It’s crazy how some baseball players finally kick it into gear when they realize it is their contract year. Many fans and teams pay close attention to how a player will perform knowing they are trying to cash in on free agency. I know this isn’t true, but it always seems like these players put up huge numbers when money is on the line. Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shin-Soo Choo were able to do it last year. Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton were able to do it two years ago. So, who is looking forward to a big payday come December of the upcoming 2015 MLB free agents?
1.) RHP Max Scherzer
If it wasn’t for Johnny Cueto’s $10 million club option next season, I think he would command the most money this upcoming offseason. If you have the time, please look at the ridiculous numbers he is putting up this season. Anyway, it looks like the Detroit right-hander is going to test free agency this offseason. Scherzer hasn’t been as dominant as last season, but he still has some great numbers this year. He threw his first ever complete game (took him 179 starts to do it) on Thursday, June 12 against the Chicago White Sox in dominant fashion, only allowing three hits and striking out eight. On the season, he currently has an 8-3 record, with a 3.85 ERA, 111 strikeouts (4th in the AL), 98.1 innings pitched (5th in the AL), and a 1.25 WHIP. He went through a tough stretch this season, allowing 20 earned runs in four starts from May 21st to June 7th. As I finish writing this, he just got shelled by the Kansas City Royals, allowing 10 earned runs in only four innings. The former Arizona Diamondback 1st-round draft choice should have no problem reeling in a massive contract come December though. He does turn 30 years old on July 27th, which could take a year off of a long-term deal, but I expect a contract comparable to the one Zack Greinke signed two seasons ago (6 years, $155 million). There was a little “drama” prior to the season starting, when the Tigers publicly announced that Scherzer declined a “substantial offer” that would have made him one of the highest paid pitchers in baseball.1 I’m guessing Scherzer didn’t take too kindly to the team he is working for throwing him under the bus. He and Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski later cleared things up. Rumor has it as a 6-year, $144 million offer. Whatever the actual offer was, Scherzer should exceed $155 million in his next contract.
2.) LHP Jon Lester
Another starting pitcher who got into a little contract negotiation issue was Jon Lester. As reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Red Sox offered Lester a four-year deal ranging from $70-80 million right about when the season started.2 As you can imagine, that probably felt like a smack in the face to the left-hander, who has been the Red Sox’s most reliable and consistent starter for the past six seasons. Since 2008, when Lester took over as a full-time starter for the Sox, he only once didn’t reach 200 innings pitched in a season. With that said, he has had at least 31 starts in all of those seasons. He has a career 3.73 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He is only 7-7 this season, but hasn’t gotten much help from Boston’s offense. In five of those seven losses, he gave up four or less earned runs. He has 99 strikeouts in 92 innings, with a career best 10.14 K/9. Even more impressive are Lester’s postseason numbers with the Red Sox. In 76.2 innings (13 games, 11 starts), he is 6-4 with a 2.11 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 68 strikeouts. Oh, he also has two World Series rings. Lester has said he would take a hometown discount, but four years and $80 million? That’s bad. If he hits free agency, he will be receiving much better offers than that. He is 30 years old, and will turn 31 in January. He won’t get a Scherzer-type deal, but many teams out there will be vying for an ace left-hander who has great postseason numbers.
3.) SS Hanley Ramirez
Hanley is a tough projection here. He is one of the most talented players in baseball, but at times, the talent disappears. After recovering from thumb and hamstring injuries last season, Hanley helped revitalize a struggling Dodgers offense. He hit .345 with 20 HR, 57 RBI, 10 SB, and had a .402 OBP. When he and Puig joined the Dodgers lineup in the summer, they were the best team in baseball. This season has been a different story, for both the Dodgers and Ramirez. Hanley is only batting .259 but he does have 10 HR and 39 RBI. He also has a .346 OBP with nine stolen bases. They aren’t awful numbers, but they certainly aren’t superstar numbers. Hanley’s last six seasons have been a roller coaster. He hit .343 in 2009 and then .300 in 2010. But in 2011 and 2012, he slumped down to .243 and then .257. Like I mentioned earlier, he hit .345 last year, but he is now back down to .259. In his first two seasons, he stole 51 bases both years. He may clip 20 this season, but at 30 years old, his speed will continue to decline. Over the past three seasons, he is only hitting .267 against right-handed pitching. Defensively, his UZR is the 2nd worst among qualifying shortstops in baseball at -8.3.3 He will command a large contract this offseason. If I were inking that deal, I would avoid overpaying for the shortstop. He will be 31 next season and even minor injuries are starting to catch up to him. His bat is going to slow down and his defense will only get worse. With all that said, there will be a team that will overpay for Hanley. It won’t be worth it though.
