Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 07, 2005
Free Agency Preview (Part One)
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

The regular season gets underway in April, the playoffs in October, and free agency in November. Yes, baseball is about to embark on its third season this month. Thursday marks the last day in which players can file for free agency. Teams will no longer have exclusive negotiating rights. On Friday, about 200 players will be available to all 30 ballclubs, and the hot stove will be turned up to high.

To be nice, this free agent class is a weak one. Really weak. Excluding Roger Clemens, there are no superstars on the market. In fact, we believe there are fewer than ten players to get hot and bothered about. However, thanks to a recent XM Satellite radio deal, every Major League team has some extra money in the bank. And while the talent might not be up to par with past winters, you can bet the spending will be.

On a day in which the General Managers meet in Indian Wells, we have decided to begin to unveil our list of the top 30 free agents available this winter. There will be other players out there who can be acquired via trades or after non-tenders hit the market, but these 30 should represent the cream of the free agent crop. In a perfect winter, there would be a strong correlation between ranking and dollars spent. However, some teams will reach based on need and others will sit out altogether, making the process less efficient than one might expect.

We can only show you what we think of the players today, before you find out soon what your team thinks. We start with the best ten free agents in baseball, with the Major League ERA leader atop the list:

1. Roger Clemens - 43 - SP - 2005: Houston Astros

W-L 13-8 | SV 0 | ERA 1.87 | WHIP 1.01 | 185 K/62 BB

Clemens couples a riding fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with arguably the most effective splitter in the game today. The latter looks like his fastball until the bottom drops out at the end. Roger has the unique ability to work batters up and down the zone as well as both sides of the plate. He is without peer in terms of his physical and mental preparation and is as good as his health allows.

Which Clemens would the Astros get in 2006? The Rocket pitched as well as ever from April through August but was closer to replacement level in September and October. Roger averaged just five innings in eight starts down the stretch and in the postseason. His WHIP and ERA skyrocketed to an un-Clemens-like 1.53 and 4.81, respectively, while his strikeout rate plummeted to 5.44 per 9. Is Father Time catching up with the 43-year-old all-time great or was his poor performance a function of a nagging hamstring injury that could befell any pitcher? That's the $18 million question.

Projection: Either Clemens signs with the Astros or he retires. Only Roger knows. It all depends on whether he still has the fire in his belly. If he comes back at a reduced salary, the money saved could be redirected toward a third quality bat to go along with Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg -- giving Houston perhaps one last opportunity to make another postseason run before retooling for the future.

2. A.J. Burnett - 28 - SP - 2005: Florida Marlins

W-L 12-12 | SV 0 | ERA 3.44 | WHIP 1.26 | 198 K/79 BB

Burnett is the best starting pitcher among this year's free agent class, given the likelihood that Clemens won't sign with any team other than the Astros. The former Marlin is highly coveted and will be a big catch for whichever team lands him.

A.J. works in the mid- to upper-90s and has been known to hit triple digits on the radar gun. His repetoire includes an overpowering four-seam fastball, a two-seamer with lots of action, and a hump-backed curve that can flat out freeze hitters. He delivers the ball across his body at a 3/4 arm angle and is as deceptive as he is fast. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound right-hander has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young Award in either league.

Although Burnett was 0-6 with a 5.87 ERA in his last seven starts, he finished the season ranked sixth in MLB in G/F ratio (2.42), eighth in K/9 (8.53), and fourth in HR/9 (0.52). His ability to induce groundballs and whiff batters is a rare combination. A.J., who can go deep into games when he keeps his pitch count down, was tied for fourth in CG (4) and eighth in quality starts (23).

Projection: 4 years, $48 million. An expensive gamble given the number of times he has been on the DL throughout his career but one many teams won't hesitate to take.

3. Rafael Furcal - 27 - SS - 2005: Atlanta Braves

.284 AVG/.348 OBP/.429 SLG | HR 12 | SB 46 | 62 BB/78 SO

High on our list because of his blend of age, position, speed and defense in addition to what he provides with the bat. After watching Juan Uribe change the course of Game 4 in the World Series, you can bet General Managers will be salivating with the option of signing the one shortstop with a stronger arm. Furcal also fits great atop a lineup, as his baserunning (82% SB success rate) and patience (averaged 60 walks from 2003-2005) are both assets. This, not his DUI, should be the focus of GMs during evaluations.

