By Matt Citak
Without a doubt, this MLB offseason has been one of the strangest of any professional sport in recent memory. Pitchers and catchers report in less than three weeks, yet most of the top free agents remain unsigned. Whether it’s a one-time phenomenon or a new way teams view spending in free agency, there are still several notable, impact players searching for their next team.
One of the biggest free agents, center fielder Lorenzo Cain, finally inked a deal last night when the Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a five-year, $80 million deal. The contract represented the most money given to a free agent this offseason, beating out Carlos Santana’s three-year, $60 million deal signed with the Philadelphia Phillies last month.
With only a couple of weeks left before the start of spring training, it is clear that something has to give. Several teams are still looking to fill out their rosters, and these top free agents need to find their next home. A middle ground must be found in negotiations, and over the next two weeks, we are likely to see that happen.
Until it does, here are the top free agents still available.
SP Yu Darvish
Signing Darvish doesn’t come without some risks. The 31-year-old has racked up a number of injuries throughout the years, not to mention a good amount of innings. Since entering Major League Baseball in 2012, Darvish has tossed 858 total innings, averaging just over 170 innings per season. For his career, the right-hander is 56-42 with a 3.42 ERA and 1,021 strikeouts. Those numbers may fall a bit short of ace numbers, but signing Darvish would give a contending team another strong arm for both this season and the coming years.
There are several teams rumored to be vying for Darvish’s services. The Twins, Dodgers, Cubs, Brewers and Yankees have all been linked to the starting pitcher this offseason, and each of those five clubs would make sense for Darvish. The Cubs could look to make a splash in response to Milwaukee’s addition of Cain and Christian Yelich yesterday, while the Yankees are always a threat when it comes to top free agents. However at the end of the day, Darvish signing with Minnesota makes the most sense. The Twins offer Darvish a chance to pitch in a smaller market with less pressure for a team with a great offensive core and a combination atop the rotation of Jose Berrios and Ervin Santana already in place. Minnesota might have to out-bid the other teams, something the franchise is not known for doing in its history, but the chance to make the postseason for the second consecutive season might be enough to get GM Thad Levine to pull the trigger on Darvish.
RF J.D. Martinez
It’s pretty remarkable that Martinez is still available at this point of the offseason. The slugging outfielder mashed a whopping 45 home runs last season, despite playing in only 119 games. The 30-year-old outfielder also hit .303, while adding 104 RBI and 26 doubles to his season stats. Martinez has now hit over .300 and/or at least 22 home runs in three of the last four seasons, and managed to produce a WAR (wins above replacement) of 4.0, 5.0, and 3.8 in 2014, 2015, and 2017, respectively. He was, and still is, the best hitter available this offseason.
Despite being the best hitter on the market, Martinez does not seem to have many suitors lining up to offer him a contract. The Diamondbacks would love to have him back, and will surely attempt to lure the slugger back to Arizona. But with them already being close to maxed out from a salary standpoint, a reunion seems unlikely. That leaves one big market team with both the money and need for a power bat in their lineup- the Boston Red Sox. Boston already has a full outfield, meaning Martinez would likely be signing on to be their everyday designated hitter (Martinez prefers to stay in the outfield). However with the market as dry as it’s been the last few months, it seems like the 30-year-old may not have many other options. Martinez has a .444 career average in seven games at Fenway, so the chance to smash home runs over the Green Monster 81 games a year is certainly not the worst fallback plan.
1B Eric Hosmer
Hosmer is coming off a fantastic season. For the first time in his seven-year career in the majors, the 28-year-old played in all 162 games for the Royals. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Hosmer also enjoyed his strongest season since joining Kansas City, reaching career-highs in batting average (.318), hits (192), and walks (66) while matching his career-best of 25 home runs. That gives Hosmer two straight seasons with 25 home runs and at least 94 RBI, and considering his age, that is enough for some people to consider him the top free agent this offseason.
Similar to Martinez, the race for Hosmer’s services looks like it’s coming down to two teams. Reports state both the Royals and Padres have offered the talented first baseman a seven-year deal worth at least $140 million. While this is lower than he expected when the offseason first began, Hosmer should be thrilled to have two such offers on the table considering how slow the market has developed this winter. Hosmer would surely feel more comfortable resigning with the Royals, the only organization he’s been a part of for the last decade. However, while both teams seem headed towards a rebuild, the Padres look a lot further along in theirs with talented players such as Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, and Manuel Margot. Add in the fact that San Diego has the No. 4 farm system in baseball, and the signs point towards Hosmer leaving Kansas City to sign on with the Padres.
SP Jake Arrieta
Arrieta has been nothing short of brilliant since joining the Cubs prior to the 2014 season. In the four seasons since then, the right-hander has gone 64-29, he has two seasons with an ERA below 2.55, has not had an ERA over 3.53, and has started at least 25 games in each campaign (with 30+ starts in three of the four). Oh yeah, he also won the 2015 Cy Young award after going 22-6 with a 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, and 236 strikeouts in 229.0 innings. Yes, Arrieta’s numbers have gotten worse in the two seasons since, but 30+ starts with ERA’s of 3.10 and 3.53, respectively, should hardly be a concern. Don’t forget, the 31-year-old also hit .262 in 65 at-bats in 2016.
In theory, all of the teams interested in signing Darvish could (and should) be looking into Arrieta as a possible alternative. The Cubs make the most sense on paper, as the team is lacking in starting pitcher depth. But Chicago already has a very high payroll for 2018, and with Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant due for big paydays soon (not to mention the fact that the Cubs are planning to go after Bryce Harper next year), it seems unlikely that Arrieta will be back in Chicago. Now there is a decent chance that the former Cy Young-winner will still see plenty of Wrigley Field next season, but it’ll likely be from the opposing dugout. Arrieta’s best fit is with the Brewers, who would send a dagger through the hearts of all Cubs fans if they were to sign Chicago’s former ace. The 31-year-old has enjoyed pitching at Miller Park over the years, earning a 3-0 record with a 2.03 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, and 30 strikeouts in 31 innings over five starts. The Brewers already have a team that can compete with the Cubs, but adding Arrieta would have Chicago fans sounding the alarm all over town.
3B Mike Moustakas
In almost all situations, having a career-year during the last season of your contract means you are in prime position for a monster payday. And just two months ago, Moustakas looked to be in that exact situation. The big third basemen hit .272 with a career-high 38 home runs, 85 RBI, and 75 runs scored, adding 24 doubles and 34 walks. In addition to his power bat, Moustakas would also provide a team with a steady defender that is still only 29-years-old, and has World Series experience. Teams should be lining up around the block to sign Moose, right?
Wrong. Although he entered the offseason as the best left-side infielder available in this year’s crop of free agents, the market for Moustakas has remained rather dry. If he doesn’t mind being part of a rebuild, then a return to Kansas City is not out of the question. The Royals, just a few seasons removed from a World Series Championship, might find it hard to sell any tickets this season if they allow Cain, Hosmer, and Moustakas to all leave. Keeping one of the three free agents should help keep the fans (relatively) calm. If he doesn’t end up back in Kansas City, then the next most likely scenario would be Moustakas signing a large, one-year deal so he can re-enter free agency next year. If this is the route the third baseman decides to go, then the Yankees and Mets could be in play for the 29-year-old power hitter, as both are looking to add an infielder before the start of the season.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.