By Zach Finkelstein
Holiday season is just around the corner, which means much of the world is mobilizing for its annual gift-giving marathon. Regardless of one’s religious affiliation — or lack thereof — the end of each calendar year is synonymous with the exchange of prettily packaged presents.
Most of the priciest gifts purchased around this time, however, won’t arrive in a bow (Matt Kemp notwithstanding). Over the next few weeks, rumors will abound about Major League Baseball’s premier free-agent prizes. The right catch, which may cost a club more than $100 million, can positively affect a franchise’s fate for years to come. Included below are predictions as to where baseball’s Top 5 Free Agents will end up. Methodology note: The following players posted the most wins above replacement (WAR) relative to the rest of this free-agent class. The order, which they are listed, however, factors variables such as age and performance/health history.
1. Prince Fielder (2011 team/WAR Brewers, 5.5): This slugger does not even have the best resume among available first baseman (that title is indubitably held by Albert Pujols). Regardless, the 27-year-old son of Cecil is out in front of what should be his prime offensive seasons. The 31-year-old Pujols, by contrast, has seen his on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentage decline over each of the past three years.
Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, is known for guiding his clients toward the highest possible paycheck. On that note, an American League franchise might be more comfortable than a National League club in signing the portly Fielder, knowing he could fill a full-time designated hitter role toward the end of the contract. One logical suitor would be the Seattle Mariners, whose general manager, Jack Zduriencik, ran Milwaukee’s scouting department when the Brewers drafted Fielder in the first round in 2002. And with the decline of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle may be ready to shop for a new face of the franchise.
Prediction: Seattle Mariners, seven years, $160 million.
2. Albert Pujols (2011 team/WAR Cardinals, 5.1): Based on past performance alone, Pujols is the best free agent since December 2000, when Alex Rodriguez signed his $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. As such, Pujols is all but guaranteed to get the biggest contract this winter. The Cardinals whiffed in their attempts to re-sign their star last offseason, offering what many described as a lowball proposal.
The Miami Marlins reportedly offered the future Hall of Famer a nine-year contract worth just under $200 million during a recent meeting/recruiting event at the team’s new stadium. Will that be enough to sway Pujols away from St. Louis? Doubtful.
Pujols’ price tag will be enough to cripple any team that fails to get what it paid for. This would be especially true for the historically frugal Fish, whose newly lavish ways are a result of the anticipated increase in revenue associated with having a new ballpark. Recent history has shown, however, that a new home is not enough to maintain fan interest in the absence of a quality on-field product.
As prolific as Pujols’ career has been thus far, his productivity has dropped over each of the past three seasons. This fact, coupled with (unsubstantiated) claims that the Dominican-born star is older than his listed age, could cause owners to think twice before authorizing an astronomically expensive contract.
Lastly, now is not the ideal time to be a free agent first baseman, as many of baseball’s big-market clubs are either set at the spot (Yankees, Red Sox) or are unlikely to appropriate such a high percentage of its payroll to one player (Dodgers, Mets, Cubs).
Prediction: Pujols is too important to St. Louis, which will re-sign their star for $210 million over eight years. As a caveat: A rogue owner could make an offer that far exceeds better judgment. This occurred last winter when Nationals owner Ted Lerner, the richest in baseball, signed Jayson Werth to a seven-year deal for $126 million. Don’t expect the Redbirds to compete with an outlandish offer; if they were willing to re-sign Pujols at any cost, they would have done so last winter.
3. Jose Reyes (2011 team/WAR Mets, 6.2): The Marlins yes, them again — reportedly offered Reyes a six-year, $90 million deal. Conflicting stories have indicated that the overall dollar value was much lower, however. Nobody seems to know the exact figure. What is clear, however, is that the Fish have not expressed this much interest in other teams’ players since 1997.
The Mets, the only Major League team Reyes has ever known, have communicated with the shortstop’s agent as well. An uncertain financial future notwithstanding, New York’s National League club may have the resources to re-sign Reyes if the market sets his value at $100 million. Prediction: Realizing the cost of losing their star shortstop, the Mets spend the $100 million and retain Reyes for the next six seasons.
4. C.J. Wilson (2011 team/WAR Texas Rangers, 5.9): This left-hander is regarded as the top pitcher on the open market after two stellar seasons with the Texas Rangers, who are unlikely to offer their No. 1 starter the six-year, $120 million deal he reportedly wants. After all, Texas was not enthused by the prospect of offering that very same contract to bona fide ace Cliff Lee last winter. So why would it be comfortable doing so with a de facto ace (and really good No. 2 starter on a good team)?
Prediction: Enter Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim general manager Jerry Dipoto and assistant GM Scott Servais, who last week reportedly had a three-hour dinner meeting with Wilson’s agent, Bob Garber. Wilson is from Orange County, and the Halos would have a chance to improve their club while sticking it to their AL West rivals. At some point, Wilson will realize he isn’t worth nine figures. The SoCal native will partner up with the Rally Monkey, whose employer will offer $85 million reasons (over five years) to return home.
5. Carlos Beltran (2011 teams/WAR Mets/Giants, 4.7): What a difference one year makes. Last winter, Beltran’s ability to stay healthy was a major question mark, as the former center fielder was slated to sit one game for every two he played. A move to right field turned out to be some sort of panacea, however, as the 2011 All-Star participated in only three fewer games in 2011 (142) than he did in 2009-10 combined. This year’s fifth-best free agent finished 2011 with a .300 average, 22 homers and 84 RBIs. Moreover, his .910 OPS percentage was the fifth-highest among National League outfielders.
Coming off their historic September collapse, the Boston Red Sox are reportedly seeking to sign a right-handed right fielder to replace J.D. Drew. The switch-hitting Beltran would be a better option than Boston’s top internal candidates — Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick — who both bat from the left side.
Beltran played the final 44 games of 2011 with the San Francisco Giants, who acquired his services in exchange for top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler prior to the trade deadline. Teams won’t typically pay such a high price for a two-month rental, but San Francisco could give the right-field job to the recently acquired Melky Cabrera, who was shipped from Kansas City in exchange for Jonathan Sanchez. The Giants like Beltran, but they may be unable to keep him with large raises looming for Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain — the team’s top starting pitchers.
Prediction: Beltran to Beantown for $40 million over three years.
Zach Finkelstein is a contributing writer for YESNetwork.com and SNY.tv.