4.) OF Nelson Cruz
It looks like Nelson Cruz has put everything from last season behind him. He turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer from the Texas Rangers this winter. No one really wanted him this offseason, especially since he would cost a draft pick. Eventually, on February 24th, the Orioles signed Cruz to a 1-year, $8 million deal. He will make about $10 million when all incentives kick in. For a team that was looking for another bat to add to the middle of the lineup, the Orioles got a steal in Cruz. He is currently batting .306 and leads the league in HR (21), RBI (56), and is 3rd in slugging percentage (.611). He has absolutely demolished the ball this season. Many thought Camden Yards would be the perfect place for Cruz to play. It has been quite the opposite. He is batting only .256 with seven HR and 14 RBI at home, while hitting .348 with 14 HR and 42 RBI on the road.4 Cruz has often been criticized by his defensive play in right field, but has actually done a fairly solid job in left field for Baltimore this season. His defensive WAR and UZR are slightly below average, but nothing too concerning. He also hasn’t made an error yet this season. This is a very good sign for other teams if they are looking for a LF/DH option come this offseason. He has proven his bat is still there and he can hold his own in left field. The ninth-year veteran does turn 34 in July, which will limit his next deal to either four or five years, but the money should be there. We saw Curtis Granderson get an absurd 4-year, $60 million deal from the Mets last season, so Nelson Cruz will be looking for much more than that.
5.) RHP James Shields
Back on December 10th, 2012, pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis were dealt from Tampa Bay to Kansas City for one of the top prospects in baseball, OF Wil Myers.5 Tampa Bay also received pitcher Jake Odorizzi and two other minor leaguers. At the time, it looked like a very risky move for the Royals. Myers had just finished dominating the minors and looked poised to be a stellar Major League outfielder. At the moment, this move has worked for both teams. Myers did win the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year, but James Shields has been an ace for the Royals’ rotation. In his first season with Kansas City, Shields went 13-9 with a 3.15 ERA, 196 strikeouts, a 1.24 WHIP, and 228.2 innings pitched in 34 starts. When Shields was 20 years old, he underwent serious shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the whole 2002 season. Since then? The man hasn’t missed a start in his eight year Major League career. In 2011 in 33 starts, Shields had 11 complete games and 249.1 innings pitched. Since 2008, he hasn’t had less than 33 starts and 203 innings pitched. The right-hander is the definition of a workhorse, and a not too shabby one either. This year, he is currently 8-3 with a 3.50 ERA, 81 strikeouts, and a 1.29 WHIP in 97.2 innings pitched. Shields has not only been the ace of the Royals’ rotation, he has also been a leader in the clubhouse and a great mentor for the younger pitchers around him.6 He will be 33 come Spring Training next year, but he has proven to be a guy you can count on to show up every 5th day. He is a better pitcher than Matt Garza, who got a 4-year, $50 million deal this past offseason. He is a much better pitcher than Edwin Jackson, who got a 4-year, $52 million deal two years ago. Anibal Sanchez got a 5-year, $80 million deal back in 2012, but he was also only 28 years old. I would expect Shields to get a deal somewhere between the one Jackson and Sanchez got.
6.) DH Victor Martinez
It is hard to find a ton of value for a 35 year old that doesn’t play the field. But there is one exception; Victor Martinez. The career .305 hitter who is playing his 11th season of Major League baseball is having a career year. I’ve always thought Victor Martinez was one of the more underrated hitters in baseball. Since 2005, he has only hit under .300 once, and that was in 2008 when he missed half the season due to injury. In 5,767 career plate appearances, the switch-hitter has walked 536 times and only struck out 613 times. That is a strike out once every 9.5 at-bats. The man who hits behind him in the Tigers’ lineup, Miguel Cabrera, has struck out once every six at-bats over the course of his career. I’m not trying to compare the two, but Victor Martinez knows how to put the ball in play. This season, he is hitting .335 with 17 HR, 45 RBI, and a .389 OBP. He has 25 walks and only 18 strikeouts. He is 3rd in baseball in slugging at .606 and OPS at .999, only behind Troy Tulowitzki and Mike Trout in both categories. He has put up incredible numbers in Detroit since he turned 32 years old. Over his last three and a half seasons (he missed 2012 with a torn ACL and micro fractures in his knee), Martinez has hit .318 with 43 HR, 231 RBI, 93 doubles, and a .371 OBP. In that time, he has 125 walks and 131 strikeouts. All he does is hit, even when he gets out. He won’t play in the National League, but I am betting every American League team would love to see him in their lineup. It’s hard to imagine what kind of contract he will get. He will be 36 on Opening Day next season. I can definitely see him getting a four-year deal though, but it is hard to tell what kind of money he will command since he is basically done playing the field. His bat, leadership, and presence in the lineup is extremely valuable though, and a team will certainly give him the money for his services.
