As we at MLBTR did in 2013, we'll constantly be looking toward the future over the course of the season to see which players are positioning themselves for a healthy payday on the 2014-15 open market. Remember that you can always find a full list of next season's free agents here (or on the right-hand sidebar under "MLBTR Features), and keep an eye out for future editions of these rankings. For now, here's the first entry in our 2015 Free Agent Power Rankings series.
1. Hanley Ramirez. Fragile or not, there's no debating that when Ramirez is on the field, he's one of the best-hitting shortstops of this generation. Hanley, who has slashed .286/.351/.506 since 2012 and batted an insane .345/.402/.638 in a half season last year, is said to be in extension talks with the Dodgers. However, while many thought a deal would get done in Spring Training, it's been eerily quiet. Big spenders with potential needs at shortstop and/or third base next season (in addition to the Dodgers) include the Yankees, Mets, and Angels. Depending upon how injuries, prospect development, and strategic considerations pan out, the Tigers and Red Sox could hypothetically also have interest in adding an impact player to the left side of the infield.
2. Max Scherzer. Fresh off his first Cy Young Award in 2013, Scherzer boldly bet on himself by rejecting a six-year, $144MM extension offer to remain with the Tigers. The strikeout artist trails only Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw in fWAR since the start of the 2012 season, and with agent Scott Boras doing the negotiating, another Cy Young caliber season could position Scherzer to set a new record for pitchers in free agency.
3. Jon Lester. Beyond the top two, things become a little less concrete. Some may prefer James Shields to Lester, but the fact that Lester is a full two years younger and has spent his entire career thriving in the AL East can't be ignored (though Shields, too, spent most of his career there). As was the case with Ramirez, many expected a Spring Training extension for Lester, who said this offseason he wanted to remain with the Red Sox until the jersey was "ripped off [his] back." Lester rebounded from a poor 2012 to post a 3.75 ERA in 213 1/3 innings last season — his fifth 200-inning, sub-4.00 ERA season in six tries.
4. James Shields. In terms of bottom-line results, Shields has arguably been the most consistent performer on this free agent crop. However, he's also had the benefit of a consistently elite defense behind him (both the Rays and Royals are excellent), and he's pitched in a pair of very pitcher-friendly environments. That's not to discount his talent, as he's among the league's best right-handers, but Shields will be entering his age-33 season with this next contract, so concern about his decline is more pronounced than with some of his peers.
5. Ervin Santana. Santana is a surprise entrant on this list after most expected him to sign a multi-year deal this offseason. He could be saddled with another qualifying offer next year, but a second consecutive dominant season would leave his ugly 2012 campaign two years in the past and could convince disbelievers that he's capable of consistently turning in an ERA in the mid-3.00 range.
6. Chase Headley. When a 3.5 fWAR season that came despite missing April causes people to say you had a "down year," you're in good shape. That's the reality for Headley, who saw his Herculean .286/.376/.498 batting line from 2012 (in Petco Park!) plummet to a still-respectable .250/.347/.400 in 2013. Interested teams will look at Headley and dream on his offensive ceiling in a more hitter-friendly environment, knowing that even without tremendous improvement, he's an above-average bat that handles the hot corner well.
7. Justin Masterson. Another player whose extension looked to be a foregone conclusion is Masterson, who surprisingly saw his own offers of $51MM over three years and $35MM over two years declined by the Indians. Masterson's off to a rough start, but the ground-ball specialist posted an ERA south of 3.50 and topped 190 innings in 2011 and 2013. He's added some significant strikeouts to his arsenal as well, whiffing 210 batters over his past 208 1/3 frames.
8. Colby Rasmus. Rasmus finds himself ranked here due to his power and defense at a premium position (center field) as well as his youth (he'll play the 2015 season at 28 years of age). Rasmus was a six-WAR player in 2013 despite a sky-high 32 percent strikeout rate. He kept a passable batting average based on a lofty .359 BABIP, but he'd be well-served to improve his contact abilities this season. Doing so would eliminate a great deal of concern and bolster his free agent stock, although poor contact rates certainly didn't hurt B.J. Upton's market value.
9. Pablo Sandoval. Kung Fu Panda will also play the 2015 campaign at 28 years of age, and he's averaged 3.4 fWAR from 2011-13. The switch-hitter has a pair of five-WAR campaigns under his belt and would likely see a boost in his offensive output if he moved away from AT&T Park. Of course, the Giants love retaining their players, are said to be in extension talks with Sandoval (though a wide gap exists) and he's wildly popular among fans. He may end up with an extension when all is said and done — remember, Hunter Pence and Tim Lincecum both inked new deals last year right on the cusp of free agency — but if not, he'll be a hot commodity.
10. J.J. Hardy. Hardy's name might not carry much star power, but he's a truly elite defender at shortstop with rare power for the position. He has an injury history, but he's stayed on the field more than his free agent peers in recent seasons. Teams will be hard-pressed to get an OBP north of .310 from Hardy, but it's nice to have a slick-fielding, 20-to-25 homer shortstop in the bottom third of the lineup, and shortstops are always hard to find.
Other players who could force their way onto this year's rankings with a big season include (in alphabetical order as opposed to numbered ranking): Asdrubal Cabrera, Melky Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Michael Cuddyer, Jorge De La Rosa, Corey Hart, Torii Hunter, Josh Johnson, Francisco Liriano, Jed Lowrie, Russell Martin, Mike Morse and Jake Peavy, to name a handful. And, of course, Kendrys Morales and Stephen Drew could also make appearances, should they ultimately sign one-year pacts.