2006-2007 Free Agency Preview (Part One)
The free agent class this year will be the most handsomely rewarded of them all. Baseball teams are swimming in cash and will be looking to put the money to bad. . .err, good. . .use in order to improve their competitive positions. In a nutshell, we will see players getting more money, more years, and a lot more total dollars.
Oh, I don't expect anybody to challenge Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $252 million jackpot but that was a special situation unlikely to be seen anytime soon. A-Rod was a 25-year-old shortstop who was already regarded as one of the best players in the history of the game. Nonetheless, hit for hit and strikeout for strikeout, players will be as amply rewarded this offseason as ever.
As to what free agents will end up getting, my suggested rule of thumb is to add one to two years and anywhere from one to four million per season over the numbers one might have expected a year ago. These agreements may not make sense on the surface, but there's no use trying to be overly analytical about such matters at this point.
The free agents are broken down by hitters and pitchers and ranked by projected average annual salary. Part One starts with the top ten hitters (I use that term loosely when including Juan Pierre).
1. Alfonso Soriano - 31 - OF - 2006: Washington Nationals
.277 AVG/.351 OBP/.560 SLG | HR 46 | SB 41 | 67 BB/160 SO
Soriano is coming off a career year with single-season highs in HR, BB, and OPS+ (132). The athletic Soriano became the fourth player in major league history to join the 40-40 HR/SB club. His numbers, however, were not all that different than 2002-03 when he played for the Yankees and hit for a slightly higher average with fewer walks. That said, Alfonso surprised those who were of the belief that his stats in RFK Stadium (with a park factor of 93 in 2005) wouldn't come close to matching the ones he put up in hitter friendly Ameriquest Field (PF of 111 in 2004 and 104 in 2005) the past two years. Well, Soriano not only matched 'em, he bested 'em.
OK, so we know the guy can still put up the numbers. What is he worth in today's market?
Player G AB H 2B 3B HR BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Soriano 961 3902 1091 240 18 208 224 836 .280 .325 .510 115 Ramirez 1047 3897 1089 224 11 196 279 596 .279 .332 .493 109
Do you see any similarities between the two? Aramis Ramirez just re-signed with the Chicago Cubs for five years and $75 million. Soriano is 2 1/2 years older than Ramirez. As a left fielder, he plays a less demanding position (yet has the arm strength to play CF or RF). The bottom line is that Ramirez is at least as valuable as Soriano. Given the choice between the two, I would actually take Ramirez.
If Soriano gets the number of years and dollars that has been rumored, then it would be fair to say that he was either overpaid or Ramirez left a lot of money on the table.
Projection: 7 years, $120M. Most likely
Update: Soriano and the Cubs reportedly agreed to an eight-year contract worth approximately $136 million. Like most deals, it is apparently contingent on Soriano passing a physical.
2. Aramis Ramirez - 28 - 3B - 2006: Chicago Cubs
.291 AVG/.352 OBP/.561 SLG | HR 38 | RBI 119 | 50 BB/63
Ramirez opted out of his old contract and filed for free agency at the end of October, then re-signed with the Cubs for five years and $75 million. As explained in The Art of a Bad Deal Revisited, "his total salary increases by $7.5M over the next two seasons and he has gained an extra three years of security at $15M per. The 28-year-old third baseman has a full no-trade clause through 2010 and the right to void his contract after four years."
3. Carlos Lee - 30 - LF - 2006: Milwaukee Brewers/Texas Rangers
.300 AVG/.355 OBP/.540 SLG | HR 37 | RBI 116 | 58 BB/65 SO
Lee is one of the best run producers in this year's crop of free agents. Carlos set career highs in HR and SLG last year while playing 161 games, the sixth time in the past seven years in which he has participated in 150 or more contests. Bad body and all, Lee has been relatively injury-free over the years. However, he is unlikely to age as well as Soriano and may need to become a DH before his next contract expires.
Like fellow free agents Nomar Garciaparra, Aramis Ramirez, Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, and Ray Durham, Lee has the rare ability to jack the ball out of the park without whiffing much. Carlos ranked fourth last year in the majors in the number of home runs per strikeout. Only Albert Pujols slugged more homers and struck out fewer times.
TOP TEN HOME RUN/STRIKEOUTS
Player HR SO HR/SO Albert Pujols 49 50 0.98 Nomar Garciaparra 20 30 0.67 Aramis Ramirez 38 63 0.60 Carlos Lee 37 65 0.57 Joe Crede 30 58 0.52 Barry Bonds 26 51 0.51 Vladimir Guerrero 33 68 0.49 Frank Thomas 39 81 0.48 David Ortiz 54 117 0.46 Ray Durham 26 61 0.43
Projection: Four or five years at $14-15 million per season. The Astros appear to be the most intent on signing Lee. Peter Gammons reports that Baltimore, San Francisco, and San Diego have also expressed keen interest in the slugging outfielder.
4. J.D. Drew - 31 - RF/CF - 2006: Los Angeles Dodgers
.283 AVG/.393 OBP/.498 SLG | HR 20 | RBI 100 | 89 BB/101 SO
Drew's ability to put up .300/.400/.500-type rate stats won't go unnoticed in this year's free agent frenzy. Five-tool players with a disciplined approach at the plate don't grow on trees. If Drew can handle the defensive demands of center field, his offensive contributions become that much more valuable.
Some teams may hesitate to fork out the big bucks for a guy who has only exceeded 135 games twice in his career and has drawn the wrath of managers and teammates alike. There is no mistaking the fact that Drew is a gamble - a high reward, high risk type investment for his next employer.
