After recently covering the Top Ten 2011 MLB Free Agents, I’d like to take a look into the future and see what players will likely be the top free agents in 2012. Many players have options that ultimately may or may not make the player a free agent. We will take our best guess to determine their free agent eligibility. For example, the New York Yankees have a team option on Robinson Cano in 2012. Given how Robinson Cano has emerged as one of the best players in baseball, it’s a safe bet the Yankees won’t let him turn into a free agent.
10) Heath Bell
Heath Bell has been a good closer for the San Diego Padres for the past two years, posting 42 and 47 saves respectively. He’s postead a 2.32 ERA, 1.160 WHIP, and 165/52 strikeouts to walks ratio. It isn’t stunningly good, but it’s not something most teams would want to have. Compared to the closer at #9 below, Heath Bell will lose some marks of his age. He’ll enter free agency at 33 years old.
9) Jonathan Papelbon
Jonathan Papelbon has been a rock solid closer for the Boston Red Sox ever since he became their fulltime closer in 2006. However, his 2010 season was his career worst, putting up some question marks about his long-term viability. He posted career worsts of a 3.90 ERA, 1.269 WHIP, and 28 walks in 2010. If he can put up stronger numbers in 2011, then it may move him up this list. Otherwise, teams may wonder if Jonathan Papelbon simply isn’t the same pitcher he once was.
8) Jose Bautista
It’s hard to imagine Jose Bautista duplicating his 2010 season again in 2011. Despite never hitting more than 16 home runs in his career, Jose Bautista lead the majors in home runs in 2010 with 54. He also posted his best OPS ever with a 0.995 OPS. That shattered his previous career high of 0.757 set in 2009. If Jose Bautista can put up good numbers again in 2011, he’ll enter free agency with a good amount of interest. Teams will be interested in adding his bat, but they’ll pause due to his sudden unexpected success.
7) Dan Uggla
It’s tough to find middle infielders that can hit, which is what will make Dan Uggla so interesting to teams. He’s averaged over 30 home runs a year for his five year career and has a career OPS of 0.837. While it’s not as an impressive OPS compared to the players listed below, it’s quite high for a second basemen.
6) Mark Buehrle
Mark Buehrle will be 32 after the 2011 season, so he’ll be on the wrong side of 30 for a starting pitcher. In 2010 he posted his worst ERA in four years, however it was still a respectable 4.28. Since 2001, Mark Buehrle has never pitched fewer than 200 innings in a year. While his better years may be in the past, he’ll still be a great arm to add to the starting rotation.
5) Roy Oswalt (Mutual Option in 2012)
Roy Oswalt has a mutual option in 2012 that may or may not make him a free agent. He had a great 2010 posting a 2.76 ERA. If he can post another good 2011 season, I believe he’ll enter free agency. While he’ll be 33 after the 2011 season, he’s been so good for so many years, that he should be able to command a multi-year contract. He won’t be able to command a $100 million contract like CC Sabathia or Johan Santana, but he should be able to get atleast a solid 3 year contract.
4) Rickie Weeks
Rickie Weeks finally had the breakout year in 2010 that the Brewers had been expecting for a long time. He his 29 home runs (the first time he eclipsed 20 home runs) and had a career best .830 OPS (discounting his shortened 2009 season). If he can duplicate this performance in 2011, it should make him a more highly valued second baseman than Dan Uggla as he’s three years younger and considered a better all around player.
3) Prince Fielder
From 2007 to 2010, Prince Fielder has averaged a .281 batting average, .944 OPS, 40 home runs, and 111 RBIs. Prince Fielder has always had a great eye and has eclipsed over 100 walks over the past two years. He’ll enter free agency at the age of 27, which is far younger that most. While interest in Prince Fielder should be high, it’ll be interesting to see how high it is. While Prince Fielder is great, he’s had a bit of inconsistency. He posted a 1.013 and 1.014 OPS in 2007 and 2009 respectively, but a 0.879 and 0.871 OPS in 2008 and 2010. Prince Fielder’s weight has always been a question mark in his career, and it may affect how many years or how many teams will ultimately have interest in him.
2) Adrian Gonzalez
Some might be surprised that I would put Adrian Gonzalez ahead of Prince Fielder on this list. Why? The short answer is Petco Park. Petco Park is the pitchers equivalent of Coors Field. Take a look at these incredible split differences for Adrian Gonzalez at home and away over the past four years.
2007 Home: .266 batting average, 0.760 OPS, 10 home runs
2007 Away: .295 batting average, 0.928 OPS, 20 home runs
2008 Home: .247 batting average, 0.788 OPS, 14 home runs
2008 Away: .308 batting average, 0.946 OPS, 22 home runs
2009 Home: .244 batting average, 0.859 OPS, 12 home runs
2009 Away: .306 batting average, 1.045 OPS, 28 home runs
2010 Home: .279 batting average, 0.821 OPS, 11 home runs
2010 Away: .315 batting average, 0.980 OPS, 20 home runs
Adrian Gonzalez is averaging a 0.975 OPS on the road over the last 4 years compared to a 0.807 OPS at home. Once you translate the above away stats into a full-year at a more average park, you’re going to have a player that more closely rivals the #1 player below. On top of that, Adrian Gonzalez will also only be 29 after the 2011 season. So he’ll have a lot of his prime years left to go. There are rumors that the Red Sox are extremely high on Adrian Gonzalez and believe his left-handed bat is particulary well suited for Fenway Park, so much so that he’ll be considered more favorably than the #1 player below.
1) Albert Pujols
Do I even have to write anything here to justify Albert Pujols being #1 on this list? Let’s start with the obvious, he’s got a career 1.050 OPS after the 2010 season. That’s tops amongst active players (the only one above 1.000) and fifth all-time. He’s won three MVPs. He’ll likely fall short to Joey Votto in the MVP race in 2010, but there’s no shame is being a runner up for the 4th time in his career. To put it bluntly, Albert Pujols is the best player of his generation. With the Yankees locking up Mark Teixeira and the Red Sox rumored to favor Adrian Gonzalez more heavily than Albert Pujols, most feel that Albert Pujols will be locked up the Cardinals and won’t be entering free agency. However, if he does, it’ll be interesting to see the frenzy that will occur.
CC Sabathia (May Opt out after 2011)
CC Sabathia has the ability to opt out of his contract after the 2011 season. He’ll be 30 years old after the 2011 season, which makes him young enough to be able to secure another long term contract. The question is, will he be able to obtain a contract for more then the $92 million owed to him from 2012 to 2016? It’s a tough call. At this point in time, I’ll assume he won’t enter free agency, but it’s possible if he had another stellar 2011 season.
“2012 MLB Free Agents, MLB Trade Rumors
“Baseball-Reference.com – Major League Baseball Statistics and History”, Baseball-Reference