Free Agent Profiles Rumors


Free Agent Profile: Marlon Byrd

When the Mets took a minor league flier (lame pun intended) on Marlon Byrd, the transaction was met with little enthusiasm. Such is the case with minor league deals for veterans. Most fans enter the offseason dreaming on big names and high-upside rebound candidates, neither of which were overly applicable to Byrd. Mets fans and Pirates fans alike benefited from Byrd's rebound, and he'll carry a career-best .294/.336/.511 slash line and 24 homers into free agency.

Strengths/Pros

Byrd has typically been able to hit for average and get on base at a solid clip, as evidenced by his career .280/.336/.425 batting line. Even if he can't repeat the surprising power that he showed in 2013, there's plenty of reason to expect helpful contributions in terms of batting average and OBP. Byrd-marlon-pirates

The power that he showed in 2013 is tough to completely write off, however; his agents, Seth and Sam Levinson of ACES, will be able to point out the fact that Byrd's .220 ISO ranked second among qualified free agent hitters, trailing only Mike Napoli.

Byrd was particularly deadly against left-handed pitchers, slashing .344/.376/.583 with eight homers in 178 plate appearances, but he was no slouch against same-handed pitching either. Byrd batted .268/.318/.480 against right-handers in 2013, giving him a 129 OPS+ against right-handed pitchers and a 157 mark against lefties.

In the outfield, Byrd can play center field in a pinch and graded out as an outstanding defensive right fielder. He posted a +2.6 UZR/150 in right field, but The Fielding Bible loved him at +12 runs saved in his 1168 innings.

The only truly bad season that Byrd has had in recent history was 2012. That year aside, he's posted an OPS+ of at least 96 and wRC+ of at least 94 in each season dating back to 2007. Interested parties can reasonably expect at least a league-average offensive performance out of Byrd with the upside for quite a bit more.

Because he was traded midseason, Byrd is unable to receive a qualifying offer (not that the Pirates would've extended one anyhow). He will not be tied to draft pick compensation.

Weaknesses/Cons

With such a strong showing in 2013, it's easy for some to forget that Byrd looked like he was finished as a Major Leaguer in 2012. Prior to his age-36 renaissance, Byrd mustered just a .210/.243/.245 batting line in 153 plate appearances between the Cubs and Red Sox in a season that was also marred by a 50-game suspension. Byrd acknowledged that he made a mistake in using a banned substance to help recover from a surgical procedure. Byrd was quoted as saying that he was "mortified by [his] carelessness" and accepted his suspension without protest.

Byrd has never been one to draw many walks, and 2013 was no exception as he earned a free pass in just 5.4 percent of his trips to the plate. That mark actually represented his highest rate since 2008 with the Rangers. Unfortunately, it also came along with a career-worst 24.9 percent strikeout rate. Byrd's 14.7 percent swinging-strike rate was the seventh-highest among qualified hitters, and his 40.7 percent chase rate on pitches out of the zone ranked 10th. To sum it up in a concise manner: plate discipline isn't really Byrd's strong point.

Personal

Early in October, John Perrotto wrote that Byrd's ebullient personality made him a quick favorite in the Pirates' clubhouse. Dave Caldwell of the Wall Street Journal wrote in June that Byrd was beloved and respected in the Mets' clubhouse as well, with David Wright talking about the importance of the example that Byrd set with his work ethic.

Caldwell added that Byrd's wife, Andrea, used to send him a copy of a speech from Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of each season, but that is no longer necessary. As ESPN's Doug Padilla wrote prior to the 2012 season, Byrd has Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" tattooed on his arm, beginning with the lines: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better." (Padilla's piece has the full quote)

Market

The Pirates have said they will try to retain Byrd, and there's mutual interest in a reunion between Byrd and the Mets. Beyond that, any team with a corner outfield hole and in need of a cheap upgrade could look to Byrd as an option.

The Phillies are one team that is known to be looking for right-handed pop to balance out their lineup, and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has said he doesn't view Darin Ruf as an everyday player. Byrd was dealt from the Phillies to the Nationals in a change of scenery deal back in 2005 after questioning his role with the team, but then-GM Ed Wade and manager Charlie Manuel no longer occupy those roles and it's been more than eight years, so a return could be plausible.

The Rockies could give Byrd a look and move Michael Cuddyer -- who was one of baseball's worst defenders in right field -- to first base to replace the retiring Todd Helton. The Royals are prioritizing right field and second base this offseason, and Byrd will be more affordable than Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz. The Rangers let Byrd walk in free agency once when they felt they had cheaper internal options in Julio Borbon and David Murphy. Now in need of a corner bat if Cruz isn't retained, a return would seem to make sense. Other teams that would make sense include the Orioles, Giants and Mariners, to name a few.

Expected Contract

Right-handed pop is in short supply on the free agent market, and even with some regression, Byrd offers a plus glove in right field. Because Byrd and the Levinsons can point to the 2012 season as an abnormality, a two-year deal doesn't seem far-fetched. Byrd has always been an under-the-radar commodity, and there's little historical context for a 35-year-old outfielder posting an unexpected four-WAR season after a year in which he was below replacement level. Byrd's case is fairly unique, and as a result it leaves us with little historical context to make a prediction.

Jonny Gomes' two-year, $10MM contract with the Red Sox may seem a good comparison upon first glance, but Gomes got that contract coming off a season in which he played just 99 games, and his defense is generally not considered a positive. That contract seems like the floor for Byrd, but I think the demand for right-handed power bats and the bulk of teams looking for a corner outfield upgrade will allow Byrd to beat Gomes' deal. In recent years we've seen corner bats Melky Cabrera and Jason Kubel land two-year deals for $16MM and $15MM, respectively, and my expectation is that Byrd will match Cabrera with a two-year, $16MM deal.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Justin Morneau

On July 7, 2010, Justin Morneau was hitting a ridiculous .345/.437/.618 for the first-place Twins in their inaugural season at Target Field. Morneau would leave that game early after taking a knee to the head from John McDonald while trying to break up a double play. It was later learned that Morneau suffered a severe concussion on that slide. He wouldn't play again in 2010, and three years later, the Canadian slugger is still searching for his All-Star form. A last-minute trade sent the former American League MVP from the Twins -- the only organization he'd ever known -- to the Pirates to help deepen Pittsburgh's lineup for a postseason push, and he'll hit the open market for the first time this winter.

Strengths/Pros

Morneau hit .259/.323/.411 with 17 homers in 2013. His slash line is a slight improvement over that of a league-average hitter, and his .152 isolated power mark is also slightly above the league average of .146. He rediscovered his power stroke late in the season, belting nine homers in the month of August before being traded to the Pirates on Aug. 31. His final at-bat in a Twins uniform was an upper-deck, go-ahead homer against Yu Darvish in Texas.  Morneau-Justin

The Fielding Bible's DRS stat has long been a fan of Morneau's work at first base (he was +8 runs in 2010 prior to his concussion), and he's done a fine job there once again in 2013. Morneau has saved five runs with his glove, per DRS. He's been roughly average, per UZR/150.

