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Top of the heap

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Way to ruin the Hot Stove League, guys.

Seriously, this offseason was primed to be one of the most interesting in years, with contract figures having gone on HGH last year, and what happens? Ichiro Suzuki, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Guillen and John Smoltz sign contract extensions.

That's four of the top 10 players gone from the free-agent class of 2007-08. Add in Jake Westbrook, who extended with Cleveland, and it's five of the best 15.

Of course, some intrigue does remain. Alex Rodriguez must decide whether to opt out of his contract by Nov. 10, and it's likely he'll let the New York Yankees sit around and think about how much he means to them for the full 41 days following their season's end. The Chicago Cubs could sign Carlos Zambrano to an extension too, bringing their year's free-agent signings and re-signings to about $400 million.

Enough is there, in fact, for us to take a five-months-early look at what this offseason's market portends. After talking with executives, scouts and an agent, Yahoo! Sports compiled a list of the 25 best free agents – plus a few other complementary lists to give the full breadth of the Class of '07-'08.

1) Alex Rodriguez, 3B, New York Yankees, 32 years old on Opening Day 2008: A-Rod opting out of his current contract is a surer thing than death, taxes and cavorting with washed-up strippers, much to the delight of his agent Scott Boras and Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks (who still owes around $29 million on Rodriguez's original contract) and to the fright of everyone else. Because if Boras does want $30 million a year for Rodriguez, he will sucker some team (Angels, Dodgers, Giants?) into paying that premium just as he did Hicks.

Projected contract: seven years, $225 million

2) Carlos Zambrano, SP, Chicago Cubs, 26: Should the Cubs continue to spit the bit and not lock down Zambrano with a long-term deal, he represents a true free-agent anomaly: The legitimate No. 1 starter (ahem, Mr. Zito) who hasn't even entered the prime of his career. Forget questions about his maturity and chew on this: In 58 innings since June 6, Zambrano has given up 28 hits. If the Cubs don't act soon, his price tag could almost double on the open market.

Projected contract: seven years, $140 million

3) Andruw Jones, CF, Atlanta, 30: Well, the good news for Jones (and Boras) is that it'll take an 0-for-24 slump to get him below .200 again. The bad news is that he already had one of those this season, from June 15-24, and another 0-for-21 jag from May 1-8. Jones has downright stunk in his walk season. Yet his age, power and fielding ability (waning though it is) still make him a prize. Could he go for a one-year, make-good deal somewhere, then join the Class of 2009 that includes Johan Santana and Mark Teixeira? Sure, but with Boras representing him, it's unlikely.

Projected contract: six years, $112 million

4) Torii Hunter, CF, Minnesota, 32: Now this is how you play in a contract drive: bigger power and greater run production than ever (19 home runs, 71 RBIs), same defense as always (spectacular) and brilliant leadership (in words and actions). Whichever team lands Hunter – and, at this price, it probably won't be Minnesota – gets a great person, though keeping up this pace on the field is far from a certainty.

Projected contract: six years, $90 million

5) Adam Dunn, LF/1B, Cincinnati, 28: When Dunn – on this list because he's a free agent if he gets traded, and the Reds would benefit from what he could bring in return – reaches 40 home runs, he will become the eighth player to have four consecutive 40-home seasons in his 20s. The others: Ralph Kiner, Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. Seven Hall of Famers. Not to say Dunn will join them in Cooperstown. Just that his power is rare and more than makes up for his contact and defensive deficiencies.

Projected contract: five years, $75 million

6) Kosuke Fukudome, RF, Chunichi Dragons (Japan), 29: The Central League MVP last season, Fukudome isn't putting up nearly the numbers this year, though his .440 on-base percentage speaks to his patience and opponents' fear of him. A left-handed hitter with an arm that instantly will be among the best in the major leagues,Fukudome will benefit from Chunichi choosing not to put him up via the posting system. Like Hideki Matsui, Fukudome will come here as a free agent and reap all the money a team is ready to pay.

Projected contract: three years, $27 million

7) Jorge Posada, C, New York Yankees, 36: While it's not fashionable to commit long-term to a 36-year-old catcher, Posada didn't earn a full-time job until he was 26, so his knees aren't as well-worn as others his age. Add in his offensive resurgence – 27 doubles already – and it's a no-brainer for the Yankees to pony up whatever Posada wants.

