Limited Free Agent Market For Bats

Teams looking to add offense this offseason will face limited options.   A look at the ten available middle-of-the-order type bats:

  • Lance Berkman, 1B/OF: By most measures, Berkman has been one of the ten best offensive players in baseball this year at age 35.  He's played in 87% of the Cardinals' games and has been consistently productive.  He's got a list of three or four teams, headed by the Cards, and would consider retirement if he's "not thrilled with the opportunities."  Though a multiyear deal would likely be available, Berkman is fine with another one-year contract.  I have to imagine he'll get $12MM or more.
  • David Ortiz, DH: Ortiz, who turns 36 in November, has been nearly as good as Berkman, and he's handled lefties well.  Reportedly the Red Sox have yet to discuss a new deal with him.  It's not clear how adamant each side will be about their stance on a multiyear contract.  But the general expectation is that Ortiz returns to Boston.
  • Prince Fielder, 1B: Most expect Fielder to look for Mark Teixeira money or beyond, though yesterday I was able to come up with reasons each of the 30 teams might balk at signing him.  He'll land somewhere, but Scott Boras may need a team to bid against itself to reach Teixeira heights.
  • Albert Pujols, 1B: Pujols now leads the National League with 31 home runs, so his off year is relative.  His walk rate is down significantly though, which could give some teams pause before making one of the ten largest commitments in baseball history, if not one of the three biggest.  The Cardinals have first crack at signing him, and there's a good chance they get something done.
  • Carlos Beltran, RF: Beltran has been healthy and effective this year, outside of a DL stint for a strained hand shortly after his trade to the Giants.  A strong finish could result in a three-year deal, though Beltran does turn 35 in April.  He figures to get more than $10MM per year.
  • Michael Cuddyer, RF/1B: Cuddyer has alternated good and mediocre seasons, a trend his agent will have to downplay since this is one of the good years.  Cuddyer, 33 in March, should get a three-year deal with a salary similar to this year's $10.5MM.
  • Aramis Ramirez, 3B: Ramirez should benefit from being the only viable starting option at third base on the market.  He was headed toward a possible extension with the Cubs, but with Jim Hendry being fired he's going to take a step back and see what's out there.  His $16MM option is mutual in nature.  The 33-year-old should be able to secure a deal similar to my Cuddyer estimate, maybe better.
  • Josh Willingham, LF: Willingham, 32, started out slow for the Athletics but has a .277/.374/.606 line with 12 home runs in 163 plate appearances since July 1st.  Injuries have made him something of a 120 game guy, so a two-year deal for around $16MM seems feasible.  Willingham projects as a Type A free agent, and seems like someone who might accept arbitration if the A's offer.
  • Jason Kubel, RF/DH: At 29, Kubel has age on his side compared to most free agents.  He missed almost two months with a foot injury this year but previously had been durable.  He could be a popular free agent, with four years possible, but his stock will be hurt if he climbs to Type A status and turns down an arbitration offer from the Twins, thereby costing his new team a draft pick.
  • Carlos Pena, 1B: Pena, 33, has been aided slightly by his first crack at the National League.  He's a useful hitter, but a two-year deal at $10MM plus is a tough sell even for Scott Boras for a perennial .200 hitter.

There are other free agents – Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are difference-makers and Casey Kotchman is having a nice year – but the middle-of-the-order bat market boils down to the ten I named above.  Berkman, Ortiz, Fielder, and Pujols all have limited markets due to preference, price tag, or in Ortiz's case, the fact that he can't play the field.  It's a good time to be Beltran, Cuddyer, Ramirez, Willingham, Kubel, Pena, or Kotchman.  Surprises are possible, but the trade market offers little beyond perhaps Carlos Quentin.

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