Morneau makes contact better than the average first baseman. His 17.3 strikeout percentage is a significant improvement over the league average of 22.2 percent.

Among free agent options at first base, only Mike Napoli and Mark Reynolds hit more home runs than Morneau. Reynolds, however, posted a sub-.300 OBP while striking out in more than 30 percent of his plate appearances. Morneau might not be an elite bat anymore, but the only available first basemen with clearly superior seasons to his in 2013 were Napoli and James Loney. Morneau offers more power than Loney, and unlike Napoli, he will not be attached to draft pick compensation.

Weaknesses/Cons

The power just isn't there for Morneau like it was when he was an annual 30-homer threat, and there's no guarantee it will ever return now that he's turning 33 in 2014. His walk rate has also declined; Morneau walked in 11.3 percent of his plate appearances in his peak from 2007-10, but he walked in just 7.9 percent of his trips to the plate in 2013.

Part of the reason that Morneau was so lethal in his prime was his ability to hit left-handed pitching, but that too has eroded. From 2006-10, Morneau hit .282/.331/.492 against same-handed pitching, but over the past three seasons that slash line has deflated to a platoon-worthy .206/.246/.274. Just five of his 40 homers dating back to 2011 have come against southpaws.

The concussion is far from the only injury with which Morneau has dealt since 2010. He's undergone four different surgeries to fix issues ranging from bone spurs in his wrist and foot to a herniated disk in his neck. The neck issue resulted in a pinched nerve that Morneau said prevented him from feeling the pointer finger in his left hand for most of the 2011 season.

Personal

Morneau met his wife, Krista, in Minnesota. The couple and their two children make their home in the suburbs of Minneapolis. A lifelong hockey fan, Morneau grew up idolizing goalie Patrick Roy and has worn Roy's No. 33 throughout his career (he switched to 66 in Pittsburgh, as 33 is retired there in honor of Honus Wagner). No. 33 is also the number of another of his Canadian idols -- Larry Walker. Justin and Krista are active within the community, having started the Justin Morneau Foundation, which seeks to support underserved communities. He is known to have many superstitions, such as eating the same sandwich from the same restaurant in St. Paul prior to each home game.

Market

Morneau and his agent, Mark Pieper of SFX, approached the Twins about a potential contract extension this summer but were rebuffed at the time. Minnesota has no clear replacement waiting in the wings, with Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello both posting sub-par big league numbers. The team may want to leave first base open for a potential position change for Joe Mauer, but a reunion between the two sides does make some sense.

Morneau may be better suited to play for a team in a hitter-friendly ballpark (Target Field certainly does not qualify, especially for left-handed batters). The Blue Jays have long been rumored to have interest, but there doesn't necessarily appear to be a fit with Lind and Edwin Encarnacion set to handle DH and first base.

Morneau could follow the path that Loney and many others have taken and seek to rebuild his value with the Rays, who would have no shortage of platoon options available. He could also be a first base option for the Red Sox, Brewers, Rockies or Rangers. Pirates GM Neal Huntington could also look to retain Morneau at a reduced rate.

Expected Contract

Morneau earned $14MM this season in the final year of a six-year, $80MM extension he signed with the Twins in 2008. He won't come close to that type of money this offseason and may have difficulty securing a multiyear contract. Reynolds' line of .221/.335/.429 from 2012 isn't that dissimilar from Morneau's production in 2013, but Morneau is considered a better defender and doesn't strike out nearly as often. Reynolds signed for one year and $6MM with the Indians last offseason.

Another solid, albeit slightly dated comparison could be Derrek Lee, who signed for one year and $7.25MM with the Orioles after hitting .260/.347/.428 in 2010. Ultimately, I expect Morneau to take a one-year, $7MM contract in a hitter-friendly atmosphere to try to rebuild some free agent value for next offseason.

Phot courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Fernando Rodney

When Fernando Rodney signed a one-year, $2MM contract with the Rays that contained a club option for the 2013 season, many were surprised to see him receive a Major League deal. Rodney rebounded from an injury-plagued 2011 season that saw him walk more batters than he struck out to turn in the most dominant season (in terms of ERA) in Major League history in 2012. He'll hit the free agent market as one of the top relief arms available coming off a pair of big seasons in Tampa.

Strengths/Pros

Only one free agent reliever -- Jesse Crain -- posted a higher K/9 than Rodney's 11.1. Rodney whiffed 28.2 percent of the hitters he faced in 2013, a mark that can only be topped by Crain and Joe Nathan. Rodney-FernandoIn terms of pure velocity, there's no free agent pitcher among starters or relievers with at least 10 innings pitched that can top Rodney's 96.5 mph average fastball. As such, it's no surprise to see him tied for the second-best swinging-strike rate at 12.5 percent. In other words, Rodney flat out overpowers hitters.

The 2013 campaign marked the fifth consecutive season in which Rodney has posted a ground-ball rate north of 50 percent. His 50.6 clip ranks sixth among right-handed peers on the free agent market.

As noted in the intro, Rodney's 0.60 ERA in 2012 was the lowest ERA in baseball history for a relief pitcher. Predictably, there was some regression in 2013, resulting in a 3.38 ERA. ERA estimators FIP (2.46), xFIP (2.88) and SIERA (2.69) all still love Rodney, though. As a result, Rodney ranks seventh among all qualified relief pitchers from 2012-13 in fWAR at 3.6.

Rodney remains a fastball/change-up pitcher, but the combination has become more effective with age, as he's continually added to his velocity over the past several seasons. While many pitchers see their velocity decline as they get older, there are no such concerns with Rodney.

Dominant as he was, Rodney won't be receiving a qualifying offer from the cost-conscious Rays, so he won't require a draft pick to sign.

Weaknesses/Cons

While Rodney's strikeout numbers are typically sky-high, so too are his walk totals. Rodney shocked everyone by averaging just 1.8 walks per nine innings in 2012 (5.3 BB%), but his command woes returned in 2013. Rodney has averaged 4.5 walks per nine innings in his career (11.4 BB%), and he averaged 4.9 per nine innings in 2013 (12.4 BB%). This past season was a make-or-break year for his walk rate; had he kept it down, teams may have believed that he'd corrected the issue. As it turns out, 2012's walk rate just looks fluky.

Rodney will turn 37 next March, so while he's increasing his velocity and delivering the best innings of his career, one has to wonder when he will start to show his age. There's plenty of precedent for relievers enjoying success in their late 30s and even into their early 40s, but Rodney lacks the track record of a Joe Nathan or a Mariano Rivera -- two recent examples of such success.