7.) OF Melky Cabrera
Just like Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera was viewed as an outcast after his PED suspension. Cabrera was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2012 with the San Francisco Giants, until he was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance. At the time, the left fielder was batting .346 with 11 HR, 60 RBI, 25 doubles, 10 triples, 13 stolen bases, and had a .390 OBP. He led the National League in hits and had the second highest batting average. It was a tough time for Cabrera to get hit with a suspension, as he was a free agent in the upcoming offseason. He signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, but only a 2-year, $16 million contract. Last season, the “Melk Man” was pretty much nonexistent. He had multiple stints on the DL, played in only 88 games, and hit .279. This year has been a total turnaround for the left fielder. He is currently hitting .293 with 10 HR, 35 RBI, 15 doubles, two triples, and four stolen bases. He has cooled off considerably in recent weeks, but he has been a vital part to the Blue Jays potent offense. He is a career .285 hitter and turns 30 in August. Melky has a plus-arm in left field, but he has a pretty poor UZR this season at -4.8.7 A couple of seasons ago, he was a very solid center fielder for the Yankees, but his defense has taken a tumble since then. He does have quite a few seasons in front of him and he should be able to put up some solid numbers with the bat. I think he should get a better deal than what Curtis Granderson got last season, but I don’t think he will get the 5-year, $75 million deal B.J. Upton got two years ago.
8.) 3B Pablo Sandoval
Another player who is tough to project is the Kung Fu Panda. He seems to gain weight every year and then shed 30 pounds before every spring training. Honestly, I think I have heard that story the past five seasons. When Pablo broke onto the scene in 2008, he was going to be the next big thing. From 2008-09, he played in 194 games. He hit .333 with 28 HR, 114 RBI, 54 doubles, and a .381 OBP. His weight was an issue, but no one cared because of how great of a hitter he was. But since 2011, when he hit .315, his numbers have fallen off. He hit .283 in 2012, .278 last season, and is only hitting .258 this season. His power numbers and on-base percentage has also declined. That’s all the bad. The good? He is actually a very solid 3rd baseman. He has a 3.4 UZR this season, which places him only behind Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, and Chase Headley in baseball.8 Sandoval also has a .966 fielding percentage, good enough for 7th in baseball. We all remember when Sandoval hit three HR in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, where the Giants went on to win it all and Sandoval won the World Series MVP. He will only be 28 years old on Opening Day next year. There is a lot of good here. He has hit before. He has certainly hit in the playoffs. He can play a very good 3rd base. He is still young. It just hasn’t all come together consistently. Wherever he lands, they will have to deal with the ups and downs of the Kung Fu Panda.
After the eight of them, there are many other notable free agents that will be available this offseason. That list includes pitchers Josh Beckett, who has resurrected his career, Jason Hammel, who looks like he may now have a career in front of him, and Ervin Santana, who is just looking for a place to finally settle. Hitters like Michael Cuddyer, Mike Morse, Asdrubal Cabrera, Chase Headley, Colby Rasmus, Nori Aoki, and Kendrys Morales will be looking for a new deal. Johnny Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Huston Street, and Alex Rios all could potentially be available, but they all have some pretty team-friendly club options that will more than likely be picked up. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers will certainly be spending some money. Both teams in Chicago have relatively low payrolls, as the Sox are currently at $91 million and the Cubs are at $89 million, so I would expect them to be in the running for some of the top free agents. With that being said, all of these players have a good chance to re-sign with their current team. All we know for sure is there will be another baseball spending frenzy that we can look forward to every winter. Enjoy baseball fans.