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Posted: Thursday October 30, 2008 6:38PM; Updated: Tuesday December 9, 2008 5:59PM
Ben Reiter Ben Reiter >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Ranking the top 50 free agents

Story Highlights

CC Sabathia could be headed for his third team of the year

Manny Ramirez had a spectacular run with the Dodgers and should stay there

Jason Varitek of the Red Sox could wind up going back to Boston

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The nation's economic slowdown won't have much of an impact on the very best of the more than 150 major league players who are currently eligible for free agency. Nearly unimaginable -- and, in some cases, perhaps unprecedented -- riches await those at the very top of the list, who include some of the finest players of their generation.

Penny-pinching by owners will likely trickle down to those who inhabit the list's middle reaches, the Joe Six-Packs and Plumbers (and Beimels and Credes) of the group -- and that's where relative bargains might be found. For example, this year Diamondbacks reliever Juan Cruz (No. 18) might not command a contract such as those awarded to last season's top free agent middle relievers -- Eric Gagne (1 year, $10 million from the Brewers), Octavio Dotel (2 years, $11 million from the White Sox) and Scott Linebrink (4 years, $19 million from the Sox) -- but the strikeout artist is quantifiably a better pitcher than all of them. And in 2008, no team will likely be willing to spend $48 million for four years of service from a player of Carlos Silva's caliber, as the Mariners did in `07.

Below you'll find one writer's ranking of the top 50 players available on the market, and the team that represents the best fit for each. Note that players cannot be signed by a team other than their current one until November 13, and that the list does not include players whose contracts provide for 2009 club options that have already been picked up, or whose club options will likely be picked up (such as the Mets' Carlos Delgado, the Angels' Vladimir Guerrero and John Lackey, the Rays' Carl Crawford and the Braves' Chipper Jones).

(* = player has a 2009 club option that has been, or will likely be, bought out)
Send comments to siwriters@simail.com.