That lack of a track record is what makes evaluating Rodney truly difficult. Heading into 2012, Rodney had a 4.42 ERA with 8.2 K/9 and 5.2 BB/9 over his previous 266 2/3 innings in the Majors. He'd never been able to hold down a closer's gig for more than a year at a time, as evidenced by the fact that he's saved almost as many games in two seasons with the Rays (85) as he had in nine previous seasons combined (87). Which guy is Fernando Rodney? The erratic, often hittable setup man or the dominant relief ace that held opponents to a .186/.266/.259 batting line from 2012-13? That's the question that scouts and GMs will have to answer this winter.

Personal

Rodney and his wife, Helen, have four children ranging from eight months old to 12 years old, according to the Rays media guide. As noted by MLB.com's Bill Chastain, Rodney is popular among his teammates, with Joel Peralta among the most vocal about his desire for Rodney to return. Chastain also notes that Jose Lobaton would like to see the closer return as well.

Market

Peralta feels that Rodney would take a discount to remain with the Rays. Peralta says that he and Rodney are like brothers, and that Rodney is beloved in the clubhouse. That thinking directly contradicts a recent report by Marc Topkin of the Tampa Times, who wrote last weekend that Rodney will explore the market.

Rodney's agent, Dan Lozano of the MVP Sports Group, will likely attempt to position his client as the next-best closer on the market after Nathan. They'll have a compelling point, as Rodney's 85 saves in 2012-13 are the most of any free agent, and his 1.91 ERA in that time is topped only by Crain and his balky shoulder. Unfortunately, it looks to be a buyers' market for relief pitchers, as Rodney will be joined by Nathan, Grant Balfour, Joaquin BenoitEdward MujicaJose Veras and the recently released Chris Perez -- each of whom saved at least 21 games this season. And that doesn't even count Brian Wilson, he of 171 career saves, who will be a free agent after re-establishing his value and announcing his health in a late-season cameo with the Dodgers.

Expected Contract

Rodney has transformed himself from a 2011-12 afterthought to a Top 50 free agent for the 2013-14 offseason. He's a candidate to secure a multiyear contract, even though competition among closer types will be fierce. As is the case with all relievers on this market, it will behoove Rodney to sign early in the offseason while his options are still plentiful.

I'm comfortable projecting the same two-year, $18MM contract for Rodney that I projected for Balfour earlier in the month. Ultimately, our predictions are going to be off on some of these relievers, as there are just too many closer types competing for a limited amount of jobs. Some will be left standing in January and be forced to settle for one-year deals or eighth-inning roles that won't pay as well. However, with no way of knowing which relievers will come off the board first, I'm sticking to the formula of predicting the maximum dollars they can earn if they sign early in free agency.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Phil Hughes

Not long ago, the thought of Phil Hughes hitting free agency at age 27 would have come with lofty contract expectations. The former No. 4 overall prospect in the game, per Baseball America, enjoyed a dominant season in the bullpen with the 2009 Yankees en route to a World Series title. He followed it up with a solid 4.19 ERA in 176 2/3 innings in the rotation at age 24 -- a season in which he earned his first All-Star nod. It's been mostly a downhill ride for Hughes since that point, however, and he'll head into free agency having posted an ERA north of 5.00 in two of his past three seasons.

Strengths/Pros

Through all his ups and downs, Hughes has steadily maintained solid control. He's averaged 2.7 walks per nine innings from 2010-13 (a span of 674 innings pitched). Part of the reason he's able to limit walks is because of the way that he attacks hitters. Hughes-PhilAmong qualified starters over that same four-year stretch, only Cliff Lee, Tommy Milone and Kevin Slowey have thrown a first-pitch strike at a higher rate than Hughes' 66.7 percent.

Additionally, his 7.6 K/9 rate over the past two seasons is a tick above the league average for starting pitchers (7.2). Hughes' 2.95 K/BB ratio ranks 13th out of the 41 potential free agent starters with more than 50 innings pitched this season.

He also compares favorably to his competition in terms of fastball velocity. Using the same criteria, Hughes' average fastball -- 92.4 mph -- ties him with Ervin Santana and Mike Pelfrey for eighth highest among potential free agent starters (or seventh if you want to remove Jon Lester, whose option is sure to be exercised, from the list).

Likely the most appealing factor for Hughes' suitors will be the fact that he's actually been a very solid pitcher away from Yankee Stadium. Hughes checked in with a 5.19 ERA overall in 2013, but that was due to a bloated 6.32 ERA when pitching in the Bronx. On the road, Hughes posted a 3.88 ERA. Over the past four seasons, Hughes has a 4.11 ERA and 3.80 FIP on the road compared to a 5.12 ERA and 5.02 FIP at home. As a right-handed fly-ball pitcher, Yankee Stadium (and its short porch in right field) is perhaps the worst possible setting for Hughes.

Hughes is the youngest free agent starter on the market, and while at one point there was talk of the Yankees extending a qualifying offer for that reason, the Yankees don't figure to bring Hughes back for $14.1MM. He won't cost his new team a draft pick.

Weaknesses/Cons

Hughes' home struggles can't simply be written off. No matter where he signs this offseason, he's going to have to pitch some games in hitter-friendly stadiums, and those are daunting settings for a pitcher with the sixth-lowest ground-ball rate in all of baseball over the past four seasons (33 percent).

While he's just 27, Hughes has some injury baggage on his resume already. He missed nearly half the season in 2011 with inflammation and fatigue in his right shoulder, and he has a history of back issues. Hughes dealt with a herniated disk in his back as a minor leaguer, and he's missed small amounts of time with back-related injuries since. He also had a stress fracture in his rib that cost him nearly all of the 2008 season.

Hughes has only topped 100 innings three times in his career, and he's never reached 200 frames. And, in two of those three 100+ innings seasons, he's significantly faded down the stretch. After a 4.57 first-half ERA in 2013, he faded with a 6.32 ERA in the season's second half. In 2010, his ERA sat at 3.65 at the All-Star break, but he limped to the finish with a second-half ERA of 4.90. Hughes' injury troubles, low innings totals and second-half struggles in seasons with a full starter's workload will give teams serious concerns about his durability.

Personal

Hughes is a devout Christian and has the bible verse "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" tattooed on his left arm. As he explained to Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated back in 2009, Hughes actually got the tattoo while on a road trip to Atlanta. In his free time, one of Hughes' favorite hobbies is cooking.

Market

After six years at Yankee Stadium, it seems unlikely that Hughes would opt to pitch for a team in a hitter-friendly environment. Teams in spacious home parks will likely appeal to Hughes, and it was already reported over the summer that the Twins are expected to be interested. Target Field in Minneapolis is plenty spacious, and they liked him when discussing trade packages for Johan Santana all the way back in the 2007-08 offseason.

While Hughes was quoted as saying he wouldn't immediately disregard an offer to pitch out of a team's bullpen, he clarified shortly after that his strong preference was to remain in a starting role for as long as he can. Even with his struggles at home, he shouldn't have a problem doing so.

