Where will the top free agents sign? Here’s a guess …
Two things about the free-agent market this offseason: It sure is thin, and it sure is top heavy. If you’re looking for a lights-out closer, there are many. If you’re looking for a front-line starter, there are little. And if you want a premier slugger, you better be prepared to pay up.
Without further ado, here’s my guess (with emphasis on the word “guess”) at the destination of who I consider to be the top five free agents …
Albert Pujols: Cardinals
The notion that Tony La Russa‘s retirement somehow has some relevance with regards to Pujols’ situation is silly. Pujols is signing a deal that could reach 10 years. And even if La Russa, at 67, did come back, he’d only manage for another, what, two years? Pujols knows this. And this may just be me falling victim to the moment, but I can’t see Pujols signing with a different organization just because he’ll be making a few extra millions. With the Cardinals, Pujols goes to a city where he’s revered, an organization where he basically makes the rules and a team that consistently has a chance to win. The Cardinals’ contract offers may not have been lucrative enough before, but they got some extra money with a World Series run, restructuring Chris Carpenter‘s contract and signing Lance Berkman to a rather bargain deal. Plus, if they make third-base coach (and Pujols’ buddy) Jose Oquendo the manager, their chances of him staying are even greater. It’ll be a long, drama-filled battle. But in the end, I’ve got the Redbirds. … Perhaps it’s just that part of me that wants to believe a star player can stay with one franchise.
Other options: Rangers, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers, Marlins, Blue Jays, Nationals
Prince Fielder: Dodgers
I can’t see Fielder picking his team until Pujols signs first and, thus, sets the market for him. And though Brewers owner Mark Attansio expressed his team would “be in the game” for Fielder, it’s long been considered a foregone conclusion that the 2011 season was Fielder’s last in Milwaukee. The West coast seems to be the logical landing spot for the big vegetarian. It’s a big market, Prince and Matt Kemp are pals, the Dodgers badly want to improve their offense, and general manager Ned Colletti is expected to have $25 million to spend on free agents this offseason. Of course, a lot of this will hinge on how quickly the sale of the Dodgers goes through and who buys them. But if this gets done quickly, and MLB proclaims it will be, the Dodgers and Prince look like a great match.
Other options: Brewers, Rangers, Cubs, Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Blue Jays, Nationals
Jose Reyes: Tigers
The Tigers are right there. They just need to improve their defense and get some sort of consistency out of the top of their order. Hello, Jose Reyes. The Tigers’ biggest deficiency in 2011 was third base, but that can easily be solved by moving the defensively-inept Jhonny Peralta — signed through next year, with a team option for 2013 — over to his more comfortable position of third base and obtaining Reyes, who would allow Austin Jackson and his .317 on-base percentage to move lower in the order. Two things that may stand in the way: GM Dave Dombrowski has said he prefers to keep Peralta at shortstop, and the Tigers already have two players making $20-plus million a year in Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. But owner Mike Ilitch has shown he’ll do what it takes to build a championship-contending club, and the Tigers may be a Reyes away from that. The Mets will give it a valiant effort, but barring significant payroll-shedding moves, they don’t have the capital to keep up.
Other options: Mets, Marlins, Red Sox, Cardinals (if no Pujols)
C.J. Wilson: Marlins
The Marlins have money to spend, and they keep telling everybody they’re going to be in play for the major free agents. That includes Wilson, who would give Florida something it badly needs headed into its new ballpark: A frontline starting pitcher, particularly a left-hander. The price for Wilson will be high, considering he’s clearly the best of what’s a shallow free-agent pool of starters and plays a position that’s always coveted. Projections have him attaining something in the range of the five-year, $82.5 million deals A.J. Burnett and John Lackey previously signed in free agency. But he may get an ever bigger deal. Regardless, the Marlins want to prioritize the rotation and, for one of the rare times in franchise history, have the means to do it. Wilson would give them a solid No. 2 behind Josh Johnson.
Other options: Rangers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres, Nationals, Red Sox, Twins, Orioles, Rockies, Royals
Yu Darvish: Yankees
The Yankees are prioritizing the rotation once again, but reports say they don’t want to go all-in on Wilson. If he’s posted, the Japanese Darvish seems like the perfect answer for general manager Brian Cashman, who continues to put a premium on accumulating young starting pitching (something he showed while refusing to trade his top prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez at the non-waiver Trade Deadline). Darvish will have a much cheaper contract than Wilson because he’s only 25, but because of the posting fee that would come with him — remember, Daisuke Matsuzaka required a $52 million posting fee, and that was five years ago — he won’t be much cheaper. The Yanks will face a lot of competition for Darvish, but when it comes down to dollars, they usually win if they have enough desire. And they definitely desire another rotation piece.
Other options: Rangers, Blue Jays, Nationals, Red Sox, Mariners, Twins, Orioles, Rockies, Royals (and probably a bunch of others)
** Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.