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Free Agent Profile: Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano made headlines early in the regular season by leaving super-agent Scott Boras to become the first client to be represented by rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z's startup sports agency — Roc Nation Sports. Jay-Z is partnering with CAA in the Roc Nation Sports effort, and CAA's Brodie Van Wagenen will be handling much of the negotiation process this offseason, though Jay-Z himself is now officially an MLBPA-certified player representative as well. While his agency news may have gotten the headlines in April, now that we're into the offseason, it'll be his historic contract that garners attention.

Strengths/Pros

Cano is one of the game's best all-around players, plain and simple. He led all free agent position players in wins above replacement (6.9 fWAR, 7.6 rWAR) due to his combination of offense and strong defensive contributions at a premium, up-the-middle position.  Cano-Robinson

Cano batted .314/.383/.516 this season, earning his fourth consecutive All-Star bid and fourth consecutive Silver Slugger award. His fifth-place finish in the AL MVP voting marked his fifth consecutive season receiving votes for the award and fourth straight season of finishing sixth or better.

Cano's 142 wRC+ dating back to 2010 is the fourth-highest in Major League Baseball, and his 25.4 fWAR in that time trails only Miguel Cabrera. In terms of more traditional numbers, he's averaged 107 RBIs and 98 runs scored per season over that same time. He hits for power, averaging 28 homers per season since 2009, and has hit below .300 just twice in his Major League career (including a .297 effort in his rookie season).

Cano's defense slipped a bit in 2013, but his glove is generally regarded as a positive. UZR/150 pegged him for +1.3 runs above average this season, while The Fielding Bible's Defensive Runs Saved metric pegged him at +6. Those are solid numbers, but consider that he was at +10.7 (UZR/150) and +15 (DRS) in 2012. DRS, in particular, raves about Cano, crediting him for +38 runs dating back to 2010.

One of the biggest concerns over the course of a mega-contract like the one Cano figures to sign is health, but that hasn't been an issue for the Bronx Bombers' keystone man. Cano hasn't been on the disabled list since missing six weeks with a hamstring strain all the way back in 2006, and since that time he's averaged a whopping 160 games per season.

Cano is better against right-handed pitchers than lefties, but his .290/.340/.450 career line against southpaws shows that he's more than capable of handling his own against same-handed pitching. Those who think he's a product of Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch need only look at his .862 career OPS on the road alongside his .858 mark at home to realize that Cano can hit anywhere.

Weaknesses/Cons

Cano will play next season at age 31, making him just one year younger than Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were when each signed their massive contracts that have all quickly become albatrosses. Cano figures to sign for much closer to the 10 years that Rodriguez and Pujols received than the five years that Hamilton received. His contract will be a colossal risk, and there's little hope that he'll still be playing anywhere close to his current level by the time it completes.

If there's one element of Cano's game that's lacking, it's probably his speed. He's never stolen more than eight bases in a season, has an ugly 57.6 percent success rate in his career and has added significant value on the basepaths just twice in his nine-year career. It's an underrated part of the game that many fans don't look at, but Fangraphs pegged Cano's baserunning at -2 runs this season. That only figures to get worse as he ages.

In 2013, Cano posted his lowest isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) since 2009. His mark of .202 is still excellent for any hitter, let alone a second baseman, but if it's a portent for the decline of his power as he exits his prime years, his value would take a hit going forward. The very fact that a .202 ISO is listed in the "Weaknesses/Cons" section of this post speaks to the elite level of Cano's game.

In one of the least-surprising decisions in recent history, the Yankees made a qualifying offer to Cano, and he promptly rejected it. He'd come at the cost of a draft pick for a new team.

Personal

Cano's father, Jose, was signed by the Yankees in 1980 and briefly pitched in the Majors with the Astros in 1989. Cano's parents named him Robinson after the legendary Jackie Robinson, and he wears No. 24 (Jackie's No. 42 flipped) to this day as a means of honoring that namesake. The Yankees' media guide has nearly a full page dedicated to Cano's philanthropic efforts both in New York and his native Dominican Republic. Cano and his parents established the RC24 Foundation in 2011 — a charity intended to provide hope to sick and underprivileged children in New York and the Dominican Republic. He has also donated nine ambulances and four school buses to his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris. The ambulances were donated in memory of a close friend who died after he was unable to receive immediate medical attention following a motorcycle accident.

Cano was famously benched for a lack of hustle in 2008, but those problems are a thing of the past, hitting coach Kevin Long told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News earlier this year. Long praised Cano's work ethic and offseason training regimen to Feinsand, who also spoke with Cano's World Baseball Classic GM, Moises Alou"Robby, what a guy. He’s a five, six-tool player. I mean, I knew he was good, but he made my job so easy, with his performance and leadership."

Market

Cano's market could be more limited than any other free agent this season due to his contract demands. In early October, it was reported that Cano and Roc Nation were targeting $305-310MM in guaranteed money, in order to top the maximum value that A-Rod could reach were he to hit all of his incentives. Let me start by stating that I see zero chance of Cano signing the largest contract in history. Those comments were almost certainly a pure negotiation ploy; coming out and saying, "We want $200MM" would have started the discussion far too low.

So what teams could possibly afford Cano? A return to the Yankees still seems the most probable outcome, but in order to extract maximum dollars, Roc Nation/CAA will have to drum up some competition. The Dodgers were a natural landing spot, but they said prior to season's end that they weren't going to pursue Cano, and their four-year, $28MM contract with Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero seems indicative that they plan on sticking to that mentality.

Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has spent liberally in the past, proclaiming that he wants to see his team win a World Series in his lifetime. The Tigers have Omar Infante hitting free agency and have issued $200MM guarantees to Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander already. However, with Miguel Cabrera needing an extension in a few seasons, would they risk another annual salary north of $20MM?

The Nationals could be on the periphery, as could the Angels, though their days of dabbling in mega-contracts are likely over for the time being with Pujols and Hamilton on the books. Could the Mets shock the baseball world by using their newfound cash to force a jersey change but keep Cano in New York? They took one meeting with him already, but most media outlets have downplayed them as a serious suitor even in light of that news.

The Rangers are always aggressive spenders, but they already have a logjam of middle infielders with Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and Jurickson Profar. Still, a trade of Andrus or Profar plus a move to first base or left field for Kinsler to open second base is at least conceivable. Could Jack Zduriencik be so desperate to bring some offense to Seattle that he breaks the $200MM threshold for Cano? The Cubs have the deep pockets and no clear solution at second base, but they've stated that they're not planning on pursuing big fish this winter. The Blue Jays have a need at second base and are clearly in win-now mode. Another big offseason splash would likely rejuvenate their fanbase after a disappointing 2013, but signing Cano would be counterintuitive to GM Alex Anthopoulos' free agent philosophy.

In addition to other free agents, teams in need of help at second base could look to acquire Brandon Phillips as an alternative. Phillips appears to have fallen out of favor in Cincinnati, and while the four years and $50MM remaining on his contract are sizable, that seems like a pittance in comparison to Cano's eventual contract.