Top 50 Free Agents
Rank Player Age Position Current Team Best Fit COMMENTS
1 CC Sabathia 28 SP Brewers Dodgers He's a behemoth, yes, but he proved in '08 that he might not just be better than Johan Santana, but the most valuable player in baseball. He'll be rewarded as such, and could turn down Yankee riches to play for a contender in his home state, and to hit every fifth day, which is something he genuinely loves.
2 Mark Teixeira 28 1B Angels Yankees The guy's got everything - he's a young, powerful switch-hitter who plays a Gold Glove first base. Soon he will be able to buy everything, and the Yankees would love to devote a chunk of the revenue from their new ballpark to bring him aboard.
3 Manny Ramirez 36 OF Dodgers Dodgers He's like baseball's version of Catherine Tramell. So enticing, so beautiful to behold, but be careful if you get too close. L.A., of course, is still in the relationship's first blush, and will probably pay a fortune for a potential ice-picking.
4 Francisco Rodriguez 27 RP Angels Angels Single-season saves record overshadowed fact that he's lost velocity on his fastball, doesn't go more than one inning and was perhaps only the AL's fifth best closer (after Rivera, Papelbon, Nathan and Soria). Many consider the Mets to be the frontrunner for his services, but they're on the hook for Billy Wagner's $10.5 million salary in '09 and would be wise to pursue a cheaper option.
5 A.J. Burnett 31 SP Blue Jays Braves Brittle in the past but threw a career-high 221.1 innings in '08, which was (guess what?) his contract year. His 231 strikeouts led the American League, and his filthy stuff will have G.M.s salivating -- particularly those that lose out in the CC Sabathia sweepstakes.
6 Derek Lowe 35 SP Dodgers Red Sox A bit boring, sure, but has topped 200 IP in six of last 7 seasons and is a proven postseason performer. He'll be a rotation's glue, and will be duly rewarded. Has expressed a desire to return east to Boston.
7 Rafael Furcal 31 SS Dodgers Dodgers Would be much higher (perhaps No. 4) if not for back issues that limited him to 36 games in '08. We'll leave it to L.A. G.M. Ned Colletti and owner Frank McCourt to figure out how they're going to pay all these guys.
8 Orlando Cabrera 34 SS White Sox Blue Jays Older than you think, but has proven himself to be a key cog on playoff teams and a top-of-the-order sparkplug. Would represent a significant offensive upgrade over Jays' incumbent John McDonald.
9 Oliver Perez 27 SP Mets Mets Regressed a bit from '07 to '08 (ERA and WHIP jumped and K-rate dropped), but riches await lefthanded strikeout artists of this age. Mets could do worse than bring him back, particularly if they save by passing on K-Rod.
10 Adam Dunn 29 OF D'backs Angels As unfairly maligned as any player with five straight 40+ home run seasons and a .365+ OBP can be. Angels will be desperate for a power bat like his if they lose Teixeira.
11 Brian Fuentes 33 RP Rockies Brewers Lefty regained form and closer role in '08 (30 saves, 2.73 ERA), and could represent a better value than K-Rod for a fireman-desperate club. Milwaukee's 26 blown saves in '08 were fourth most in N.L.
12 Kerry Wood 31 RP Cubs Cardinals Becoming a closer seemed to suit him, and he finally put together a largely healthy season. Any team that signs him, though, had better have a capable second option - which St. Louis, whose 58% save percentage in '08 was NL's third-worst, does in young Chris Perez.
13 Pat Burrell 32 OF Phillies Phillies Pat the Bat is a slightly lesser version of Dunn: lots of power (29+ homers for four straight years), great OBP, takes a lot of unfair criticism. He seems to love Philly, and Philly seems to love him.
14 Bobby Abreu 35 OF Yankees Mets Not the player he once was, particularly in rightfield, but has six consecutive 100+ RBI, 22+ SB seasons and hasn't slowed too much. Could move to left for the Mets and stop the revolving door they had there in '08, when 11 players combined to hit just ten home runs.
15 Ryan Dempster 31 SP Cubs Cubs As expected, the Cubs re-signed Dempster, to a 4-year, $52 million extension. While he probably won?t repeat his 17-6, 2.96 ERA performance from 2008, Chicago did well to lock him up three weeks ago, as the market for top starting pitchers now appears to be skyrocketing.
16 Ben Sheets 30 SP Brewers Rangers Enters every season as a Cy Young candidate, only to have candidacy derailed by injuries (he hasn't topped 200 innings since '04). Torn muscle near pitching elbow that kept him out of the postseason should have suitors very, very concerned, but the Rangers, as always, desperately need an ace.
17 Raul Ibanez 36 OF Mariners Cubs Late bloomer (drove in 100+ runs each of the past three years, only once before that) has become an under-the-radar star; G.M.'s have undoubtedly noticed, particular Cubs G.M. Jim Hendry, who has long coveted his lefthanded bat.