Projected contract: three years, $39 million

8) Mariano Rivera, RP, New York Yankees, 38: Another player the Yankees can ill-afford to let go, if only on principle. Rivera's 16 scoreless outings in his last 18 appearances have rekindled the notion that he can still be effective after a miserable April. The Yankees will overpay, yes, but they'll do so knowing that the thought of Rivera in another uniform is too much to stomach.

Projected contract: two years, $24 million

9) Mike Lowell, 3B, Boston, 34: Back to the Lowell of old, hitting for average and power, striking out at an impossibly low rate for someone with such power and guarding third base like a penguin does its egg. The Red Sox need him for stability on the left side of the infield, though they could always move Kevin Youkilis back to third – or, scary idea of ideas, go after A-Rod one more time.

Projected contract: three years, $33 million

10) Jason Jennings, SP, Houston, 28: This year's Gil Meche, only without nearly the stuff but with the advantage of an even thinner starting-pitching class. In 1,006 career innings, Jennings has yielded 1,103 hits, walked 445 and struck out just 672. But he's entering his prime, everyone needs pitching and this is the winter the price of a No. 3 starter jumps to $12 million a year.

Projected contract: five years, $60 million

11) Eric Byrnes, OF, Arizona, 31: Byrnes recently said he'd give the Diamondbacks a hometown discount. Problem is, Arizona is so loaded with outfield prospects, it would be bad business to lock him up to the long-term deal he deserves and will receive on the open market. A left fielder who can play center, Byrnes should set career highs this season in home runs, RBIs, runs and walks, and a 30-30 year would cement his spot among this winter's elite.

Projected contract: five years, $55 million

12) Aaron Rowand, CF, Philadelphia, 30: His face fixed following the most amazing catches in years, Rowand has turned into an excellent run producer in the Phillies' loaded lineup. The youngest of the top outfielders, he deserves to get paid, though teams might be scared off slightly by his breakneck play.

Projected contract: four years, $40 million

13) Mike Cameron, CF, San Diego, 35: Originally, Cameron ranked ahead of Byrnes and Rowand. But a close look at his numbers revealed that not only is he an inferior hitter, Cameron's defense has slipped markedly. His Fielding Runs Above Average, as computed by Baseball Prospectus, are minus-7. And while the Padres certainly would argue that Cameron is a key to their success at spacious Petco Park, one scout from an NL West team says, "He's looking his age."

Projected contract: four years, $44 million

14) Eric Gagne, RP, Texas, 32: Provided Gagne stays healthy through the remainder of this season, he might inspire the most frenzied bidding out there. The Boras wheels will turn with the horsepower of a Ferrari, the visions of 84 consecutive saves will dance in the minds of bullpen-starved executives and the prospect of giving someone who missed nearly two full seasons a multiyear contract won't seem ridiculous at all. Projected contract: three years, $35 million

15) Curt Schilling, SP, Boston, 41: He hasn't been great since the Red Sox won the World Series. He hasn't been healthy, either. But Schilling does want to make one last push for the Hall of Fame and will find at least one team willing to give him a couple years to do so, risk and all.

Projected contract: two years, $24 million

16) Kenny Rogers, SP, Detroit, 43: As perilous as signing Schilling may be, Rogers comes with a clean bill of health after having a blood clot removed from his left arm, which has proven more elastic than a rubber band. A successful lefty might as well have a key to Fort Knox.

Projected contract: one year, $13 million

17) Francisco Cordero, RP, Milwaukee, 32: Unhittable earlier this season, Cordero has leveled off into simply one of the best closers around. Enough general managers will be wary of Cordero's implosion with Texas that the market will thin out. But reliable closers carry big price tags, and Cordero is primed to cash in one final time.

Projected contract: four years, $36 million

18) Scott Linebrink, RP, San Diego, 31: After five seasons stuck behind Trevor Hoffman, one of the best setup men will finally get his chance to close – should he so desire. Linebrink could pull a Justin Speier, signing with a team that already has an established closer, but with so many elite teams in the market for end-of-game help, he's got options.