Expected Contract

There's little doubt that Cano will sign the richest contract of the offseason, and it seems likely that his representation will set out seeking 10 years. If Cano's price tag were to drop to seven years, I imagine that numerous suitors would emerge. More realistically, the middle ground between teams' comfort levels and Van Wagenen/Jay-Z's demands will probably be met in the form of eight or nine years.

Cano finds himself in a similar situation to that of Prince Fielder heading into the 2012 season — everyone expects a historic contract, but there appears to be a lack of logical suitors. Ultimately, the market came to Fielder and Scott Boras, and Fielder was able to land a nine-year, $214MM contract.

I expect Fielder's contract to be the floor for the Cano camp. Cano figures to shatter the records for longest contract, largest guarantee and largest average annual value for a second baseman. How much will he sign for though? Dating back to 2007, the mean AAV for hitter contracts of at least eight years is $24.44MM. That grouping includes a select quartet of then-elite bats: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Fielder and Mark Teixeira.

That mean AAV would come out to an even $220MM over the course of a nine-year contract or $244.4MM over the course of 10 years. It makes sense to try to top that AAV, and I believe they'll do just that, though not over the course of a 10-year deal. However, a nine-year, $234MM contract would give Cano's camp a nice round number ($26MM annually) and blow Fielder's contract out of the water. It would also top the mean AAV for baseball's most recent mega-deals and establish the second-highest AAV of any such deal as well. As such, that's my prediction for Cano's eventual contract, even if the market has yet to seriously take shape.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Jhonny Peralta

Jhonny Peralta was enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career when he was connected to the Biogenesis clinic this summer. Soon after, MLB slammed 12 players, including Peralta, with 50-game suspensions. Peralta's strong season at the plate is now tainted, and he'll have to try to overcome the negative impact of that suspension in free agency this offseason.

Strengths/Pros

Peralta is a career .268/.330/.425 hitter, translating to a 101 OPS+ and 102 wRC+. In other words, he's one to two percent better than a league-average hitter, which is an incredibly valuable trait to have as a shortstop. Over the past five seasons, shortstops have collectively posted wRC+ ratings between 83 and 88. Peralta's robust .303/.358/.457 line from 2013 translated to a mark of 123.

His glove was shaky early on in his career, but both Ultimate Zone Rating and The Fielding Bible's Defensive Runs Saved metric agree that Peralta has improved tremendously in recent years. Peralta has a +9.1 UZR/150 dating back to 2009, and DRS has him at +4 runs in that stretch. Peralta-JhonnyPeralta offers positional flexibility, having totaled 1742 big league innings at third base as well, though neither defensive metric likes him as much at the hot corner.

Peralta shows a slight platoon split, but he's been able to hold his own against right-handed pitching throughout his career, slashing .270/.326/.416. In 2013, he hit righties at a .282/.338/.412 clip. He has enough bat against both right-handers and left-handers to be an everyday player.

Peralta broke into the league as a full-time player at the age of 23, so while it seems like he's been around for a long time, he's still just 31 years old and won't turn 32 until late May of 2014. Peralta will be younger than every notable free agent third baseman and every notable free agent shortstop outside of Stephen Drew.

He's been highly durable throughout his career, averaging 149 games per season and, incredibly, never landing on the disabled list at any point in his Major League tenure.

Given the Tigers' acquisition of Jose Iglesias, the team elected not to extend a qualifying offer to Peralta and risk having to deploy him in left field or at second base. Unlike his main competition — Drew — signing Peralta will not require draft pick forfeiture.

Weaknesses/Cons

Peralta's career numbers at the plate look solid, but he's been wildly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Peralta has five seasons of an OPS+/wRC+ greater than 100 (i.e. better than league average), one in the low 90s and three in the mid-80s. In particular, his power seems to fluctuate, as he owns four 20+ homer seasons but has hit between 11 and 15 long balls in every other big league season he's played. He'd be compensated much more handsomely if he could show consistent 20-homer pop.

Peralta may have posted a .303 batting aveage in 2013, but that mark was clearly boosted by a career-high .374 batting average on balls in play. He won't repeat that number in 2013, and it's reasonable to expect his average to drop accordingly, perhaps even lower than his career .268 mark, as Peralta's strikeout rate jumped to 21.9 percent this season.

If Peralta's average comes down, he could post an OBP below the league average, as he did in 2009, 2010 and 2012, due to the fact that he's walked at just an 8.3 percent clip for his career. Unlike his average and power totals, that number has remained pretty constant, and he was at 7.8 percent this year.

Peralta's connection to PEDs brings into question just how much of his 2013 performance was natural. A player with such a sterling medical history can hardly make the claim that he was using banned substances to help speed up his timetable for recovery from an injury.

Personal

Peralta and his wife, Molly, have three daughters and make their home in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake, per the Tigers media guide. His teammates defended him after the suspension, with Hunter in particular offering praise (via MLive.com's Chris Iott): "If you know Jhonny — and a lot of people don't know Jhonny — but if you know Jhonny, awesome guy. Awesome guy. He just made a mistake." Verlander called Peralta his "brother," noting that he could hold no grudge against a man who admitted to making a mistake and serving the penalty for it.

Market

Peralta has made it clear that he'd like to return to the Tigers, but with Iglesias installed at shortstop and top prospect Nick Castellanos serving as an in-house possibility for left field, the Tigers simply don't have much room on the roster to keep Peralta around.

If and when the Tigers move on, Peralta and agent Fern Cuza of SFX shouldn't have any problem finding interested contenders willing to offer a multiyear deal. Shortstops are always in demand, and in spite of his inconsistencies, Peralta has averaged 2.8 fWAR and 2.6 rWAR over the past six seasons.

Even in his worst seasons, Peralta has been a considerable upgrade over what the Cardinals received from Pete Kozma this season. The Pirates could look to upgrade over Jordy Mercer's shaky glove if they feel he can't repeat this year's .368 second-half BABIP (which, obviously, is quite unlikely). Given uncertainty surrounding Ruben Tejada's status and a stated desire to spend on free agency, the Mets could be a logical landing place as well. Oakland could use Peralta at shortstop and slide Jed Lowrie over to second base, but they may be hesitant to meet his asking price and may not want to block Addison Russell's path to the Majors.

Peralta could also appeal to teams that need help at third base. In that regard, a return to Cleveland could make sense, and Angels could also use an upgrade at the position. Signing Peralta would give them the luxury to aggressively shop Erick Aybar as well. The Dodgers could also look to upgrade at third if they don't retain Juan Uribe.

Expected Contract

Suspension aside, Peralta is a typically solid bat at a premium position who can boast being youthful enough that he's not yet entering his decline phase. Peralta is a league-average bat with upside for much more and whose floor would only drop him to roughly league-average for his position. Players like that are scarce on the free agent market.

