Major League Baseball's free agency period doesn't offer the frenetic midnight action of the NBA, nor does it come with the "what-do-these-numbers mean?" contractual vagaries of the NFL. This is much more of a slow burn, something like the sport it represents. Yes, free agency officially begins Tuesday, but that's more than a month before the annual winter meetings commence in San Diego.
This does not, though, preclude this period from being fascinating. Throw in the possibility - indeed, the probability - of real ol' fashioned trades, and there could be some major realignment come spring training. The American League champion Kansas City Royals are all but certain to lose their ace. The World Series champion San Francisco Giants could lose their third baseman. Let's deal!
The 10 names below may not be the most expensive free agents in the 2014 class, but they are certainly 10 of the most interesting.
Max Scherzer, SP
2014 Team: Detroit Tigers
In any calculation, he's the headliner, and not only because of his superlative performance in the two years leading up to his pursuit of a contract - the 2013 Cy Young award, top six in the American League in innings pitched (434-2/3), ERA (3.02), strikeouts per nine innings (10.19), WHIP (1.07), batting average against (.216) and strikeout percentage (28.3). Scherzer, though, made his case even more intriguing when he put an enormous bet on himself by turning down a $144-million offer of an extension from the Tigers last spring. Now that the right-hander followed that with an 18-5 season in which he had a 3.15 ERA, it would appear he'd get more. How much, and from whom?
James Shields, SP
2014 Team: Kansas City Royals
Shields should rank well behind Scherzer and lefty Jon Lester - long of Boston, late of Oakland - in both dollars and years earned by a starting pitcher. He'll be older (33 in December), and his performance over the past three years - 2012 with Tampa Bay, 2013-14 with Kansas City - doesn't quite make him elite. His ERA during that time (3.29) ranks just 13th among American League starters. The intriguing question becomes: Will his struggles in the postseason (6.12 ERA in five 2014 playoff starts) and the accumulated workload (major league-high 932-2/3 innings pitched since 2011) at all impact his market?
Pablo Sandoval, 3B
2014 Team: San Francisco Giants
Arguably the hitter with the most upside on the market, Sandoval has proven himself in October (.344 average and .935 OPS in 39 postseason games, .426 average and 1.162 OPS in 12 World Series games), and he will only be 28 on Opening Day. The Giants still love him, even though they failed to get an extension done with him in the spring. The main issue: Will questions about whether he can maintain an acceptable playing weight - one that will allow him to continue to man third base effectively - limit his market?
Hanley Ramirez, SS/?
2014 Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Five years ago, it wasn't a stretch to say Ramirez would have been one of the top picks around which to build a franchise. Now, what is he exactly? Probably not a shortstop. At 31 next month, his range and defensive skills have eroded enough that the Dodgers believed they had better internal options at the premier position last year. Can he be a competent third baseman who can still hit (.308 average, .907 OPS over the past two years)? More importantly, will someone pay him like he'll be healthy for the next four seasons? Because that would be ignoring a track record in which he has averaged 115 games over the past four years.
Nelson Cruz, OF/DH
2014 Team: Baltimore Orioles
The absolute bargain of last winter's free agency - $8 million for 40 homers - will finally get paid. Though he was suspended in the Biogenesis fiasco in 2012, Cruz's market was likely more affected by the draft-pick compensation tied to his signing. There's no such hindrance this season, and his last six seasons - even with suspensions and injuries - have averaged 29 homers and a .514 slugging percentage. In a market that lacks hitters, watch Cruz get paid.
Victor Martinez, DH
2014 Team: Detroit Tigers
Here's an intriguing one: Martinez hits .335, leads the American League with a .409 on-base percentage and a .974 OPS - while managing a career-high 32 homers when his home field is spacious Comerica Park - and he must be ready for a massive payday. The problem: Martinez will be 36, and essentially plays no position other than hitter. He also has never previously hit more than 25 homers. Can a team pay someone $15 million a year for four or five years for power that might be a blip and production that could wane as he approaches 40 - or is Martinez some sort of exception?
Andrew Miller, RP
2014 Team: Boston Red Sox/Baltimore Orioles
In a world in which closers no longer get paid marquee money, but in which navigating the crucible of the final nine outs in a postseason game has become among the sport's most important traits, what is a lefty like Miller worth? In 73 appearances for Boston and Baltimore this season, the 6-foot-7 former first-round pick finally found his niche, holding lefties to a .163 average and .467 OPS - and doing better against righties (.145 average, .446 OPS). He'd fit with Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, the Yankees - essentially, anywhere key outs need to be recorded. Three years, $18 million? That's what Jeremy Affeldt got from the Giants following 2012. Miller could get more years and more money.
Brandon McCarthy, SP
2014 Team: Arizona Diamondbacks/New York Yankees
File this under: Who will make the smart buy? McCarthy was mostly a disappointment in Arizona after signing a two-year, $16.5-million deal that covered 2013-14. He lost 21 games, posted a 4.75 ERA and had a 1.361 WHIP. But his midseason trade to the Yankees (2.89 ERA in 14 starts) proved a revelation. Now, he could be among a group of coveted pitchers not because they reach Scherzer/Lester status, but because they could be bargains in both years (three?) and average annual payout. Someone will look smart with someone among the group of McCarthy, Francisco Liriano, Jake Peavy, etc. Evaluation and projection is key here.
Nick Markakis, OF
2014 Team: Baltimore Orioles
This goes under special cases, because Markakis is one of those players (Ryan Zimmerman in Washington, Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado) who represent more to his own franchise than he might to the rest of the league. The Orioles, however, declined Markakis's $17.5-million option for 2015 - so we know what he's not worth to the only team for which he has played. Can Baltimore find a creative way to keep a guy who, over the past two seasons, has slugged just .371 - 26th among AL outfielders in that time? More importantly: Does Markakis fit in the Orioles' plans as they pursue a third postseason trip in four years? And if not, into whose plans does he fit?
Ichiro Suzuki, OF/DH
2014 Team: New York Yankees
He turned 41 last month, and he has not retired - not yet, anyway. But he is coming off a season in which he had 385 plate appearances - half what he had in his heyday in Seattle. Is there a market for a 41-year-old slap hitter who has declined defensively? If not, pay homage to him on the way out, because from the time he came over from Japan in 2001, no one came within 300 hits of his 2,844 in that span - and, if it's over, he didn't quite get the send-off he might have deserved.