2005 was Furcal's second best season ever, despite ending June with a .652 OPS. However, in each of the final three months his OPS was over .800, and his OBP was over .370. There is talk that Furcal was playing injured in the early going, explaining his struggles. His final two months, which were nearly identical -- .286/.377/.439 in August, .320/.383/.437 in September -- indicate when he stands as a player now. Rafael is a better bet to succeed over a four-year contract than Edgar Renteria, who might have made GMs wary of those deals with his mediocre season.

Projection: 4 years, $40 million. Edgar Renteria went from a .728 OPS in 2004 to this exact contract during the winter. Furcal will draw the same deal, and people will again cite that he's a "winner." Both sides will win at this rate.

4. Paul Konerko - 29 - 1B - 2005: Chicago White Sox

.283 AVG/.375 OBP/.534 SLG | HR 40 | RBI 100 | 81 BB/109 SO

Konerko is certainly the top slugger, if not the best hitter, among this year's crop of free agents. Paul hit 40 HR during the regular season and raised his profile by going yard five times in the postseason. However, a full 60% of Konerko's dingers the past five years have come at home-run friendly U.S. Cellular Field.

Like many sluggers, Konerko is a dead-red fastball hitter. Although hard throwers can pound him inside and get him to chase pitches up and out of the zone, he will sit on average fastballs down the middle and deposit them into the bleachers as well as anyone in the game. The veteran has improved his strike zone judgment over the years and drew a career-high number of walks (81) and BB per plate appearance (.122) while seeing more pitches/PA (4.15) than ever before.

Konerko is already at or near the far end of the defensive spectrum and, as a 1B, has nowhere to go other than to become a DH. Smart teams don't overpay for 1B/DH, especially those who will be 30 years old on Opening Day. Konerko already has the skill-set of an older player (a first baseman with strong power and little or no speed) and one has to wonder how well he will age.

Projection: At least a Richie Sexson-like 4 years, $50 million and a 5-year, $65 million deal isn't out of the question. Good luck.

5. Kevin Millwood - 30 - SP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

W-L 9-11 | SV 0 | ERA 2.86 | WHIP 1.22 | 146 K/52 BB

Pursuing Kevin Millwood with the expectation that he'll pitch like he did in 2005 is wrong. Much of what led to Millwood's 2.86 ERA was luck, as his 3.77 FIP might suggest. Millwood, a nine-year veteran, went from being an established flyball pitcher, to setting a career high with a 1.34 G/F ratio. He was then helped by having the AL's 3rd ranked defense (by DER) playing behind him. Add one of the better second halves of any pitcher in the Majors, and you have the AL ERA leader.

Paying the big right-hander ace money will be a mistake as Millwood's regression should leave him as a solid second or third pitcher. His stuff is above average, but the problem has been control for his entire career. Racking up high pitch counts has always been an issue, often preventing Millwood from going deep into games. The problem was hid well in 2005, however, in which Millwood went eight or more innings in one-fifth of his starts.

The expectations for Millwood going forward should be to pitch 190+ innings per year (in line with his average since 1998) with an ERA of about 3.50-4.00, depending upon the home ballpark and defense.

Projection: 4 years, $36 million. Again, expectations will dictate whether this contract is a success or failure.

6. Billy Wagner - 34 - RP - 2005: Philadelphia Phillies

W-L 4-3 | SV 38 | ERA 1.51 | WHIP .84 | 87 K/20 BB

Wagner is without a doubt the most sought after closer on the free agent market. His signature pitch is a four-seam fastball that touches 100-MPH. Wagner's heater is so unhittable, he went with it 87% of the time on the first pitch last year. The 10-year veteran reliever also throws a hard slider that he tries to bust-in on the hands of RHB and down-and-away to LHB.

