Baseball’s free-agent season won’t heat up for a few more weeks, but Dave Dombrowski, new president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, stoked the coals under the hot-stove league recently when he said his top priority this off-season is to add a “horse” to the rotation.
He’ll have a stable of thoroughbreds to choose from, including David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Greinke — if, as expected, the Dodgers right-hander opts out of the remaining three years and $71 million on his contract.
With several other big-market teams, including the Dodgers, New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers, in need of a top-quality pitcher, bidding for premium arms could push several deals beyond the Jon Lester (six years, $155 million) range, and maybe even to Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million) territory.
For teams needing an impact hitter — hello, Angels? — there will be several available, with Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Chris Davis heading the list of free-agent position players.
Here’s a look at baseball’s top free agents and the teams that could pursue them:
Greinke, 32, could double his guaranteed money by opting out of the six-year, $147-million deal he signed with the Dodgers before 2013. He’s relatively young, and coming off a season in which he was 19-3 with a National League-best 1.66 earned-run average, striking out 200 batters and walking 40 in 222 2/3 innings.
With a vastly improved changeup, Greinke can dominate without the 95-mph fastball he featured in 2009, when he won the American League Cy Young Award with the Kansas City Royals. That makes a big investment in him a little less risky.
Keep this mind: Greinke is an accomplished hitter who loves the offensive side of the game, making the NL more attractive to him.
Probable suitors: Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals.
The 6-foot-6 left-hander emerged as an AL Cy Young Award candidate by posting a 9-1 record with a 2.30 ERA, striking out 87 batters and walking 18, in 11 starts for the Toronto Blue Jays after his July 30 trade from Detroit.
He also pitched most of his seven-year career — and was 104-56 with a 3.09 ERA — in the rugged AL East, so deep and powerful lineups won’t intimidate him. An added bonus: The thoughtful Price, 30, is respected throughout the game and would be a fine addition to any clubhouse.
Probable suitors: Blue Jays, Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees, Giants, Tigers, Angels, Cardinals.
No player increased his value more after the trade deadline than Cespedes, whose contribution to the New York Mets has been immense. The strong-armed, speedy outfielder hit .287 with 17 home runs and 44 runs batted in after being traded from the Tigers.
The Mets had a 53-50 record and averaged 3.5 runs per game before Cespedes, 30, arrived. They were 37-22 and averaged 5.4 runs afterward. Cespedes also had two home runs and drove in four runs in the Mets’ NL division series victory over the Dodgers.
Probable suitors: Mets, Angels, Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins.
Cueto’s timing isn’t great. He would have been better off hitting the market last off-season, on the heels of a four-year run in which he was 53-25 with a 2.48 ERA and 1.066 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning). He also led the NL with 242 strikeouts for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014.
After a July 26 trade to the Royals, the 29-year-old right-hander was 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 13 starts, including a 2-6 mark and 6.49 ERA in his last nine starts. And just as quickly as he may have restored a chunk of his value with his eight-inning, two-hit, eight-strikeout effort in an AL division series clincher over Houston, he possibly gave it away by getting hammered by the Blue Jays in his AL Championship Series start.
Probable suitors: Royals, Red Sox, Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Cardinals.
Davis’ timing couldn’t be better. The Baltimore first baseman had his down year in 2014, hitting .196 with 26 home runs and 72 runs batted in and serving a 25-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall without an exemption.
Probable suitors: Astros, Marlins, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Cardinals, Padres.
The 28-year-old outfielder is a poor man’s Cespedes, which isn’t necessarily bad. Upton is a career .271 hitter with a .352 on-base percentage who has averaged 26 home runs and 81 RBIs for five seasons. He has good speed, having stolen 19 bases for San Diego in 2015.
He’s also an above-average defender who can play left field and right. The only knock on Upton is he strikes out a too much, averaging 143 strikeouts per season for eight years.
Probable suitors: Royals, Orioles, Angels, Rays, Phillies.
Overshadowed on a Washington Nationals staff that includes Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, the 29-year-old right-hander just completed a four-year run in which he was 58-32 with a 3.13 ERA, had a 1.133 WHIP and averaged 32 starts and 202 innings per season.
Although he had elbow ligament-replacement surgery early in his career, the average velocity of Zimmermann’s fastball has held firm at 93.5 mph for seven years. He rounds out his four-pitch repertoire with a slider, curve and changeup. He’s a notch below the elite arms but is a strong No. 2 who could be the ace of some rotations.
Probable suitors: Angels, Cubs, Phillies, Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, Blue Jays, Texas Rangers.
The left-handed-hitting outfielder is intriguing because of his age (26), superb defense — a major league-leading 119 runs saved since his rookie year — high on-base percentage (.353) and an athletic 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame that suggests he might hit for more power than he did in his first six years, when he averaged 16 home runs and 58 RBIs.
Heyward, who played this season in St. Louis, is fast enough to have stolen 43 bases the last two seasons. That a team would be paying for four to six years of his prime makes him more attractive.
Probable suitors: Cardinals, Yankees, Giants, Mets, Angels, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Mariners, Braves.
Desmond, 30, won’t get anything near the deal he reportedly turned down before 2014 — a seven-year, $107-million extension from Washington — but he’s the most attractive shortstop in a market that is extremely thin at the premium position.
Although his overall 2015 numbers (.233, 19 home runs, 27 doubles, 62 RBIs) weren’t eye-popping, he had a strong second half (.262, 12 home runs, 38 RBIs in 72 games) and has above-average power for a shortstop.
Probable suitors: Padres, White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers, Diamondbacks.
The Mets second baseman wouldn’t have made the top 10 two weeks ago, but his stock has soared during a clutch-hitting October in which he batted .364 (12 for 33) with six home runs and nine RBIs in his first eight playoff games.
The left-handed-hitting Murphy, 30, isn’t a one-month wonder. He hit .281 with a .322 OBP, .449 slugging percentage, 14 home runs and 73 RBIs in 130 games during the regular season, and batted .287 with 22 home runs and 135 RBIs in 304 games from in 2013 and 2014. The knock on him: He’s an average defender.
Probable suitors: Angels, Dodgers, White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Brewers, Mets, Yankees.
Best of the rest
Starting pitchers: Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, Yovani Gallardo, John Lackey and Hisashi Iwakuma. Relievers: Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard, Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo and Tony Sipp. Catcher: Matt Wieters. First base: Mike Napoli. Second base: Howie Kendrick and Ben Zobrist. Third base: David Freese. Outfield: Colby Rasmus, Gerardo Parra, Dexter Fowler, Austin Jackson, Denard Span, Alex Rios and David Murphy.