Projected contract: four years, $28 million

19) Michael Barrett, C, San Diego, 31: Always more potential than production, Barrett now has the stain of his fight with Carlos Zambrano, plus a half-dozen reliable free-agent catchers, to overcome. If he wants elite-catcher money, he needs elite-catcher production, and not the five RBIs and zero walks in 53 at-bats since his trade to the Padres.

Projected contract: three years, $18 million

20) Jermaine Dye, RF, Chicago White Sox, 34: This year's no-doubt make-good candidate. Dye finished fifth in the AL MVP voting last year with an on-base-plus-slugging that exceeded 1.000. This season, it's not even at .700, and with Dye already bellyaching about the White Sox not offering him an extension, he's gone to the land of the one-year deal.

Projected contract: one year, $8 million

21) Brad Wilkerson, OF, Texas, 30: What happened to the heir to the Three True Outcomes kingdom? While Wilkerson still hits home runs in bunches, the 106-walk season of three years ago is a distant memory. Instead, Wilkerson is just a slugger who strikes out a lot – Adam Dunn Lite.

Projected contract: three years, $21 million

22) Freddy Garcia, SP, Philadelphia, 32: Seeing as the Phillies gave Adam Eaton more than $24 million over three years despite his injury woes, and the Cardinals are paying Mark Mulder $13 million as he comes off shoulder surgery, it's easy to envision Garcia – currently out with a bum shoulder – getting something in between.

Projected contract: two years, $16 million

23) Bartolo Colon, SP, Los Angeles Angels, 34: Two years ago he won the Cy Young. Now he's one of the worst pitchers in the AL. A good conditioning program could make him $10 million, but Colon – the epitome of fat and happy – will simply let the market pay him for what he did in the past rather than the present.

Projected contract: two years, $18 million

24) Livan Hernandez, SP, Arizona, 33 (allegedly): He gobbles up innings like Pac-Man on a fruit frenzy. And that, in today's market, is enough for $9 million a year.

Projected contract: three years, $27 million

25) Luis Gonzalez, LF, Los Angeles Dodgers, 40: While he's not the 57-homer monster of 2001, Gonzalez's bat still has some pop, he walks a fair amount, he never strikes out and he's a good clubhouse influence. His future isn't with the Dodgers – not with Juan Pierre, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Delwyn Young and others – but he could thrive in a DH role.

Projected contract: one year, $8.5 million with an option at $7 million.

25a) Dmitri Young, 1B, Washington, 34: One of the year's great comeback stories, Young has turned a spring-training invitation into an All-Star Game appearance. Some team desperate enough for a bat will chance it that Young can stave off the effects of diabetes and stay as hot as he's been all season with the Nationals.

Projected contract: two years, $14 million

Twenty-five contracts with options (and what teams should do)

* indicates player option

1) Joe Nathan, RP, Minnesota, 33: $6 million (accept)

2) Bobby Abreu, RF, New York Yankees, 34: $16 million (decline)

3) Pudge Rodriguez, C, Detroit, 36: $13 million (accept)

4) Jason Isringhausen, RP, St. Louis, 35: $8 million (accept)

5) Jeff Kent, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers, 40: $9 million (decline)

6) Randy Wolf, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers, 31: $9 million (accept, though likely will vest)

7) Paul Byrd, SP, Cleveland, 37: $8 million (accept)

8) Mark Ellis, 2B, Oakland, 30: $5 million (accept)

9) Juan Uribe, SS, Chicago White Sox, 28: $5 million (accept, if only for his defense)

10) Moises Alou, LF, New York Mets, 40: $7.5 million (decline)

11) Geoff Jenkins, OF, Milwaukee, 33: $9 million (decline)

12) Shawn Green, RF, New York Mets, 35: $10 million (decline)

13) Kevin Millar, 1B, Baltimore, 36: $2.75 million (accept, though likely will vest)

14) Marcus Giles, 2B, San Diego, 29: $4 million (accept)

15) Cesar Izturis, SS, Chicago Cubs, 28: $5.45 million (decline)

16) Mark Grudzielanek*, 2B, Kansas City, 37: $4 million (accept)

