With the sun setting on the 2014-15 free agent class, it’s time to turn our attention to the 2015-16 group. These players project to become free agents after the 2015 season, unless they sign contract extensions first. A few extensions are likely, but for now the 2015-16 free agent class has no shortage of star power. MLBTR’s full list of 2015-16 free agents can be found here.
What exactly are we ranking here? The simplest explanation would be earning power. These rankings represent expected contract size, assuming each player reaches the open market and goes to the highest bidder. Of course, nothing affects a free agent’s earning power more than his most recent season, so I’ll be updating these rankings monthly.
1. Justin Upton. Upton possesses the profile that most often results in a monster contract: power, youth, and durability. He doesn’t turn 28 until August, so his next team might be able to avoid paying him into his late 30s. The first overall draft pick in 2005, Upton has hit 26 or more home runs in four of his six full seasons, including the last two. He peaked at 31 bombs in 2011, and given his pedigree, there’s an underlying assumption that he’s capable of hitting 35-40. With the December trade to San Diego, Upton must verify his power in a home ballpark where longballs go to die. He’s nothing special defensively; Upton’s chance at Robinson Cano money or better lies in good old-fashioned baseball card stats.
2. Jason Heyward. Upton’s former teammate can challenge his ranking with a big year for the Cardinals. Unlike Upton, Heyward didn’t surrender any potential free agent years through a mid-career extension. The result: Heyward doesn’t turn 26 until August. That’s about as young as a star free agent can reasonably be, given the requirement of six years of Major League service. Heyward seemed destined for MVP awards after he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting with a great season at age 20. However, he hasn’t been able to repeat his .393 on-base percentage from that season, and he missed large chunks of the 2011 and ’13 seasons due to injuries. Heyward hit 27 home runs in 2012, so he still owns that skill despite hitting just 25 in the two subsequent seasons. More than his offense, Heyward’s value is derived from Gold Glove defense in right field. If he posts another slugging percentage under .400, his free agency will be a litmus test of whether teams will pay superstar money for superstar defense. If he couples that defense with rediscovered 25+ home run power, Heyward could sign the largest free agent contract in baseball history.
3. David Price. This is a very strong crop of free agent starting pitchers at present, but Price is the best. 30 in August, Price won the AL Cy Young award in 2012 and finished sixth in the voting last year. Last year he tossed 256 1/3 total innings with a career-best strikeout rate, while maintaining the excellent control he established in 2013. The only real blemish on his health record is a 47-day DL stint in ’13 for a triceps strain. If he racks up innings this year for the Tigers with another low-3s ERA, he might be able to exceed $200MM without relying on deferred money to get there.
4. Ian Desmond. The Nationals’ shortstop rejected a seven-year, $107MM extension offer during the 2013-14 offseason, according to Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post. Kilgore reported that the offer was actually only for five additional seasons, and it included deferred money. Desmond, 30 in September, has the potential to exceed $200MM on the open market with another strong season. In terms of wins above replacement, he’s easily been the game’s best shortstop since 2012. Desmond offers the extremely rare combination of power, durability, speed, and solid shortstop defense. However, his contact rate dipped below 70% for the first time in 2014, and a continuation of that trend would affect his earning power.
5. Johnny Cueto. Only Clayton Kershaw’s brilliance prevented Cueto from winning the NL Cy Young award in 2014. Cueto, who turned 29 last Sunday, posted a 2.25 ERA over 243 2/3 innings last year with a career-best strikeout rate. That was a huge workload, especially since Cueto was limited to 11 starts in 2013 due to a shoulder strain. He missed significant time in 2011 with shoulder issues as well. Cueto can set aside some concerns with a DL-free 2015 campaign. Potential bonus: he could become ineligible for a qualifying offer if the Reds trade him during the season.
6. Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann, 29 in May, finished fifth in the NL Cy Young voting last year. A few factors put him below Cueto: he doesn’t go particularly deep into games, and he’s generally posted strikeout rates below the league average prior to 2014. That might be nitpicking – Zimmermann has great control and a 3.00 ERA since 2011. He had Tommy John surgery in August 2009 and has avoided the DL since.
7. Alex Gordon. Gordon is an older version of Heyward – an occasionally underpowered corner outfielder who posted a huge WAR last year on the strength of great defense. Gordon still has 39 home runs over the last two seasons, though, so he’s shown more recent pop than Heyward. Gordon, drafted by the Royals directly after Upton in ’05, delayed his free agency by two years with an extension in 2012. As such, he recently turned 31. As Shin-Soo Choo can attest, that’s still young enough to garner a contract well above $100MM. In August, Gordon told Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star he plans to pick up his 2016 player option, which appears to be worth $14MM. If the Royals are willing to double their current franchise record $55MM contract, an extension could be possible, but I don’t think there’s much chance of Gordon simply picking up that player option when it comes due.
8. Zack Greinke. After the 2015 season, Greinke must decide whether to opt out of the remaining three years and $71MM left on his contract. That wouldn’t be worth doing for something similar to the four-year, $75MM contract James Shields just received, but Greinke will be a year younger than Shields was. So far Greinke has a 2.68 ERA in 380 innings in his two seasons for the Dodgers, with his strikeout rate bumping back up in 2014. Another healthy season with an ERA around 3.00 would instill confidence in a potential five-year deal, in which case Greinke would be expected to opt out to try to lock in $100MM+ in new money.
9. Jeff Samardzija. Samardzija, 30, made his first All-Star team in 2014. He posted a 2.99 ERA in 219 2/3 innings for the Cubs and A’s after posting a 4.10 ERA in his previous two seasons as a starter. It was clear that Samardzija’s 2012-13 ERAs were inflated beyond his skill level. He’s a horse who works at 94-95 miles per hour, and he’s never been on the disabled list. A wide receiver at Notre Dame, Samardzija didn’t commit fully to baseball until the Cubs drafted him in ’06. He also spent much of his early big league career as a reliever. The result is less mileage on his arm than any of the pitchers listed above him, even including Zimmermann. He could easily wind up being a better bet for the next five or six years than his rival free agent starters. Samardzija was traded to the White Sox in December.
10. Matt Wieters. Wieters, 29 in May, saw his season end on May 10th of last year due to an elbow issue. The catcher had Tommy John surgery in June and expects to be ready for Opening Day. Will he be able to throw out baserunners? Wieters, who was drafted by the Orioles fifth overall in 2007, also must answer questions about his bat. He slumped to a .704 OPS in 2013, but had a great first month in ’14. Wieters tallied a mammoth 4,600 innings behind the dish from 2010-13, and it’s difficult to say when that workload will catch up to him. Wieters could get a nine-figure contract this offseason, but only if all of these questions are answered with a strong year.
Plenty of other players will be vying to break into our top ten throughout the season, including Ben Zobrist, Yoenis Cespedes, Denard Span, Howie Kendrick, Steve Pearce, Rick Porcello, Mat Latos, Doug Fister, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Chris Davis. You can check out the full 2015-16 free agent list here.