Yesterday, we talked about potential busts, and the kinds of players to stay away from once free agents are released into the wild on Friday to fend for themselves. Thus was born an editorial fiat: "Bates, tomorrow you must write the opposite." And so I shall. Below are players who, for the money they're likely to get and value they're going to provide, are safe bets to target.
Catcher - Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Matt Wieters is definitely the crown jewel of the catching market, and will receive a huge multi-year contract and will probably have a compensation pick attached to him. Saltalamachia was in that same position two offseasons ago, when the Marlins signed him for three years and $21 million. Saltalamacchia struggled compared to their expectations, hitting .220/.320/.362 (91 OPS+) in his first year, and then going 2-for-29 to start 2015. Jeffrey Loria ordered him released, so he signed with the Diamondbacks, where he bounced back very nicely to the tune of .251/.332/.474 while sharing time with Wellington Castillo. Salty is an ok defensive catcher who provides decent offense. Assuming that he's going to be paid as such on a 2 year deal, he could be very valuable as a starter.
First Base - Chris Davis
It feels weird not to be totally comfortable with Chris Davis, who has led the American League in homers twice in the last three years. His struggles in 2014, when he hit .196/.300/.404 and was suspended for using Adderall, and his massive strikeout rate, make it a lot more difficult to justify handing him $20 million a year, however. Still, assuming he has his therapeutic use exemptions in order, there's not any reason to think that Davis can't keep this incredible run up for another four years or more.
Second Base - Ben Zobrist
Daniel Murphy is a second baseman in name only, Howie Kendrick is declining, and Chase Utley is toast. Zobrist is going to be 35, which is concerning for a second baseman, but hasn't had nearly as much wear and tear on him, given his versatility. His defensive numbers took a hit for the first time in ever, but assuming that's a blip, Zobrist proved that he can still hit and probably will be productive for another two or three years.
Third Base - Juan Uribe
A slow start to 2015 led to a trade from the Dodgers and the impression that Uribe had a down year, but he rebounded nicely with both Atlanta and the NL Champion Mets. For as much fun as it is to mock him, Uribe is a solid hitter and a good defender who should still have a year or two left in the tank as a productive player at a reasonable salary.
Shortstop - Ian Desmond
A rash of errors to start 2015, and offensive struggles, might lead you to think that Desmond is a bad bet. And certainly, his offnse has declined in each of the last three seasons. Still, his overall defensive performance at short was strong yet again, and he managed to be worth around two wins despite an OPS+ of 80. Given that he'll only be 30, an enterprising club could buy low on Desmond now and would probably get a similar player to the guy who was worth three or four wins each year from 2012-2014.
Corner OF - Jason Heyward
When he debuted and was smashing windshields in the parking lot, we all salivated over Jason Heyward's power. He's become a completely different player, however, by cutting down on his strikeouts. Now, he puts up good on-base numbers with mid-range power and combining that with perhaps the best corner outfield defense in baseball and incredible baserunning. Heyward is only going to be 26, and would actually be worth a Vernon Wells-type contract. Whoever signs him is almost certainly going to get more than they pay for, especially if Heyward's offensive game matures further.
Corner OF (bonus) - Alex Gordon
It's amazing how Gordon went from bust to second best player in the American League over the last five seasons. A groin injury cost him some playing time in July and August, but he returned to play well down the stretch and into the postseason. Similar to Heyward, Gordon is a good, but not great, hitter for an outfield corner, but his defense is so good that he will remain valuable even if his bat dips a little. At 32, there's a little concern that he could start to lose some of that value.
Center Field - Austin Jackson
Jackson is not the kind of player that we, as statheads, are trained to love. He doesn't walk much, and strikes out a ton. He also is coming off of a year where he was traded to the Cubs specifically to be a backup. But we're talking about a player who was worth in excess of three wins as recently as 2013, who is an excellent defender in center field, and who has actually provided decent offense for his position. Even last year, his OPS+ was only 95. At 29, Jackson may be starting his defensive decline, but the good news is that it shouldn't take nearly as many years or as much money to land him as it does Dexter Fowler, or even Denard Span, and he's a decent bet to provide close to the same production.
Starting Pitcher - David Price
This is almost cheating. David Price is going to sign the biggest or second biggest deal this offseason (depending on who goes in on Zack Greinke and how much they want to spend). That said, he is a 30 year old on a Hall of Fame career path who has never suffered a major arm injury and who has gotten better as he's gotten older. He is left handed. He strikes out a batter per inning. And he might be the Cy Young winner in the American League for the second time. You will not find a more perfect pedigree, and you just get the feeling that Price is one of those pitchers who is going to be very good for a very long time. I think, for once, we're going to see one of those massive long term free agent deals work out exactly as planned for both parties. There are certainly fewer questions there than with Johnny Cueto, Scott Kazmir, and Jordan Zimmermann, and he's younger than Greinke.