Moneyball: baseball free agency

The season of free agency is upon us, and with it the season of contractual absurdity.

Baseball is awash in money — from national television contracts, local cable deals, and the most powerful website in sports, The industry generates $8 billion per year, and the cash flow is so generous that each team will get another $25 million in revenue next year, just from an increase in TV money.

All that money has allowed even small-market teams to retain their stars. The Cincinnati Reds kept Joey Votto for $225 million. The Minnesota Twins kept Joe Mauer for $184 million. The Seattle Mariners kept Felix Hernandez for $175 million. The Colorado Rockies kept Troy Tulowitzki for $158 million.

When free agency arrives each fall, then, the pool of available players is older and smaller. But the money keeps coming, and so do the bidding wars for players not necessarily perceived as stars.

The list below includes three of the top free agents at each position, with each player's last team and age listed in parentheses.

Of the 30 players listed, only four are younger than 30. The only one younger than 28 is Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, whose team has yet to permit him to enter the free-agent process.


Mike Napoli (Boston, 32): His catching days are over, and designated-hitter days might be coming, but handled first base very well, with his sixth consecutive 20-home run season.

Kendrys Morales (Seattle, 30): Switch-hitter who can hit for power and average from both sides. Can play first base, but better as a DH.

James Loney (Tampa Bay, 29): Dodgers cared that he did not hit for power. Rays did not care. Same player: good with the glove, line drives at bat.


Robinson Cano (New York Yankees, 31): The $200-million winner in free agency. Hits .300, with big-time power, in the middle infield. Sat out only 14 games in seven years.

Omar Infante (Detroit, 31): Hit .318 with 13 home runs last season, the first he played exclusively at second base. All-Star as utility player in 2010.

Kelly Johnson (Tampa Bay, 31): If you want defense first, sign Mark Ellis. If you want offense first, try Johnson, with 79 home runs the last four years.


Stephen Drew (Boston, 30): Magic glove, weak bat. Third shortstop selected in first round of 2004 draft, behind Matt Bush — sorry, Padres fans — and Chris Nelson.

Jhonny Peralta (Detroit, 31): His first .300 season was interrupted by a Biogenesis suspension, and he's probably better suited to third base.

Rafael Frucal (St. Louis, 36): If you want defense first, sign Brendan Ryan. But Furcal, who sat out this season after elbow surgery, could be a leadoff hitter.


Juan Uribe (Dodgers, 34): After a bust in two of his three years in L.A., logic says he returns on a one-year deal. Supply and demand at this position says more.

Nick Punto (Dodgers, 36): A plus as a utility player, a minus as an everyday player. He played in 24 games in May, had .192 slugging percentage in June and July.

Michael Young (Dodgers, 37): Not much pop left in bat or range afield, but could be a solid part-time player and versatile asset on bench.


Curtis Granderson (New York Yankees, 32): Yankees intended to move him out of center field, a good idea. His 138 home runs in last four full seasons should command big bucks.

Nate McLouth (Baltimore, 32): Miscast as leadoff hitter (.329 OBP) but enough power and speed to be a nice complementary piece. Batting sixth or seventh, maybe.

Raul Ibanez (Seattle, 41): Hit 29 home runs, exceeded as a 40-something only by Darrell Evans (34). Is age why he hit .267 with 24 home runs in first half, .203 with five home runs in second half?


Jacoby Ellsbury (Boston, 30): Big talent, big risk: 32 home runs in 2011, no other years with double-digit home runs. Three 50-steal seasons.

Shin Soo-Choo (Cincinnati, 31): On-base machine with good power, good speed, durability. You'll like him in center field but love him in right.

Chris Young (Oakland, 30): Buy low, bat ninth, hope? Average season (2007-11): .239, 23 home runs, 20 stolen bases. Average season (2012-13): .215, 13, 9.


Carlos Beltran (St. Louis, 36): All-Star eight of last 10 years, proven postseason success. Best bet beyond two years is an American League club that sees a future DH.

Nelson Cruz (Texas, 33): Hit 135 home runs in last five years, but how deep into mid-30s do you go with a Biogenesis guy?

Marlon Byrd (Pittsburgh, 36): Coming off a career year, in his mid-30s, one year after a drug suspension. Good luck with that.


Brian McCann (Atlanta, 29): With six 20-home run seasons in a row, look for an AL team to give him an extra year or two since he could DH.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Boston, 28): His 40 doubles highlighted his career year, but is a .206 hitter against left-handers. Was benched in World Series.

Carlos Ruiz (Philadelphia, 34): Amphetamine suspension and .320 OBP won't help, but is a proven clutch hitter, and pitchers love throwing to him.


Masahiro Tanaka (Rakuten Golden Eagles, 25): Had a 24-0 record and 1.27 earned-run average, but threw 160 pitches in Game 6 of the Japan Series and 16 in Game 7. See the age? Mad bidding to come.

Ervin Santana (Kansas City, 30): Not only might the ex-Angel top $75 million, he has done what Chad Billingsley and many others could not: pitch with a partially torn elbow ligament.

Ricky Nolasco (Dodgers, 30): Good pitcher with good timing: As a healthy inning-eater in a thin market, most likely candidate for a "He got how much?" deal.


Joe Nathan (Texas, 38): Best available closer (1.39 ERA, .162 opponent batting average, .464 OPS). Age means short-term deal, which makes win-now Detroit Tigers a natural fit.

Grant Balfour (Oakland, 35): Flourished in Oakland, where big-bucks closers are frowned upon. First-time All-Star at 35, but four consecutive strong seasons.

Brian Wilson (Dodgers, 31): Gave up one run in 18 games as a setup man and a comeback pitcher in L.A. Is that enough for a two-year closer contract elsewhere?

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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