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Column: Mapping the landscape: a guide to MLB free agency

Josh Hamilton leads this year's market.

Joe Trezza

Nov. 14, 2012

It has been less than two weeks since Marco Scutaro lofted that Phil Coke fastball into shallow center field in the 10th inning at Comerica Park in Detroit to score Ryan Theriot with the World Series-winning run. Less than two weeks since the Giants — a ragtag team of anonymous names like Buster and Hunter and Pablo — completed their legendary assault on the title, fighting off elimination six times in one playoff series to bring a second championship to the Bay Area in three years. Less than two weeks, and now it’s getting cold. 

The baseball season morphs in the winter months. Contrary to popular belief, it’s still active, robustly even, when it comes to the free agent market. From November to March, teams scrap, fight and claw to sign players and improve their teams. This year’s market isn’t particularly star-powered, but there are still a number of big names available.

Here are the top 10 available and a breakdown for each:

1. Josh Hamilton, OF Where he should go: San Francisco Giants Where he will go: Cincinnati Reds Projected contract: 5-year/$115 million

Hamilton’s is one of the most interesting market cases in free agent history. There is no doubt the former MVP and batting champion can still play — his .285/.354/.577 slash line, 43 homers and 128 RBI in 2012 are a testament to that. And the questions of his past addictions to drugs and alcohol even seem to be subsiding. But there is something about the package of talent and controversy that Texas doesn’t seem to want to bring back, which might be troubling for other potential suitors. Hamilton also has a history of injury problems and, on top of that, a reputation as someone who can’t play through even minor bang-ups.

If he were anyone else, Hamilton’s tools would demand an Alex Rodriguez-like contract. But nobody is going to give a 32-year-old outfielder with the habit of crashing into walls and ending up on the front page more than a five-year deal and, given Hamilton’s production warrants a contract in the $20 million-plus-per-year range, the amount of teams vying for his services is already limited. The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Angels all have either no room or no interest. The Giants, on the other hand, fresh off a World Series title and swimming in revenue, seem like a perfect fit. San Francisco’s highest-paid position player last season was center fielder Angel Pagan, who made $4.8 million. The Giants could let Pagan walk in free agency and replace him with Hamilton. Spacious AT&T Park offers fewer walls for Hamilton to run into, and throwing him into a lineup that already features Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval would guarantee the Giants a legitimate shot for contending for the title not just in 2013 but in other years to come.  

If Hamilton wanted to return to a small market, though, there is no better place for him than Cincinnati. Remember, it was the Reds who traded Hamilton to Texas for Edison Volquez in 2007, before he completed his comeback and became a superstar for the Rangers. Cincinnati could finally give up on the horrendous Drew Stubbs in center field, sign Hamilton and reap some of the benefits it lost in that lopsided trade. It seems like they would have the cash, too, after signing Joey Votto to a 10-year, $225 million deal last offseason. 

2. Zack Grienke, SP Where he should go: Texas Rangers Where he will go: Los Angeles Dodgers Projected contract: 5-year/$96 million

People said Grienke’s personality wouldn’t play in a big market, but he was 6-2 in 13 starts for the Angels down the stretch last year in Los Angeles. Look for the power righty and 2009 American League Cy Young winner to land a massive payday this offseason. Despite his mildly underwhelming ERA numbers (career 3.77), he packs four-plus pitches and has averaged almost a strikeout per inning in eight years in the major leagues. Slotting him just ahead of Yu Darvish in the Texas rotation would make the Rangers wildly dangerous, but the Rangers will have to outbid the Dodgers, whose new owners have showed a willingness to write the big check and have expressed interest already in Grienke. 

3. Hiroki Kuroda, SP  Where he should go: New York Yankees Where he will go: New York Yankees Projected contract: 2-year/$26 million

Kuroda was fantastic in pinstripes in 2012, winning 16 games and posting just a 3.32 ERA. The Yankees would be smart to reward him with a two-year deal and solidify their rotation, which crumbled with injuries last season. 