Cuza seems likely to target four years for Peralta on the open market, and his best bet may very well be to try to start a bidding war between two teams with a clear need such as the Cardinals and Mets. Marco Scutaro's three-year, $20MM contract with the Giants seems too light, given Peralta's offensive track record, so I expect Peralta to sign a three-year, $36MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Juan Uribe

Prior to the season, there was speculation the Dodgers could release Juan Uribe, eating the $7MM remaining on his contract just to open up the roster spot after he played at replacement level from 2011-12.  However, Uribe made over 100 starts for the Dodgers in 2013 and was incredibly valuable, posting the fourth-best WAR among all free agents.

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Strengths/Pros

Uribe was worth 5.1 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs, a number topped in 2013 by only three other free agents: Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shin-Soo Choo.  No other position player even came close to Uribe, with Marlon Byrd checking in at 4.1.

How did he do it?  In large part through defense.  Playing mostly third base, Uribe posted a UZR/150 of 35.3 in 900 1/3 innings.  Only four other players exceeded 30 this year, and their defensive excellence is uncontested: Shane Victorino, Juan Lagares, Gerardo Parra, and Manny Machado.  Uribe's hot corner defense is no fluke, as he's posted strong UZR numbers there in each season since '09.  Another stat, defensive runs saved from The Fielding Bible, had Uribe at 15.  That figure was tied for the 15th best in baseball.  The National League Gold Glove at third base went to Nolan Arenado, and rightfully so, but Uribe was one of three finalists along with David Wright.  The Fielding Bible's panel of ten experts ranked Uribe's defense sixth in baseball at third base this year, behind only Arenado in the NL.

Uribe has the versatility to play all around the infield, though it's been a while since he's played anything other than third base regularly.

One reason Uribe was able to pick up 102 starts (and 132 total games) for the Dodgers this year is that he had a solid year with the bat as well.  Uribe hit .278/.331/.438 in 426 plate appearances.  He's always had pop, with a career isolated power mark of .167 and eight seasons of double digit home runs.  He hit a career-best 24 bombs in 2010 with the Giants, leading to his contract with the Dodgers.  This year, Uribe was able to hit for average while also drawing enough walks to create a solid OBP.  Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is park and league-adjusted, measures a player's total offensive value against the league average.  Uribe's 116 figure this year means he was 16% better than the league average hitter, and it ranked eighth among third basemen with at least 400 PAs.  By this measure, Uribe had a better year with the bat than Pablo Sandoval, Chase Headley, Kyle Seager, Pedro Alvarez, Martin Prado, and other starting third basemen.

Uribe made significant contributions to the 2005 White Sox and 2010 Giants, so his pair of World Series rings are well-deserved.  He did not receive a qualifying offer from the Dodgers this offseason, so signing him will not involve forfeiting a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

Uribe was a terrible hitter from 2011-12, hitting .199/.262/.289 with six home runs in 474 plate appearances.  His contract looked like a big mistake after the first two years, and he took criticism for being out of shape.  Uribe endured a left hip flexor injury in May 2011, and hit the DL again in July with a similar injury.  In September 2011 he had surgery for a sports hernia, giving hope for a rebound in '12 when he showed up to camp in better shape and healthy again.  However, he hit the DL in May for a wrist injury and was marginalized as the season wore on.  Hanley Ramirez's thumb injury in March 2013 created an opportunity for Uribe to play regularly at third base.  Even after a stellar 2013, no one has any idea how many useful seasons the 34-year-old Uribe has left.

Uribe posted a ridiculous 25.6% walk rate in April this year, settling in at a more Uribe-like 5.0% for the rest of the season.  He also had a .322 batting average on balls in play this year, compared to a career BABIP of .282.  It's reasonable to expect Uribe to draw fewer walks and have fewer hits drop in next year, pulling his OBP down toward his career .299 mark.  Projections suggest Uribe may not even be a league average hitter in 2014.  If he reverts to being a .200 hitter with no power, Uribe may be nothing more than a defensive replacement.

Personal

Juan and his wife Ana reside in the Dominican Republic in the offseason with their four children.  Juan was a second cousin of Jose Uribe, a shortstop who played in the Majors from 1984-1993 and died in a car crash in 2006.  Juan was signed by Rockies scout Jorge Posada, Sr., father of the Yankees catcher, in 1997.  MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez described the signing in this 2010 article.

Uribe is a big hit in the clubhouse.  In 2010, Ann Killion of Sports Illustrated wrote, "Uribe is beloved, always happy, consistently upbeat."  Uribe's teammates have been singing his praises for many years.

Market

The Dodgers may be open to bringing Uribe back on a one-year deal, after the first two years of their initial commitment went so poorly.  Otherwise, a team with unsettled plans in the short-term at third base would make sense for Uribe, which could mean the White Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Angels, Marlins, and Phillies.  I'm not sure if any teams would consider Uribe as a semi-regular second baseman, but in that case the Orioles, Blue Jays, Tigers, Royals, Braves, and Rockies could be factors.  Uribe may be best served filling an Eric Chavez type of role, in whom the Yankees, Angels, and Diamondbacks are interested according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.  

Uribe benefits from a weak free agent market for third basemen.  He's as much of a starting third baseman as anyone else in the group.

Expected Contract

The question with Uribe: one year or two?  On one hand, the bar for a two-year deal is quite low.  Utility infielders and other part-time players routinely get two years, and Uribe's performance in 2013 suggests he can contribute regularly.  On the other hand, Uribe's contract with the Dodgers three years ago was the first multiyear pact of his career, and the first two years went horribly.  In the end, I think Uribe will get a two-year, $12MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Dan Haren

After a down season that saw the Angels decline their team option on him, Dan Haren signed a one-year, $13MM contract with the Nationals with the hope that a return to the Senior Circuit could boost his free agent stock. Unfortunately for Haren, 2013 brought more of the same, for the most part, and he's now set to head into free agency two seasons removed from his last ace-caliber campaign.

Strengths/Pros

Few pitchers in the game can boast better command than Haren, who has averaged more than 1.9 walks per nine innings just once in the past six seasons. Haren walked just 4.3 percent of the batters he faced in 2013, trailing only Bartolo Colon and Bronson Arroyo among free agents.  Haren-Dan

Haren has only been on the disabled list only twice. While both of those instances have occurred in the past two seasons, Haren seemed perturbed to be placed on the disabled list this season, implying at the time that the move was made more to give him a mental break than due to any true physical ailment in his shoulder.

Whether or not there was an injury severe enough to merit a DL stint, it's hard to argue with Haren's results after the time off. Upon being activated from the DL, Haren rattled off a 3.29 ERA over his final 15 starts (and one relief appearance in which he picked up a save in a 15-inning marathon game). Over those 16 appearances, Haren was in vintage form, striking out 84 batters against just 18 walks in 87 2/3 innings of work. Opponents batted just .228/.271/.355 against Haren in that time.

Both xFIP (3.67) and SIERA (3.60) feel that Haren's ERA should've been at least a full run lower than the 4.67 at which he finished.

National League clubs looking to sign Haren will be pleased with the offense he provides. The average NL pitcher hit .135/.167/.174 in 2013. Haren, who was an excellent hitter in his college days at Pepperdine, has a lifetime .215/.240/.312 batting line in 353 plate appearances. That line isn't pretty, but it's leagues better than most of his mound brethren can boast.

