Posted: Thursday April 28, 2011 5:28PM ; Updated: Saturday April 30, 2011 3:54PM
Jon Heyman

Decision day looms for the teams with these valuable young stars

Story Highlights

Tim Lincecum, a free agent after 2013, could pull down $25 million in arbitration

Joey Votto is on course to improve on his current three-year, $38 million deal

Despite their low payroll, the Marlins figure to retain ace Josh Johnson

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Tim Lincecum
Tim Lincecum nearly went to arbitration before the 2010 season before settling for a two-year, $23 million deal..
Jed Jacobsohn/SI

Brewers star Ryan Braun's $105 million, five-year contract extension through the 2020 season seemed like it came out of nowhere, since Braun already had a deal in place that kept him in Milwaukee through 2015.

But a boatload of other 20-something stars actually do appear in line for big new deals, from superb starting pitchers such as Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson and Jered Weaver to hitting standouts Joey Votto, Robinson Cano and Andre Ethier, to superb two-way players Ryan Zimmerman and Shin-soo Choo, to incredible all-around talents Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp.

These young stars and many more appear to be in line at least for reasonably quick attention by their current teams since they can all become free agents after either the 2012 or 2013 seasons. Here is a rundown of the best of the 20-somthings who can become free agents after either of those two seasons. (The young stars whose contracts expire after this season are in most cases too far out the door to consider for extension, while '14 or beyond is generally a bit too far into the future to think about, so I kept the list to the two walk years mentioned.)

1. Tim Lincecum, Giants, free agent after 2013. The Giants need to do something, and fast, or Lincecum's arbitration numbers could get crazy in a hurry. With two NL Cy Youngs already on his mantle, another Cy Young season could shoot Lincecum from $14 million all the way up into the $25 million range. And there would still be another year of arbitration on the docket. Do we hear $30 mil in '13? Even if he only repeats last year's good-but-non-Cy season in which he went 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA, he'd still likely get close to $20 million next year. The Giants have to avoid this potential arbo mess any way they can. The Freak has led the league in strikeouts three years running and could make it four this year (he's again averaging more than 10 K's per nine innings). If there were any questions about his small stature, they have already been answered. The Seattle product is believed to be quite comfy in San Francisco, and they love him there. So it's hard to imagine the Giants not figuring something out, even if it's a sky-high contract.
Deal or no deal: deal.

2. Robinson Cano, Yankees 2B, free agent after 2013. The Yankees have options for 2012 and '13 at $14 million and $15 million, respectively, and will of course pick them up for one of the game's best players. Word is, GM Brian Cashman once suggested he lamented giving options that high in a conversation soon after Scott Boras took over as Cano's agent, and Boras supposedly offered to wipe them away, knowing full well that Cashman wasn't about to let Cano become a free agent any sooner. The Yankees' extension policy now is to wait until all players and club personnel become a free agent to act. But there is no reason to think the Yankees would let this homegrown superstar walk away in the prime of his career.
Deal or no deal: deal (but after Cano files for free agency).

3. Joey Votto, Reds 1B, free agent after 2013. Hard to believe, but the 2010 NL MVP so far is improving on his league-leading on-base percentage (from .424 to .500) and slugging percentage (from .600 to .627). This winter he signed a lucrative three-year, $38 million deal to wipe out his arbitration years, but his rate will skyrocket after '13 as a cornerstone player for a franchise that appears to have turned the corner. His agent, Dan Lozano, is on his own now, and his well-watched Albert Pujols negotiations could be instructive. Votto, a quiet sort who has battled depression, seems comfortable in Cincinnati. The Reds are doing a nice job of locking up their stars, including Jay Bruce this winter.
Deal or no deal: deal.

