Some free agents might be waiting a while
Primarily because of the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allows players to become free agents just five days after the season ends, teams and players are able to start the negotiation process and ultimately fill their needs sooner than they have in the past.
We've already seen some key position players commit to the most aggressive teams, as the A's, Mets, Red Sox, White Sox, Blue Jays and D-backs have been early buyers -- even before the arrival of Black Friday. Most players like to know which team they will play for before the New Year arrives, so the bulk of the major free agents will have new homes by then.
That said, there are always some players who have to wait until January or later to sign. Last winter, we saw Nelson Cruz, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales wait quite a while before signing contracts -- with Drew and Morales not signing until after the season started. A lot of that wait had to do with them all receiving qualifying offers, meaning Draft-pick compensation was attached to them. With that in mind, here are five players whom I expect will sign after Jan. 1:
1. Max Scherzer, RHP
Not only is the 30-year-old right-hander the best free agent available, but his agent, Scott Boras, is renowned for waiting out the market for his players in an effort to increase demand.
There are plenty of interested teams, but only a few have the financial wherewithal to meet Scherzer's price. Additionally, with a signing of this magnitude, full ownership involvement is a must. That means face-to-face meetings regarding the direction of the club, discussion about the depth of the Minor League system, a full review of medical records and an internal review of future financial obligations against forecasted revenues. All of these things must take place before committing to that type of contract. Not to mention, some other team's interest in Scherzer would increase if it could trade a current starter to fill another need before signing the free agent (for example, the Nationals and Jordan Zimmermann).
All of this takes time. As we saw when Prince Fielder, another Boras client, inked a shocking $214 million deal with the Tigers in January 2012, waiting often pays off.
2. James Shields, RHP
There are plenty of suitors for Shields, but the debate among executives has to do with the size of the contract. His track record suggests a deal for five years and between $90-100 million dollars, which is seemingly reasonable for a guy who has hit the 200-inning mark every season since 2007, and whose ERA has hovered in the mid 3.00s in the American League. It is easy to project him pitching to that same level in the National League despite the dropoff in velocity that will likely occur as he hits his mid-30s (he turns 33 in December).
However, his 6.12 ERA during this past postseason took some shine off of his "Big Game" nickname, and Shields' heavy workload these past few years will surely concern some GMs. His situation is not dissimilar to that of Garza, who ended up settling for a four-year, $50 million deal last February. In the end, Shields should sign for closer to $18 million per year. But, like Garza, it could take a while.
3. Francisco Liriano, LHP
Every year, there is one player who looks to cash in on the free-agent market but is disappointed by the offers. When this individual doesn't agree with the industry's assessment of his value, overprices himself or waits too long for the market to move, he gets stuck on the sidelines without a chair. Last year, it was Ervin Santana: his asking price was around $75 million at the beginning of the offseason and, by the end, he was scrambling for a job on a one-year deal. This year, that player could be Liriano.
The Pirates made him a qualifying offer, which he rejected after some executives thought he would accept. He's been inconsistent over his career, although his past two seasons with Pittsburgh should have silenced some of his critics. But it was just two years ago when the Pirates were the only team willing to take a chance on him, gambling on a two-year contract (the second year was a vesting option) that turned out to be a bargain. And, over the past four seasons, the highest number of innings Liriano has pitched is 162 -- which is an unimpressive figure for the kind of dollars he is seeking.
The next team that rolls the dice on Liriano will have to throw a lot more money on the table for his services -- and that will take some time to sort out for his agent, Greg Genske.
4. Alex Rios, OF
There is demand in the marketplace for right-handed power bats, and Rios is one of the few available who is capable of hitting 20 home runs. Rios, who turns 34 in February, is just two years removed from his career year with the White Sox, when he hit 25 home runs, tallied 91 RBIs and scored 93 runs. Since then, his power has declined -- he hit just four homers this year -- while his strikeout totals increased and his defensive metrics dipped.
Additionally, Rios just concluded a seven-year, $69 million contract in which his salary peaked at $12.5 million. Coming to the realization that he will need to need to take a major pay cut from that level will take time. The one factor working in his favor is that he did not receive a qualifying offer, which means a team won't have to give up a Draft pick to sign him.
5. Stephen Drew, SS
Each of the past two times Drew has been a free agent, he came to terms late: during mid-December in 2012, when he signed with the Red Sox, and then last offseason, after being attached to a Draft pick, he saw his market plummet again, waiting until May 20 to re-sign with Boston. His gamble largely did not work because he had a horrendous season by his standards.
This winter, Drew has no compensation attached, but it is likely he will sign late for a different reason. At age 32, he wants a multiyear deal. But it is more likely it'll have to be another "pillow" contract, with the hope of resuscitating his value. The other factor working against him is the presence of a couple of other comparable shortstops on the free-agent market -- Asdrubal Cabrera and Jed Lowrie -- as well as Alexei Ramirez and Yunel Escobar reportedly being available via trade.
Teams will look at Drew at both shortstop and second base, hoping he returns to his 2013 level of play, when he finished with a 3.1 wins above replacement figure for the World Series-champion Red Sox.