Haren recently turned 33, so while he's on the wrong side of his prime, he's not so old that there's no hope for him to sustain his second-half success over the course of a full a season next year. He didn't receive a qualifying offer from the Nats, so there's no draft pick compensation tied to Haren.

Weaknesses/Cons

One of Haren's main problems is that he's become increasingly homer-prone since 2012. Always a fly-ball pitcher, Haren's ground-ball rate dropped to a career-worst 36 percent in 2013. For the second straight season, he averaged more than 1.4 homers per nine innings, and that was coming in a pitcher-friendly stadium in the National League. Haren's average fastball velocity has clocked in at 88.7 mph over the past two seasons, which could have something to do with the increase in homers.

Haren's strikeout rate has dropped off in recent years. After averaging 8.7 K/9 with the Diamondbacks, he dropped to 7.2 K/9 with the Angels from 2010-12. This season with the Nationals, his strikeout rate climbed back to 8.0 per nine, but the move back to the NL played a large role in that jump. Haren whiffed nearly half of the opposing pitchers that he faced after facing just four pitchers in 2012. His K% against non-pitchers in 2013 (19.7 percent) was only a marginal improvement over his 2012 mark (19.1 percent).

Hitters are squaring up the ball with more frequency when facing Haren. His opponents' line-drive rate has risen in each of the past three seasons, climbing from 18.8 percent in 2010 to 19.5 percent in 2011 to 20.7 percent in 2012 to 21.9 percent in 2013.

From 2005-11, only CC Sabathia threw more Major League innings than Haren. Once a virtual lock to provide 220+ innings, Haren has failed to top 180 in each of the past two seasons. The 169 2/3 innings he totaled in 2013 are the fewest he's thrown in any full season.

Personal

The baseball offseason lines up well with Haren's interests, as he's an avid fan of the NFL and college football. His wife and two young children live in California, and Haren expressed the difficulty he found in being away from them to the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore late in the season: "From a personal standpoint, it was really tough," Haren said. "I hadn’t been away from my kids. It’s a year of their lives I’ll never get back. From that standpoint, it’s sad."

Market

In a candid interview with MASNsports.com's Dan Kolko, Haren recently said that he's never had as much self-doubt as he did in 2013, and coping with his struggles in a city where he knew few people was difficult at times. At a few points, things got so bad that he debated retirement. Haren acknowledged that he won't have as much say in where he lands this offseason as he did in 2012-13, but his preference is to pitch on the West Coast. His hometown of Monterey Park, Calif. is just minutes outside of Los Angeles and is a mere 120 miles from San Diego. Having spent 2005-07 with the A's, the Bay Area is a familiar environment as well, and both Oakland and San Francisco could look to add a veteran starter this winter.

If Haren can't find a home on the West Coast, many other teams will be looking for rotation help. The Pirates have shown a recent affinity for starters whose xFIP numbers dwarf their ERA, and Haren fits that mold to a tee. A return to the Nationals could make sense given his strong finish and the fact that the city no longer feels so unfamiliar. The Orioles, Yankees, Blue Jays and Phillies could all use rotation help, though their hitter-friendly environments may not be a fit for a pitcher whose home run rate continues to climb. Earlier today it was reported that the Twins have reached out to Haren as well.

Expected Contract

Haren salvaged some of his free agent value with a solid second half upon his return from the disabled list, but he's still likely in for a pay cut on 2013's $13MM salary. Another one-year deal seems to be in the offing for he and agent Greg Landry of CAA Sports, and Haren's frank remarks about the unease he felt playing in an unfamiliar city could suggest that geography will play a larger role in his 2014 destination than it would in most free agents' decisions.

Haren has already banked $61MM in his career, so he could settle for less cash if it meant pitching on the West Coast. Ultimately, while he hasn't resembled his former ace self over the past two seasons, he's done enough to earn more than fellow former ace Roy Halladay. My expectation is that Haren will sign a one-year, $10MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: James Loney

James Loney was an afterthought in the August 2012 blockbuster trade that reshaped the Red Sox and Dodgers, with Boston sending Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Nick Punto, and cash to Los Angeles.  Loney joined various Dodgers prospects coming to the Red Sox, and soon after became a free agent for the first time.  He found just a $2MM guarantee with the bargain-shopping Rays, and made good by rediscovering his hitting stroke and playing his usual strong defense at first base.

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Strengths/Pros

Loney's line drive swing produced a .299 batting average this year, which ranked 13th in the American League.  His solid .285 career batting average is owed largely to his high contact rate.  He struck out just 12.9% of the time this year, a mark bested by only 17 AL players.  Loney's 29.8% line drive rate this year topped all of MLB.

Loney's strong batting average helped him to a .348 on-base percentage this year, topping the typical first baseman's .332 mark.  Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), which is park and league-adjusted, measures a player's total offensive value against the league average.  Loney's 118 figure this year means he was 18% better than the league average hitter.  Among free agents with at least 400 plate appearances, Loney's wRC+ ranked ninth among all free agents, beating out players such as Kendrys Morales, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Justin Morneau.  Loney has shown he can excel in baseball card numbers as well, averaging 89 RBI per year from 2008-10.

While Loney's sweet swing had him batting fifth in the Rays' lineup for much of the year, his calling card is his defense at first base.  He was a Gold Glove finalist this year, and has continually been sought out for his defense.  Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman explained Loney's positives in August to MLB.com's Bill Chastain, saying, "James has been one of the better defensive first basemen in the game for a while, and fit right in with our emphasis on defense.  But he's also demonstrated good natural hitting ability, especially against right-handers, and a contact bat that adds a different dimension to our lineup. We felt that with everything he brings to the table, he had a real chance to thrive in our environment."

Durability is another strong suit for Loney — he's never been on the disabled list in a career that has spanned eight seasons.  Aside from his tumultuous 2012, Loney has averaged 159 games per season since 2008.

Loney has youth on his side, as he doesn't turn 30 until May.  And unlike free agent first basemen Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales, Loney did not receive a qualifying offer and is not tied to draft pick compensation.

Weaknesses/Cons

Loney is underpowered for a first baseman, a drawback for those who believe the offensive standard should be higher at his position.  He's continually posted isolated power marks around .130, while the average first baseman was at .176 this year.  The typical first baseman can hit at least 20 home runs, while Loney is generally good for 13 or so.  Loney can still add value as a hitter, but he won't appeal to teams seeking power in free agency.

Loney hit .299/.339/.390 against left-handed pitching in 166 plate appearances this year, providing hope that he will not need to be platooned.  But from 2010-12, Loney was terrible against southpaws, hitting .218/.256/.299 in 425 plate appearances.