A move to the National League could be beneficial to Hughes, who is a native of Mission Viejo, Calif. His hometown is located just 75 miles north of San Diego and 48 miles south of Los Angeles, so geographically speaking, the Padres, Dodgers and Angels may be appealing. If he's willing to pitch further north, I'd imagine the Giants and Mariners to be another pair of West Coast teams that would have interest. We've seen the Pirates buy low on talented hurlers like Francisco Liriano and (former Yankee) A.J. Burnett recently. The Nationals have done the same, albeit with less success, in signing Edwin Jackson and Dan Haren.

Expected Contract

It's rare that a starting pitcher hits free agency at such a young age, but Hughes doesn't have much of a track record on his side at this time. In fact, in a recent edition of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff, nearly 72 percent of the 8,000+ respondents said they'd rather sign Scott Kazmir as a free agent this offseason, despite Kazmir's own spotty track record.

Hughes could look to follow Jackson's lead and sign a one-year, make-good deal before cashing in on a multiyear contract, or he could prefer to take whatever two-year deal is on the table for him to maximize his earnings. We saw Francisco Liriano take the latter approach last offseason, and I'd expect Hughes to have an opportunity at a two-year deal with a modest annual value as well.

A rebound campaign in 2014 would set Hughes up as a desirable arm entering his age-28 season on next year's free agent market. I wouldn't be surprised to see him go the Liriano route and ink a two-year contract (he'd still be able to hit free agency again at age 29), but my prediction is that Hughes will sign a one-year, $8MM contract this winter.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Matt Garza

Despite opening the season on the disabled list, Matt Garza looked to be in a position to claim the role of this offseason's top free agent starter. A slow finish to the season has jeopardized that thinking, but he still ranked seventh on Tim Dierkes' final edition of his 2014 Free Agent Power Rankings.

Strengths/Pros

A former first-round pick by the Twins, Garza hasn't posted an ERA higher than 3.95 since his initial call-up with Minnesota in 2006 -- a stint that lasted just 50 innings. Only one other free agent starter -- Tim Hudson -- can boast seven consecutive seasons of an ERA south of 4.00, and Hudson is eight years older than Garza.Garza-Matt-Rangers

In terms of fastball velocity, Garza can bring it. He's only averaged less than 93 mph on his fastball once in his eight-year career, and that came in 2009 when he averaged 92.9 mph. Garza's 93.1 mph average in 2013 tops all free agent starters, and even his "weak" (by his standards) 2009 average would've been good enough to top the list.

He was a bit wild early in his career, but Garza has four straight seasons of a 2.9 BB/9 rate or lower, and he sat at 2.4 in 2013. Dating back to 2009, he's averaged eight strikeouts per inning on the dot, and he sat at 7.9 this season.

Garza has shined on the biggest of stages, as he owns a career 3.48 ERA with 8.4 K/9 and 4.1 BB/9 in 31 postseason innings. He dominated in the 2009 ALCS, yielding two runs over 13 2/3 innings in two starts en route to ALCS MVP honors.

Because he was traded midseason, Garza is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer and will therefore not be tied to draft pick compensation.

Weaknesses/Cons

Garza has been stricken with injuries over the past two years. A stress fracture in his right elbow ended his season in late July last year (and also prevented a trade), and a lat strain caused him to miss the first seven weeks of the 2013 regular season. He made all of his starts upon activation, but the simple fact is that he's thrown just 259 innings since Opening Day 2012.

While injuries prevented a trade last year, he was flipped to the Rangers midseason in 2013. As was the case when Ryan Dempster found himself flipped to Texas in 2012, Garza didn't finish very well. Though his walk rate improved and xFIP suggests that he was actually better with the Rangers than with the Cubs, he limped to a 4.38 ERA in 13 starts with Texas.

Garza seriously boosted his ground-ball rate in 2011, jumping from a pair of sub-40-percent seasons to a robust 46.3 percent. He increased that number further in 2012 with a 47.3 percent mark, but this season saw him drop back down toward his career levels. He induced grounders at a 38.6 percent clip in 2013, which is slightly lower than his already below-average career mark of 41.2 percent.

Setting aside his ugly rookie debut, Garza has a 3.75 ERA. Incredibly, advanced metrics FIP, xFIP and SIERA all peg him at exactly 3.96 from 2007-13. Garza can be realistically counted on for an ERA under 4.00 (and in some seasons, well under 4.00 with a bit of luck), but he lacks the durability and statistical profile of the front-line pitcher many have perceived him to be.

Personal

Garza married his high school sweetheart, Serina, and they have four children together. He is known as a passionate family man who loves to spend time with his wife and children. Per the Cubs media guide, his father, Rudy, is a Sergeant Major in the Army, and baseball clearly runs in the Garza family, as his brother Michael coaches high school ball in Florida. Garza has a fiery personality that can get the better of him at times. Garza blasted some Cubs fans on Twitter early in the year, calling them "fake" in reaction to their negativity. More controversially, he took to Twitter and launched a tirade at Athletics' second baseman Eric Sogard as well as Sogard's wife. Garza publicly apologized the following day, telling reporters that he "let his competitive spirit cross outside the lines" and that his "passion" and "fire" carried over beyond the playing field.

Market

Despite questions about his recent durability and his Twitter antics, Garza is one of the most talented and consistently productive (when healthy) pitchers on the free agent market. Many teams will be involved, particularly due to the fact that unlike Ervin Santana -- the top domestic pitcher on MLBTR's Free Agent Power Rankings -- he won't cost a draft pick. Other names like Hiroki Kuroda, Ubaldo Jimenez and A.J. Burnett could all be linked to draft pick compensation as well.

In a recent Free Agent Faceoff conducted by MLBTR's Aaron Steen, nearly 66 percent of the 10,000+ respondents said that they would rather have their team sign Japanese ace Masahiro Tanaka. After factoring in the posting fee and contract, however, Garza figures to be the cheaper option. Expect to see a wide array of teams expressing interest, as more than half the teams in Major League Baseball could use a rotation upgrade.

Garza is a California native, and though he's pitched for four Major League teams -- the Twins, Rays, Cubs and Rangers -- he's never had the opportunity to pitch close to home. It's not clear whether that will be a factor in his decision, but plenty of West Coast teams will be looking for pitching help.

Expected Contract

Many expected Garza to be the top arm on this year's free agent market, and while some may still feel that's the case, the emergence of Tanaka and rebirth of Santana have given him some stiff competition. Garza earns points for consistency when healthy and his relative youth, both of which will be determining factors in his free agency this offseason.

He doesn't boast the durability that Edwin Jackson did when he signed his four-year contract with the Cubs, but teams won't need to worry about the tumultuous on-field results that have plagued Jackson when considering Garza. Jackson's $52MM contract is the floor for Garza in my mind. He should have little trouble surpassing it, though he and agent Nez Balelo of CAA Sports may have trouble finding a fifth guaranteed year thanks to the slow finish and recent injury history.

