Hot Stove season is almost upon us. It's time the Reiter 50, our annual list of the top targets on the free-agent market—and where they might end up
FIVE DAYS after the conclusion of the World Series, a different sort of high stakes game begins. That is when major league clubs can begin making offers to free agents. This year's class is unique in one way. Many winters feature no available pitchers who can be considered legitimate No. 1 starters, leading teams to talk themselves into the likes of John Lackey (the Red Sox, in 2009), Carlos Silva (the Mariners, in '07) and Kevin Millwood (the Rangers, in '05). This off-season has three, two of them genuine aces. Each has the potential to instantly remake a rotation—but also to become a financial albatross for years to come if the player's health or performance sours.
Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields occupy the top three spots in the seventh annual Reiter 50, SI.com's ranking of the game's top 50 free agents, which will be published in full in the days after this year's champion is crowned. Here's an early look at the players who should be top 10 targets (as always, potential free-agent stars like Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist who have options likely to be picked up are not included), as well as the clubs that might make for the best fit for each.
1 Max Scherzer
AGE IN 2015 30
2014 STATS 18--5, 3.15 ERA, 1.175 WHIP, 10.3 K/9
CURRENT TEAM Tigers
BEST FIT Yankees
Scherzer bet on his health and his performance by turning down the Tigers' reported offer of a six-year, $144 million extension last March. We've got a winner. He reached or exceeded 30 starts for the sixth straight year, and he even surpassed the standard he set during his Cy Young--winning 2013 in a few ways, including strikeout rate and innings pitched. Now he's in line for a richer deal and can play where he chooses. Rather than list the reasons there's a strong chance he'll end up in New York, it might be easier to ask: Why wouldn't he end up in New York?
2 Jon Lester
AGE IN 2015 31
2014 STATS 16--11, 2.46 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, 9.0 K/9
CURRENT TEAM A's
BEST FIT Cubs
Even though his midseason trade from Boston to Oakland didn't prevent another early playoff exit for the A's, he had one of the best runs of his career with them (6--4, 2.35 ERA in 11 starts) and put the finishing touches on a year in which he became a legitimate ace, with the fourth-best ERA in the AL and the fifth-most strikeouts. For all of their young power bats, the Cubs will still need one of those aces in order to contend, and Lester has a successful history with team president Theo Epstein from their Red Sox days.
3 James Shields
AGE IN 2015 33
2014 STATS 14--8, 3.21 ERA, 1.181 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
CURRENT TEAM Royals
BEST FIT Red Sox
Perhaps his Big Game nickname is unwarranted, but Shields remains a very valuable asset. He never gets hurt (since '07 he has thrown more innings than any big league pitcher), he guarantees you an ERA between 3.00 and 3.50, and he can be a positive influence on a young staff. The Red Sox' system is loaded with pitching prospects; Shields will be attractive to Boston not only as a leader who can take on innings, but also because he's likely to command fewer years than Scherzer and Lester and will be off the books by the time the youngsters are peaking.
4 Hanley Ramirez
AGE IN 2015 31
2014 STATS .283 BA, .817 OPS, 13 HR, 71 RBI, 14 SB
CURRENT TEAM Dodgers
BEST FIT Yankees
Ramirez is the scariest type of free agent, a player whose superior talent will earn him lots of money for a long time but who has at various points had issues with effort and injury (he's missed at least 34 games in three of the past four years), and who is no longer exactly young. Still: the talent. You might have heard that the Yankees need a shortstop, and while Ramirez really should be playing third at this point in his career, the shortstop market is thin. They could turn to Ramirez, with the idea that he'd move 50 feet to his right after a few years.
5 Victor Martinez
AGE IN 2015 36
2014 STATS .335 BA, .974 OPS, 32 HR, 103 RBI, 3 SB
CURRENT TEAM Tigers
BEST FIT White Sox
Two years removed from a major knee injury, the former catcher had a simply astounding year at the plate in 2014. Not only did he lead baseball in OPS, but in a whiff-heavy age he almost never struck out; his 15.26 K/PA was the league's best, and he was second in the AL in batting average. That unique combination of power and contact hitting will be hotly pursued, but the White Sox have long coveted him, and the idea of pairing him with Jose Abreu in the middle of the lineup might be worth a slight overpay for a 36-year-old.