Loney had a rough 2012 in general, hitting .249/.293/.336 in 465 plate appearances.  Overall, his play was below replacement level.  Loney has only been worth two-plus wins above replacement twice in his career, in 2011 and '13.  Otherwise, he's often been around replacement level.  Though he drove in a good amount of runs from 2008-10, Loney was still just a league average offensive player, and his defense generally doesn't make up for that.  The Rays seemingly rescued Casey Kotchman's career in 2011, but he was terrible in the season that followed.  Fair or not, some teams might connect the two first basemen and wonder if Loney can maintain success outside of Tampa Bay.

Personal

James' parents, Ann and Marion, met when both were basketball players at SUNY Oswego.  James was born in Houston and still lives in Texas with his wife Nadia and their son, born this year.  James told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick in 2008 he had a hard time deciding whether to root for the Astros or Braves as a kid.  When the Dodgers drafted Loney out of high school in the first round in 2002, most teams viewed him as a pitcher, wrote Dylan Hernandez of the L.A. Times in 2011.

Loney is known as a laid-back player.  "Loney is so calm that sometimes you wonder if there's a pulse," wrote Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe in May.  "I think he's the most unaffected guy I know," Dodgers assistant GM Logan White told Hernandez in 2009.  Former teammate Randy Wolf used the word "spacey," and former manager Joe Torre agreed.  Giants first baseman Brandon Belt may own the nickname "Baby Giraffe," but Wolf used that term to describe Loney's awkwardness in the '09 article, and the first baseman's nickname was "Geoffrey" after the Toys R Us giraffe. 

Market

Loney changed agencies around the opening of free agency, jumping from CAA to The Legacy Agency.  Without knowing the details, the agency change prior to the biggest payday of Loney's career suggests dissatisfaction with his previous contract.

Several teams may be in the market for a first baseman this winter, assuming the Rays don't retain Loney.  The Brewers, Pirates, Twins, and Rockies don't have clear plans at first base, though the Rockies seem to be seeking right-handed power.  The Rangers could be an option if they move on from Mitch Moreland and find bigger bats elsewhere.  As far as starting first basemen, Loney's competition on the free agent market consists of Mike Napoli, Corey Hart, and Justin Morneau, plus maybe Kendrys Morales, Paul Konerko, Mark Reynolds, and Kevin Youkilis.

Expected Contract

I expect Loney's agent to set out with a three-year deal in mind, since he's a relatively young player and the average annual value on the contract won't be staggering.  Ultimately, I think he'll land a two-year, $16MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz was on his way to perhaps the finest offensive season of his career until his connection to the Biogenesis PED scandal resulted in a 50-game suspension that effectively ended his regular season (he did play in the Game 163 tiebreaker against the Rays). While he's served his punishment and isn't at risk of further suspension in 2014, he'll still be somewhat of an uncertainty on the free agent market.

Strengths/Pros

Right-handed power is in short supply, and Cruz has it in spades. He didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title this season, but among free agents with at least 200 plate appearances, Cruz's .240 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) trails only Raul Ibanez's .244. Cruz-NelsonMike Napoli is often cited as the best source of right-handed pop on the free agent market, but Cruz belongs in the conversation right alongside his former teammate.

Cruz's 27 homers in 2013 are tied with Robinson Cano for second among free agents despite the fact that Cruz totaled just 477 plate appearances this season. Cruz hit 80 homers from 2011-13 — good for fourth overall among free agents — despite ranking 30th in plate appearances among qualified free agent hitters in that time.

Cruz has a platoon split for his career but still owns a lifetime .806 OPS against right-handed pitching. In 2013, he actually hit right-handers slightly better than he hit lefties. He also was more effective on the road this season, showing that he has the ability to produce outside of Rangers Ballpark.

Weaknesses/Cons

This season may have shown that he's capable of hitting on the road, but Cruz's .734 career road OPS is dwarfed by his .912 mark at home. Like many hitters before him, he's thrived at Rangers Ballpark, slashing .294/.356/.555 in 1,589 plate appearances. That .911 OPS in Arlington is 87 points higher than his career mark.

Walks have never been a strong point for Cruz. His 7.6 percent walk rate from 2012-13 is a near mirror image of his 7.9 percent career clip. Coupled with a rising strikeout rate (23.9 percent in 2013) and a 12.5 percent swinging-strike rate (9.3 was league average in 2013), it's safe to say that plate discipline is not an area in which Cruz excels.

It can be argued that a great deal of the value Cruz provides at the plate is given back by shaky work in the outfield. Speed used to be one of Cruz's assets earlier in his career (37 stolen bases and +3.6 runs on the basepaths from 2009-10, per Fangraphs), but his defensive ratings have plummeted with his stolen base totals. Cruz has cost his team between 14 and 21 runs from 2011-13, per Ultimate Zone Rating and The Fielding Bible, respectively. There's likely some correlation between the decline in speed and defensive skills and the four separate DL stints Cruz has had for hamstring-related injuries since 2010.

Cruz was suspended 50 games this season and accepted full responsibiity for his mistake in an interview with reporters, including Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times. Cruz said that he was diagnosed with helicobacter pylori, resulting in a weight loss of nearly 40 pounds, prior to the 2012 season: "Just weeks before I was to report to Spring Training in 2012, I was unsure whether I would be physically able to play. Faced with this situation, I made an error in judgment that I deeply regret, and I accept full responsibility for that error."

The Rangers made a qualifying offer to Cruz, meaning he'll be tied to draft pick compensation.The thought of sacrificing a first- or secound-round pick for a 33-year-old outfielder with a slipping defensive reputation is likely somewhat of a deterrent to teams that may show interest.

Personal

Cruz is an accomplished two-sport athlete, having played basketball for the Dominican Republic Junior National Team earlier in life. His father played professional baseball in the Dominican Republic, so athleticism is clearly in his genes. He's done quite a bit of charity work, including recent donations to aid in the purchase of fire trucks and ambulances in the city of Las Matas Santa Cruz near his hometown in the Dominican Republic. Cruz and his wife have two children.

Cruz has always been well-liked and well-regarded in the clubhouse, and the Rangers clearly didn't sour on him even after his 50-game suspension. He was welcomed back to the team, and manager Ron Washington offered high praise for Cruz: "When you think about a Nelson Cruz, who wouldn't want a Nelson Cruz? Big heart, great teammate."

Market

Within that same article, Washington voiced a strong desire for Cruz to return in 2014. A midseason acquisition of Alex Rios likely means the Rangers are set in right field; unlike Cruz, Rios is a defensive asset in right. However, the Rangers still have a need in left field and at DH, so a new contract for Cruz could definitely be in the cards.

Outside of the Rangers, the Royals have a clear hole in right field and no prospects to fill it following the trade of Wil Myers. The Pirates could also use a right field upgrade as well after posting a wRC+ of just 99 that was boosted largely by the efforts of the departing Marlon Byrd. The Phillies are known to be looking for a right-handed bat after GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said he doesn't consider Darin Ruf an everyday player, and the Rockies could also look to install Cruz in right field and transition Michael Cuddyer to first base. MLBTR's Zach Links pointed out the slight irony of the D-Backs' need for a power-hitting outfielder recently, and Cruz could fit the bill for them as well. The Mariners, Yankees, Orioles, Mets and Giants, each with corner outfield/DH vacancies and a need for more offense, strike me as fits as well.

