What this winter's crop of free agents lacks in megawatt names and core-level talent it hopes to make up for in pace.
In many ways Carl Crawford is the perfect headliner.
The four-time American League stolen base champ has one foot in the starting blocks, ready to be the most chased position player in this year's free-agent market. And unlike last year, when the biggest deal of the winter was signed by Matt Holliday with the St. Louis Cardinals in January, baseball has made strides to speed up the process this winter. Instead of 15 days to negotiate exclusively with its free agents, teams will only have five days after the World Series. Instead of the non-tender deadline pushing a second wave of free agents in the world after the Winter Meetings, this year that deadline comes before the annual swap meet.
The changes in the schedule could make the market move faster. At the least, hot-stove conversation will be livelier before the holidays.
There are 187 players who are eligible, including those with team, player or mutual options. They range from Crawford to slugger Adam Dunn, former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee to injured former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb. At the positions the Cardinals want to address the pickings are slim. Here are the top players and several players to watch at every position, plus a line or two about where the Cardinals fit in the picture. (You can find the complete list of 187 potential free agents here.)
1. Cliff Lee, LHP
2. Ted Lilly, LHP
3. Jake Westbrook, RHP
4. Javier Vazquez, RHP
5. Carl Pavano, RHP
As if baseball needed a reminder of Lee's worth, he went out Wednesday and did that thing he does in October - dominate. The lefty is the ace available in this market, and his recent comments about enjoying his time in Texas will do nothing to dispel the idea the New York Yankees will be coming, arms loaded with cash, or soften the reality that Lee is 6-5 with a 5.07 ERA at the Rangers' home ballpark.
THE CARDINALS ... of course, would like to reunite with sinkerballer Jake Westbrook, who helped his stock with a strong (read: healthy) finish to the 2010 season in St. Louis. The last two, Vazquez and Pavano, are interchangeable because they've each had success everywhere but the Bronx. If there's a hidden gem it could be lefty Jorge de la Rosa. And former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb (shoulder surgery) will go for one of those incentive-laden deals that some teams, like the Cardinals, are so fond of offering bounce-back candidates. Options are dangling for two pitchers at different ends of the marks with sure-thing Jon Garland having a $6.5-million option in San Diego and wayward talent Erik Bedard having an $8-million option Seattle.
1. Mariano Rivera, NYY
2. Rafael Soriano, TB
3. Kerry Wood, NYY
It's hard to imagine Rivera in anything other than Yankee pinstripes, so Tampa Bay's Rafael Soriano - who the Cardinals were once offered by Atlanta as part of a trade - is the hotshot closer on the market. Wood makes the list ahead of, say, Kevin Gregg ($4.5-million option), 600-save vet Trevor Hoffman, or deposed closer Frank Francisco. Wood makes the list partially because he's healthy now with a 2-0, 0.69 ERA in 26 innings during his finish with the Yankees.
THE CARDINALS ... will be looking to the more specialized niche of the reliever market: lefties. But that could bring them back to a familiar name, one that manager Tony La Russa called "a priority" just a few winters ago. Lefty Brian Fuentes, the Angels' closer at the start of last season, is going to be a Type B free agent, and while surely he'd like a chance to close, life as a lefty specialist has been good to him. Fuentes held lefties to a .128/.222/.149 line with 18 strikeouts and one extra-base hit (no homers) in 47 at-bats vs. lefthanded hitters. Some other lefties who could draw attention from the Cardinals are Arthur Rhodes (.214/.230/.393, 26 strikeouts, 84 at-bats), who once felt so confident about a deal with the Cardinals that he started looking for a house in the St. Louis; Will Ohman (.229/.323/.313, 23 strikeouts, 83 at-bats), who the Cardinals wouldn't deal Jason Motte for a few years ago; and Scott Downs (.152/.247/.241, 20 strikeouts, 79 at-bats), who ... well, I've got nothing concrete tying him to the Cardinals in the past except for a rumor or two.