17) Julian Tavarez, P, Boston, 34: $3.85 million (accept)

18) Darin Erstad, OF, Chicago White Sox, 33: $3.5 million (decline)

19) Brett Tomko, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers, 34: $4.5 million (decline)

20) Rob Mackowiak, UT, Chicago White Sox, 31: $3.25 million (accept)

21) Abraham Nunez, UT, Philadelphia, 32: undisclosed, though likely around $2 million (accept)

22) Gary Bennett, C, St. Louis, 35: $900,000 (accept)

23) Javy Valentin, C, Cincinnati, 32: $1.3 million (decline)

24) Casey Fossum, RP, Tampa Bay, 30: $3 million (decline)

25) Scott Eyre*, RP, Chicago Cubs, 34: $3.8 million (accept)

Ten potential bargains

1) Kerry Wood, RP, Chicago Cubs, 30

2) Juan Rivera, OF, Los Angeles Angels, 29

3) Tadahito Iguchi, 2B, Chicago White Sox, 33 (free agent if White Sox don't offer contract)

4) Mike Lamb, UT, Houston, 32

5) Jeff DaVanon, OF, Arizona, 34

6) Ron Mahay, RP, Texas, 36

7) Shawn Chacon, RP, Pittsburgh, 30

8) Ramon Castro, C, New York Mets, 32

9) Corey Patterson, OF, Baltimore Orioles, 28

10) Kris Benson, SP, Baltimore Orioles, 33

Ten big contracts getting smaller

1) Jason Kendall, C, Oakland, 33: $13.43 million

2) Mike Sweeney, DH, Kansas City, 34: $11 million

3) Eric Milton, SP, Cincinnati, 32: $10.33 million

4) Armando Benitez, RP, Florida, 35: $9.87 million

5) Matt Clement, SP, Boston, 32: $9.5 million

6) Jon Lieber, SP, Philadelphia, 38: $7.83 million

7) Odalis Perez, SP, Kansas City, 30: $7.75 million

8) Jaret Wright, SP, Baltimore, 32: $7.67 million

9) Eric Hinske, UT, Boston, 30: $5.625 million

10) Joel Pineiro, P, Boston, 29: $4 million

Ten players who could retire

1) Craig Biggio, 2B, Houston, 42

2) Jeff Conine, OF, Cincinnati, 41

3) Julio Franco, IF, free agent, 49

4) Todd Jones, RP, Detroit, 39

5) Corey Koskie, 3B, Milwaukee, 34

6) Neifi Perez, IF, Detroit, 34

7) Rudy Seanez, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers, 39

8) Mike Timlin, RP, Boston, 41

9) Jose Valentin, 2B, New York Mets, 38

10) Bob Wickman, RP, Atlanta, 39

Twenty-five other free agents worth watching

1) Paul Lo Duca, C, New York Mets, 34

2) Luis Castillo, 2B, Minnesota, 32

3) David Eckstein, SS, St. Louis, 33

4) Milton Bradley, OF, San Diego, 29

5) Bobby Kielty, OF, Oakland, 31

6) Kyle Lohse, SP, Cincinnati, 29

7) Carlos Silva, SP, Minnesota, 28

8) Omar Vizquel, SS, San Francisco, 40

9) Sean Casey, 1B, Detroit, 33

10) Joe Kennedy, P, Oakland, 28

11) Jeremy Affeldt, RP, Colorado, 28

12) Jorge Julio, RP, Colorado, 29

13) Russell Branyan, UT, San Diego, 32

14) Tony Clark, 1B, Arizona, 35

15) Byung-Hyun Kim, P, Florida, 29

16) Jason Michaels, OF, Cleveland, 31

17) Rodrigo Lopez, SP, Colorado, 32

18) Reggie Sanders, OF, Kansas City, 40

19) Mike Myers, RP, New York Yankees, 38

20) Damian Miller, C, Milwaukee, 38

21) Damion Easley, IF, New York Mets, 38

22) Josh Fogg, SP, Colorado, 31

23) Kip Wells, SP, St. Louis, 30

24) Trever Miller, RP, Houston, 34

25) John McDonald, IF, Toronto, 32

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