- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Albert Pujols is going to make a lot of money in free agency this winter, and so will Prince Fielder, but neither is going to be getting a high volume of phone calls. They are like the mansions on the mountain, out of the price range for many potential buyers.
But there are others in the free-agent class who will be generating a lot of interest, either because of their unique position in the market or because of their skill set.
1. C.J. Wilson, Texas Rangers
We'll probably know very soon after the New York Yankees' season ends whether CC Sabathia is going to opt out of his contract, but if he doesn't, Wilson will be regarded as the best experienced starting pitcher on the market place (Yu Darvish has won over scouts who have seen him in Japan, but he's in a separate category because of the nature of the bidding process).
The Rangers will attempt to re-sign Wilson, but they might have to compete against many clubs, from the Washington Nationals (who might be one frontline starter from being serious contenders for a playoff spot) to the Chicago Cubs (who have about $50 million coming off their books) to the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Detroit Tigers, etc. No potential free agent is in a better position for leverage than Wilson.
2. Joel Peralta, Tampa Bay Rays
Need to rehabilitate your career as a reliever? Just call the Rays, who have a knack for turning journeymen into rich men. Peralta was targeted by Tampa Bay as a bargain-basement project, and he's posted an 0.94 WHIP in 65.2 innings while earning his AL East merit badge this year. Peralta has allowed one run since Aug. 4, and in a market that will be thin in serviceable right-handed relievers, he will get paid this winter.
3. Michael Cuddyer, Minnesota Twins
When the Twins veteran turned down an extension offer from Minnesota recently, he raised the hopes of some teams that he'll be willing to play elsewhere -- and if so, there's a lot that rival scouts like about him. First, he's versatile, with the ability to plug holes in the outfield and infield. Second, he's productive, coming off another steady year of power and on-base percentage (18 homers, .347 OBP) -- and in particular, he hammers lefties (.315 average, .411 OBP).
And third, Cuddyer is generally viewed as one of the best leaders in the sport, someone who will set a standard of conduct for younger players. He'd be a perfect fit with the Toronto Blue Jays, who could be poised for a 2012 breakout, or with the Red Sox, who worked like crazy to find a right-handed hitter who could complement their outfielders. He'd drop in nicely with the Milwaukee Brewers, if they have to identify stopgaps at first base, or with the St. Louis Cardinals, if they were to lose Pujols. He'd be an excellent addition for the Yankees, Atlanta Braves or the San Francisco Giants. Cuddyer probably isn't going to be getting any four-year offers at age 32, but he will have a lot of choices.
4. Jason Kubel, Twins
He's not going to get a massive payday, but teams will look at his home/road splits and attach some of his offensive regression to Target Field, where he posted a .691 OPS this year. Kubel fared much better on the road, with an .821 OPS, and for an AL team (Baltimore Orioles? Cleveland Indians?) looking for a boost at corner outfield and at DH, Kubel will be an attractive option.
5. Jim Thome, Indians
He hasn't made up his mind whether he wants to play, but if he decides to come back for another one-year deal, he'll have NL teams (like the Philadelphia Phillies) lined up to offer him a Matt Stairs-like role as a pinch-hitter, and he could have clubs such as the Twins prepared to give him some DH at-bats. He'll have options, if he wants them.
6. Javier Lopez, Giants
Look, nobody is going to go crazy to sign Lopez and offer a Rafael Soriano deal. But he has proved himself to be a good matchup lefty, and he has postseason experience, which means that a lot of teams will probably have conversations with his agent. Lefties have hit .165 against him this season, with one extra-base hit in 91 at-bats, and keep in mind that the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Brewers, Cardinals and other contenders spent a lot of time and energy this summer looking for a matchup lefty.
7. Grady Sizemore, Indians
The Indians haven't decided yet whether they will pick up the $8.5 million option on Sizemore for 2012, and if they don't, you can't blame them. Cleveland had a $50 million payroll in 2011, and Sizemore has played in a total of 210 games over the past three seasons. In 71 games this year, he's hit .224, with 10 homers and 85 strikeouts in 268 at-bats -- including a .139 average in the month of September.
But Sizemore is like the Brandon Webb of pitchers: While he's dealt with a lot of injuries, there is enough of a track record of high-end success that a lot of teams will be intrigued by what he could do at age 29. And if the Indians cut him loose, he'll have opportunities.
• The stands are loaded with scouts these days, whether they are doing advance work for the postseason or preparing for the transactions of the winter ahead. And rarely does a September call-up generate the kind of response that Matt Moore did with his major league debut on Thursday night, when he struck out 11 in five innings against the Yankees.
New York fielded only half of its everyday lineup against Moore, and the Yankees had clinched the night before and may have been sluggish. But Moore had dominant stuff -- including a breaking ball so good that one Yankees veteran said when he went to the plate he looked for the first fastball.
