Never is it too early to look ahead in baseball. Fine, maybe it's a little futile to imagine what the New York Yankees will pay Stephen Strasburg come 2017, but as the embers wane on the 2011 hot stove there's surely no harm in a sneak preview of what next winter may offer.
Certainly not as top-heavy a bounty as this offseason. There is no Albert Pujols in the Class of 2012-13, though that's like slagging an In-N-Out burger because it doesn't have truffle mayo. Absent, too, is a Prince Fielder sort: young, powerful and consistent, a trinity to which every general manager prays.
In their stead could be a rare number of among free agency's most prized quantities: the elite 20-something. The number of elite under-30 starting pitchers is especially staggering, and it would've been even higher had the Chicago White Sox not locked up John Danks to a five-year, $65 million deal this week.
While next winter will not bear another $254 million contract nor one the size Fielder will fetch in the coming weeks, it should teem with $50 million-plus deals, only six of which will be consummated this offseason. The oldest to receive one: Mark Buehrle, who turns 33 on the eve of the season. Smarter management has all but killed baseball's version of Medicare.
To get big bucks necessitates youth, and before Fielder (27) and Jose Reyes (28) this offseason, MLB had gone nearly half a decade between impact non-international, 20-something free agents. The highest-paid in 2010: Jhonny Peralta at $11.25 million. The year before that: Matt Capps, a free agent only because he was non-tendered. In '08 it was Francisco Rodriguez – and he was the only 20-something in the entire winter to sign a big league deal. The prize of '07: Carlos Silva.
The wild winter of 2006 – the $1.66 billion disaster – was replete with 20-somethings, including $50 million-plus deals for Barry Zito, Aramis Ramirez and Gil Meche. And considering baseball revenues continue to grow because of local television deals as well as the eventual rescues of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, the cost of players should advance commensurate.
Which means the Danks deal could be a starting point for a handful of pitchers. And that the elite catchers hitting the market could start at the four-year, $52.4 million going rate Jorge Posada set in 2007. And that a deep and strong center field class led by …
1. Josh Hamilton will profit just the same. Hamilton is the prize of the class as well as its enigma. He is one of the best players in baseball, a power hitter in an era lacking them who can play a premium position – and that he's among the game's most recognized players doesn't hurt, either. He's also fragile, and whether that's because of his drug-addled past doesn't matter; the perception that he needs to be treated like a china doll has chased him for years.
That didn't prevent the Miami Marlins from giving Reyes a $106 million deal. Reyes, of course, is 28. Hamilton will turn 32 a month into the 2013 season. And while that age hasn't been a deterrent, either – Washington gave Jayson Werth $126 million as a 32-year-old – the combination could trouble teams.
The most the Texas Rangers have committed to Hamilton is two years – the current deal that runs out at the end of next season. There is time to negotiate an extension, and there is money there as well, and if the Rangers want, Hamilton almost certainly could be theirs. The more days go by, the more that question answers itself. And if they don't earmark it for him, maybe …
2. Cole Hamels becomes a fallback option – assuming Hamels ever reaches free agency. He, like the other degrees this week, could well sign an extension like Danks did, or like a couple free-agents-to-be do around arbitration time every year.
Yes, the cost would be prohibitive – certainly more than $100 million, which is the going rate for an ace – and, yes, a scary number for any arm, even a 29-year-old one that throws from the left side and averages more than 200 innings a year. Hamels is a great pitcher, homegrown no less, and with Roy Halladay signed through 2013 (with an option for '14), the Phillies almost certainly won't let their greatest strength suffer.
If Hamels does sign, the clear-cut No. 1 starter left is …
3. Matt Cain, who one could argue, and rather convincingly, is a better bet than Hamels. No, the statistical bona fides aren't quite the same – Hamels beats him in strikeout, walk and ground ball rate, and Cain's superior home run rate could be more a function of his ballpark than anything – but Cain is a year younger and has a completely clean injury history.
Cain remains a mystery to the sabermetric set, who wonder how he not only can subsist but thrive with so few ground balls (he did improve last year) and a fastball that no longer sits in the mid-90s as it once did. Cain's improved changeup helps; it's not on Hamels' level, but, as one scout said last season, "it's one of the best right-handed I've seen this year." The scout also liked Cain's slider more, and Cain agreed: He threw it more than he had in five years.
If the financial restrictions on the San Francisco Giants are as legitimate as this offseason portends, they could struggle to sign Cain and Tim Lincecum, due to hit free agency after the 2013 season. And considering they'd be wise to eye extensions for Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the Cain-or-Lincecum choice may well come down to that. And knowing just how much Lincecum means to the franchise, Cain may join …
4. Zack Greinke among those vying for a nine-figure deal next year as well. At his best, Greinke is more than worth it: His strikeout rate led the National League last season, his walk rate remained superb and only a few home runs stood between him and a season similar to his 2009 Cy Young campaign, one of the best in decades.