4. Josh Johnson, Marlins SP, free agent after 2013. His $39 million, four-year deal goes through 2013 and bought out two years of free agency, a wise move by the Marlins. But his next contract should easily dwarf that one. Looking in the stands at Sun Life Stadium, the Marlins wouldn't seem to have the funds. But they are moving next year to a brand-new facility close to downtown Miami, and even as things stand, they are a profitable organization. Baseball also wants to see teams that have consistently cashed big revenue-sharing checks to spend on players, and the Marlins seem to have the sense to know which ones are worth it. Johnson, who has been the best pitcher in the National League so far this year (3-0 with a 1.06 ERA and a ridiculous 13 hits allowed in 34 innings), definitely is. Agent Matt Sosnick, who also has Ricky Nolasco, has managed to do deals with the Marlins in recent years.
Deal or no deal: deal.

5. Jered Weaver, Angels SP, free agent after 2012. Weaver, the best in the AL so far -- by a lot -- is all but a goner in two years. Agent Scott Boras is selling him as the "Maddux of this generation,'' and while that would have seemed to be obvious hyperbole heading into this season (and probably still is), Weaver does indeed look like Maddux so far this year (6-0, 0.99 ERA), only with more strikeouts. Scouts count three different fastballs and two distinct curveballs for this master magician. The Angels don't have a history of keeping their own prime free agents anyway, and they have to have an inkling that this ship has sailed. There's no point even suggesting a Felix Hernandez/Justin Verlander type deal now ($80 million-plus for five years as a four-year pitcher) because that won't be in the ballpark. Got to think a new Dodgers owner, assuming there is one, could be in position here for the Simi Valley product to jump to his true hometown team.
Deal or no deal: no deal.

6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 3B, free agent after 2013. His first five-year deal, for $45 million, has worked out nicely. But the Nationals paid twice that ($18 mil a year) to free agent Jayson Werth, who's a terrific player but not as good either offensively or defensively as Zimmerman. Both sides seem to want to stay together. The question is whether the Nats will want to pony up what it would take, a $20-million-a-year deal for several years, a la Troy Tulowitzki, Braun, Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer, other positional stars who signed before free agency. The Nats-owning Lerners may be skittish after hearing the criticism following the big Werth deal. But they have little choice here. Zimmerman is exactly the type of player that GM Mike Rizzo, a fan of superior defense, wants to build around.
Deal or no deal: deal.

7. Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF, free agent after 2012. GM Ned Colletti is believed to want to lock up Ethier, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw (who has until after 2014), and there was some preliminary discussion along those lines this spring with Ethier. But the Dodgers' situation is currently too messy to conceive of anything that major getting done in the immediate future. The clock is ticking though, and Ethier, a consistent and clutch producer on a 24-game hitting streak (he's hitting .380 thus far this year), should be given a chance to stay with the National League's marquee franchise, whether it's the decision of embattled owner Frank McCourt, the just-appointed Dodgers monitor Tom Schieffer or the next owner. It's hard to believe that Colletti originally got Ethier for Milton Bradley, and you know he certainly wants badly to keep him in the fold.
Deal or no deal: deal.

8. Matt Kemp, Dodgers OF, free agent after 2012. He's been as brilliant as folks predicted so far, and perhaps new manager Don Mattingly and/or coach Davey Lopes have been positive influences. The Dodgers surely don't forget that he started similarly in a statistical sense last year -- though so far his big beginning isn't accompanied by those occasional offsetting goofy plays and brain cramps. At his best, Kemp is a top-five player in the game, and so far this year he's been just that, with five home runs, 18 RBIs and a .378 batting average. Although, it's hard to exactly figure his value since he has lacked Ethier's consistency so far. Two things play in the Dodgers' favor here: 1) Colletti and agent Dave Stewart did a reasonable $35 million, three-year deal with Chad Billingsley, and 2) there are those who can't see Kemp going too many other places. As one competing executive said, "Where could you see him playing besides New York and Los Angeles? Can you see him in Pittsburgh?''
Deal or no deal: deal.

9. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals SP, free agent after 2013. Of course he'd be a lot higher on this list had he been healthy now. Instead, he's out for the year after blowing out his elbow. The good news is that 90 percent of pitchers come back strong from Tommy John surgery, which is why competing executives seem to think the Cardinals will pick up Wainwright's unusual $21 million, two-year option. That's only the first hurdle. The Albert Pujols negotiations are the main order of business for St.Louis now, and the outcome could affect everything else. But Cardinals people seem to love Wainwright, so it might not stop with the two-year option.
Deal or no deal. Deal.