Expected Contract

Cruz's admitted PED usage was prior to the 2012 season, so while some may question the validity of his monstrous 2013 numbers, it doesn't appear that there's any PED link to this year's performance. Cruz has always shown plus power, and power pays handsomely on the open market. He may be below average defensively, but he's far from the worst outfielder in the league. He should have no problem landing a multiyear deal.

Cruz is among the best right-handed power bats on the market along with Napoli, who Tim Dierkes projected to receive three years and $42MM. Hunter Pence received a five-year, $90MM contract from the Giants, but he's three years younger, a better defender and that was top of the market value. I imagine that agent Adam Katz of the Wasserman Media Group will seek a four-year deal. Given his age, questionable defense and Biogenesis connection, I'm skeptical that four guaranteed years is realistic, though I won't be completely shocked if it happens.

Ultimately, as a reliable source of 25 home runs (at least) from the right side of the dish, my expectation is that Cruz can overcome any perceived warts to find a three-year, $39MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. 


Free Agent Profile: Bartolo Colon

A stem cell injection into Bartolo Colon's right shoulder helped to reinvigorate his career with the Yankees in 2011, but the merits of that procedure were called into question a bit by a 50-game suspension for elevated testosterone levels last August. Colon will turn 41 next May, but he still feels that he can pitch another three years, and his 2013 results suggest that it's certainly possible.

Strengths/Pros

Colon's ERA has dropped in each season since his 2011 comeback, and while critics will instantly leap to make PED allegations, he didn't have a positive test in 2013 — a season in which he was better than he was in 2012 when he failed a drug test.Colon-Bartolo

Colon's strikeouts and 93 mph heater seem to be a thing of the past (though he saw a notable uptick toward season's end), but he now boasts some of the best command among all Major League starters. Only Cliff Lee, David Price and Adam Wainwright averaged fewer walks per nine innings this season, and no free agent starter was able to match his precision. In fact, over the past two seasons — a span in which he's thrown 342 2/3 innings — Lee is the only starter in all of baseball with a lower BB/9 rate than Colon.

A great deal of Colon's success comes from the fact that he pounds the strike zone to get ahead in the count. Ervin Santana, Dan Haren and Bronson Arroyo are the only free agents that threw a first-pitch strike more often than Colon this season. As such, he's able to keep his pitch count down and work deep into games; he's averaged more than 6 1/3 innings per start since Opening Day 2012.

Many will assume that the spacious O.Co Coliseum is the reason for his success, but Colon's 2.95 road ERA since 2012 is actually better than his 3.03 ERA at home. Colon comes with quite a bit of postseason experience, having pitched to a 3.70 ERA over 58 1/3 innings in 10 career playoff starts.

Colon didn't receive a qualifying offer from the A's, so adding his veteran presence and postseason experience to a team won't cost a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

Colon's fastball averaged just 89.9 mph this season, and he's managed just 5.5 K/9 in his two years with the A's. Would he be so effective if his heater continued its current downward trajectory? Loss of velocity on his fastball would seem to be particularly damaging to Colon, as he throws roughly 85 percent fastballs. PITCHf/x tells us that 47 percent of those fastballs are two-seamers, so perhaps it's deliberate, as his four-seamer has remained constant at 91.2 mph.

Colon's conditioning will likely be called into question. He's listed at 5'11" and 265 pounds, which will certainly be a red flag for some teams. Whether or not the two are related, Colon has had a 15-day DL stint in each of the past two seasons, and he hasn't topped 200 innings since 2005.

Colon's ERA has been outstanding, but it's also been propped up by a 7.4% HR/FB ratio over the past two seasons. His xFIP — FIP adjusted with a league-average HR/FB — over that same time is a more pedestrian 4.04. Colon's career 10.2% HR/FB is roughly league average, so it's fair to wonder if he can continue limiting homers at such a high rate.

Personal

Colon comes with a bit of baggage in the form of his PED suspension, but that hasn't changed how he's viewed by teammates, managers and front office officials. Colon is very well-regarded and well-liked in clubhouses, as evidenced by the fact that Oakland welcomed him back with open arms following last year's suspension.

Colon is married with three sons and is active in the community. He's made contributions to the American Red Cross to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina and also has funded the construction of baseball fields in his hometown of Altamira in the Dominican Republic, per the A's media guide. Baseball runs in his family, as his brother, Jose, pitched in the Indians system but didn't reach the Majors.

Market

There's mutual interest between the A's and Colon in a reunion for the 2014 season, and he's recently gone on record as stating that he feels he can pitch as many as three more years at the big league level. If he's open to another one-year deal, Colon and agent Adam Katz of the Wasserman Media Group will have no shortage of teams calling up this winter.

Most players coming off brilliant seasons in the late stages of their careers prefer to sign with a contender, and there's no reason to expect anything different from Colon. In addition to the A's, the Pirates, Nationals, Yankees, Orioles, Indians and Royals could all show interest.

Expected Contract

Colon may think he can pitch for three more seasons, but at this point it seems that he'd be hard-pressed to find a team willing to guarantee him multiple years. Multiyear deals for starters on the wrong side of 40 are of the utmost rarity. R.A. Dickey managed a multiyear pact that guaranteed him $12MM in his age-40 season with an identical option for his age-41 campaign, but he did so as a knuckleballer coming off an improbable Cy Young Award, so he doesn't compare that well to Colon.

The previous contract negotiated by Katz contained a $3MM base salary plus $200K for 10, 15, 17, 20, 22 and 25 starts as well as $200K for 140, 150, 160, 170, 180 and 190 innings. Colon hit each of those levels in 2013, totaling a $5.4MM salary.

Coming off a brilliant season without the doubt of a suspension tied to his name, Colon figures to receive a significantly larger salary. He should be compensated more handsomely than reclamation projects like Phil Hughes and Josh Johnson, even if each is significantly younger. My expectation is that Colon can find a one-year, $10MM contract with incentives that can push the total value into the $12MM range.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Stephen Drew

Stephen Drew signed a one-year deal with the Red Sox last offseason to rebuild his value after losing nearly a year to a gruesome ankle injury.  "I think after this year, I think everyone is going to think a lot different about what type of player Stephen is and the impact he can have on a division-contending team," said agent Scott Boras when Drew signed.  Drew went on to have the mostly healthy, productive season he and his agent envisioned. The free agent market for shortstops is bleak, and Drew stands to benefit.

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Strengths/Pros

The average shortstop hit just .254/.308/.367 this year, so any offense out of the position is a plus.  Drew's .253/.333/.443 line looks quite good by comparison.  His OBP ranked third in baseball among shortstops with 500 PAs, and his slugging percentage ranked fourth.  Drew's .190 isolated power trailed only Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki among shortstops.  There's room for more, too — Drew posted a .352 OBP in 2010, and slugged .502 with 21 home runs in '08.

Among those with 500 plate appearances in 2013, Drew's 4.10 pitches per PA ranked 21st in all of baseball, bested only by two other free agents.  He works the count well.