Now, will the big spenders – the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and others – consider Greinke worth the money? Even if he thrives with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012, it's no certainty. As misguided as is the connection between Greinke's social anxiety disorder and his playoff failure, baseball loves to make it, and some will hold that against him. It's bogus, and savvy executives will realize that in the offseason.
[ Related: Jeff Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker ]
Or even before that, should the Prince-less and likely Ryan Braun-less Brewers stumble. Gauging Greinke's trade value come July could be fascinating, though not quite as much as doing the same should …
5. Ichiro Suzuki find himself faced with the question: Stay or go?
The Seattle Mariners have shown no inclination to deal their star, and they may not before he hits the open market for the first time in his career at 39. Even if they did, Ichiro's 10-and-5 rights allow him to block any deal. And it's a fair question to ask just how robust the market would be.
For the first time in his career, Ichiro hit below .300 – well below, at .277, and with career-low on-base (.310) and slugging (.335) percentages as well. Even with $5 million of his $17 million salary deferred, Ichiro makes serious money without serious production.
As odd as it is to picture him in a uniform other than Seattle's, the Mariners are nowhere near contending, not with that lineup. Should Ichiro want to chase a championship, some team would take on most of his salary in hopes a pennant race would invigorate him. Unless he squashes the idea of a trade in spring training, Ichiro's name will come up in July when …
6. B.J. Upton could lead the available outfield pack. Much, as usual, depends on the Tampa Bay Rays' place in the standings … though the Rays looked dead at the deadline last season only to hold onto Upton and defibrillate their season in September.
Upton in winter, on the other hand, will bring out a collection of dreamers, frothers and believers. He is a 28-year-old center fielder with some of the game's best range, an above-average arm, 40-steal speed and power potential that shows itself often enough to give scouts tachycardia.
While unlikely, a nine-figure deal isn't out of the question for Upton with a great 2012. Even if he slums along with the same .240-or-so batting average of the past three years, he'll crack $50 million easy. Real center fielders are tough to find, and it's why the Atlanta Braves continue to look for one even though …
Bourn is a different player than Rowand. Actually, Bourn is different than just about anybody. He has won three consecutive NL stolen-base crowns. Almost all of his offensive value comes from his speed – speed that, if Bourn is like almost every other player ever, will diminish.
And yet the market loves speed. It craves speed. It pays Carl Crawford $142 million and Jose Reyes $106 million and it will pay Michael Bourn, even if, like …
8. Yadier Molina, he'll be 30 years old. While Molina's defense is not like it was early in his 20s, it remains elite. Anyway, his bat last season made up for any lag, as Molina nearly doubled his career high in home runs and topped his career slugging percentage by more than 100 points.
Without Pujols hogging much of the payroll, and with more than $32 million set to come off the books after 2012 via Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook, the Cardinals have room for Molina – depending on how much he wants and for how long he wants it. While he could end up the highest-paid catcher of the class, another boffo year from …
9. Mike Napoli could change that. If 2012 becomes Year 2 of the Napoli, he'll cash in far greater as a 31-year-old than he has through arbitration. The Rangers would like to lock him up before his arbitration case comes along and sets him up with a salary in the $9 million to $10 million range.
How amenable Napoli is depends on whether the club values him like the 1.046 OPSing catcher he was in '11 or more like the slugging-but-flawed sorta-catcher reputation he carried into last season.
Either way, he won't come cheap. That's the problem, as the Rangers have learned, with success: It gets expensive. And if it ends up pricing them out of …
10. Josh Hamilton they'll move on, as will he. Any team would be happy to plop its general manager next to him on a dais and watch Hamilton smile through a press conference, talking about how he's accustomed to new beginnings and how he has learned to thrive with them and how he's going to try to win the championship there he couldn't in Texas.
All the free agents will have their reasons for signing one place or another. The teams that missed out on a pitcher this offseason can go for Hamels or Cain or Greinke. Or perhaps any of the rest of a group of 29-year-olds: Anibal Sanchez, Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy. Shaun Marcum, 31, could be available, as could 30-year-old Jonathan Sanchez and veterans Ryan Dempster and Colby Lewis.
There's position-player heft, too, with 29-year-olds Miguel Montero, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. If the Diamondbacks decline Stephen Drew's option, he'll hit the market at 30. Same for Andre Ethier. Delmon Young is the baby of the class at 27 and Mariano Rivera the grandpa at 43.
And there could be Brandon Phillips (if he doesn't sign a long-negotiated extension) and Shane Victorino and Mike Adams and Russell Martin and Carlos Quentin and Nick Swisher and Torii Hunter. What the class lacks in breadth up top it makes up for in depth. Right now, it's an interesting group, and no matter how much it thins through extensions, that shouldn't change.
As free agency reminds us annually, it, not the players, is the real star of the show. The names change. The dollar figures, too. But what they entail – the rumors, the possibilities, the elation, the disappointment – never wavers. The hot stove's sizzle and crackle endures.
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