If this winter’s class of free agents intrigued you, just wait until next year. Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth will be distant memories when Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and, potentially, C.C. Sabathia hit the open market this November.
Pujols did not reach an agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals last week, which means the sides stopped negotiating until after the season, when the Cardinals will have to bid against other interested teams. Not long before the Pujols negotiations ended, C.C. Sabathia declined to say definitively that he won’t opt out of his contract and the chances of Sabathia hitting free agency have never seemed better.
If Sabathia – arguably the top left-handed pitcher in the game – and Pujols – probably the best hitter in the game – hit free agency along with Fielder, it would be one of the most potent combinations the free agent market has seen in a long while. Sabathia has averaged 20 wins, 234 innings and 197 strikeouts since arriving in baseball's toughest division two winters ago and Pujols has averaged 41 home runs, a .331 batting average and a .426 on-base percentage since arriving in the majors a decade ago, so few free agent classes compare.
Lee, Crawford and Werth led this offseason’s free agent class; the 2009-10 winter featured Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey; Sabathia himself joined current teammate Mark Teixeira in free agency after the 2008 season and Alex Rodriguez and Torii Hunter were available the offseason before that.
All of those players were considered difference makers worthy of tens of millions of dollars when they hit free agency, but to find a free agent class with as much star power as Fielder, Sabathia and Pujols, we have to go back to the 2000-01 offseason, when a 28-year-old Manny Ramirez hit free agency alongside A-Rod, who was just 25 at the time.
It’s not often that two of the game’s top sluggers join a legitimate ace on the free agent market, and that’s what MLB owners have to look forward to after the coming season. It’s not just Fielder, Sabathia and Pujols, either.
Make no mistake – it’s a top-heavy class without much starting pitching or many middle-of-the-order hitters other than Fielder and Pujols. Prospective free agents Rickie Weeks and Jose Bautista signed extensions and Adrian Gonzalez will do the same in April, so those power bats are off the market.
Kelly Johnson, Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins highlight a middle infield class that includes a number of capable second basemen and Carlos Beltran, David DeJesus and Josh Willingham are among the top outfielders who will become available.
Yu Darvish, the 24-year-old right-hander who has dominated hitters in Japan and expressed interest in pitching in MLB, could join Sabathia in the class of available starters. Left-handers Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson will also hit free agency, but the real depth is in the bullpen.
Shutdown relievers Heath Bell, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Franklin, Brad Lidge, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Rauch, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Koji Uehara and Jose Valverde could all hit free agency next offseason in what would be the most impressive relief class in recent memory.
None of those closers will provide as much intrigue as Pujols, who will hit free agency under unique circumstances. He doesn’t compare well with current players other than Rodriguez and even A-Rod is an imperfect point of reference for Pujols, who has better rate stats, but less impressive counting stats than Rodriguez did when he signed his record-breaking ten-year, $275MM contract with the Yankees.
Baseball-Reference lists Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez and Juan Gonzalez as similar batters to Pujols through age 30. Seven Hall of Famers fill out the top ten list of Pujols’ most statistically comparable players, so he is in select company. Not only is the nine-time All-Star and two-time defending NL home run champion one of the best players of his generation, he's one of the best players of all time.
Pujols’ numbers compare favorably with the ones that inner-circle Hall of Famers like Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron had accumulated at similar points in their careers. Agent Dan Lozano won’t mention the old timers’ modest contracts in negotiations with interested teams, though he’ll likely justify his client’s asking price by pointing out just how rare hitters like Pujols really are.
There are top free agents every year, but players like Fielder and Sabathia aren’t out there every winter. And if Pujols has a typical year in 2011? He and Lozano will be able to argue convincingly that players of Pujols' caliber are special talents and deserved to be paid in accordance with their place in history.