Posted: Wednesday September 22, 2010 9:25AM ; Updated: Wednesday September 22, 2010 11:45AM
Jon Heyman

Crawford, Lee are best of coming offseason's 'dicey' free-agent class

Story Highlights

Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth are seen as the best players available

Yankees legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will also be free agents

Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre are among other big-names who will be on market

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Carl Crawford
Four-time All-Star Carl Crawford could be running his way out of Tampa Bay this offseason.

Many baseball executives view this year's free agent class as top-heavy at best and a few see it even more negatively than that.

"It's a bad, bad class," one National League exec said. "There are three real good players -- Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth. Then it gets real dicey after that.''

Yet, the predictions of one executive and two agents made to still suggested there will be some big contracts this winter, and surprisingly, the executive who was surveyed wasn't necessarily lower in his guesses than the two agents (in some cases, he was actually higher).

Both the exec and one agent suggested Rays outfielder Crawford could get at least $120 million over seven years. All three baseball people polled predicted Rangers starting pitcher Lee would hit $100 million, or more. The estimates for Werth ranged from $85 million to $96 million. And Derek Jeter, who's had an off year for him offensively but is an icon and a winner, was predicted by one agent to get $25 million per year for two years and another to hit the $100-million mark over five.

While several executives called the class "thin'' or words to that effect, the predictions don't seem to suggest it's such a bad class. Agents generally see it more positively.

"You've got a No. a 1 pitcher and one of the top closers in the game,'' said agent Scott Boras, who did not participate in the three-man survey but was speaking about non-clients Lee and Rays closer Rafael Soriano. Then, alluding to clients Werth and Adrian Beltre, the Red Sox' third baseman, Boras said, "You have the (player) who played at least 100 games in the outfield and led in home runs over the last two years (Werth) and one of the top third basemen in the game (Beltre). There are some pretty good players available. You're talking about top three or four players (at their positions). (Red Sox catcher) Victor Martinez is one of the top players at his position.''

It's fair to say that free-agent classes generally have thinned a bit in the past few years as teams began locking up their biggest stars early, franchise type players such as Evan Longoria of the Rays, Troy Tulowitzki of the Rockies, Felix Hernandez of the Mariners and Justin Verlander of the Tigers. "Looking at the overall class, you don't have the number of high quality guys as in years past,'' one A.L. exec said. "The younger guys are getting locked up early, and the older guys are having trouble getting jobs.''

Beyond the top trio and some more very good players, there are also two alltime greats in Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who should do well. With 32 saves in 36 chances and a 1.58 ERA, Rivera has performed as he always has at age 40 this year. But while Jeter, who is batting .265 after never having previously hit below .291, may not have played up to his usual standards, Boras pointed out, "You have a shortstop who scores 100 runs and makes all the steady plays.''

Jeter and Rivera are huge stars. But the sport-held perception that there's almost no chance Jeter and Rivera sign somewhere other than the Yankees detracts somewhat from the excitement surrounding this free-agent class. As the N.L. exec succinctly put it, "No shot they leave.''

That's probably true. But one thing that can be said on behalf of this class is that several players timed their free agency well, posting big walk years. Those players include Beltre (.325, 28 home runs, 98 RBIs), Twins pitcher Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.60 ERA), White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko (.315, 37 HRs, 105 RBIs) and even Giants infielder Juan Uribe (20 HRs, 77 RBIs). There is also the special case of Manny Ramirez, who is seen as so dangerous that three teams were willing to pay close to $4 million by putting in waiver claims to only have him for September this year, but he has shown little power since going to the White Sox in late August, raising the issue of whether that was wise.

Cliff Lee certainly spices things up because teams often lock up No. 1 starters, meaning they rarely hit the free-agent market. "When was the last time you had a No. 1 starter available?'' said Boras. "They don't come along very often. (John) Lackey, could you argue (was one). (Barry) Zito you could argue.''

There definitely are some highlights. It's mostly the depth of the group the executives question. "It's a thin class behind Lee, Crawford, and then Werth, Beltre and [Adam] Dunn,'' one A.L. executive said.

