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Original Issue

Big and Rich

Several players picked a fine time to have career years. With fewer elite players on the market, it's jackpot season

Jayson Werth isn't the top prize of this winter's free-agent class, but rather just one of a number of players who will be hitting the market after his best season. And that is saying something, as Werth (page 60), who is putting up career highs in several key stats and playing an excellent rightfield, can reasonably ask for Matt Holliday money ($120 million over seven years) this winter. Foremost among the free-agents-to-be is Cliff Lee, the well-traveled lefty who had almost as many complete games (seven) as walks allowed (nine) through Sunday. The two categories go hand in hand; Lee's pitch efficiency has enabled him to work deeper into games than ever before without running up scary pitch counts. That kind of durability and command makes him the kind of pitcher who could pull in $20 million a season on the open market. If he wins his second AL Cy Young Award in three years, the sky is the limit.

Without as much fanfare Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre has set himself up for a big raise from the $10 million he'll make this year. After an injury-plagued 2009 Beltre has been a rock for a MASH unit of a team in Boston, missing just four games. Batting .328 with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs through Sunday, he's having his best season since '04.

Another player who has substantially increased his market value this summer is Carl Crawford of the Rays. His youth and defensive value—both scouts and statheads agree on his terrific range—could make him the highest-paid outfielder next year. Boston's Victor Martinez is the best of a thin crop of catchers; despite his mediocre arm, he'll have several suitors. Closing out the top tier is Adam Dunn, who is nearing the end of the two-year, $20 million contract with the Nationals that he settled for in February 2009. He's been recast as an adequate first baseman and a more aggressive hitter.

Remember that the free-agent market isn't what it used to be. Baseball's efforts to funnel money to small-market teams have resulted in players such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Zack Greinke being signed by the teams that drafted and developed them, keeping them out of the class of 2011. Increasingly, teams are seeing the value of signing their stars away from free agency, a fan-friendly practice that weakens each off-season's talent market. It's harder to build through free agency because the best players often never get there. That drives up the price on the few impact players, such as Lee, Beltre and Crawford, who do hit the market.

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The Numbers

Off the Market

One player who won't be able to take his 2010 performance to the bank is Braves righthander Tim Hudson (below). Slated to be a free agent this winter, Hudson instead signed a three-year, $28 million extension with Atlanta in November. At the time he had recently returned from Tommy John surgery, which had limited him to 184 1/3 innings over the previous two seasons. Hudson, 35, has bounced back with the best year of his career and has a 2.13 ERA in 24 starts. His ground ball rate (65.5%) is the highest of his career and the best in the majors among starting pitchers. He's also allowed the lowest rate of line drives (11.8%) of his 12-year career. That's how a pitcher with the lowest strikeout rate and lowest strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career can be a staff ace.



BIG SWING Beltre (left) and Crawford (above) have been beasts of the AL East in '10.



[See caption above]