in shorter-term deals. Clubs are still spending—the average annual value of last winter's free-agent contracts was $7.8 million, a record—but this past off-season was the first since 2004 in which no domestic free agent landed a deal longer than six years. "There are fewer and fewer teams willing to partake in the market to the extremes," says one GM. "There's more awareness about the catastrophic risk associated with long-term deals with guys in their 30s."

Free agents can sign with new teams six days after the World Series ends. Here's the top 10 in the Reiter 50, SI.com's annual ranking of the best 50 free agents. For the full list, go to SI.com/mlb.

1 ROBINSON CANO, 2B

2014 AGE: 31

2013 STATS: .314 BA, .899 OPS, 27 HR, 107 RBIS

BEST FIT: YANKEES

Will Jay-Z's client receive the $300 million deal he wants? Probably not. But Cano, a top-six finisher in the MVP voting every year since 2010, is definitely the best player on the market and will get the biggest contract. It wouldn't be shocking if a rival decides to go all-in with Cano. But the odds are that he will remain a Yankee, despite the team's commitment to lowering its payroll beneath the $189 million luxury-tax threshold. One rival GM guesses that Cano's deal will be for eight years and $178 million.

2 JACOBY ELLSBURY, OF

2014 AGE: 30

2013 STATS: .298 BA, .781 OPS, 9 HR, 52 SB

BEST FIT: MARINERS

Ellsbury was perhaps the AL's best all-around player in 2011, when he hit 32 homers, but that power surge now seems like a fluke—he hasn't reached double digits since. That makes him a speed guy on the wrong side of 30, and an injury-prone one at that. Still, as a model leadoff hitter and an excellent centerfielder, teams will covet him. Seattle makes sense: It needs to fill both those roles and has been trying to make a free-agent splash for years. Plus, if it matters, Ellsbury is from the Pacific Northwest.

3 SHIN-SOO CHOO, OF

2014 AGE: 31

2013 STATS: .285 BA, .885 OPS, 21 HR, 20 SB

BEST FIT: ASTROS

Choo has many strengths: He gets on base (his 112 walks and .423 OBP were second in the NL), has good power and speed, and is a solid corner outfielder. He also has one major weakness—he doesn't hit lefthanders, against whom he batted .215 with zero home runs this season. Even so, he might be attractive to a rebuilding club that wants to slot Choo as a lineup mainstay once it is ready to contend. The Astros, who have stud prospects Carlos Correa, Jonathan Singleton and George Springer in the pipeline, are one of those.

4 BRIAN MCCANN, C

2014 AGE: 30

2013 STATS: .256 BA, .796 OPS, 20 HR, 57 RBIs

BEST FIT: RANGERS

This year's market, unusually, features several quality catching options, but McCann is clearly the best of them. He rebounded from a 2012 ruined by a shoulder injury to put together another strong offensive year, he is good defensively, he is relatively young and he is a clubhouse leader. He reportedly would like to play for an AL club so that he can DH when not behind the plate, and the Rangers—who have been looking for a long-term catcher for years, and who tried to trade for him at this year's deadline—fit the bill.

5 MASAHIRO TANAKA, RHP

2014 AGE: 25

2013 STATS (in Japan): 24--0, 1.27 ERA, 0.943 WHIP, 7.8 K/9

BEST FIT: YANKEES

No matter what you think of the win as a reliable performance metric, it is difficult to go 24--0 in any professional league, as Tanaka did in Nippon Professional Baseball. The consensus among MLB clubs is that while Tanaka is not quite as talented as Rangers ace Yu Darvish, he's close—and that makes him the top pitcher in this market. Tanaka's competitors are all at least five years older than he is. The righty, who has a mid-90s fastball and above-average splitter, will be very attractive to the Yankees, who need a starter and can also commit to a large posting fee, which doesn't count against the $189 million luxury-tax threshold.

6 MIKE NAPOLI, 1B

2014 AGE: 32

2013 STATS: .259 BA, .842 OPS, 23 HR, 92 RBIs

BEST FIT: RED SOX

Napoli originally agreed to a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox last winter; it was knocked down to one year and $5 million after his physical turned up a chronic hip condition. (He actually made $13 million with incentives.) There will be no such discount this year. Napoli isn't a catcher anymore, but he proved an excellent full-time first baseman (he led the league in FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating stat), and set a career high in plate appearances and RBIs. A multi-year reunion with Boston seems in order. With that beard, where else could he go?

7 ERVIN SANTANA, RHP

2014 AGE: 31

2013 STATS: 9--10, 3.24 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, 6.9 K/9

BEST FIT: ROYALS

The market for domestic free-agent starters is weak—no one is better than a No. 2 starter, and each has knocks against him. It is hard to separate the top three, but Santana represents the most attractive option. While he tends to have very bad years from time to time (his ERA exceeded 5.00 in both 2009 and '12), he seems to have matured as a pitcher, and his unimpressive won-lost record for the Royals this year was belied by his excellent ratios (including his 2.2 walks per nine innings).

8 UBALDO JIMENEZ, RHP

2014 AGE: 30

2013 STATS: 13--9, 3.30 ERA, 1.330 WHIP, 9.6 K/9

BEST FIT: ORIOLES

After 2½ years of struggles, Jimenez regained his elite form in the second half of 2013: he had a 1.82 ERA—best among AL starters—and struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. His long-limbed delivery can break down for significant periods of time, but he also has ace potential. Jimenez would instantly be the best starter on an Orioles team that has the offense to be a serious contender but is in need of an upgrade to a rotation that ranked 27th in ERA, at 4.57.

9 MATT GARZA, RHP

2014 AGE: 30

2013 STATS: 10--6, 3.82 ERA, 1.236 WHIP, 7.9 K/9

BEST FIT: ANGELS

Garza missed the first month and a half of the season while recovering from a strained lat, and though he pitched well as a Cub (6--1, 3.17 ERA), he was disappointing after being traded to the Rangers (4--5, 4.38). But he has been generally consistent in a career that has already run through four organizations—his ERA has been between 3.32 and 3.95 every season since 2007—and the Angels are in desperate need of consistency in a rotation that has two open spots behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards.

10 NELSON CRUZ, OF

2014 AGE: 33

2013 STATS: .266 BA, .833 OPS, 27 HR, 76 RBIs

BEST FIT: ROYALS

Cruz put up his excellent power numbers in only 109 games; had he played a full season, he would most likely have approached 40 homers. Of course, Cruz missed the final 50 games of the season thanks to a PED suspension, and suitors must consider that as they forecast his future performance. Still, Cruz is clearly the market's top righthanded-hitting outfielder, and he'll be in demand. The Royals, whose rightfielders last year combined to hit .258 with 12 homers, should be first in line.

TEN PHOTOSRONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (CRUZ), RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (GARZA); MITCHELL LAYTON/GETTY IMAGES (MCCANN); KOJI WATANABE/GETTY IMAGES (TANAKA); WINSLOW TOWNSON FOR SI (ELLSBURY); OTTO GREULE JR/GETTY IMAGES (SANTANA); DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SI (NAPOLI); BRACE HEMMELGARN/MINNESOTA TWINS/GETTY IMAGES (JIMENEZ); PORTER BINKS (CHOO); ERICK W. RASCO/SI (CANO)AGENTS OF CHANGE The Yankees' Cano (1) leads the rankings, but odds are he's one free agent who will stay with his original team this winter.