There is a known saying among football fans that the National Football League has no real offseason. The NFL Scouting Combine occurs just weeks after the final play of the Super Bowl concludes. Months of draft speculation and then the actual NFL Draft follows the weekend of the combine. Then comes training camp, preseason games and, just like that, the first Thursday Night Football regular season game of the year.
Some gloss over the fact that Major League Baseball is yet another sports organization that does not, for diehard followers of the league, have an offseason. The “Hot Stove” season seems to kick off immediately following the World Series. All of those rumors and speculation lead into Spring Training, which begins in the middle of February.
Part of what makes MLB free agency so exciting is the fact that the league has no hard salary cap. While fans of big-market clubs such as the New York Yankees can dream of their favorite teams making major free agency splashes, those who cheer on smaller franchises can only hope that those teams do something of merit to improve during the winter months.
Here are our top 25 Major League Baseball free agents of 2015.
25. SP Jake Peavy
The 33-year-old will be a fascinating player to following during the free agency period, and not just because of where he will land. Peavy, who was less-than-stellar during his stint with the San Francisco Giants, is reportedly looking to sign with whatever team also acquires left-hander Jon Lester. The two played together with the Boston Red Sox, and Boston could be looking to sign one or both of the pitchers. The Chicago Cubs are also believed to be interested in Peavy.
24. SS/2B Asdrubal Cabrera
The Cleveland Indians wisely gave up on Cabrera during the 2014 Major League Baseball season. Believed to once be a key piece of a future championship team, Cabrera turned into a bitter disappointment for the Tribe during the spring and summer. He batted .229 and drove home only 21 runs during the spring and summer months before Cleveland shipped Cabrera to the Washington Nationals. Cabrera is a defensive liability who needs to prove that his bat has not forsaken him, but any team in need of a middle infielder who can swing the wood – looking at you, New York Mets – will be in for the 28-year-old.
23. RF Nick Markakis
Markakis could find himself off of such lists sooner than later depending on what offers he gets from the Baltimore Orioles. The right-fielder has only ever played for Baltimore since joining the Big Leagues in 2006, and reports are that the Orioles could offer Markakis a fresh four-year deal. Markakis, who turns 31 years old later in November 2014, will have plenty of suitors if he and the O’s cannot come to terms on a contract. Clubs such as the lowly New York Mets and even the World Series champion San Francisco Giants could extend offers if either Markakis or Baltimore leave the negotiating table.
22. CF Colby Rasmus
Rasmus did himself few favors in his final season before testing the free agent waters. His home run totals have dipped in each of the past two years. Some are wondering if his 2010 and 2013 campaigns, during which he posted batting averages of .276, were anomalies. All of his meaningful offensive stats were beneath season averages that Rasmus has established for himself. A lot of what makes him an intriguing free agency prospect is his age: Rasmus turned just 28 years old last August. He’ll land somewhere on a club that doesn’t want to overspend on an outfielder.
21. 1B Adam LaRoche
The end of October and beginning of November were not too kind on LaRoche. He first learned that the Washington Nationals had decided to decline their side of an option on the 35-year-old. LaRoche then learned that he had lost out on a Gold Glove. Never fear, however, as LaRoche is a proven bat who has been good for about 25 home runs and around 75-100 RBI over the past several years. Any team looking to upgrade at first base will at least give LaRoche a call during free agency.
20. SP Jason Hammel
Hammel is not a starting pitcher who will compete for a Cy Young Award. He isn’t a cornerstone to a championship rotation, but a pitcher such as Hammel can make the difference for a team pushing for a playoff spot. The 32-year-old appeared in 176.1 innings in 2014, the most he has pitched in a single season since 2010. Hammel will get multi-year offers from teams needing a middle-of-the-road starter. The Pittsburgh Pirates would be wise to reach out to Hammel as Pittsburgh attempts to avoid slipping back out of playoff contention.
19. SS Jed Lowrie
Lowrie is yet another middle infielder who had himself a disappointing season in the wrong year. After going for a combined 31 home runs and 117 RBI over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Lowrie hit just six homers this past season. He experienced drops in batting average, OBP, SLG and OPS from the prior campaign. Add in that Lowrie is not known for being a stellar defensive shortstop, and odds are that he won’t be cashing in on the deal he would have gotten had be been available one winter ago.
