I served in front offices of major league baseball teams for a quarter of a century, 15 of those years as a general manager. During that time I spent a lot of time studying free agents -- the undervalued FAs, the overvalued FAs -- and the risks that come with all of them, from age, injuries and personal issues to declining or improving physical abilities.
This is the third year I've been projecting free-agent salaries for ESPN Insider. Before you view my rankings below and accuse me of being crazy, at least wait until all the players are signed this offseason and then go back and see how I did. I ended up being very close on a lot of the top free agents in 2011, and did pretty well in 2012, too, although I didn't properly take into account the significant last-minute upward market shift.
The following is my estimate of what I what I think will be the 50 biggest contracts given out this winter, based on average annual value (A.A.V.). I use A.A.V. because that is what the MLB Players Association is most concerned with when evaluating contracts. When the A.A.V. is equal, the tiebreaker is the overall value of the contract.
This is not my preferential order, and player salaries and terms are often based on position, supply and demand. To get a better feel for the market, I also talked to agents, scouts and execs who will be heavily involved with this offseason's bidding.
A few other factors to keep in mind as you read this list:
" Industry revenues continue to grow and that causes inflation of player salaries.
" There have already been some signings (Hunter Pence, for example) that have "changed the market" upward.
" The qualifying offer was increased to $14.1 million, which has a domino effect on free agents.
" Signings from last year (both good and bad) will have an effect on how some clubs do business.
" This is an extremely weak free-agent class, which usually means players will be seemingly overpaid.
With all of that said, let's get to the rankings.