Cruz, Drew, Garza among best free agents available by position
The Hot Stove quickly cooled from a scalding first week of December to a lukewarm second week, despite the occurrence of the annual winter meetings. In fact, in the age of modern telecommunication, offseason activity may even slow down with everyone under the same roof. "Everybody just holds their cards when it's face to face," one major league executive told SI's Ben Reiter.
There's another slowdown in the marketplace, and that is the uncertain professional fate of Masahiro Tanaka, the ace of Japan's Rakuten Golden Eagles. The righthander, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA last season, would be the best available starting pitcher on the major league market if he were to be posted, but the new agreement between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball caps posting fees at $20 million. The Golden Eagles are balking at that figure, meaning Tanaka's fate hangs in the balance -- as do the fates of Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana and more, as clubs don't want to settle on a starter until they know everyone who's available.
The free-agent market is a bit clearer, albeit bleaker, at most other positions as one can plainly see in this roundup of the best available free agents by position.
Catcher: John Buck
A solid batch of free-agent catchers has already come off the board, including Brian McCann, Carlos Ruiz and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Teams looking for a backstop with some pop in his bat should pursue Buck (he averaged 16 home runs the last four seasons), while those eyeing a more defensive-minded catcher can target Kurt Suzuki. Both, however, are better suited to be platoon partners or backups.
First base: James Loney
The lefthanded Loney, who will turn 30 in May, had a resurgent year with the Rays in 2013, batting .299 with 13 homers and a .778 OPS -- improvements of 50 BA points, seven home runs and nearly 150 OPS points over the previous year split between the Dodgers and Red Sox. Can he sustain it or will he be another one-year wonder in Tampa Bay, a la Casey Kotchmann? A pair of part-time 2013 Yankees, Mark Reynolds and Kevin Youkilis, are the honorable mentions here.
Second base: Omar Infante
The dearth of second basemen is so strong and the influx of money into the market so great that Infante -- he of the career .319 OBP and a league leader in sacrifice bunts as recently as 2011 -- is reportedly seeking a four-year, $40-million contract, with the Yankees said to have already offered three years and $28 million. Infante had a terrific 2013 campaign with the Tigers, with a .319/.345/.450 slash line, but he turns 32 later this month. Still, he may get close to what he's seeking from the Yankees, Royals or someone else, given that the best remaining options are guys like Mark Ellis and Brian Roberts.
Third base: Juan Uribe
Sure, his first two years as a Dodger were a disaster (.199 average and .552 OPS, 9 defensive runs saved in 143 games), but Uribe was actually quite good this past season (.278 BA, .769 OPS, 15 DRS in 132 games). He is, however, 34 years old, so he'd only be a wise investment on a one- or two-year contract. Otherwise, Eric Chavez is the next best option, at least as a platoon player.
Shortstop: Stephen Drew
The qualifying offer Boston extended Drew and which he declined means that any new team signing him would have to surrender its first-round draft pick, as long as that team is outside the top 10 in next year's draft. That may well lead to a reunion with the Red Sox, as it seems to have badly hurt Drew's free-agent market. In addition to his great postseason defense and an above-average regular season offense (.777 OPS), Drew has one other major point in his column: there are no other shortstops even worth mentioning as consolation prizes in a very bleak market.
Leftfield: Shin-Soo Choo
The clear top remaining talent, Choo provides patience (.389 career OBP) and moderate power (three seasons of 20+ HRs). He is nagged, however, by strong right/left splits (nearly 400 OPS points in 2013) and sub-par defense, making him better suited for leftfield long-term.
Centerfield: Franklin Gutierrez
Gutierrez was such a transcendent defensive centerfielder in 2009 that his offensive output that year (18 HRs, .764 OPS) was secondary. He's declined ever since, playing 152 games with a .666 OPS in '10 before being struck by illness and injury. He's logged just 173 games in the last three seasons but hit 10 homers in his 41-game '13 cameo. Even if the soon-to-be 31-year-old is only half as good defensively as he once was, that's still pretty valuable. (And there are no other reasonable centerfield options in free agency.)
Rightfield: Nelson Cruz
He'll turn 34 next summer. He has only averaged 126 games over the last five seasons. His stolen base totals have decreased incrementally each year from 20 in 2009 down to five in '13. He has exceeded a .332 OBP only once. And he was suspended for 50 games for his connection to the Biogenesis clinic. Yet Cruz still has a market because of a decline in the number of righthanded power hitters -- he has averaged 27 home runs for five years and his homer rate of one every 17.3 at bats ranks eighth among righty batters during that time.
Designated Hitter: Kendrys Morales
Like Drew, Morales would have fared a lot better without a qualifying offer. The switch hitter been very consistent the last two seasons, hitting 22 HRs and posting a .787 OPS in 2012, and then 23 HRs and a .785 OPS in '13, and his left/right splits have been within 30 OPS points each year as well. He'll be 31 in June and is limited defensively but still a fine every-day option. After Morales, there's only a reasonable platoon option remaining, with lefthanded-swinging Raul Ibañez and righthanded Delmon Young.
Righthanded Starting Pitcher: Matt Garza
It's a true toss-up whether you prefer Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana -- as detailed here -- but Garza gets the edge because there is no draft-pick compensation attached to him. After the top three, A.J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo lead the second-tier options.
Lefthanded Starting Pitcher: Paul Maholm
Though Rays ace David Price seems available via trade -- as the Phillies' Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee reportedly are too -- the pickings for a lefthanded free-agent starter are slim. Maholm has been a league average pitcher the last three seasons (3.89 ERA for a 100 ERA+) while throwing 504⅓ innings. Barry Zito would seem to have upside on a contract with a low base salary and incentives.
Righthanded Relief Pitcher: Joaquin Benoit
There are five remaining righthanded relievers who saved at least 20 games last season -- though the market on one of them, Grant Balfour, is reportedly heating up -- and Benoit is the best of the bunch. Over the last four seasons he has a 2.53 ERA and 4.1 K/BB ratio. Fernando Rodney, Kevin Gregg, Chris Perez, John Axford, Joel Hanrahan, Francisco Rodriguez, Andrew Bailey, Jesse Crain and Ryan Madson also have late-inning experience.
Lefthanded Relief Pitcher: J.P. Howell
Among lefthanded relievers over the last two seasons, Howell's 2.48 ERA ranks fifth in the majors behind only Luis Avilan, Aroldis Chapman, Craig Breslow and Glen Perkins. During that time, with the Rays in 2012 and Dodgers in '13, Howell has held hitters to a .206 average.
In a close second place is former Braves lefthander Eric O'Flaherty, who'd have taken top honors if not for the fact that he's recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 249⅓ relief innings over five seasons in Atlanta, O'Flaherty had a 1.99 ERA and a 69.3 percent groundball rate that ranked fifth among lefty relievers.