Two scouts said that if the Rays make the playoffs -- and they enter play today 1.5 games behind the Red Sox -- that Tampa Bay should start Moore. "He's one of their four best starters," said one scout. "You can't start [Jeff] Niemann or [Wade] Davis over this guy. It's not even close."
• Matt Kemp went 1-for-4 on Saturday. From ESPN Stats and Info: Kemp now trails Ryan Braun by six points for the batting title. Assuming he has 20 remaining AB spread over the final four games, he would need 10 hits to pass Braun (assuming Braun remains at .331).
• AL wild card
The great question for the Red Sox going into their weekend series against the Yankees was whether they had a pitcher throwing well enough to slow New York's lineup. The Yankees are second in the majors in runs and now have been improved by the addition of rookie Jesus Montero.
Lester was pulled in the third inning, Peter Abraham writes. From the story:
- Lester emphatically insisted his series of poor starts are not the result of a hidden injury.
"No. We're not going to get into that," he said. "I'm not tired. I'm not hurt. There's nothing wrong with me. It's nothing physical." Sox starters are 3-10 with a 7.34 earned run average in the last 19 games, fueling the collapse.
From ESPN Stats and Info: The Red Sox overall can't be considered a "historically bad" team, but this month has inspired some comparisons (see table, right).
• AL No. 2 seed: Justin Verlander lost in his bid to pick up his 25th win, and the Tigers fell a game behind the Rangers in the AL standings. Texas hit Felix Hernandez hard. The Rangers' priority is to get ready for the playoffs.
• NL No. 2 seed
John Axford set a record as the Brewers won and maintained a one-game lead over the Diamondbacks. Ian Kennedy picked up his 21st win in a blowout of the Giants. The Diamondbacks have dominated because of four breakout seasons, Nick Piecoro writes.
How starting pitchers have fared with runners in scoring position:
Starting pitchers by opponents' OPS
1. Ian Kennedy, ARI -- .471
2. Roy Halladay, PHI -- .523
3. Ricky Romero, TOR -- .537
4. Gio Gonzalez, OAK -- .539
5. Freddy Garcia, NYY -- .547
6. Ivan Nova, NYY -- .555
7. Jeremy Hellickson, TB -- .557
8. Josh Beckett, BOS -- .558
9. Clayton Kershaw, LAD -- .568
10. Matt Cain, SF -- .568
A side note: Kennedy and Halladay have allowed only one homer all year with runners in scoring position; Nova hasn't allowed any.
• Throughout Vladimir Guerrero's career, it's been said that you can throw the book out against him, that he basically has the same approach in any situation and in any count: He's swinging.
Well, not surprisingly, he's been the best hitter in the majors after the count has reached 0-2 this year. Adam Dunn, not so much. These charts courtesy of Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Info:
The Patience Index
1. The Phillies lost again, and Charlie Manuel says his team is out of sync. From John Finger's story:
- Manuel, it seemed, needed to get a little something off his chest.
"I don't know what to say. I sit there and watch and I put the lineup in. Actually, when you start messing with your lineup -- I've said this over and over and you guys have heard me for five years, always talking about rest players, do this, do that. All of a sudden we start giving them two and three days off, on one, off one, start deciding when to play them. Look around, and pretty soon you lose your mojo," Manuel said. "You lose your time and you lose your rhythm. I know what I'm talking about. I've been in the damn game for 50 years. I know exactly what I'm talking about. I preach about it every day.
"People hear it but they look at me like I'm stupid or crazy. Maybe I am. But that's what's happening. That's what you're seeing. We're out of sync. We're out of focus. We're searching and nothing's going right. We jump out there tonight and get six guys on base the first two innings and we score two runs. The other night we got five straight hits and we scored two runs. What the heck? We're supposed to be scoring three or four runs in a situation like that, but we make mistakes.
"When we do score two or three runs, then our pitching falls apart. We're way better than that. Really. We've showed we're better than that. We've got 98 wins. We were set to have the biggest year of any Philly team and we got out of sync. If you want to know the truth with our lineup? It's like you've got seven relievers down there and you keep changing relievers and everything, they'll find somebody to beat. Does that make sense? That's kind of like our lineup is.
"We keep bouncing around, we keep doing things, we keep getting well and all of that -- we've played all year with people hurting. Every day you play the game of baseball, you hurt. Somehow, you hurt. You have aches and pains -- ankle, knee, elbow, whatever. Headaches. Believe me. You can ask anybody who ever played this game. I played this game for 20 years, I can tell you. When you lose focus and you get out of sync, you've got to get it back.
"Do we have time? I don't know. We'll see. But also, too, it'll be a test of how good we are. How about that? This will be a good test. This is the first time this year that we've actually gone bad. And it's not a real good time to go bad. But at the same time -- we'll see. This is a good measuring stick for us. You might not like it, but it is. We created that ourselves, so we'll see. That's all I've got to say."