Drew really took off after returning from a hamstring injury in 2013, hitting .292/.367/.513 in 221 plate appearances from July 27th onward.

Drew's defense grades out as above average based on UZR, and anyone who saw him in the playoffs would agree.  Drew's overall production was good for 3.4 wins above replacement, and he reached 4.7 as recently as 2010.  He's an all-around player at a premium position.

Drew is still relatively young, as he doesn't turn 31 until March.

Weaknesses/Cons

Drew fractured his right ankle in a slide at home plate on July 20th, 2011, a season-ending injury that required surgery.  He hoped to be ready for Opening Day 2012, but instead made his season debut for the Diamondbacks on June 27th.  Said D'Backs Managing General Partner Ken Kendrick, "I think Stephen should have been out there playing before now, frankly.  I, for one, am disappointed. I'm going to be real candid and say Stephen and his representatives are more focused on where Stephen is going to be a year from now than on going out and supporting the team that's paying his salary."  Boras denied the claim, making a reasonable point: "If you're talking about what the best thing Stephen can do for himself, that's to play baseball and play a lot of it.  I don't think he wants anything different. That's the best thing he can do for Stephen and for his team. Why would he not want to play? The guy's going to be a free agent."  Still, some damage was likely done to Drew's reputation by Kendrick's comments.  It didn't help that Stephen's older brother J.D. had been known as one of the game's more injury-prone players.  With free agency approaching, the D'Backs traded Stephen Drew to the Athletics in an August waiver trade.

A spring concussion pushed Drew's Red Sox debut to April 10th, and he later missed three weeks due to a hamstring injury.  Though Drew's injuries this year seemed minor and were not related to his ankle, he was limited to 124 regular season games, for a three-year average of about 96.  Until he goes out and does it, some teams may be skeptical that Drew can handle 140+ games again.

Drew, a left-handed hitter, batted just .196/.246/.340 against southpaws this year.  He had a rough time away from Fenway, hitting .222/.295/.392 on the road.  Drew also struggled mightily with the bat in the postseason, with a .111/.140/.204 line in 57 plate appearances.  For most teams, the small postseason sample shouldn't be a deterrent, and Drew did homer in Game Six of the World Series.

Drew received a qualifying offer, so a team will have to forfeit its highest available draft pick to sign him.  It is possible the qualifying offer could have a significant effect on his market.

Personal

Drew was born in a small town in southern Georgia and resides nearby with his wife and two sons in the offseason, right down the street from older brother J.D.  By getting drafted in the first round in 2004, Stephen matched the near-impossible standard set by his older brothers Tim and J.D., who had both been drafted in the first round in 1997.  The Drew brothers are the only trio of siblings to have been selected in the first round of the MLB draft.  J.D. had a successful baseball career, which ended with a five-year stint with Boston, while Tim logged 35 appearances across in parts of five seasons.  Stephen told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com he was a natural-born right-handed hitter, but took up swinging from the left side in admiration of J.D.   He'd later follow J.D. to Florida State and to the Red Sox (and even chose his number seven), though at a young age Stephen chose a very different position in shortstop rather than the outfield.

J.D. had a reputation of being quiet and dispassionate, but Stephen talks a lot more than his brother, noted Red Sox manager John Farrell in Edes' article.  He's a deeply religious man, wrote MLB.com's Steve Gilbert in 2010. 

Market

There hasn't been much buzz about the Red Sox re-signing Drew, perhaps because they have a ready replacement in Xander Bogaerts.  Teams that may be seeking a shortstop this offseason include the Pirates, Cardinals, and Mets.  Drew's market is not limited to that trio, and he will probably need some unexpected suitors to materialize.  For example, the Dodgers could move Hanley Ramirez to third base to make room.  Drew's only free agent competition is Jhonny Peralta, who won't cost a draft pick but also isn't considered a shortstop by some teams. 

Expected Contract

Boras is probably telling teams Drew is one of the best shortstops in baseball, and certainly the best available this winter.  Don't be surprised if Boras sets out seeking a five-year contract for his client.  In reality, though, the fourth year will be a sticking point for most teams, along with the draft pick, and a three-year deal in the $36-42MM range is possible.  But I see Drew closer to the Michael Bourn range, so I'm predicting a four-year, $48MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Jacoby Ellsbury

A healthy 2013 season went a long way toward restoring Jacoby Ellsbury's free agent value.  He bounced back from a lost 2012 season to re-establish himself as one of the game's elite leadoff men and center fielders, and agent Scott Boras surely expects a contract well north of $100MM.

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Strengths/Pros

Ellsbury is known for his blazing speed, and he led all of baseball with 52 stolen bases this year.  He previously picked up the American League stolen base crown in '08 and topped MLB in '09.  He has a strong career stolen base success rate of 84%, and was up near 93% this year.  FanGraphs' baserunning stat, which includes steals and a bunch of other baserunning skills, suggests Ellsbury was worth 11.4 runs on the basepaths this year.  That figure was the best in baseball.

To make an impact on the bases, a player needs first to reach base, and Ellsbury does well there with a .350 career OBP.  He has a high contact rate and a .297 career batting average, and draws enough walks to supplement his hits.  

Ellsbury also has more pop than the typical center fielder, with a career slugging percentage of .439 and isolated power of .141.  While his power is more of the doubles and triples variety, which is aided by his speed, he did hit 32 home runs in 2011.  As Baseball HQ likes to say, once you display a skill, you own it, so it's fair to say Ellsbury has the potential for double digit home runs.  

That 2011 season looks amazing on a resume, as Ellsbury led all of baseball with 9.1 wins above replacement.  He finished second in the AL MVP voting, won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove, and made the All-Star team.

Defense is another strong suit for Ellsbury.  He won a Gold Glove in 2011 and has consistently posted above average UZR and DRS numbers in center field.  Ellsbury adds value in every conceivable way.

This year FanGraphs had him at 5.8 wins above replacement, a level of production a team might value at $30MM or more.  Ellsbury's WAR ranked second only to Robinson Cano among free agents.  Ellsbury will play next year at age 30, which is considered young for a free agent.

Weaknesses/Cons

Ellsbury already has lost two seasons to injury in his career.  He played only 18 games in 2010, fracturing multiple ribs after colliding with Adrian Beltre in April.  Two years later, he collided with Reid Brignac while sliding into second base and ended up playing only 74 games due to a shoulder injury.  "Jacoby Ellsbury is a very durable player. He just has to make sure that people don’t run into him," Boras told reporters in July.  There may be an element of truth to that, but most people in the game would not use the word "durable" to describe Ellsbury.  Ellsbury didn't run into anyone this year, but he was still limited to 134 games due to a groin injury, a sore wrist, and a compression fracture in his right foot.  He was on the field for the postseason, playing in all 16 games despite a nagging hand injury first reported by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.

