Players face pressure to perform in walk years
Scherzer, Cruz among stars whose 2014 numbers should affect future deals
If it seems early to be discussing the 2014-15 free-agent market, well, that's because it is.
But there is enormous pressure upon pending free agents to perform at a level commensurate with the contracts they'll soon be seeking, and the season is established enough to get a feel for which guys in their walk year are walking the walk, which guys are jogging to the bank and which guys better start sprinting to keep up.
The price is right
We have to begin with Max Scherzer, because the bet he placed on himself this spring was a bold one, and it looks even bolder in this climate of increasing pitcher injury proliferation.
Scherzer, though, has managed to stay healthy, and his first nine starts of the season had him on track to better his American League Cy Young Award-winning efforts of 2013. He had a 1.83 ERA through his first 59 innings.
The tide has slightly turned in Scherzer's last three trips to the mound. He's given up 16 runs on 29 hits over 19 2/3 innings. It's inherently unfair to read too much into three outings, but, then again, you open yourself up to intense scrutiny of each start when you turn down $144 million in search of an even bigger payday.
On the whole, it's doubtful Scherzer, with an adjusted ERA 31 percent better than the league average, has gone backward from what the Tigers offered. But we do have to see where this recent string of subpar starts leads.
James Shields, meanwhile, is doing what he's always done: pitching well and piling up innings. He's on track to reach the 200-inning mark for the eighth straight season, and his 3.36 ERA is better than his career mark (3.76). At 32 and creeping up on 2,000 career big league innings, there will be concerns about future durability. But Shields has put himself in line to be one of the premier pitchers in next winter's free-agent class.
A few other guys in solid shape: Russell Martin, who will lead the catching class; David Robertson and Koji Uehara, who look destined to lead the relief market; and a couple of older guys who still produce, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter.
The price is rising
Raise your hand if you think Nelson Cruz will make more than $8 million next year.
Cruz's 20 home runs, 52 RBIs, .672 slugging percentage and 1.055 OPS are all tops in the AL, a staggering start for a guy who didn't sign with the Orioles until late February because of the Draft pick compensation attached to his name. Perhaps Cruz will do an in-season extension with the O's to avoid going through the qualifying offer conundrum again, but right now, it's hard to imagine him waiting as long to find a home next winter.
Another player with a PED past who has rebuilt his value is Melky Cabrera, who has a .308 average and .831 OPS. Cabrera, like Cruz, is making "only" $8 million this year, but he could be putting himself in position for another multiyear deal.
Even at age 35 and even while limited primarily to DH duties, Victor Martinez might find himself near the top of the position-player class. He provides power, plate discipline and timely hitting to a market likely to be starved for those qualities. Martinez's .335 average is the best in the AL, and his home run total (13) is, incredibly, equal to his strikeout total (13). His advanced eye and two-strike prowess are aging well.
That aforementioned starvation for power could do wonders for Michael Morse's market value. The Giants signed him in December to a one-year, $6 million deal that now looks like a steal. Morse has resurrected himself by staying healthy and cranking out 11 homers with a .574 slugging percentage. Four of those homers have come at home in a park heavily skewed toward pitchers.
Jon Lester had extension talks with his current club that never materialized. In Lester's case, it was a reported four-year, $70 million deal that didn't get done. Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino has hinted that talks could pick up again before Lester hits the open market.
Lester, though, is backing up the bet he placed upon himself, with an ERA (3.15) and WHIP (1.19) significantly better than his career norms, an adjusted ERA 31 percent above the average and the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.32) of his career. He's in line to make significantly more than $70 million.
Josh Beckett's no-hitter was just part of his comeback campaign, in which a 2.52 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP make him a possible candidate for a multiyear offer, too.
The price is ... complicated
It's difficult to assess Hanley Ramirez's value. He plays a premium position, but your eyes and the metrics will tell you he doesn't play it particularly well, and there is a very real possibility that he'll need to move to third sooner rather than later. Ramirez's value is primarily tied to his bat, and that was slow out of the chute (he entered the weekend with a .245/.324/.434 slash line). But Hanley has heated up in recent days, his adjusted OPS is 26 percentage points above the average and Yankees will be looking for a shortstop this winter, so things could quickly turn in his favor.
J.J. Hardy is another potential Derek Jeter replacement, but his .702 OPS is 37 points below his career norm, and he's yet to homer after going deep 25 times last year. He is, however, an AL Gold-Glove Award-winning shortstop.
Sticking with the shortstop scene, Asdrubal Cabrera is now in his second straight season of below-average production for the Indians. His slugging percentage is just .374, just three years after belting 25 home runs.
Pablo Sandoval tabled extension talks with the Giants at the start of the season, and he, too, got off to a slow start. Check that. It was an abysmal start for the Panda, who had a .177/.262/.302 slash line at the end of April.
What happened in May, though, was encouraging. Sandoval had a .318/.339/.542 month, showing more aggressiveness in the strike zone. The slimmed-down Sandoval's situation is looking much better than it did just a few weeks ago.
We can't say the same for Justin Masterson. He was willing to agree to a shorter-term deal with the Indians this spring, but at a premium price ($17 million per year). Cleveland balked on the basis that he had been inconsistent in his career and wasn't reaching peak velocity in the Cactus League. Unfortunately, the inconsistency has continued in the season proper, and the velo is still absent.
Masterson is averaging 89 mph with his fastball, and he's already had four starts where he lasted less than five innings. His cost could be dropping.
Ervin Santana has a 7.83 ERA over his last four starts for the Braves. But even if he rebounds, he could find himself in the same Draft pick compensation predicament that held up his market last winter.
Finally, there's Chase Headley. The source of many trade rumors the last few years, Headley has stayed put, because the Padres value him as the face of their franchise. With a .201/.287/.345 slash line, Headley's trade value (and eventual free-agent value) is simply no longer what it once was.