18. SP Justin Masterson
How quickly things can change in only a few months. The belief heading into the 2014 Major League Baseball season was that the Cleveland Indians had offered Masterson around $17 million to remain with the Tribe. Masterson instead wanted to hold out to see if he could strike it rich this coming offseason. Unfortunately for Masterson, who will be 30 years old on Opening Day next spring, he won only four of 19 starts before the Indians dealt the pitcher to the St. Louis Cardinals. Masterson may return to the Boston Red Sox, but his contract probably won’t be what it could have been.
17. SP Brandon McCarthy
McCarthy raised the eyes of potential suitors with his play following the Arizona Diamondbacks trading him to the New York Yankees during the 2014 season. The 31-year-old posted a 7-5 record while with the Yankees, and his 2.89 ERA was well beneath his career average. His 200 total innings pitched was by far a career high for McCarthy, and the mid-rotation starter may be able to choose from a few clubs this winter. Outside of the Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies could reach out to McCarthy.
16. SP Kenta Maeda
The Hiroshima Toyo Carp are expected to make Maeda available, and thus the right-hander who turns 27 years old next April could be on the verge of being the next million-dollar man out of Japan. Maeda is a flame-throwing starter who has posted double-digit wins in each of the past five seasons for Hiroshima. The usual suspects, such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are being linked with Maeda. The MLB Trade Rumors website is, however, predicting that Maeda will instead end up with the Houston Astros. He will likely, as is usually the case in these matters, go to the highest bidder.
15. SP Francisco Liriano
The 31-year-old southpaw isn’t known for eating up innings. Liriano hasn’t pitched in 163+ innings in a campaign in four years. That said, he has posted impressive ERA totals over the past two seasons; 3.02 in 2013 and 3.38 in 2014. There remains a possibility that Liriano could choose to remain with the Pirates. Teams are always looking for left-handed starters, though, and clubs such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs could present enticing offers for Liriano. Whatever he decides, Liriano is about to get paid.
14. RP Andrew Miller
Miller picked a great time to have a banner season. He ended the 2014 campaign with 103 strikeouts, 22 holds and an ERA of 2.02. All of those were career bests for the 29-year-old left-handed pitcher. Miller has nasty stuff, he throws with heat, and he is a southpaw. That he isn’t a closer won’t keep Miller from putting pen to paper on a significant contract with just about any team he wants. It is far from crazy to suggest that up to 15 clubs would happily sign Miller today if given the choice. The reliever is on the verge of having a very happy offseason.
13. 3B Chase Headley
Remember back in 2012 when Headley smashed 31 home runs and 115 RBI? That is looking to have been nothing more than a blip on the radar, as the 30-year-old never before posted such stats, and he hasn’t come close to doing so over the past two seasons. Headley could find himself fielding offers from several clubs this winter, and not just because of his above-average glove. The New York Yankees have reportedly already begun talks with Headley, which may tell you plenty about how the Yanks perceive the returning Alex Rodriguez. Any club wanting to put one over on the Yankees – and those teams are out there – could snag Headley away from New York.
12. OF Yasmani Tomas
Tomas could be the top international free agency get of the winter. A power-hitting outfielder, the soon-to-be 24-year-old defected from Cuba to the United States earlier this year. The Boston Red Sox, who could be on the verge of yet another championship run if they land all of their targets, recently held a private workout for Tomas. Boston is the leader in the clubhouse for Tomas’s signature if the Red Sox want him, but the Phillies are also expected to be in the picture. Some have linked the New York Mets with Tomas, but early indications are that the Amazins would be outbid by other clubs.
11. RP David Robertson
Robertson more than earned the massive pay-raise and multi-year contract that is headed his way with his performances in 2014. He finished the season with 39 saves, 96 strikeouts, a 3.08 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. Robertson appeared in 63 games for a New York Yankees team that was hardly anything special in 2014, and it is now the Yankees who are in an unfamiliar spot. New York is not in a place to award Robertson with a deal equal to his skills and his stats, and thus he could move on to either Chicago team or possibly to the Detroit Tigers.
10. SP Ervin Santana
Santana falls just out of the top-tier of free agent pitchers for the 2014-15 offseason. The starter who turns 32 years old in December won 14 of 31 starts, his highest win total since 2010. Santana has been good for no fewer than 178 innings a season every year since 2010, and his strikeout totals have increased every season over the past two years. If big-money clubs such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox look elsewhere, Santana may land with the Minnesota Twins.
