Commentary

Ranking the top free agents (Nos. 1-10)

Originally Published: November 13, 2008
By Keith Law | Scouts Inc.

Law's Top 50


Become an Insider to get Law's complete top 50 list and find out the following:

• Why K-Rod is ranked 16th overall
• Who the top-rated Japanese player is
• Why Varitek barely made the list
Insider 11-30 | 31-50
Following are my scouting reports on the top 50 free agents, and you can see from the top 10 that this year's class includes bigger names than we've seen in recent years.

For more free agent information, go to the Free Agent Tracker, which includes my top 100, or the Hot Stove League page.

1

Mark Teixeira

POSITION: First base
AGE: 28 | BATS: B | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Los Angeles Angels
STATUS: Signed with N.Y. Yankees (12/23)
TERMS: 8 years, $180 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
157 102 33 121 .308 .410 .552

Teixeira is the top free agent available this offseason for a number of reasons. Usually, the top position player free agent would be someone who plays a skill position, but this market is thin at those spots -- middle infield, catcher, center fielder and third base. Of the corner bats available, Teixeira offers the best combination of offensive production, defensive value and youth.

Teixeira is still in his prime years as a hitter; he'll play all of 2009 at age 29, so a six-year contract would take him through only his age-34 season and would leave him with the opportunity to land yet another huge contract, probably for four years, after this one runs out. At the plate, Teixeira is a true switch-hitter who shows power and patience from both sides; he explodes to the ball and has no trouble with high-quality stuff.

He's one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, on par with Adrian Gonzalez, offering good range and outstanding hands. He also has been durable, playing in 157 games in 2008 and 162 games in 2005 and 2006, and he typically has fared better in the second half, the result of an intensive workout regimen that is designed to give him added strength to get through the season.

2

CC Sabathia

POSITION: Starting pitcher
AGE: 28 | BATS: L | THROWS: L
2008 TEAM: Milwaukee Brewers
STATUS: Signed with N.Y. Yankees (12/10)
TERMS: 7 years, $161 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GS IP W-L ERA CG SHO SO
35 253.0 17-10 2.70 10 5 251

Sabathia is easily the pitching prize of this winter's free-agent market, as no one else can touch his résumé combining stuff, performance and absurd levels of durability.

Sabathia is a classic power pitcher. He goes after hitters with primarily two and a half pitches: a 93-96 mph four-seamer that looks harder than that because of the deception in his delivery and a slider/cutter (almost the same pitch, just with different degrees of break) with good tilt. He commands everything he throws, can blow his fastball by hitters up in the zone (I think he likes to do this just to remind hitters who's boss) and moves his breaking ball around, getting strikes inside and outside.

He has thrown more than 500 innings in the past two seasons if we include the playoffs; although that might raise concerns about overwork, it also underlines his strong health record, good pitcher's frame and clean, repeatable delivery. Even under duress at the end of the 2008 season, his velocity and breaking ball remained solid. However, his arm slot did start to drift downward, a possible early sign of fatigue. The Brewers' elimination from the National League Division Series probably was the best thing that could have happened to Sabathia's next employer.

3

Manny Ramirez

POSITION: Left field
AGE: 36 | BATS: R | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Los Angeles Dodgers
STATUS: Free agent
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
153 102 37 121 .332 .430 .601

Yes, there were some times in Boston when Ramirez didn't appear to be trying his hardest. Yes, there was that month in late 2006 when the Sox were out of the race and he kind of took the rest of the season off. The criticism of Manny Being Manny, however, has reached hysterical proportions; all available evidence says Ramirez did far, far more to help the Red Sox in 2008 than he did to hurt them. Of course, he was a model citizen with the Dodgers, will get a tremendous amount of credit for their division title and has dramatically increased his expected payday.

At the plate, Ramirez is anything but a space cadet; he recognizes pitches, knows what he can do with each pitch and is willing to take a walk rather than force an at-bat. He has huge pull power, even on balls slightly away from him, and can drive an outside pitch the other way. He hits everything hard, grounding into a lot of double plays as a result.

Ramirez is an indifferent fielder at best, and most defensive metrics have shown him to be somewhere between "gruesome" and "unspeakable" in left field while he was with Boston. Although that probably was partly a function of an unusual ballpark, he's not an asset in left. He also is going to turn 37 in May, so a four-year deal would reach beyond his 40th birthday, and hitters such as Ramirez (who isn't fleet of foot and doesn't play good defense) tend to age more poorly than more athletic hitters.