18 Juan Cruz 30 RP D'backs Mets A fire-baller who struck out 71 batters in 51.2 IP this season, his strikeout rate of 12.37 per nine innings trailed only Grant Balfour's among pitchers who threw at least 40 frames. Could become a closer and save 100 games over the course of a three-year contract.
19 Orlando Hudson 30 2B D'backs Mets High-character leader and stalwart defender with .800+ OPS in each of last three seasons. Teams should not be scared off by time missed with injuries that were more freak than insidious. Even though Omar Minaya inexplicably gave Luis Castillo a four-year deal last summer, CitiField revenues will help them correct that mistake with the O-Dog.
20 Milton Bradley 30 OF Rangers Rays Emotional and injury-prone, and most likely mainly a DH at age 30, but when he plays, he hits (.999 OPS in '08). Rays not inclined to sign or retain players who might become distractions (Barry Bonds, Delmon Young), but Bradley could be worth the risk, especially considering their lack of production from rightfield.
21 Casey Blake 35 3B Dodgers Indians Sub-par defensively and just average with the bat for his position, but he's a great guy to have around, and he'll probably be paid better than that. Indians G.M. Mark Shapiro would undoubtedly like to have him back after renting him to the Dodgers for a couple of months.
22 Andy Pettite 36 SP Yankees Yankees Seems almost certain to return to the Yankees, for whom he was solid before a late summer swoon in which he dropped 7 of his last 9 decisions (he finished 14-14) and raised his ERA from 3.76 to 4.54.
23 Joe Beimel 31 RP Dodgers Dodgers Valuable lefty reliever (2.02 ERA in '08) can also shut down righthanded hitters, who batted just .263 against him. Did not yield a home run in 49.0 innings pitched -- only one other pitcher (the Orioles' Jim Johnson) pitched more dinger-less innings.
24 Jason Giambi* 38 1B Yankees A's Even the Yankees won't pick up his $22 million option, so the Giambino will ply his trade -- lest you forget, his 32 home runs were eighth-most in the AL -- elsewhere, likely as a full-time D.H. A return to Oakland could be a nice coda to his career, and he'd represent an upgrade over the other codgers Billy Beane has recently used as a D.H. (Frank Thomas, Mike Sweeney).
25 Mike Mussina 40 SP Yankees Yankees The Moose could have undoubtedly earned a rich deal after his first 20-win season, probably to stay with the Yankees, but he decided he?d had enough after 18 years. "I always said when I got to this point, I wanted to go out on my own terms," he said. That he did.
26 Juan Rivera 30 OF Angels Giants Has had only one outstanding season (in '06), but could prove a bargain if finally given a full-time gig. Giants (39 total homers from their outfielders in '08) desperate for outfield production.
27 Edgar Renteria* 33 SS Tigers Cardinals San Francisco, the most active team so far this off-season (although in this slow market, it?s all relative), filled their gap at shortstop with Renteria, for two years and $18.5 million. "I played good in the National League," Renteria said. "I feel real comfortable." The Giants hope his struggles in Detroit were simply league-based, and not the beginning of a decline.
28 Jamie Moyer 46 SP Phillies Phillies Remarkable season in Philly -- not to mention his 6.1 inning, five hit, three run gem in Game 3 of the World Series -- has earned the Souderton, PA native at least another year as MLB's oldest active player.
29 Dennys Reyes 31 RP Twins Reds Terrific lefty specialist (lefthanded hitters hit .202 against him in '08) should be on the move, as Twins have younger and cheaper options on board in Jose Mijares and Craig Breslow. Many teams could use him, but the Reds will be looking to replace several departing free agents.
30 Mark Grudzielanek 38 2B Royals Cardinals Perpetually underrated veteran has hit .294 or better in six straight seasons. Injuries and age are a concern, and he won't be back in Kansas City -- but could prove a valuable part-timer elsewhere.
31 Garret Anderson* 36 OF Angels Padres Crowded outfield in Anaheim means Angels unlikely to pick up his option ($14 million). Can still drive in runs, and would be a solid veteran presence on the young and rebuilding Padres.
32 Trevor Hoffman 41 RP Padres Tigers The Padres pulled their contract offer, meaning the all-time saves leader is likely finished after a stellar 16-year run in San Diego.
33 Joe Crede 30 3B White Sox Twins A very difficult player to value, as he's an excellent defender and true power hitter when healthy, but back problems have limited him to 144 games played over the past two seasons, and back problems usually don't just go away. Minnesota could use some power and a third baseman, and could take a chance on Crede if his price proves reasonable.