Skeptics question Wagner's elbow, but the truth of the matter is that the little lefty pitched the second-most games (75) and innings (77.2) of his career while posting his lowest ERA (1.51) ever. With 284 saves, Billy is 40 away from ranking in the top 10 all-time. Moreover, he has the highest K/9 (12.0) among pitchers with at least 500 innings and is the only one who has struck out two batters for each hit allowed in the history of baseball.

Projection: 3 years, $30 million. That's more than $128,000 per inning based on last year's totals. By comparison, Clemens earned just $85,000 per inning despite making a record $18M for a pitcher.

7. Brian Giles - 34 - OF - 2005: San Diego Padres

.301 AVG/.423 OBP/.483 SLG | HR 15 | RBI 83 | 119 BB/64 SO

If you want offensive production, Giles is your man. The 10-year veteran has essentially been a .300/.400/.550 hitter over the course of his career while averaging 100 R/RBI/BB and 30 HR per 162 games. Although Giles may be past his prime slugging years, he is still an on-base machine as evidenced by ranking first in MLB in BB (119) and fourth in OBP (.423) while playing half his games in Petco Park, unquestionably the most difficult hitter's ballpark in baseball.

Giles hit .267/.378/.417 at home and .333/.463/.545 on the road. His away stats ranked 7th in AVG, 1st in OBP, and 20th in SLG, while placing 6th in OPS behind only Derrek Lee, Jason Bay, Travis Hafner, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera. Put another way, Brian outproduced Carlos Delgado, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, Andruw Jones, and Manny Ramirez on the road. His 148 OPS+ last year was the fifth-best in the NL and his 146 career OPS+ puts him 11th among all active players.

Projection: 3 years, $30 million. Well worth it, at least for the next two seasons.

8. Hideki Matsui - 31 - LF - 2005: New York Yankees

.305 AVG/.367 OBP/.496 SLG | HR 23 | RBI 116 | 63 BB/78 SO

In 1996, Hideki Matsui broke through. After beginning his career modestly with the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui hit 38 home runs, 16 more than his previous career high. Over the next six seasons, Matsui never hit fewer than 34 home runs in a single season. He has yet to hit that many in the Major Leagues, playing in almost 25 more games per season. Hideki looked headed in that direction in 2004, hitting 31, but dropped again in 2005.

Despite not hitting the ball out of the park consistently, Matsui has been one of the most dangerous Yankees at the plate for three years. He is a fantastic gap hitter, and uses the whole field because of great bat control. He struck out less than ever this year, leading to his best average since coming to the States. Hideki also has the "clutch" label attached to him -- until the 2005 postseason -- thanks to good career numbers in October and with runners in scoring position.

Along with his pluses on the baseball diamond, Matsui is sure to be a positive from a business perspective. He comes with a substantial fan base, one that helped make the Yankees (along with Seattle) one of Japan's teams. This cannot be ignored, as Matsui will likely help the bottom line more than any other player on the current market.

Projection: 3 years, $36 million. The Yankees won't lose him, nor care if they overpay by a couple million. Expect more of the same for all three years of this deal.

9. Johnny Damon - 31 - CF - 2005: Boston Red Sox

.316 AVG/.366 OBP/.439 SLG | HR 10 | RBI 75 | 53 BB/69 SO

If Matsui is considered consistent, Damon is a rock. Since his first full year in 1998, his numbers down the line look extremely similar, minus (of course) batting average. As a leadoff hitter, his game is very batting average dependent, making his 2005 season appear that much better. It must be considered, however, that Johnny's BABIP this year was .343. Because of this, there is a good chance that after he signs, Damon begins looking much more like 2002-03 than 2004-05.

Damon's value is atop the order, which means his slide in walks per plate appearance this season must stop. His baserunning is still good, although Boston asked him to attempt just 19 steals in 2005, despite being caught only once. If he leaves Boston, look for Damon to steal 25 bases again. His speed also helps in the outfield, where he takes very good routes to the ball. His throwing arm, however, rivals Jeff Bagwell's. Atrocious, and you can bet every third base coach in the Majors knows this much.