There is a belief around baseball that speed doesn't age well, and Ellsbury's game could suffer if he loses a step.  While Ellsbury is not as reliant on infield hits as he used to be, they still comprised about 14% of his total this year, according to Baseball-Reference.  His 7.4% walk rate this year, while a career best, is nothing special.  Ellsbury's OBP could come down as he loses speed, more so than with the average player.  And of course, speed is a big factor in center field defense.

A left-handed batter, Ellsbury wasn't much of a threat against southpaws this year, posting a .246/.323/.318 line in 237 plate appearances.

Ellsbury is a lock to receive and turn down a qualifying offer from the Red Sox, so signing him will require a team to forfeit its highest available pick in the 2014 draft.

Personal

Ellsbury was born and raised in Madras, Oregon, and the town threw a parade for him in 2007.  He met his future wife Kelsey while they were attending college at Oregon State.  According to the Red Sox media guide, Ellsbury is believed to be the first Native American of Navajo descent to play in MLB, and he's proud of his heritage.  This year he conducted the Second Annual N7 Jacoby Ellsbury Baseball Camp at the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in January, with 130 kids in attendance.

Ellsbury loves basketball and played in high school, along with football and of course baseball.  He played on travel teams and became friends with current Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie.  The two players were drafted 22 picks apart in 2005 and were teammates for many years in the minors and Majors. 

Market

The Red Sox have made efforts to sign Ellsbury in the past, and will at least have conversations with Boras.  Otherwise, any team with some payroll space that doesn't have an elite center fielder in place will be approached, including the Rangers, Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Nationals, and Cubs.  I'd throw the Tigers in that mix, but that could be tricky for Boras since center fielder Austin Jackson is another one of his clients.

Ellsbury is an ownership level discussion, and Boras has those connections, so it doesn't necessarily matter if the GM approves.

Expected Contract

In September, Boras explained at length to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports why Ellsbury is better than fellow speedy outfielder Carl Crawford.  Boras generally has huge expectations for contracts for his elite free agents, and I think he expects to top Crawford's seven-year, $142MM contract from three years ago.  Boras has secured eight, nine, and ten-year deals before, and he's probably thinking eight or nine years for Ellsbury as a starting point.  I think there's a chance a team springs for eight, especially if that knocks down the average annual value a bit.  Crawford fell short of $21MM a year, and I think Boras can get $20-23MM per year for Ellsbury.  Ultimately, I predict a seven-year, $150MM deal.  

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


Free Agent Profile: Jason Vargas

Looking for more stability in their rotation last offseason, the Angels dealt from their surplus of corner bats and sent Kendrys Morales to the Mariners in exchange for innings eater Jason Vargas. A freak injury cost Vargas about 50 or so innings of his season, but his final numbers look similar to what he's produced over the three previous years. He'll look to cash in on that consistency as a free agent.

Strengths/Pros

Vargas is an innings eater, and there's something to be said for free agents who can be expected to take the ball every fifth day. Vargas-JasonA freak blood clot that required surgery landed him on the shelf for nearly two months, but aside from that, Vargas hasn't been on the disabled list since 2008. He's had only one arm-related injury in his career — a minor offseason procedure to remove bone chips from his elbow in October 2007.

Even though he missed nearly two months in 2013, Vargas still racked up 150 innings, and the missed time brought his yearly average down to a still-strong 190 innings dating back to 2010. Vargas has a 3.97 ERA in that time, thanks largely to his plus command (2.5 BB/9 in that stretch). His strikeout rate has steadily crept upward over the past four seasons as well.

Vargas pitches left-handed, but he doesn't have much of a platoon split. Over the past four seasons, lefties have hit .257/.306/.383 against him, and right-handers have a similar .253/.309/.419 batting line.

Vargas was a late bloomer and did some of his early work out of the bullpen. As such, he has just under 1,400 professional innings under his belt. He doesn't have a lot of mileage on his arm for a 31-year-old, and he won't be attached to draft pick compensation, as the Angels don't figure to make him a qualifying offer due to luxury tax concerns.

Weaknesses/Cons

Vargas' strikeout rate may be on the rise, but even the career-best K/9 that he posted this season was a below-average 6.5. His fastball sits in the 87-88 mph range, so he's not going to overpower any hitters.

Vargas is a fly-ball pitcher that has benefited from pitching in pitchers parks such as Seattle's Safeco Field and Angels Stadium in Anaheim over the past four seasons. Vargas' 4.61 road ERA, 4.70 road FIP and 4.73 road xFIP point to the fact that he's benefited tremendously from those spacious environments. His home numbers — 3.39, 3.76 and 4.23, respectively — are much stronger and suggest that he's best-suited for a bigger park.

In particular, he struggles with homers on the road. Vargas has allowed just 48 homers in 497 home innings (0.87 HR/9) throughout his career, but he's yielded 77 big flies in 482 2/3 innings (1.43 HR/9).

Personal

Vargas is an excellent athlete that played three seasons at quarterback in high school football and is an avid golfer in his free time. His arrival with the Angels reunited him with college teammate Jered Weaver. Baseball runs in Vargas' family, as he is the second cousin of Randy Velarde, who enjoyed a 16-year career as an infielder with the Yankees, Angels and A's. Vargas is very active in charities and co-founded Estrella Youth Sports in Goodyear, Ariz. — a non-profit youth program that aims to develop positive role models through participation in sports.

Market

Vargas isn't an elite rotation piece, and teams that need top-of-the-rotation arms aren't likely to make him a prime target. He's a strong back-end starter and can slide into the middle of a rotation if needed, and plenty of teams will be looking for such arms. The Angels will likely make an effort to re-sign Vargas to a multiyear deal, and the Apple Valley, Calif. native is interested in a return. The Orioles showed some interest on the trade market this summer.

In addition to the O's and Angels, I'd expect contenders like the Royals, Indians and Pirates to show interest. Teams that didn't contend in 2013 but simply need reliable innings could show interest as well, with the Twins, Mariners, Brewers, Padres and Giants coming to mind.

Teams in smaller parks will likely be more hesitant regarding Vargas, but the Phillies, Yankees and Blue Jays are all looking for pitching help as well. Vargas and agent Nez Balelo of CAA Sports should have plenty of interested teams to negotiate with over the course of the winter.

Expected Contract

Vargas doesn't come with a ton of upside, but he's a consistent source of 200 or so innings at or slightly below the league average. Even if he's not an outstanding performer, durability pays on the open market. Vargas is younger than Jeremy Guthrie, and his four years prior to free agency are similar to Guthrie's in terms of innings pitched, ERA+, K/9 and BB/9. In terms of superficial stats, Vargas stacks up well against Ricky Nolasco over the past four years, though the latter has him dwarfed in terms of sabermetric stats. He's similar to Scott Feldman in terms of performance, but Vargas has a much more consistent track record.

Balelo could try to parlay his client's durability and consistency into a four-year contract, given his relative youth, but three years is more realistic for someone with Vargas' limited upside. He should be able to top Guthrie's contract but is likely to fall short of whatever amount Nolasco will receive.

I waffled between a three-year, $27MM deal and a three-year, $30MM deal for Vargas, so I'm splitting the difference and predicting a three-year, $28.5MM contract.

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