Ultimately, I think Garza will command a four-year, $64MM contract this offseason. Such a deal easily tops the four-year commitments attained by Jackson and Mark Buehrle in recent years, while still affording Garza the opportunity to sign another significant contract heading into his age-34 season in 2018. A vesting option for that fifth year is another possibility, as the biggest current issue with Garza is his durability, not his performance.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Suk-min Yoon

Suk-min Yoon is a 27-year-old right-handed pitcher who intends to jump from the Korea Baseball Organization to MLB this offseason.  Hyun-jin Ryu was the ace of KBO and had success in his first MLB season, but what can we expect from the second best pitcher out of Korea?

Strengths/Pros

After bouncing between the rotation and bullpen for most of his career, Yoon had a breakout 2011 season, posting a 2.45 ERA, 9.3 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, and 0.52 HR/9 in 172 1/3 innings, winning the MVP award.  Yoon's 2012 was excellent as well: a 3.12 ERA, 8.1 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, and 0.53 HR/9 in 153 frames.  Check out all of his stats at MyKBO.net.  Yoon has experience as a closer, so a relief role could be possible if necessary.

According to report two years ago from Yahoo's Jeff Passan, Yoon's fastball sat at 93 miles per hour and one scout deemed his change-up above average.  Yoon has been represented for several years by Scott Boras, who told George A. King III of the New York Post, "He’s a 91 to 92 [mph] guy. He’s a good pitcher … not an overpowering arm."  King says Boras sees Yoon as a Kyle Lohse type, though it's not clear if Boras or King drew the comparison.  One source I spoke to feels Yoon has the potential for three above average pitches.  

Yoon will pitch next year at age 27, meaning he's the youngest free agent starter available and one of few in his 20s.

As an international free agent, Yoon will not require a draft pick to sign.  Additionally, unlike Ryu, Yoon is a free agent and will not require a posting fee.

Weaknesses/Cons

Yoon dealt with a shoulder injury in 2013, about which not much is known publicly.  Jee-ho Yoo of the Yonhap News Agency tells me the injury "seemed serious."  Yoon made 11 starts with a 4.16 ERA, as well as 19 relief appearances with a 3.60 mark.  Yoon's coaches asked him to close for the Kia Tigers in their time of need in August, prompting his move to the bullpen.  At any rate, Yoon's 172 1/3 innings in 2011 was a career-high, so 30 big league starts would be a new level for him.  The increased travel may have worn on Ryu this year and could affect Yoon as well.  After an off year, it may have made sense to rebuild value in Korea, but Yoon wants to come over now.

Yoon has certainly been accessible to scouts over the years in Korea, and he has pitched in the 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classics.  However, we haven't seen much in the way of scouting reports in the public arena yet, and it's unclear if he even rates as an MLB starter.  One MLB executive I spoke to sees Yoon as a reliever.

Personal

Yoon is a single guy, and Yoo tells me the pitcher enjoys driving and fishing (and perhaps driving to go fishing).  Yoo says Yoon is "not a rah-rah guy in the clubhouse," but in Korean sports culture age and seniority matter a great deal in determining the clubhouse leader.  There was one maturity issue in 2010, when Yoon broke his right pinkie after punching his locker.  

Market

Yoon rumors have been light in the early going.  In mid-October, Darren Wolfson of ESPN 1500 said the Twins would scout Yoon's showcase, but Boras later told King no showcase was happening.  And while Boras intends to engage Yankees GM Brian Cashman about Yoon, there's no indication whether the team is interested.  Along with the Twins, the Cubs, Rays, Royals, and Orioles are among the teams with Korean scouts, so they may have extra information on Yoon.

Expected Contract

Of my contract predictions so far, I have the least confidence in this one, due to the lack of public information on Yoon.  He's a bit of a wild card, but I'm going with a two-year, $10MM deal.

Thanks to Dan Kurtz of myKBO.net and Jee-ho Yoo of the Yonhap News Agency for insight.



Free Agent Profile: Ervin Santana

It's been an eventful 12 months for Ervin Santana. It seems hard to believe that just a year ago, Royals GM Dayton Moore's decision to acquire Santana and $1MM for minor leaguer Brandon Sisk was widely panned. Since that time, Santana resurfaced as one of the better pitchers in the American League, one of the game's top trade chips at the deadline and of course, one of the most desirable free agents on the market.

Strengths/Pros

Santana shaved nearly two runs off his ERA this season, dropping it to 3.24 and crossing 200 innings for the fifth time in his nine-year career. Durability is one of Santana's biggest assets; he's only been on the disabled list twice in his career. Dating back to 2011, Santana's average of 6.5 innings per start is the highest of any notable free agent. That ability to work deep into games is a boost for teams looking to avoid overtaxing their bullpens.  Santana-Ervin

Santana's 92.4 mph average fastball is among the fastest for free agent starters this season. Only Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Edinson Volquez, A.J. Burnett and Scott Kazmir throw harder. Lester's option will be picked up, however, while Volquez and Johnson posted two of baseball's worst ERAs. If you're looking for a starter that can average better than 92 mph on his fastball, Santana is a cut above the rest. In terms of swinging-strike rate, only Burnett, Kazmir, Ricky Nolasco and Chris Capuano topped Santana's 10 percent mark.

Santana's career 2.8 BB/9 rate is a testament to his excellent control, but he took that a step further in 2013. Santana's 2.2 BB/9 rate is fifth-best among qualified starters. Removing three intentional walks from the equation, that number drops to 2.0. Santana also continued to display an increased ground-ball rate, posting a career-best 46.5 percent mark in 2013 -- his third-straight season of at least 43.2 percent.

Age is on Santana's side; he's set to turn 31 in December, making him younger than a number of his peers and bringing the promise of a few more of his prime years over the course of his next contract.

Weaknesses/Cons

Santana is homer-prone (career 1.22 HR/9), and the homer bug bit fiercely in 2012 when his 39 long balls allowed were the most in the Majors. That season was a clear outlier, as evidenced by a remarkably fluky 18.9 percent homer-to-flyball ratio (the league average that season was 11.8 percent, and Santana's career mark is 11 percent). Even if you ignore the outlier season, however, only twice has he posted a HR/9 better than the league average.

For a player who is positioned as one of the top pitchers on the free agent market, Santana doesn't strike hitters out at an elite rate. His 6.9 K/9 in 2013 was below the league average of 7.2 for starting pitchers, and he hasn't averaged more than 7.0 punchouts per nine innings since 2008. 

I'd be remiss not to point out that Santana was little more than a salary dump a year ago at this time. The Royals' acquisition of him was widely questioned, as he was coming off a season in which he posted a 5.16 ERA -- his second ERA north of 5.00 in a four-year span. Santana does not have consistency on his side, and he pitched below replacement level in 2012.