10. Josh Hamilton, Rangers OF, free agent through 2012. Healthy and at his best, there may be no better player in the big leagues. The question is: Can he stay healthy? And if so, for how long? Hamilton, who turns 30 next month, currently is out a couple months with a broken arm suffered when sliding into home plate, a bizarre injury that one competing exec said shouldn't be considered indicative of any trend because it was a freak occurrence. But the Reds were so concerned about the former drug addict's ability to stay healthy that their medical people practically ordered that he be dealt, which he was, to Texas after the 2007 season. He was offered $24 million for three years a few years back, and is currently in his first year of a $24 million, two-year deal signed after winning the AL MVP last year. There were oh-so-brief long-term talks over the winter, which were tabled when they wisely worked out the two-year deal. He should receive a high annual salary befitting his vast ability, but as one competing exec pointed out, "The ones who get eight- and 10-year deals play 140 games a year.'' Hamilton also might feel that it's best not to uproot himself after re-establishing his star in Arlington, a spot which may be good for him because it carries less temptation than some others. Both sides would seem to have a strong desire to get something done.
Deal or no deal: deal.

11. Zack Greinke, Brewers SP, free agent through 2012. The talented right-hander who won the AL Cy Young award with the Royals in 2009 has had a rocky beginning with the Brewers, breaking a rib while playing pickup basketball and missing the first month. He seemed anxious to get to Milwaukee, which should be a decent fit for a player with an anxiety disorder. Owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to try to lock up his stars. But Greinke hasn't even thrown a pitch there yet, and he seems to get a wandering eye if things aren't going as hoped. CAA made the Braun deal with Attanasio and seems to have a foothold in Milwaukee. Close Call.
Deal or no deal: deal.

12. David Wright, Mets 3B, free agent after 2013. The Mets hold a club option for 2013 at $16 million, which isn't cheap, but on a one-year deal, so there's no guarantee they exercise it (though the guess here is they will). One Mets person once called Wright "our Jeter,'' which shows how they feel about him. Of course, circumstances change, the Wilpons have severe financial issues and the new front office regime may have different ideas. The guess here is, though, that they'll trade Jose Reyes, or let him leave, but try to keep Wright. This is no certainty, though, considering the finances involved.
Deal or no deal: Deal.

13. Cole Hamels, Phillips SP, free agent after 2012. The former World Series MVP, who led the NL in WHIP in 2008, seems to be back in form. At 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA, he's the game's best No. 4 starter, but he's also the only one of Philly's vaunted four starters still in his 20s (he's 27). The Phillies organization has done a terrific job of maximizing its revenues in recent years and has shown its keen interest in top starting pitching.
Deal or no deal: deal.

14. Matt Cain, Giants SP, free agent after 2012. A few numbers-crunchers claim that he's lucky to have had so much success, but baseball people know better. It's no fluke when a pitcher puts up 21 1/3 scoreless innings in a postseason, as Cain did last year. He goes from $7 million this year to $15 million next year on the three-year, $27.5 million deal that erased one free-agent year. While he's not the star that Lincecum is, he is a major part of the fabric of the team and city, and a major plus in the clubhouse.
Deal or no deal: deal.

15. John Danks, White Sox SP, free agent after 2012. He's an excellent pitcher who has thrived in a tough ballpark, who just turned 26 this month, and who should have plenty of choices come free agency. The talks to this point have yielded little or no belief that anything will get done before then. The White Sox want to point to the Billingsley deal as a fair comp; Danks' side seems to have their eye on a much bigger prize. While he isn't a proven No. 1 like Hernandez or Verlander (he has made no All-Star teams and garnered no Cy Young votes), it might take that kind of deal to alter his free-agent course, considering how very good free-agent pitchers get paid.
Deal or no deal: no deal.
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