With the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline now past us, barring an unlikely late-August blockbuster, it seems that all the major in-season transactions are now passed us. With less than three months left until the offseason, it's now time to start focusing on this winter's free agent class. So, how is this year's crop shaping up?
Unlike in years past, there is no major Robinson Cano or Albert Pujols type name available. Instead, this year's class seems to be based on depth, with a large number of solid regulars available.
Elite pitching seems to be the strength, as the trio of Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields headlines the class as a whole. There should also be quite a few mid-tier starts such as Jason Hammel and Justin Masterson, though they all come with some significant question marks. With David Robertson, Casey Janssen, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, and Koji Uehara (though he seems destined to return to Boston) all available, there is also a plethora of closers that could be seeking new homes in the coming months.
Offensively, there isn't really a top-tier bat available, unless you consider Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval to fit that mold. Instead, the group appears to be focused more on depth, as players such as Jed Lowrie and Adam LaRoche should be rewarded handsomely, but may not be among the ten best position players available.
Lastly, before we go into who the top ten free agents are as of this moment, we'll note that players with options that are almost surely going to be picked up (i.e. Ben Zobrist and Yovani Gallardo) were not considered for this exercise, however, option players that can be considered at least questionable to be picked up (Alex Rios and Nick Markakis) were.
Max Scherzer, RHP Tigers
The reigning AL Cy Young award winner is having yet another remarkable season, finding himself in the mix for the non-Felix Hernandez discussion of the award this year. In 161 innings, Scherzer has an AL best 13 wins (get on that Ruben Amaro) to go along with a 3.13 ERA, 2.88 FIP, 10.2 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, and 4.2 WAR. His two year reign of dominance has been absolutely brilliant, and he was a pretty damn good pitcher before 2013, anyways.
Scherzer has set himself up for a monster payday, and will surely be one (if not) the top targets for a large number of pitching-needy clubs. It still seems likely that he winds up back in Detroit, though the David Price acquisition gives the Tigers enough leverage and insurance to let Scherzer walk if need be.
Jon Lester, LHP Athletics
If anything, Lester is more of a 1A to Scherzer than second, but since 1A isn't an actually number, I guess we'll just have to put him second.
Lester is arguably having the better season than Scherzer, notching a 2.44 ERA, 160 ERA+, 2.59 FIP, 9.1 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, and 5.1 WAR, the latter of which is the third best mark in baseball according to Fangraphs. The one things holding him behind Scherzer is his track record. Lester has been an ace-caliber performer before, posting a 135 ERA+ and 21.9 WAR during the four seasons from 2008 to 2011, however, he was a below average pitcher in 2012 (87 ERA+), and only slightly above-average last season (109). Still, the 2014 version of Lester seems a lot closer to the real Lester than the 2012 version, and that's the kind of pitcher that should easily receive nine digits on the open market.
Due to his recent trade to Oakland, Lester will not receive a qualifying offer this winter, and will come without draft pick compensation, similar to Zack Greinke two years ago. Lester should have no shortage of suitors, though the question mark of his desire to return to the Red Sox will loom over him until he signs.
Hanley Ramirez, SS/3B Dodgers
Ramirez isn't exactly setting the world on fire like he did last season, but then again, very few non-Mike Trout players are capable of duplicating a 10-WAR pace over an entire season. Until his recent injury (which doesn't seem to be severe), Ramirez was having a solid season, posting similar offensive numbers to his days in Florida, though his defense has clearly fallen off and whoever he signs with this offseason would be smart to move him off shortstop to third base full-time. Overall, Ramirez has a .277/.367/.455 slash line, 137 wRC+, .364 wOBA, and 2.4 WAR in 100 games this season.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B Giants
Sandoval happens to be one of the few elite free agent position players this winter who will be hitting the market in his prime, as the Panda only just turned 28 on Monday. Sandoval isn't quite the lethal offensive force he was in his first few seasons, and the yo-yoing of his weight will always be a question mark. Still, he is in the midst of a solid campaign, hitting .283/.330/.438 with a 119 wRC+ and 3.3 WAR, which are both his best since 2011. He has also heated up of late after a terrible start, hitting .321/.360/.481 since the start of July.
Sandoval's market will be somewhat limited by draft pick compensation, as he will surely be offered a qualifying offer, which he may accept in hopes that he can use his age to his advantage and have a nice rebound season, enabling him to earn more money entering the market at age 29. Right now, Sandoval is hoping that some club will go overboard to pay him like a superstar, which he is, while still very good, currently not.