6 Yasmani Tomas
AGE IN 2015 24
CURRENT TEAM Havana Industriales
BEST FIT Phillies
Each Cuban player who has recently entered the league almost immediately proved himself to have been underpaid, so while Tomas reportedly does not have quite the talent of, say, Jose Abreu or Yasiel Puig, he should nevertheless easily top Abreu's six-year, $68 million deal. He's got two main things working for him: extreme raw power and youth. The Phillies were the first club to host Tomas for a private workout, back in September, and their aging organization could certainly use an infusion of youthful power.
7 Russell Martin
AGE IN 2015 32
2014 STATS .290 BA, .832 OPS, 11 HR, 67 RBI, 4 SB
CURRENT TEAM Pirates
BEST FIT Dodgers
Martin picked a great year to post an OPS that was topped among everyday catchers by only Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy and Devin Mesoraco, as the catcher market almost begins and ends with him. He's been one of the league's best all-around backstops for years, trailing only Posey, Lucroy and Yadier Molina in WAR since 2011. The Dodgers have been getting by with A.J. Ellis behind the plate, but that will change in '15. New team president Andrew Friedman's first major expenditure will most likely be bringing Martin back to the club he played for from '06 to '10.
8 Pablo Sandoval
AGE IN 2015 28
2014 STATS .279 BA, .739 OPS, 16 HR, 73 RBI, 0 SB
CURRENT TEAM Giants
BEST FIT Red Sox
Sandoval's physical conditioning will always be a concern, and the risk is that it might cause him to start to play older than he is. For now, though, he is still young and is a solid fielder with an obviously pressure-tested, switch-hitting bat, coming off yet another impressive October performance. The Red Sox might want a new third baseman to replace the disappointing Will Middlebrooks, and they also need some lefthanded power (Sandoval is superior batting lefty), which is currently provided by David Ortiz, and David Ortiz alone.
9 Melky Cabrera
AGE IN 2015 30
2014 STATS .301 BA, .808 OPS, 16 HR, 73 RBI, 6 SB
CURRENT TEAM Blue Jays
BEST FIT Rangers
With his PED suspension (2012), his benign spinal tumor ('13) and his fractured finger ('14) behind him, Cabrera enters his third free-agency go-round—at the age of 30!—as one of the league's best pure hitters. Despite all his troubles, he has a .309 batting average and an .809 OPS since 2011. The Blue Jays want him back, but they'll have competition—perhaps from the Rangers, who were the league's worst team in '14 due to a calamitous string of injuries but are only a few pieces away from returning to the postseason. Cabrera would slot in nicely in left.
10 Nelson Cruz
AGE IN 2015 34
2014 STATS .271 BA, .859 OPS, 40 HR, 108 RBI, 4 SB
CURRENT TEAM Orioles
BEST FIT Mariners
Cruz blew the free-agency game last time around: Coming off his 50-game Biogenesis suspension, he turned down the Rangers' $14.1 million qualifying offer and ultimately had to settle for one year and $8 million from the Orioles. Then he led all of baseball in homers. Cruz has a limited skill set—his defense is poor, he rarely walks—but his power is significant and should land him the multiyear deal he's been seeking. The Mariners aren't far away from contention and need a power-hitting rightfielder—especially a righthanded one, as lefties predominate in their lineup.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SCHERZER)
BRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LESTER)
BRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CABRERA)
DILIP VISHWANAT FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SHIELDS)
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RAMIREZ)
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SANDOVAL)
MICHAEL ZAGARIS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MARTINEZ)
FRANKLIN REYES/AP (TOMAS)
RICK SCUTERI/USA TODAY SPORTS (MARTIN)
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CRUZ)