Projection: 4 x $14M. Tracy Ringolsby recently reported that the Red Sox were set to sign Drew for two years and $30 million. If that were the case, it seems unlikely in the aftermath of Soriano's contract. Agent Scott Boras should be able to double the number of years and perhaps the total dollars in a market with fewer options than teams that are looking for the type of production Drew can offer.
5. Barry Bonds - 42 - LF/DH - 2006: San Francisco Giants
.270 AVG/.454 OBP/.545 SLG | HR 26 | RBI 77 | 115 BB/51 SO
They don't come any more controversial than Bonds. He can still hit and even played left field reasonably well toward the end of the year. How many people realize that Bonds produced at a .319/.437/.652 pace from the beginning of August through the end of the season?
Bonds is 22 home runs short of Hank Aaron's all-time MLB record of 755. If healthy, Barry should have a decent chance of surpassing Aaron in the second half of the year. Whoever signs Bonds will have to put up with him, the media blitz (not likely to be quite as big as once thought), and the steroid allegations for at least a year.
Projection: Not sure. Bonds doesn't want to take a pay cut from the $18M club option he received last year. On the other hand, the Giants are unlikely to step up again and make that type of financial commitment. The A's are a possible backup option but only on the cheap. A third club could enter the fray with a bid north of the Giants and A's if they get shut out elsewhere.
6. Gary Matthews, Jr. - 32 - CF - 2006: Texas Rangers
.313 AVG/.371 OBP/.495 SLG | HR 19 | RBI 79 | 58 BB/99 SO
Coming off a career year at the age of 31, Matthews is an enigma. Is he as good as he showed last year? Was that a breakout or a fluke season? Is Gary overrated defensively based on a handful of web gem plays or is he a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder?
Digging deeper into the splits provides a little bit of insight as to his offensive capabilities. Matthews was pretty consistent across the board. Not surprisingly, Matthews hit slightly better at home (.324/.396/.512) than on the road (.303/.347/.480). Little Sarge was a tad more productive in the first half (.328/.374/.539) than the second half (.296/.368/.448). He hit with more power vs. LHP as a RHB (.314/.374/.577) than RHP as a LHB (.312/.370/.473). RISP? .302/.383/.575. Nobody on? .312/.370/.474. Leading off an inning? .302/.352/.465.
Take his worst splits and you wind up with .296/.347/.448. The Angels, Dodgers, and Giants, among others, would take those numbers in a heartbeat. Let's not forget, there are several teams looking for a center fielder (including the Rangers). There are just as many seeking a lead-off hitter. Here's a guy who can do both.
Projection: Three years, $30 million. Don't laugh, it only takes one team. Is he worth it? We'll soon find out.
7. Juan Pierre - 29 - CF - 2006: Chicago Cubs
.292 AVG/.330 OBP/.388 SLG | HR 3 | SB 58 | 32 BB/38 SO
Pierre has led the league in hits in two of the past three seasons, but he has also finished in the top two in outs in each of the last four campaigns. The hits are nice. The outs are painful. As a lead-off hitter who plays everyday and doesn't walk or strike out much, he gets plenty of both.
The bottom line is that Pierre is one of the most overrated players in the game. He was first-team All-OOPs in 2006 and second-team All-OOPs in 2005. Pierre can still run and, in fact, has finished first or second in stolen bases in every full season of his career. He can chase down fly balls but his arm is well below average, making him nothing more than a passable center fielder.
Projection: Three years totaling $27-30M. Hard to believe but it just goes to show how much money is floating around.
8. Jim Edmonds - 36 - CF - 2006: St. Louis Cardinals
.257 AVG/.350 OBP/.471 SLG | HR 19 | RBI 70 | 53 BB/101 SO
Edmonds showed the Cardinals in October that he can still play and was rewarded with a new two-year contract that will pay him $8M in 2007 and 2008 plus $3M deferred, paid in equal installments from 2010-2019. The Redbirds basically spread out the $3M buyout that was due him over 10 years while keeping him at what looks like a below-average salary compared to what his fellow free agent center fielders are likely to command.
No longer of the age and health that enabled him to put up the best numbers of any center fielder in baseball from 2000-2005, Edmonds can still hit for power and play more than adequate defense. He also gives STL a lefthanded bat in the middle of the order to sandwich between Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen.
9. Frank Thomas - 38 - DH - 2006: Oakland A's
.270 AVG/.381 OBP/.545 SLG | HR 39 | RBI 114 | 81 BB/81 SO
Thomas proved last year that he still has his mojo. Billy Beane signed him on the cheap ($500k plus $2.6M in bonuses and incentives) in January 2006 when nobody else was willing to give the future Hall of Famer a chance. The A's were rewarded with a big season out of their full-time DH.
The Big Hurt signed a new contract with the Toronto Blue Jays last week. He got a $9.12M signing bonus and will earn $1M in '07 and $8M in '08. Thomas also has an option in '09 for $10M that automatically vests if he attains 1,000 PAs in 2007-08 or 525 PAs 2008.
10. Nomar Garciaparra - 33 - 1B - 2006: Los Angeles Dodgers
.303 AVG/.367 OBP/.505 SLG | HR 20 | RBI 93 | 42 BB/30 SO
Garciaparra made $8.5M last year, including $6M in salary and $2.5M in incentives. After starting the season on the DL, Nomar returned and had a fantastic first half (.358/.426/.578) but struggled mightily in the second half (.229/.286/.408). However, he hit several clutch home runs down the stretch, helping the Dodgers reach the postseason for only the third time since their World Series championship in 1988.
Projection: 2 x $8.5M (with perhaps some minor incentives that could bring the annual compensation to as much as $10M). Owing to the loss of J.D. Drew, look for the Dodgers to ink Garciaparra sooner rather than later.
Tomorrow: Part Two. The Top Ten Pitchers.