4. Michael Bourn, CF Where he should go: Milwaukee Brewers Where he will go: Washington Nationals Projected contract: 5-year/$75 million

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has been eyeing a long-term solution for center field for years, but he’s going to have to make a tough decision here. If he signs Bourn, it would bump slugger Michael Morse from the outfield to first base, leaving no room for free agent Adam LaRoche, who led Washington with 33 home runs in 2012. Rizzo will have to decide whether he wants a speedy leadoff man or his lefty-swinging first baseman for years to come because he can’t have both. 

5. Adam LaRoche, 1B Where he should go: Washington Nationals Where he will go: Miami Marlins Projected contract: 3-year/$30 million

Somebody will pay LaRoche, and that’s whom he’ll play for, given he’s been underrated and underpaid his entire career. After his monster 2012 season, LaRoche has now hit more than 30 homers and driven in 100 runs twice. The Marlins and Blue Jays need a bat at first base, as do the Pirates, Indians, A's and others. But keep an eye on Miami — of those teams, Miami's been the one most willing to pull out its checkbook recently.  

6. Nick Swisher, RF  Where he should go: Philadelphia Phillies Where he will go: Philadelphia Phillies Projected contract: 3-year/$40 million

Swisher’s personality belongs in a big market, and no big-market team needs someone like Swisher like the Phillies do. For all its struggles last season, Philadelphia still finished at .500. The team still has Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. With a few bats, the Phillies will be dangerous once again. They have the money, the need and the fans who will adore Swisher. 

7. B.J. Upton, CF Where he should go: Texas Rangers Where he will go: Washington Nationals or Texas Rangers Projected contract: 5-year/$80 million

Upton will be overpaid no matter what. Teams view his combination of power and speed as a potential asset, but it’s just smoke and mirrors. Sure, he will hit a few long balls and swipe a few bases, but those flashes of brilliance overshadow Upton’s long spouts of inadequacy when he fails to make contact like it’s his job. Upton has struck out more than 160 times in each of the last three years and hasn’t hit more than .246 since 2008. Texas might make a play after it gives up on signing Hamilton. Same goes for the Nationals if they can’t get Bourn. 

8. Kyle Lohse, SP Where he should go: St. Louis Cardinals Where he will go: St. Louis Cardinals Projected contract: 3-year/$36 million

The reliable sinkerballer has blossomed into a star late in his career, riding three-plus pitches and impeccable control to 30 wins in the past two seasons. St. Louis would be smart to bring him back on a multi-year deal. 

9. Mike Napoli, C Where he should go: New York Yankees Where he will go: Texas Rangers Projected contract: 2-year/$22 million

Napoli’s stock took a major hit in 2012 when he followed his breakout 2011 with a 227/.343/.469 slash line. He still hit 24 home runs and will get paid if teams remember his playoff tear from two years ago and that he can play both first base and behind the plate. The Yankees should let Russell Martin walk and hope Napoli returns to his 2011 form. The Rangers are also candidates to sign him again. 

10. Rafael Soriano, RP Where he should go: Detroit Tigers Where he will go: Detroit Tigers Projected contract: 3-year/$45 million

Soriano rebounded in a big way last season from a disappointing 2011 filling in for Mariano Rivera in the Yankees' bullpen in a very Rivera-like way. Soriano piled up 42 saves and struck out more than a batter per inning, using a devastating slider as a viable out pitch. He has already opted out of a guaranteed $14 million deal with New York, probably because Rivera is expected to return and Soriano prefers to close. Look for the Tigers, who have said they have no interest in bringing back closer Jose Valverde, to be in play here. They’ve showed the willingness to spend on relievers in the past and have a need at the back end of the bullpen.  

Other notable free agents: Marco Scutaro (2B), Torii Hunter (RF), Anibal Sanchez (SP), Edwin Jackson (SP), Ryan Dempster (SP)

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