For the short term, on a two-year deal, he's the second-best hitter on the market behind Teixeira.

4

A.J. Burnett

POSITION: Starting pitcher
AGE: 31 | BATS: R | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Toronto Blue Jays
STATUS: Signed with N.Y. Yankees (12/12)
TERMS: 5 years, $82.5 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM IP W-L ERA BB SO WHIP
35 221.1 18-10 4.07 86 231 1.34

Burnett might have the best raw stuff of any starter in baseball. When he's good, he's unhittable. The problem is that when he's not good, or not motivated, he's ordinary and prone to the big inning.

Burnett will show three above-average pitches on his best days: a 92-98 mph fastball, all with good life, some with sink; a plus-plus downward-breaking curveball that is unusually hard; and an above-average changeup, his worst pitch but one he sells well enough to fool many left-handed hitters. His command and control are average at best; he gets by on pure stuff as much as on feel or his pitching plan.

The bigger concern with Burnett is what version of Burnett you're actually getting. He threw a career-high 221 1/3 innings and started a career-high 34 games this season. The only two times he topped 200 innings before 2008 resulted in follow-up seasons that were abbreviated because of arm trouble. Two of his three 200-inning seasons came in walk years.

He performs better when the pressure is off, going on tears in the second halves of the past two seasons when the Jays were largely irrelevant. He's an upside play, a rarity in this end of the pitching market because he can beat any team at any time with his stuff, and if he does it a few more times a year, he'll get Cy Young votes.

He is one of only two players in the top 10 of these rankings -- the other being Oliver Perez -- who could end up a bargain for the signing team. But a repeat of what he provided for Toronto would make him a disappointment.

5

Derek Lowe

POSITION: Starting pitcher
AGE: 35 | BATS: R | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Los Angeles Dodgers
STATUS:Signed with Atlanta Braves (1/16)
TERMS: 4 years, $60 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GS IP W-L ERA BB SO BAA
35 211.0 14-11 3.24 45 147 .246

Lowe entered free agency after the 2004 season on the heels of his worst year as a starter. He had capped it off with some great work in October that made the four-year deal given to him by the Dodgers and then-GM Paul DePodesta seem irrationally exuberant. But since the deal, Lowe has posted four straight seasons with ERAs under 3.90 and at least 199 innings pitched.

The big difference between now and then, other than the move to an easier league and park, is Lowe's control: Typically stingy with the long ball, Lowe also has become a miser with the free pass, issuing a career-low (as a starter) 38 unintentional walks in 211 innings this season.

Lowe works primarily off a sinker with average velocity but hard late sink; only Brandon Webb was better at generating ground balls and preventing line drives this season. He pairs it with a short-breaking slider to keep hitters honest and miss the occasional bat.

At 36, Lowe probably is headed for a decline, but he has shown no sign of it to date and probably has a good two -- or even three -- seasons left at something close to his level of 2006-2008.

6

Rafael Furcal

POSITION: Shortstop
AGE: 31 | BATS: B | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Los Angeles Dodgers
STATUS: Re-signed with Dodgers (12/19)
TERMS: 3 years, $30 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM R HR RBI SB AVG OBP
36 34 5 16 8 .357 .439

As a legitimate shortstop who gets on base, Furcal looks to be one of the prizes of the free-agent market this winter. The question is whether a fluky 140 at-bats will push his value unrealistically high.

Furcal swings mostly with his hands, taking the ball to center or to the opposite field rather than pulling it and leaving him somewhat vulnerable to the ball inside, although, unlike similar "jailbreak" hitters (such as Akinori Iwamura), he is strong enough to yank a ball out. This style of swing leads to lots of contact but little power; Furcal never has posted a full-season isolated power number higher than .151, and his last healthy season, 2007, featured just 33 extra-base hits in more than 600 plate appearances. He's an above-average runner but only a fair base stealer.

In the field, Furcal has average range but a 70 or better arm; the discussion of best shortstop arms in the game includes him, Yunel Escobar and Troy Tulowitzki, and that's probably it. He should be able to handle the position for another three years unless his legs start to go quickly.

7

Adam Dunn

POSITION: Left field
AGE: 29 | BATS: L | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Arizona Diamondbacks
STATUS: Signed with Washington Nationals (2/12)
TERMS: 2 years, $20 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI BB AVG OBP SLG
158 40 100 122 .236 .386 .513

Dunn gets a ton of criticism from the mainstream media, as he has become the new poster boy for those who are afraid of math. Dunn's value doesn't show up in the most beloved of sportswriter statistics, such as batting average or RBIs, but it does show up in anything more sophisticated and accurate, such as on-base percentage or value over replacement player or even a context-dependent stat such as win probability added.