Projection: 3 years, $33 million. In four seasons with the Red Sox, Damon became one of New England's most recognizable faces. Loyalty pays a steep price.

10. B.J. Ryan - 29 - RP - 2005: Baltimore Orioles

W-L 1-4 | SV 36 | ERA 3.54 | WHIP 1.14 | 100 K/26 BB

You can bet that if the 1998 draft was held again, Ryan would not slip until the 17th round. Since that draft, collegiate closers have become more respected, and his promise to rise quickly to the Majors would have interested teams more. One ideological change that did help Ryan, however, was because of Eddie Guardado: southpaws can be more than situational.

Ryan was in danger of falling into that role, averaging well less than an inning per appearance from 2001-2003. However, the improvement of his fastball -- a pitch that now runs from the low-to-mid 90s and has quite a bit of movement -- convinced Oriole brass that he was late-inning material. Oh, and you can bet his slider, ranking among the game's best, didn't hurt.

B.J. didn't disappoint in his first year as closer, blowing only five saves -- three of which came in two weeks during July. The only split worth noting is his 1.19 ERA in Baltimore, as opposed to 3.86 on the road. However, Ryan's age, stuff, and numbers all promise for good things going forward.

Projection: 4 years, $32 million. Bidding war will run high considering his number of suitors. His value should remain solid.

* * * * *

Check back tomorrow for part two of this series, the next ten players on our list. As for now, feel free to list your own projections in the comments section.

[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]

Comments

Great stuff, sums it up nice.

I do think Wagner will actually get signifigantly more money than you estimate here. Lots of teams have crappy contracts coming off the books and they are learning that you are better off spending big money on the cream, rather than decent money on the skim.

Also, a lot of teams with the big payrolls need help in the bullpen, and have openings.

I think Ryan will go for more than Wagner due to his age.

Between Ryan and Wagner, whoever signs second will get more money. Take it to the bank.

Re: Damon's BABIP, it will almost assuredly decrease as Fenway park has had the highest BABIP of any AL park by a wide margin:

Fenway BABIP - .326

AL avg BABIP - .302

And if he signs with the Yankees, they have a park BABIP of .298.

Well, I know one thing for sure. The commenters won't all be right. No way Wagner gets "significantly more money" than we estimate AND Ryan goes "for more than Wagner."

Based on the above, Ryan would end up getting over $12M per year. I'm sorry to say but that's not gonna happen.

Wagner and Ryan are quality relievers, but they are just that -- relievers. I would be shocked if they got much more than our projections.

I know you guys don't speculate on the where part of the free agent equation, but I'd love to hear your opinions on who you think will ultimately sign Damon.

As a Red Sox fan, I cringe at the thought of offering Damon a five-year deal, but then again, who would play CF in Fenway should he leave? (I'm holding out for a Manny-Beltran swap and signing Giles in left...)

I don't think there are many teams that have the need for and can afford Damon if his asking price is a three- or four-year deal at an average of $11M or more per year. The Red Sox are the most likely team but who knows what they're thinking now that Theo Epstein is gone. I wouldn't rule out the Yankees.

The Manny-Beltran swap of bad contracts makes too much sense for it to happen. Ramirez reportedly isn't interested in playing for the Mets. I guess he is smart enough to know that Shea Stadium is a pitcher's ballpark because he is from the City and has expressed a desire to play for the Yankees in years past.

Ramirez reportedly isn't interested in playing for the Mets.

That was so last week!

According to the Boston Herald, "the Red Sox and Mets spoke at the trading deadline this past July about both a two- and three-team deal, the third team being the Devil Rays. Now, the Mets are believed to be ready to deal directly with the Sox. The centerpiece of the deal, coming from the Mets side, would be center fielder Mike Cameron and two of the following three prospects: outfielder Lastings Milledge and right-handers Aaron Heilman and Yusmeiro Petit."

If the Mets give up Mike Cameron and two of the following three prospects (outfielder Lastings Milledge and right-handers Aaron Heilman and Yusmeiro Petit) as reported in that Boston Herald article, they will be had by the Red Sox unless the latter includes a top prospect AND is willing to pick up a substantial portion of Manny's contract.