The Phillies are believed to have offered Werth the deal Jason Bay got from the Mets last offseason of $66 million for four years, or thereabouts, which Werth rejected while represented by Jeff Borris and the Beverly Hills Sports Council. That is also not a comparison preferred by Boras, who just started representing Werth and called him a "dynamic outfielder who can play center field."

There was a lot of variance in the predictions of the executive and two agents, especially concerning players who had surprising years. Derek Lee, who has slumped to a .258 average with 18 HRs and 73 RBIs for the Cubs and Braves after hitting .306-35-111 last year, was seen by the executive as someone who'd get a $5 million, one-year deal while one agent predicted $24 million over two years. Uribe, who has already established a career high in RBIs and could top his previous best of 23 home runs, was predicted by one agent to get $24 million over three years while the other agent suggested $4 million over one year.

"There are some peaks and valleys in the class,'' an A.L. exec said. "There are some top-end players. But it tapers off in a hurry.''

Those peaks and valleys are exemplified to some degree by the predictions.

Here's a closer look at the top free agents and what one executive and one agent predicted they would get.

1. Crawford, Rays OF. A terrific all-around player who's batting .305 with 15 home runs, 82 RBIs and 44 stolen bases and is at 29 is in his prime now. The Rays made an offer but just can't afford this type of player. The Yankees and Angels could be among many bidders. Maybe the Giants, too.

Executive: $126 million, 7 years. Agent 1: $120 million, 7 yrs. Agent 2: $96 million, 6 years. Me: $115 million, 7 years.

2. Lee, Rangers SP. It's been a tale of two seasons for Lee, who came to Texas hailed as one of the game's best pitchers, if not the very best after going 8-3 with a 2.34 ERA for Seattle. A balky back appears to have limited his effectiveness in Texas, where he's 4-5 with a 4.10 ERA. He's clutch and never had arm trouble, though.

Executive: $108 million, six years, Agent 1: $100 million, six years. Agent 2: $105 million, 5 years. Me: $120 million, six years.

3. Werth, Phillies OF. Boras mentioned how Werth played center field the month Shane Victorino was out, and that will clearly be a selling point. Werth is a very good all-around player but not quite the hitter Matt Holliday, who got a seven-year, $120 million deal from the Cardinals last offseason, is.

Executive: $85 million, five years, Agent 1: $80 million, 5 years. Agent 2: $96 million, 6 years. Me: $90 million, five years.

4. Jeter, Yankees SS. "You are paying for more than performance, you are paying for legacy,'' one executive said.

Executive: $60 million, 3 years. Agent 1: $50 million, 2 years. Agent 2: $100 million, 5 years. Me: $60 million, 3 years.

5. Adam Dunn, Nationals 1B. Consistent but one dimensional power hitter has said he believes he will work something out to remain in Washington.

Executive: $60 million, four years. Agent 1: $25 million, 2 years. Agent 2: $42 million, 3 years. Me: $25 million, two years.

6. Beltre, Red Sox 3B. Superb defender has set himself up nicely with another big walk year.

Executive: $48 million, 4 years. Agent 1: $30 million, three years. Agent 2: $42 million, 3 years. Me: $40 million, 3 years.

7. Victor Martinez, Red Sox C. Superb offensive player (.296, 18, 73) Boston hopes to bring back, though their initial two-year offer was rejected. Some teams don't like him as a catcher, but a few do, including Boston.

Executive: $48 million, four years. Agent 1: $60 million, 4 years. Me: $36 million, three years.

8. Rivera, Yankees RP. Boras mentioned how Soriano is the best closer available since Rivera seven years ago. Well, Rivera's available again.

Executive: $40 million, 2 yrs. Agent 1: $20 million, 2 years. Agent 2: $40 million, 2 years. Me: $36 million, 2 years.

9. Konerko, White Sox 1B. Big year at the right time.

Executive: 36 million, 3 years. Agent 1: $36 million, 3 years. Agent 2: $42 million, 3 years. Me: $30 million, 2 years.

10. Carlos Pena, Rays 1B. Poor batting average (.201) could hurt him.

Executive: $36 million, 3 years. Agent 1: $33 million, 3 years. Agent: Me: $20 million, two years.
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