James Shields, RHP Royals
Shields' value is hindered by the fact that he will be 33 at the start of next season, as well as some hiccups in his performance lately. Still, Shields is a very valuable pitcher, even if he is constantly dogged on due to his involvement in the Royals-Rays megatrade from a couple offseasons ago. He derives plenty of value from his ability to log A LOT of innings. In all, he's thrown 1,725 innings over the past eight seasons, and has topped 200 innings every year since 2007. He's on pace to do so once again this year.
In 166.1 innings this season, Shields has a 3.25 ERA, 126 ERA+, 3.73 FIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, and 2.8 WAR. Due to his age, Shields is unlikely to get as many years as Lester and Scherzer, but he still should be in line for an enormous AAV.
Victor Martinez, DH/1B Tigers
Nearly 36-years-old, Martinez's best-case scenario presents itself as a three-year deal, and as a bat-first player who's best position is not on the field, there isn't going to be too much clamoring for his talents. Still, Martinez brings what may be the best offensive skillset on the market, as he is hitting .322/.386/.554 with a 152 wRC+, .396 wOBA, and 23 home runs this season, all of which are (or are on pace to be) career-bests.
Due to his age, draft pick compensation, and lack of defensive abilities, Martinez's market is going to be very limited, but teams are going to be hard-pressed to find a better available bat than his.
Russell Martin, C Pirates
Martin is perhaps one of the least-heralded players in baseball, but he may be one of the best backstops in the game. Nearly 32, Martin's age (especially as a catcher) is a concern, but he has been an elite performer (with a couple years of exception) since coming up in 2006, and is currently enjoying the best year of his career since leaving the Dodgers, hitting .290/.413/.401 with a 138 wRC+, .367 wOBA, and 3.4 WAR in 313 plate appearances, while providing excellent defense. Martin is also among the best pitch-framers in the game, currently ranking fourth in framing runs added per Baseball Prospectus.
Considering Martin's current two-year, $16 million deal is the largest free agent contract in franchise history, the Pirates are unlikely to bring him back, but there still should be a wide variety of teams inquiring on him, especially now that Kurt Suzuki is staying in Minnesota and there is no other significant catcher available this winter.
Melky Cabrera, OF Blue Jays
Cabrera's biogenesis connection may scare some teams off, but it's hard to deny his incredible performance this season, as he is hitting .315/.371/.476 with a 135 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR. And this is nothing new, as he was an elite player with the Royals and Giants in 2011 and 2012 before his suspension and dismal year with the Blue Jays last season. At 30-years-old, someone is gong to pony up and hand him a three or four-year deal this offseason.
Yasmani Tomas, OF
The 23-year-old, Tomas recently defected from Cuba and may finally be eligible to sign with a big league club at some point this winter. A corner outfielder, Tomas is noted for his enormous raw power, which some say is comparable to the White Sox' Jose Abreu, who was in a similar situation to Tomas last offseason. Due to his age and potential, Tomas could land a nifty deal similar to Abreu's once eligible. If you want to know more about him, Baseball America's Ben Badler wrote about him back in June when he defected.
Nelson Cruz, OF/DH Orioles
Cruz is similar to Cabrera in that he will have to face PED skeptics, but it helps when you are currently leading baseball with 31 home runs. To go along with those bombs, he's also hitting .263/.333/.522 with a 133 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR, though he has cooled off significantly since a blistering start.
While Cruz's offensive skills are clear, he lacks much defensive value and is already 34, so a deal for more than three years is highly unlikely.
Honorable mentions (no order): David Robertson (RHP, Yankees), Nick Markakis (OF, Orioles), Ervin Santana (RHP, Braves), Colby Rasmus, (OF, Blue Jays), Jason Hammel (RHP, Athletics), Francisco Rodriguez, (RHP, Brewers), Asdrubal Cabrera (SS/2B, Nationals), Chase Headley (3B, Yankees), Rafael Soriano (RHP, Nationals), Jed Lowrie (SS, Athletics), Casey McGehee (3B, Marlins), Adam LaRoche (1B, Nationals), Alex Rios (OF, Rangers), Aramis Ramirez (3B, Brewers), Koji Uehara (RHP, Red Sox), JJ Hardy (SS, Orioles)