You be the GM/FO. Which side of that trade would you take and why??? in 400 words or less.

I'm not sure I agree with the Burnett analysis. His control and consequently his pitch count is just much too volatile for me to believe that he's a CY contender in the future. In fact, his numbers aren't that far off what Chan Ho Park's looked like...He's also had a troubling injury history...

Secondly, I haven't looked at his UZR but, just from watching, I'm not impressed with Damon's fielding. I think the future is bleak for Damon, given the drop in power and walks we saw this year in combination with his age...

Actually have a question can anyone help me out?
What is the deal with Toronto's contracts? Do the contracts already take into account the US-Canadian exchange rate? How bout the higher tax rate? If they don't how do B.J. Ryan's contract and the A.J. Burnett proposal translate to say an offer from St. Louis?

Thanks,
Adam

What is the deal with Toronto's contracts?

Toronto's players are paid in U.S. dollars. The team collects some revenues (like ticket sales) in Canadian dollars and other revenues (from MLB) in U.S. dollars. I don't know if they hedge themselves against swings in the currencies. The Canadian dollar has improved vs. the U.S. dollar the past few years, primarily because of the strength in the price of natural resources and the attendant expansion in the country's economy.

Whether players get paid more or less because of different tax rates in Canada or state and local in the U.S. is a function of each contract. Some players (such as Carlos Delgado) have even been known to negotiate a "tax equalizer" in the event that they are traded from a team like Florida with no state tax to a team like the Mets with high state and local taxes.

Over the weekend I heard rumors of the Orioles being in the mix for Johnny Damon. This seems to me to be a poor transaction to pursue for the Baltimore organization. I think currently especially with Juan Pierre being taken off the market by Chicago that Damon's value far exceeds his ability since the two largest budgeted teams remain without a capable center-fielder. Last year Damon did have one of his better seasons with approx .318 BA, 18SB and 360 OBP, but his fielding is attrochius and he has a spaghetti arm. Also his fleet footedness is now a mear shawdow of what it used to be, and with multiple nagging injuries he's def not someone you'd want for a 4 year contract at 11million a season (For Baltimore they might even have to go five) The Orioles need to sit this one out and let the Yanks and Sox overpay for Damon, they already have a comprable player in Luis Matos, why overpay for a position that does not need to be overpaid for. If there capable of spending on Damon, why not on a closer. B.J. Ryan went for big bucks but the O's proposal was ridiculous. Who are they planning on closing for them this year...Chris Ray?? If I were the O's I would (this pains me to write this) go after Octavio "please operate on my elbow even though there is nothing wrong with it" Dotel and hope that he can regain form possibly to set-up this year and try closing again for 07-08. In the interim why not give Todd Jones another shot, he did a suprisingly great job last year for the fish and is one of the few proven relievers out there. If the O's don't address there now bare bullpen soon there gonna be on there way to a last place finish in the AL East...Any thoughts on this??

Damon, the player, might be a good fit for the Orioles but giving him a five-year contract at $11 million or more per year would be a huge mistake.

Todd Jones isn't available. He recently signed a two-year, $11M contract with the Detroit Tigers.

As far as Baltimore finishing in last place, yes, that is a distinct possibility. The Yankees and Red Sox can simply outspend them, the Blue Jays won more games than the O's last year and have added three key players to their roster this offseason, and the Devil Rays are young and improving with the best portfolio of prospects in the division, if not the league.

Thanks again for your insight...Quick question It was apparent that the Marlins were going to try to reduce payroll during this offseason, however I never expected to be this drastic. Do you Joe Giradi new how severe the changes were going to be upon taking the skipper position for Florida a few months ago? If so would he have still taken the position? Would he have been better off staying as a bench coach for the Yanks or perhaps dabbling as a manager in their farm system?

Thanks so much,
Adam

u underestimated everyones value

Well, not "everyone's." We actually nailed Giles and were essentially on the money on Konerko. If anything, we were slightly high on Burnett, at least in terms of average annual salary.

But thanks for reminding us.