Part of the reason for his other 5.00+ ERA season (5.03 in 2009) was that he partially tore his UCL and elected to rehab and pitch through it. His ERA that season is probably more representative of the injury than his ability, as he posted a 7.81 first-half ERA but a 3.90 second-half ERA (3.09 in his final 12 appearances). Santana has never had the injury corrected, but it doesn't appear to be a major issue, as he's thrown 980 innings since partially tearing the ligament. Put another way, Santana has thrown nearly as many innings since the 2009 injury as one of his competitors, Josh Johnson, has thrown in his entire career dating back to 2005.

Advanced metrics such as FIP, xFIP and SIERA all feel that even in Santana's best seasons, he's more of a 3.90-4.00 ERA pitcher. Those may be a bit unfair, as he's shown the ability to consistently post a BABIP that's better than the league average, as seen in his .282 career total. It's still hard to ignore the fact that Santana has had just one truly elite season -- a 219-inning, six-fWAR (five rWAR) masterpiece back in 2008. He's never been able to replicate his velocity, swinging-strike rate or strikeout rate from that season.

Santana's strong overall numbers in 2013 make a qualifying offer an absolute no-brainer for the Royals, so a team will absolutely have to forfeit its first- or second-round pick to sign him.

Personal

Per the Royals media guide, Santana and his wife, Amy, reside in the Dominican Republic in the offseason. He enjoys teaching children about baseball fundamentals and is outspoken in the confidence he has in himself and his teammates on Twitter. Santana was a hot topic at MLBTR over the summer months, and he showed off his playful side by making this Youtube video that described how it felt to be the target of so many trade rumors.

Market

Santana parlayed his rebound campaign into a No. 6 ranking on Tim Dierkes' Free Agent Power Rankings, leapfrogging Garza as the top domestic free agent pitcher on the market (Masahiro Tanaka, at No. 5, is the top overall pitcher).

The Royals have made it known that they'd like to re-sign him, but if they're truly reluctant to offer more than three years, Santana is as good as gone. Any team in search of pitching figures to at least place a call on Santana, meaning that the Orioles, Blue Jays, Yankees, Twins, Indians, Mariners, Giants, Rockies, Pirates, Cubs, Nationals, Phillies and Mets should all have varying degrees of interest.

Of course, not all those teams will be willing to bid high enough to land his services, nor will they all be keen on surrendering a draft pick to acquire Santana. The Twins are one team that has recently said they'd forfeit their second-round selection if they liked a player enough, though Santana is far pricier than their typical mold. On the flip-side of the coin, the Mets seem strongly against the idea of sacrificing their second-round selection for any player other than Shin-Soo Choo.

Expected Contract

ESPN's Keith Law recently wrote (Insider subscription required and recommended) that a four-year deal is a likelihood for Santana on the free agent market, adding that he prefers him to Garza and Dan Haren.

I find a four-year deal to be the floor for Santana, and would expect agent Bean Stringfellow of Proformance to seek a five-year pact. Given the sheer volume of teams looking to bolster their rotations and the relatively weak crop of free agent hurlers on the market, Santana has an honest chance at getting there. We've already received a glimpse at what the early market for free agent pitching will look like, with Tim Lincecum agreeing to a two-year, $35MM extension with the Giants.

Going back to 2008, Anibal Sanchez, Zack Greinke, C.J. Wilson, Yu Darvish, Cliff LeeJohn Lackey, CC Sabathia and Burnett have inked free agent deals for five or more seasons. Each of those players was considered one of the top two starters on the market in his respective free agent class. Second-tier pitchers such as Derek Lowe and Edwin Jackson have been able to find lofty four-year commitments, and Santana enters free agency on the heels of a vastly superior season to the one that led to Jackson's four-year, $52MM pact with the Cubs.

As ludicrous as it would've sounded a year ago -- and improbable as it will sound to some even now -- my expectation is that Santana finds a team willing to push the limits and offer a five-year, $75MM contract.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Kendrys Morales

Kendrys Morales is one of the 15 best hitters on the free agent market this offseason.  And among proven middle of the order hitters on the market, only Morales can boast of playing the 2014 season at age 30.

USATSI_7390730

Strengths/Pros

Offensively, Morales doesn't stand out in any one aspect, but he doesn't have any major holes either.  He owns a .280 career average, .275 over the last two seasons.  He doesn't strike out a ton like Mike Napoli, and he's shown acceptable power unlike Justin Morneau or James Loney have in recent years.  Morales tied Napoli with 23 home runs in 2013, sixth among all free agents.  His power has been consistent since becoming a full-timer in '09, with a slugging percentage that never dipped below .449 and isolated power of .171 or better.

A switch-hitter, Morales doesn't have an extreme platoon split.  Over the last two years, he's hitting .269/.338/.448 against lefties and .278/.326/.460 against righties.

Morales has one particularly impressive offensive season to his credit, as he hit .306/.355/.569 with 34 home runs and 108 runs batted in in 2009 and finished fifth in the AL MVP voting.

Morales has youth on his side, having turned 30 in June.  He's younger than Napoli, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Beltran, Marlon Byrd, Shin-Soo Choo, and Nelson Cruz.  The only younger free agent bat is Jacoby Ellsbury, who is viewed as a leadoff hitter and isn't in the same price bracket.

Weaknesses/Cons

Morales has a .275/.329/.457 batting line since 2012.  His OBP is slightly below-average for a first baseman or designated hitter, and his power production has been about average.  Agent Scott Boras blames the Mariners' home park, telling Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times in August, "A 20-homer season in Safeco is like a 30-homer season somewhere else."  I'm not sure if Boras was literally suggesting Morales' park cost him ten home runs.  I spoke to Dave Cameron of FanGraphs and U.S.S. Mariner, who suggested it would be more likely for the park to have cost Morales one or two home runs in 2013, especially with the fences having been moved in this year.  Furthermore, Morales actually hit for more power at Safeco than on the road in 2013.

Morales provides no value defensively and is likely limited to American League teams with an opening at the designated hitter spot.  He played 28 games at first base in 2012 and 31 in 2013, serving as DH the majority of the time.  An inability to play the field regularly sets the bar extra-high for offense, which is part of the reason Morales was valued by FanGraphs at just 1.7 wins above replacement in 2012 and 1.2 in 2013.  Among free agent position players this year, Morales' WAR isn't in the top 20.  Fangraphs' WAR pegs him as a $6-8MM player, yet the price tag will surely be higher.

Morales is one of the slowest players in baseball.  He cost the Mariners 5.5 runs on the basepaths in 2013, sixth-worst in the game.  Even in his standout 2009 season, he was the worst baserunner in MLB.

Morales' career took a major turn on May 29th, 2010.  He hit a walkoff grand slam against Brandon League, fracturing his ankle and lower tibia in his celebratory leap onto home plate.  His recovery required two surgical procedures, and he didn't return until the beginning of the 2012 season.  Morales seems fully recovered now, having played 134 games in 2012 and 156 in 2013.

