Championships are not won or lost based on how much money the team spends in the offseason. However, the right allocation of payroll by a general manager can add a critical piece to a team on the verge of contention. As is the case in the real world, wise investments can pay dividends in the world of baseball. Looking ahead to 2015 free agent class, there are ten players due to hit the open market who look to not only make a huge personal pay day, but also could be vital assets for a run to a world championship.
It is far too easy to fall into the trap of paying a free agent based on past performances. Ideally, a club will pay for potential and lock in a club friendly deal without the future becoming hamstrung. The probability of an albatross of a contract remains high, keeping it as a healthy deterrent from making a commitment. The key to avoiding this is timing. Signing the right player at the right time can cushion the blow of down years X, Y, and Z at the back end of the deal. The right time is when the club is a borderline playoff or pennant winning contender, looking for the last piece to push them forward. Unless you’re the New York Yankees, this proverbial window only comes around every once in a while, making now a better time than ever to act.
This year’s free agent crop is headlined by two pitchers set to break the bank and bring their bona fide ace status to whomever they choose. The field of position players consists of a pair of resurgent sluggers, the latest Cuban import, and a super utility man. In total, these ten players would make a great return on investment for any club willing to sign them.
10 Ben Zobrist -- Tampa Bay Rays
Once the apple of every sabermetrician’s eye, Zobrist’s stats don’t jump out as key free agent material. Batting .267 with a paltry nine home runs and 45 runs driven in through 145 games in 2014, the utility player is not an overwhelming offensive force. However, the Tampa Bay jack of all trades provides value in his versatility. Injuries are bound to happen over the course of 162 games, often to key position players. Zobrist can fill many of those immediate needs and even contribute as a regular everyday player for a team looking for a steady bat.
9 Hanley Ramirez -- Los Angeles Dodgers
8 Huston Street -- Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Street has continued his lights out campaign in the closer’s role after being dealt to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in July. Pitching to the tune of a 1-1 record, a 1.64 earned run average, and fourteen saves since joining the Angels, Street has been a key contributor to LA’s second half surge to an American League West division title. Compiling a total of 38 saves for the 2014 season, Street ranks seventh in the majors in shutting down the opposition in crunch time.
With how in flux the closer position can be, Street is an incredibly steady free agent option. Considering his previous clubs, it would not be far-fetched to consider his career numbers skewed thanks to his home ballparks. Oakland, San Diego, and Anaheim are generally pitcher friendly parks. However, in his three years spent in Colorado, Street saw his ERA rocket to 3.50. Coincidentally, his strikeout to walk ratio was never higher than from 2009 to 2011 in Colorado, a rate of 5.15 strikeouts to every walk allowed. The 31-year-old Street figures to grab a three-year deal with an option for a fourth, a fairly equitable deal for any club.
7 JJ Hardy -- Baltimore Orioles
Coming off of back to back Gold Glove winning seasons, Hardy’s 2014 season has been down in comparison. Batting .279, the defending Silver Slugger award winning Baltimore shortstop has seen his home run and RBI production drop considerably. Hardy has yet to crack double digits in dingers, clubbing nine homers in 2014 compared to 22 in 2013. On the plus side, his extra base numbers, specifically doubles, are on par with the last few seasons.
Hardy has a track record of above average power for his position, which should be enough to secure a hefty contract. That propensity for power is what makes Hardy a plus at shortstop.
6 Yasmani Tomas -- Cuba
The importation of slugging, athletic corner outfielders from the isle of Cuba remains strong. Boston’s Yoenis Cespedes and Los Angeles Dodger Yasiel Puig have spurred on the current search for undiscovered talent. Recently, Rusney Castillo agreed to terms with the Boston Red Sox on a seven-year, $72 million contract, and now 23-year-old power hitter Yasmani Tomas has defected in search of a major league contract.
According to Baseball America, Tomas ranks at a 70 on the raw power scale of 20 to 80 points. This incredible power makes Tomas an attractive option for teams looking to replenish a thin reserve of developmental outfielders. It remains to be seen whether or not Tomas would experience the same meteoric rise to the majors that Puig did. However, Tomas did put his skills on display during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, going 6 for 16 for the tournament, hitting two home runs and one double. In 2014, however, Tomas never seemed to recover from an arm injury suffered in a collision with an outfield wall, hitting six home runs in 257 plate appearances.
Despite his recent struggles, Tomas projects to be a wise signing. His great raw power is a great asset as he becomes acclimated to opposing pitchers. What cannot be taught is what makes Tomas a highly sought after slugger.
5 Nelson Cruz -- Baltimore Orioles
If there was a doubt about his abilities post-steroid suspension, Nelson Cruz has shattered them. After signing a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles, Cruz has proved invaluable. In fact, 2014 is Cruz’ best offensive season across the board: 39 home runs and 101 runs batted in.
That said, Cruz is due for a healthy pay day based on those stats alone. Where he is not valuable is defensively, an area of his game that has always been a liability. That’s why the field of suitors for Cruz’ services is cut by half, leaving all American League clubs. Cruz can be hidden in a lineup as a designated hitter to diminish the defensive risk to the team.
4 James Shields -- Kansas City Royals
Big Game James has been one of the many keys to the rapid turnaround in Kansas City, headlining their starting rotation since being traded there from Tampa Bay in the 2013 offseason. The big righthander has pitched to a 14-7 record with a 3.15 ERA, his best earned run average since the 2011 season.
After pitching in the shadow of David Price in Tampa for four years, Shields has thrived as the main man in KC. Whether or not Shields decides to cash in with a large market team after toiling in two of the Majors’ smaller markets is the decision the free agent will have to make.
3 Victor Martinez -- Detroit Tigers
A potential American League MVP, Victor Martinez is back to the form he showed prior to his injury-plagued 2012 season. Batting .335 with 30 home runs and 97 RBI, the Detroit designated hitter could turn his comeback season into a departure for more green than what’s available in Detroit.
The prospect of Martinez returning to the Tigers depends on the decision of ace starting pitcher Max Scherzer. Also, the deadline acquisition of starter David Price presents an obstacle for future obligations as well. These factors will have an impact on Martinez’ future in Detroit.
2 Jon Lester -- Oakland Athletics
The left handed starting pitcher was dealt by the Red Sox to the Oakland Athletics on July 31. Unfortunately, for the A’s, Lester has not been enough to help the team avoid dropping from first place in the American League West and into the first wild card spot. Fortunately for Lester, he has been outstanding all year along, pitching to a 14-10 record, 2.52 ERA, and 199 strikeouts.
Lester is a proven winner with World Series titles in 2007 and 2013 in Boston. Also, being one of the most dominant left handers in the game does not hurt his market value either. At age 31, Lester is in prime position to get a deal in the neighborhood of five years and a fair amount north of $100 million.
1 Max Scherzer -- Detroit Tigers
The defending American League Cy Young award winner has made a strong case for reclaiming the award in 2014. Carrying a 16-5 record, 3.19 ERA, and an outstanding 232 strikeouts into late September, Scherzer proved that his breakout season was no fluke.
After turning down a sizable extension in the offseason, Scherzer bet on himself and has backed it up on the field. Now the ball is in the Tigers’ court. Do they stand pat and hope Scherzer blinks? Or do they up the ante to keep the 30-year-old a part of a rotation that already includes Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and David Price? For the best pitcher on the open market and, arguably, the best player, Scherzer is sitting pretty as the prize of the 2014 offseason.