34 Randy Johnson 45 SP D'backs D'backs The Big Unit can still accumulate strikeouts by the bushel-full, and had some magnificent stretches last season (an August in which he posted a 2.46 ERA, for instance). He's inconsistent now, though (0-5, 6.82 ERA in June). D'backs can live with that.
35 Jeremy Affeldt 29 RP Reds Giants We nailed this one: Affeldt was the first free agent to sign, and he went to the team that we believed to be the best fit for him. For $8 million over two years, the Giants get a dependable lefty reliever coming off his best season yet in 2008.
36 Paul Byrd 38 SP Red Sox Brewers You know what you're going to get from this sturdy old-schooler: somewhere around a .500 record, and somewhere around a 4.50 ERA. That promise will be attractive to a team in need of a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, like the Brewers, who play in pitcher-friendly Miller Park.
37 Ken Griffey Jr* 39 OF White Sox Mariners The Kid significantly declined last season (the Sox were surely hoping for more than three HR and 18 RBI in 41 games after they acquired him from Cincinnati), but he'll continue his run up the all time homer list as, perhaps, a part-timer where it all began.
38 Braden Looper 34 SP Cardinals Braves Unexpectedly became a reasonably effective starter (24-26) in two seasons in St. Louis after spending his first nine as a reliever. But his K-rate is low (just 4.7 per nine innings), and what happens if he leaves the tutelage of Dave Duncan?
39 Will Ohman 31 RP Braves Tigers Won't make you say, "Oh, man!," but lots of teams will covet a dependable middle reliever like him. Tigers might need him most of all.
40 Kevin Millar 37 1B Orioles Red Sox Average keeps declining (to .234 last season), but his pop (20 HR, 72 RBI) will find him a platoon or reserve role somewhere. Would be an offensive upgrade for the Red Sox over Sean Casey.
41 Nick Punto 31 2B Twins Twins Versatile utilityman has less power than a moped (11 career HR), but plays everywhere, can steal some bases and usually hits near .300. He'll likely be once again plying his trade in Minnesota.
42 Jon Garland 29 SP Angels Cardinals Went 14-8 in his year in Anaheim but had 4.90 ERA, and has never equaled his '05 campaign (18-10, 3.50) in which he finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting. A move to the N.L. would help.
43 Mark Kotsay 33 OF Red Sox Reds Represents a reasonable value as a fourth outfielder, and perhaps increased his potential usefulness by playing a solid first base for the Sox after Mike Lowell went down and Kevin Youkilis was shifted to third. Could see lots of at-bats in Cincinnati.
44 Pedro Martinez 37 SP Mets Nationals Many thought the Mets would get two good years out of his four-year deal; they got one, his first. His next contract could yield fewer than that, and as such will likely be largely incentive-based. Jim Bowden's Nats always willing to gamble, even if success rate is low.
45 Rocco Baldelli 27 OF Rays Rays Admirably dealt with his mitochondrial disease in the post-season, but the energy-sapping disorder makes him necessarily a part-time player. Even so, was the best of the Rays' rightfield options down the stretch, and would be a fine reserve going forward.
46 Jim Edmonds 38 OF Cubs Cubs Looked done in 26 games with San Diego (1 HR, 6 RBI) but resurged after moving to the Cubs (19 HR, 49 RBI in 85 games). Still a competitor, and still useful, as long as he doesn't retire.
47 Ivan Rodriguez 37 C Yankees A's Gave the Yankees virtually nothing after they acquired him from the Tigers (.219 BA, 2 HR, 3 RBI in 33 games), and he's not nearly what he used to be defensively. Might have value as a backup to Kurt Suzuki in Oakland, where the young staff could use his steadying influence.
48 Scott Eyre 36 RP Phillies Phillies Southpaw struggled with the Cubs but was terrific after trade to Philadelphia: 1.88 ERA, .767 WHIP in 19 appearances. Lefties hit .220 against him. Staying with Phillies.
49 Felipe Lopez 28 2B Cardinals Astros Appeared to be a future star with the Reds a few years back, but then languished in the black hole that is Washington. Looked revitalized after becoming a Cardinal midway through the season (he hit .385 as a St. Louis reserve), and played six positions.
50 Jason Varitek 36 C Red Sox Red Sox Warhorse can still call a game, as agent Scott Boras will tell you, but offensively he has a giant fork sticking out of his latissimus dorsi (.220 BA, .313 OBP in '08). Most likely scenario has the Sox keeping their captain around one more year to mentor the younger backstop (Gerald Laird?) they'll look to acquire.

 
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