In early October, Mariners GM Jack Zdurenick said his team will definitely make Morales a qualifying offer, which is worth $14.1MM for 2014.  A week later, Jon Heyman of CBS Sports wrote that Morales will turn down that offer.  

Personal

Morales played for the Cuban national team as a teenager, and successfully defected in 2004 at age 20 after more than ten failed attempts.  He drew interest from teams such as the Mets, Marlins, Indians, and Rangers before landing with the Angels.  Morales told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today in 2009 he found the culture shock jarring, but became used to the lifestyle change.  In that article, which I should stress is four years old, Ortiz notes that Morales was hesitant to speak English and had limited but friendly communication with non-Spanish-speaking teammates.  More recently, I've heard that Morales leads by example in the clubhouse and gets along well with teammates.  Ortiz also mentions in the article that Morales is an only child who lost his father early in his life.  He is married and has three children.

Market

The Mariners expressed interest in extending Morales before the trade deadline, according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports, who says the team "balked at contract figures suggested by Boras and never made the player a formal offer."  "I would love to bring Kendrys back," Zduriencik said on ESPN 710's Bob and Groz show in early October.  Since the Mariners already consider Morales a $14MM player, they seem the team most likely to meet Boras' demands.

As a good player and not a great one, Morales' market could be hurt greatly with the draft pick cost attached.  Team like the Rangers and Orioles won't be keen on losing their first-round pick to sign Morales, while a club like the Twins may not even want to surrender their second-rounder.  Perhaps Boras will attempt to piggyback onto another free agent, aiming for a team that already lost a draft pick, as happened with Boras, the Indians, and Michael Bourn last winter.

Since pure designated hitters are rare in general, Morales' competition in terms of bat-only players is light, with names like Ibanez and Luke Scott.  If we include first basemen, players such as Mike Napoli, Morneau, Loney, Mike Morse, and Corey Hart enter the mix.

Expected Contract

Boras will likely set out seeking a four-year contract for Morales, aiming high as a starting point.  Contracts given to Cody Ross, Michael Cuddyer, and Josh Willingham the past two offseasons lend credence to the possibility of a three-year contract for Morales, though none of them were as far down the path toward full-blown DH nor did the signing teams lose a draft pick.  The best comparable might be Adam LaRoche, who was tied to draft pick compensation last offseason and was unable to get a third year.  Ultimately I think Morales will beat LaRoche's contract and sign a two-year, $28MM deal with a third-year vesting option.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson didn't want to sign with a team until he felt that he was competely recovered from Tommy John surgery, and his late-season numbers with the Dodgers show he was just that. Wilson looked better than ever after signing with the Dodgers for just $1MM on July 30, serving as a lights-out member of the team's bullpen down the stretch and into the NLCS. His strong showing should position him for a nice free agent deal.

Strengths/Pros

Small sample or not, Wilson was flat-out dominant in 2013. Between the regular season and the postseason, The Beard/Agent Double-Zero allowed one run on 12 hits and six walks with 21 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings.  Wilson-Brian

Pitchers don't typically get their velocity back immediately following Tommy John, and Wilson's heat certainly wasn't at its peak upon his return. The good news, however, is that Wilson is an absolute flamethrower, meaning that "sub-par" velocity for him translates to a 93.2 mph average heater. That mark ranks him 11th among potential free agent right-handers with at least 10 innings pitched. Two of those arms -- Matt Lindstrom and Jose Veras -- could see their club options exercised. Others such as Joba Chamberlain and Carlos Marmol are coming off dreadful seasons. And teams will probably be more focused on Jesse Crain's shoulder than his 94.5 mph fastball.

Wilson has averaged at least 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings in each season dating back to 2008, and his ground-ball rate has never dipped below the league average in a full season.

Looking at his splits, Wilson has actually been better against lefties in his career, and it's tough to say that he's benefited from all of his innings in the spacious AT&T Park when his career 2.98 ERA on the road trumps his 3.21 home mark.

For teams that still place a heavy emphasis on "proven" closers, Wilson fits the bill. The Beard has registered 171 career saves -- a mark that only Joe Nathan, Kevin Gregg and Fernando Rodney can top among potential free agents. Gregg melted down in the season's second half, and Rodney has Wilson bested by exactly one save despite being five years older.

Wilson won't come attached to a draft pick, as it's highly unlikely that the Dodgers would tender him a $14.1MM qualifying offer.

Weaknesses/Cons

I've already referenced it, but teams are evaluating Wilson on a sample size of just 19 2/3 innings. It's impossible to tell how his surgically repaired arm will hold up over a full season's workload. He appeared in back-to-back games five times but never pitched three consecutive days for the Dodgers. If he's looking for a ninth-inning gig, the ability to pitch three in a row will be critical.

Wilson's command was solid in 2013, but he's averaged 3.9 walks per nine innings in his career and was at a whopping 5.1 BB/9 in his last full season (2011). Even prior to his Tommy John surgery, his fastball velocity had dropped, as he was at 94.3 mph in that same command-challenged 2011 campaign -- down from 95.9 mph in 2010 and 96.6 mph in 2009.

The 2011 struggles with his command and velocity could be due to the beginning of his elbow issues -- he did spend a month on the shelf with an elbow strain that year. However, we haven't seen a full season's work out of him since, so stastically speaking, there's not much evidence to suggest that the elbow was the lone culprit.

Personal

Much has been made of Wilson's eccentric personality, which is seen as a positive by most of his teammates. Whether touting his epic beard or playing dominos with Juan Uribe and his other teammates, Wilson keeps the clubhouse light-hearted and fun. Wilson is as passionate about being a good teammate as he is a good pitcher. He enjoys mentoring younger pitchers and is a known workout fiend. During games, Wilson will often track the action in a scorebook from the bullpen. In high school, Wilson lost his father, an Air Force veteran, to cancer. Brian honors his father's memory with charitable contributions toward the Air Force Academy. 

Market

Wilson has the misfortune of entering free agency alongside a very strong group of relievers that includes Nathan, Rodney, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit. While he's the youngest of the bunch, Wilson also comes with the most uncertainty, as he's yet to pitch a full season since recovering from his second Tommy John surgery.

With so much competition, Wilson (and his peers) may struggle to find a ninth inning job on a two-year deal. He'd open his options considerably by showing a willingness to pitch on a one-year deal. If that were the case, his agents might be able to convince a team with a closer-in-waiting to delay the less-experienced arm's promotion to the ninth inning for a year. Others that have unspectacular incumbents, such as the Angels and Ernesto Frieri, may be willing to demote their current option to the eighth inning if Wilson can be attained.

If his goal is to sign a multiyear pact, Wilson and agents Dan Lozano and Matt Hannaford of the MVP Sports Group would be wise to pounce early in the offseason rather than shop around for the best fit. Doing so would maximize their chances at multiple years. Given the large amount of free agent closer options, it's better to act quickly than be left standing in January and taking a one-year deal.