1. Victor Martinez, BOS
2. A.J. Pierzynski, CHW
3. Ramon Hernandez, CIN
Imagine, Joe Mauer could have been atop this list had the Minnesota Twins not mortgaged Target Field to sign him last spring. An interesting group is left here as Martinez is clearly the class of the group, even as his career migrates toward first base and designated hitter. It seems like Pierzynski's Q-rating isn't as ugly as it used to be, though his production is trending down. Hernandez hit .297 for the Reds this season, but he, like so many on the list, are serviceable not stalwarts. That could change if Colorado balks at Miguel Olivo's $2.7-million option. He was an All-Star snub this past season and is easily in the conversation for best all-around catcher in the National.
THE CARDINALS ... will be looking for a backup, unless they side with rookie Matt Pagnozzi in the role. One interesting route the Cardinals could take is a family reunion for Yadier Molina. Older brother Bengie Molina, who had three hits while catching Lee for Texas on Wednesday, is a free agent, and Jose Molina has a $1.2-million option with Toronto.
1. Adam Dunn, WSH
2. Paul Konerko, CWS
3. Derrek Lee, ATL
Aubrey Huff, SF
Dunn's years of big power puts him ahead of the others on this list, though Lee has the best glove and Konerko might be the best all-around option. Lee had a down year with the Cubs and that continued with Braves. Five of his 19 homers this past season came against the Cardinals. There's got to be rebound year ahead for the 35-year-old Lee. Konerko had a nice contract drive with 39 homers and 111 RBIs to go with a .312 average. It's the 11th time in the previous 12 years that he's had at least 20 homers, and the fourth time in the past seven that he drove in more than 100. If that kind of power gets him paid, imagine what Dunn will score. The Washington National's outfielder/first baseman had his seventh consecutive season with at least 38 home runs, and he's had 100 or more RBIs in six of the past seven. Dunn is the three-true-outcome champion with a career OPS of .902. He may have limited his suitors by saying he had no interest in being a DH, but an American League team would be wise to woo him onto their team now to DH later.
THE CARDINALS ... won't be looking at this position, so we can move on.
1. Orlando Hudson, MIN
2. David Eckstein, SD
3. Felipe Lopez, BOS
Look no further than No. 3 on that list to realize this is one of the thinnest positions in a thin free-agent market. Second base doesn't have an option that pops. Oakland's Mark Ellis is interesting, but he has a $6-million option with the Athletics. Atlanta's Omar Infante could easily top the list except for his $2.5-million option. Like Infante, Minnesota's Nick Punto offers some attractive qualities at a variety of positions, yet he has a $5-million. Hudson has bounced from team to team in recent years, playing above-average defense and showing signs of offensive wear. Cristian Guzman, a second base/shortstop option, undercut his entry into free agency with poor performance and clubhouse questions in Texas.
THE CARDINALS ... will be looking for a second baseman and possible one who could leadoff as well. Hudson can do that. Lopez can do that, but didn't do that, and there's no way the Cardinals are going to go through that again. Could that mean a sequel? Eck II? It's not that outrageous to think that the Cardinals would approach Eckstein about coming back and handling second, leading off (but that .321 on-base percentage?), and jolting a clubhouse. It would be a retrofit.
1. Adrian Beltre, BOS
2. Ty Wigginton, BAL
3. Brandon Inge, DET
Sure Beltre has a player option, but it's a $5-million option and after the season he's had there's no chance he's pulling the trigger on that sucker. He may dig the Green Monster, just not enough to walk away from the green ahead. Beltre, freed from the cavernous Safeco Field, had an MVP-caliber season with 49 doubles, 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a .919 OPS. He's one of the best gloves at his position, and he'll try to parlay that season and that reputation into the offer he didn't get last year. Think a repeat of the five-year, $64-million deal he signed in 2005.
THE CARDINALS ... won't be swimming with those sharks. Not after professing that rookie David Freese will come back as the start. That said, the next tier of top third baseman in this market offer something the Cardinals do need: versatility. Wigginton had more games at second base this season, though he's made the most games at third in his career. He could be solution at one position, insurance at another and an option at a third. Brandon Inge has a slick glove at third and his power is a plus lower in the lineup. He too can play multiple positions, including catcher. Detroit's Jhonny Peralta can play shortstop, though he's a better fit at third, and he has a $7-million option out there. Missouri native Joe Crede lost 2010 to his chronic back issues. His agent, Scott Boras, said he was working out and ready to help a team. At his best, he was a plus glove with power potential (hit 30 homers in 2006; averaged 16 in last two seasons), and there are a few teams, the Cardinals included, who it wouldn't hurt to take a look at his health this spring.