Dunn is, as you might imagine, patient at the plate to the point of passivity, with almost 44 percent of his plate appearances in 2008 ending in a walk or a strikeout. He is extremely strong and lays off of a lot of hittable pitches because he'd rather get one to drive out of the park. This can be maddening to a manager or a general manager, but there's tremendous value in all those walks.

If you value consistency, Dunn has it, with OBPs of .388, .387, .386 and .386 in four of the past five years, and exactly 40 home runs in each of the past four years. Being consistent is overrated when the player isn't any good, but it's great when he's productive.

Dunn has his flaws, notably in the field, where he can get the ball that's more or less hit at him but has limited range in left or right; he also could end up at first base.

8

Ryan Dempster

POSITION: Starting pitcher
AGE: 31 | BATS: R | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Chicago Cubs
STATUS: Re-signed with Cubs (11/18)
TERMS: 4 years, $52 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GS IP W-L ERA BB SO BAA
33 206.2 17-6 2.96 76 187 .227

Dempster was wild and erratic in three years in the Cubs' bullpen, and although he racked up 85 saves in that period, he posted an ERA of about 5.00 in each of the past two seasons.

The move to the rotation this season looked like desperation -- a "We can't use him as a closer, and we don't know what else to do with him" kind of decision. It turned out to be a great call, as Dempster had the best control of his career and was one of the top five starters in the National League.

9

Milton Bradley

POSITION: DH/Left field
AGE: 30 | BATS: B | THROWS: R
2008 TEAM: Texas Rangers
STATUS: Signed with Chi. Cubs (1/5)
TERMS: 3 years, $30 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GM R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
126 78 22 77 .321 .436 .563

Bradley always has had the ability to put up the kind of season he did in 2008, but injuries and his temper have conspired to limit his opportunities.

He's a true switch-hitter who has plate discipline and plus raw power from both sides of the plate. He recognizes off-speed pitches well, lets the ball travel, then unleashes his bat, taking advantage of the speed in his wrists. In other words, he's exactly the player he was a year ago, but with a better platform year to take into free agency.

The real problem with Bradley is that he can't seem to stay healthy. His 2008 season was marred by injuries, all minor, to his knee, back, quad and wrist, yet he still had the second highest at-bat and games played totals of his career.

He probably can't play the field, for fear he'll hurt himself, and he'd be limited to left field if he could. But he can hit.

10

Oliver Perez

POSITION: Starting pitcher
AGE: 27 | BATS: L | THROWS: L
2008 TEAM: New York Mets
STATUS: Re-signed with Mets (2/3)
TERMS: 3 years, $36 million
2008 SEASON STATISTICS
GS IP W-L ERA BB SO WHIP
34 194.0 10-7 4.22 105 180 1.40

Perez is the youngest free-agent starter in this market, the residue of his arrival in the majors at age 20 and breakout season in 2004 at age 22.

After the huge workload he carried in 2004, he wasn't the same the next two seasons and missed time with shoulder trouble before bouncing back with a very effective 2007. Perez throws four pitches, with an average fastball that touches 92-93 mph on occasion but can be very flat, as well as an average curve, a hard slider about 80-81 mph and a very inconsistent changeup that he struggles to turn over. The lack of a good changeup has made him vulnerable to right-handed hitters, and he throws across his body and cuts himself off with his front leg, both of which mean reduced command.

Bear in mind that even with a great defense behind him, Perez was just a league-average pitcher in 2008 and led the National League in walks issued (in a season with some stiff competition in that category). He is erratic -- he allowed at least five runs in nine starts in 2008 -- yet he can shut down even a great offense. He beat the Yankees and the Phillies with consecutive strong, seven-inning starts in June, then punched out 12 Phillies in another seven-inning outing two weeks later. (In fact, Perez gave up just one run to the Phillies in 26 innings this season.)

Perez is in line to get four years from someone because of three things: He's left-handed. He has thrown more than 370 innings the past two seasons. And he misses bats. But there's not enough reason to believe he'll start throwing enough strikes to justify the big contract he's going to get.

Law's complete top 50: 1-10 | 11-30 Insider | 31-50 Insider

Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.