Expected Contract

Wilson will, to an extent, control his own fate this offseason. A team isn't likely to guarantee three years based on just 19 2/3 innings of work, no matter how impressive they were. Should he decide he wants a two-year contract, Wilson could find a deal similar to Joe Nathan's two-year, $14.75MM contract with the Rangers if he signs early in the winter (as Nathan himself did in Nov. 2011).

In my mind, the better play for Wilson, Lozano and Hannaford is to maximize his earnings on a one-year contract and enter the open market next season. A look at MLBTR's list of 2015 free agents shows that Jason Grilli, Jim Johnson, Jason Motte, Chris Perez, J.J. Putz and Sergio Romo are the best surefire closers set to hit the market. Grilli and Putz will be 38. Johnson and Perez are current non-tender candidates based on their salaries. Motte is an unknown coming off 2013 Tommy John surgery. Rafael Soriano could be on the market, or his option could vest if he finishes 62 games next season. If Huston Street pitches well, his $7MM option will be exercised. If not, he won't be competition for Wilson anyway.

Wilson's relative youth gives him the luxury of taking a one-year contract and then positioning himself as the next offseason's top two closers, ironically alongside his Giants successor, Romo. My expectation is that Wilson will sign the same one-year, $8.5MM contract inked by Ryan Madson two years ago (perhaps with some additional incentives), then hit the market and look to cash in big in the 2014-15 offseason.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.



Free Agent Profile: Shin-Soo Choo

Shin-Soo Choo's .423 on-base percentage ranked fourth in all of baseball this year, and easily topped Robinson Cano for the best among all free agents.  The 31-year-old South Korea native hits free agency at an ideal time, and ranks third overall on our Free Agent Power Rankings.

USATSI_7331502

Pros/Strengths

Choo was the quintessential leadoff man for the Reds this year, parlaying a career-best 15.7% walk rate and a career-high 26 times hit by a pitch into that fantastic OBP.  Aside from an injury-marred 2011 season, Choo has never posted an OBP below .373 in a full campaign, regularly tallying 160+ hits, 70+ walks, and around 15 HBPs.  The average outfielder posted a .323 OBP this year, by comparison.  Choo has batted .284 over the past two seasons and has consistently hit for average.  He also hit 21 home runs this year, the third time in his career he's hit at least 20.  Assuming options are picked up on Coco Crisp and Adam Lind, only seven free agents hit more homers than Choo.

Choo has generally been quite durable outside of 2011, regularly playing in 150+ games.  He showed himself as a team player this year in accepting a center field assignment from the Reds, never having played the position regularly in the Majors.

Choo's baseball card numbers were excellent this year, with 107 runs scored, 21 home runs, and 20 stolen bases.  It was the third 20/20 season of his career, so he can be a power/speed threat.

Weaknesses/Cons

Choo struggles against left-handed pitching, with a .207/.332/.276 line in 463 plate appearances since 2012.  If the situation worsens, a platoon could be in the cards in the latter half of his contract.

Though Choo has stolen 41 bases over the past two seasons, he's also been caught 18 times.  That 69% success rate suggests he should get the green light less often.  Overall, his baserunning has been a mild negative in each of the past two seasons.

Choo's defense has been a large detriment in recent years, whether in his natural right field in 2012 or in center field in 2013.  He had a fine offensive season in 2012, but his defense knocked his FanGraphs wins above replacement down to 2.4.  Overall, that's solid but not elite performance, and it stands to reason that Choo's defense could become an even bigger problem over the next four or five years.  Agent Scott Boras disagrees, telling Jon Heyman of CBS Sports Choo is a "Gold Glove type defender" in right field.

Signing Choo will require sacrificing a draft pick, as he's expected to receive and turn down a qualifying offer from the Reds.

I don't generally consider All-Star appearances as a great barometer for a player's abilities, especially with a player with Choo's skillset.  But, it should be noted that Choo has never made an All-Star team.

Personal

Choo resides with his wife, two sons, and daugther in Arizona.  He is the all-time batting leader from Korea in all notable categories, and is a celebrity there.  He was known as one of the Indians' hardest workers, wrote Amy K. Nelson for ESPN in 2009.  In 2010, he helped Korea to the gold medal in the Asian Games, earning exemption from a mandatory two-year military stint.  On the negative side, Choo disappointed the Indians several months later with a DUI that included a blood-alcohol level of .201.  Teammate Jack Hannahan commented after Choo's apology, "He's a great guy and a great teammate.  Choo's a big leader on this team. He's tough as nails. He's being a man about it and accepting it." 

Market

Choo is among the top free agent outfielders, and is joined by Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Beltran, Marlon Byrd, and Nelson Cruz.  "There are so many teams that need a leadoff hitter," Boras told Heyman in September.  The general belief is that the Reds won't be able to afford Choo, while the Cubs, Mets, Astros, and Yankees have been named early as likely suitors.  The Mets' first-round pick is protected, and while they might be willing to let their second-round pick go to sign Choo, Adam Rubin of ESPNNewYork.com says they "are not believed to be willing to give more than a Michael Bourn-type contract -- four years."  The Cubs may be wary of surrendering their second-round pick, plus the outfield is one of their farm system's biggest strengths.  The Astros connection seems speculative at best, while the Yankees seem like a viable contender for Choo.  

The Mariners, Rangers, Royals, Pirates, and Orioles also could be in the market for a corner outfielder this offseason, but not necessarily at top of the market money.

Expected Contract

Boras is the game's toughest negotiator and one of its biggest talkers.  Asked by Heyman about one GM's $100MM prediction, Boras replied, "As a custom of the industry, prognostications by executives this time of year are dramatically divergent from the real market.  I don't think anyone correctly predicted what Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford got."  Boras also took issue with the idea of Choo being limited to five years.

A five-year deal would cover Choo's age 31-35 seasons, and those are hard enough to come by for position players.  In the last five years, we've seen multiyear free agent deals for Josh Hamilton (5), B.J. Upton (5), Albert Pujols (10), Prince Fielder (9), Jose Reyes (6), Crawford (7), Werth (7), Adrian Beltre (5), Matt Holliday (7), and Mark Teixeira (8).  We've seen many more on the extension front, with Hunter Pence's five-year deal the most relevant and recent comparable for Choo.  Boras deserves credit for Werth's contract, but it was an outlier rather than a model, especially since no other team was clearly offering even five years.  Crawford, Upton, and Reyes were significantly younger, with the latter two playing premium positions.  Boras does not always succeed in his contractual goals, failing to secure a fifth guaranteed year for Michael Bourn last winter.

With Choo, I can see a lot of teams willing to offer four years, a handful willing to offer five, and perhaps one willing to guarantee six.  The Pence contract seems to raise the bar for Choo, who I ultimately have signing a six-year, $100MM deal.  At a reasonable $16.67MM AAV, such a deal may appeal to teams with luxury tax concerns.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.









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