9. C Russell Martin
Martin is the only catcher worthy of being on such lists this time around. He’ll be 32 years old next spring, and Martin had the type of season that makes him an attractive target for multiple clubs. Martin hit .290, his highest batting average since 2007, and his .402 OBP was a career best. While there is a belief around baseball that Martin wouldn’t mind staying in Pittsburgh with the Pirates, the Chicago Cubs are also targeting the catcher. The Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin’s old club, could also reach out to him if they decide that they want to grab the best available catcher.
8. DH Victor Martinez
The finalist for the American League Most Valuable Player Award may have the option to return to his first Major League Baseball club this winter. It was, in 2009, one of the worst kept secrets in the league that Martinez did not want to leave the Cleveland Indians when the club traded him to the Boston Red Sox. Martinez will turn 36 years old in December, and there have been whispers among some within the Cleveland media that the designated hitter wants to end his career in northeast Ohio. Whether or not the Indians will extend an offer has yet to be known, and Martinez will certainly have other suitors if Cleveland elects to pass.
7. DH Nelson Cruz
Cruz proved to be an absolute bargain for the Baltimore Orioles at $8 million for the 2014 campaign. He led all of Major League Baseball with 40 home runs, and Cruz also drove in 108 RBI. Both of those were career-bests for the 34-year-old. One can be sure that Cruz won’t be interested in again being a steal for any franchise. The O’s would be wise to keep Cruz in Baltimore for at least the next couple of years, but he will look elsewhere if the Orioles don’t give him the amount of years he is searching for after his incredible season.
6. LF Melky Cabrera
Let those “Melky Cabrera to New York Yankees” rumors begin. Cabrera and the Toronto Blue Jays are apparently not reading the same book let alone on the same page as it pertains to contract negotiations. He turned 30 years old last August, and Cabrera is in his prime. He ended the 2014 season with 16 home runs, 73 RBI and a .301 batting average. A different Yankees front office from a different Yankees era probably wouldn’t have had a problem with overpaying to bring him back to the club, but New York will likely pass this time.
5. 3B Pablo Sandoval
So what if Sandoval has not managed to hit over 16 home runs in a regular season since 2011? Sandoval put on shows in front of national television audiences during a postseason for the ages, and the 28-year-old may be keen on seeing what type of money is out there for a popular player who could fetch offers from several clubs that want to sell tickets and have the ability to pay him his desired wages. Sandoval could soon be facing a decision of money versus comfort. Will he be willing to give the Giants a hometown discount?
4. SS Hanley Ramirez
Ramirez is the undisputed non-pitching free agent of the offseason. Any and all worries about his injury past or his glove will quickly disappear once teams in need of a shortstop who can afford Ramirez begin negotiations with him. He’ll be 31 years old come Christmas time, and Ramirez is a top right-handed bat who provides a spark to any lineup. The New York Mets would, in an ideal situation, acquire the shortstop who used to be a villain of the club during his days with the old Florida Marlins. Ramirez is more realistically the ideal replacement for Derek Jeter.
3. SP James Shields
“Big Game James” will be quite the consolation prize for one of the teams that miss out on the top-two free agent pitchers of this cycle. James has received a qualifying offer from the Kansas City Royals, but he is expected to sign for much more money with another club. It is possible that Joe Maddon, who managed Shields when the two were in Tampa Bay, could look to form a reunion in Chicago. Maddon was recently introduced as the new manager of the Cubs. Shields could also land in Boston if the next name on this list does not return to the Red Sox.
2. SP Jon Lester
It was the perfect plan, so much so that even those who aren’t fans of the Red Sox could not help but tip caps toward the Boston front office. With a playoff berth nowhere in sight in the middle of 2014, the Red Sox dealt Lester to the Oakland Athletics for Yoenis Cespedes and a draft pick while working under the belief that Boston would sign Lester this offseason. What was the perfect crime at the time is now in doubt, as the Chicago Cubs have the resources to make a real play for the southpaw who will be 31 years old in January.
1. SP Max Scherzer
Scherzer is the consensus top free agent of the offseason. After going 21-3 during his Cy Young season of 2013, the 30-year-old ended the 2014 campaign with a modest 18-5 record. The question regarding his next deal is how much over $150 million Scherzer will receive, and which club will sign on the dotted line. It was reported in early November that the New York Yankees will not chase after Scherzer or Sandoval. Assuming that is accurate of a club that likely won’t contend for a World Series next fall, the Cubs and Red Sox may be on the cusp of a bidding war for the best available pitcher in baseball.