1. Derek Jeter, NYY
2. Juan Uribe, SF
3. Miguel Tejada, SD
The Captain isn't going anywhere. The Yankees and Jeter only have to find a way to make it agreeable, achievable and, in the end, capable of easing Jeter into the twilight of his career. In reality, he's not the best all-around shortstop available in the market. There are others who hit better. There are certainly those who field better now. He's just, you know, Jeter. Moving on. Like the other infield spots, this isn't a particularly robust group. Uribe, another moveable part (more UT than SS), hit 24 homers and drove in 85 RBIs, while slugging .440 with a .749 OPS. His .754 OPS in 359 RBIs while playing shortstop ranked him sixth in the NL.
THE CARDINALS ... will be looking for an offensive upgrade here, especially if it's one that can offset the defensive drop by going with someone other than Brendan Ryan. La Russa's fondness for Tejada will undoubtedly come up again, either as an option here or at third base. Not all corners of the Cardinals' think tank are sold on the aging former MVP as an answer for either position, and certainly there's hesitance to bring him in as a part-time player at his price. Atlanta's Alex Gonzalez has a $2.5-million option, and it was the Cardinals that the Braves outbid for the trade with Toronto when Gonzalez became available. Orlando Cabrera has a $4-million option in Cincinnati, and New York Mets Jose Reyes could be an appealing trade target with his $11-million option. Twins J.J. Hardy, set to be a free agent if non-tendered (more on that group as the deadline approaches), hit .304/.364/.442 in the second half. The more-compelling market for shortstops is via trade, where Arizona could dangle Stephen "Dirt" Drew (.808 OPS at shortstop). Now that would get the Cardinals' attention.
1. Carl Crawford
2. Jayson Werth
3. Magglio Ordonez
4. Johnny Damon
5. Manny Ramirez
6. Pat Burrell
8. Brad Hawpe
The big-ticket talent on this year's free agent market is Crawford, who is likely speeding out of Tampa and into the largest contract of the offseason. The Gold Glove-caliber left fielder has also been a stolen base champ and a is the Rays' No. 3 hitter. Some saw the New York Yankees apathy about Matt Holliday last year as a harbinger of their plans to sign Crawford (or Mauer, remember) this winter. The Rays plan to go into a payroll-slashing mode and won't be players for the Houston native's return. Dunn, mentioned in the first base list, could also fit in here for some teams, as after the top two or three this isn't the most impressive group. Jayson Werth, several strong seasons removed from a non-tender, will be sold as a center fielder by Boras partially because of the market. Werth is a third generation major-leaguer and the grandson of former Cardinal Dick "Ducky" Schofield. Free agent true center fielders of note include Rick Ankiel ($6 million option with Atlanta), Coco Crisp and Jim Edmonds, who is expected to retire (again). Magglio Ordonez had a strong first half before his season was ended with an ankle injury that required surgery. He's ranked here based on being healthy and productive to start the season, which isn't a given. Johnny Damon's OPS dropped from .821 in four years with the Yankees to .756 in his first year with Detroit at Comerica Park. And still he ascends as more of a sure thing than so many others on this list. Which Manny will Manny be this coming season? Pat Burrell has helped his stock with a thunderous role in San Francisco's postseason surge, and Jose Guillen is tagging along. UPDATE: Guillen has been left off the San Francisco Giants postseason roster. One interesting bat that could hit the market is Jason Kubel, who has a $5.25-million option.
THE CARDINALS ... could delve into this market if they spot some economic brawn or fail to get the desired bat for the infield. When the Rockies released Brad Hawpe there were a few advocates for his pickup within the Cardinals. A former All-Star, Hawpe has seen a power draft, dropping from four consecutive years of 20 homers to nine. He's not on Tampa's playoff roster. With Allen Craig and Jon Jay earmarked for duty in right field, the Cardinals could go with low-cost, veteran insurance to create competition and either be a lottery ticket in right or a bench presence. The impact options for the Cardinals, however, are more likely to come through trade, if at all.