The Class of 2006: Top Ten Free Agents to Watch During 2005

The free agent class of 2004-2005 did well for itself. Big signings — some of the biggest since the early 2000s — dominated the headlines, and players from Pedro Martinez to Carlos Beltran to Carlos Delgado ended up in unexpected places.

While teams are getting into shape and pitchers are beginning to air out their arms in Florida and Arizona, it’s never too early to examine those who will be free agents come next November. Who’s primed for a big contract and who needs to play well to land the big bucks?

Hitters

1. Lance Berkman

Berkman’s free agent campaign got off to a rocky start when he injured his ACL this winter. While the Astros’ All-Star outfielder thinks he’ll be ready by Opening Day, team doctors believe he’ll be set to go by May 1. Either way, Berkman’s primed to land a big contract next year. With a career on-base percentage of .416, he’s been an offensive machine the last four years in Houston. Averaging 32 home runs and 113 RBIs since 2001, Berkman is a better offensive version of Magglio Ordoñez. Considering that Berkman signed a one-year $10.5-million deal to avoid arbitration, he should land a comparable contract with another solid season in 2005.

2. Nomar Garciaparra

While Berkman has his future set, Nomar has a lot to prove this year. Nomar, who turns 32 in July, has to reassert himself as a superstar in order to land an Edgar Renteria-type deal. He’ll also have to play more than 81 games. Playing in Wrigley away from the glare of the Boston media, Garciaparra will have his chance to sit back and drive the ball just like he should. If he can hit 40 doubles and 25 home runs, he’ll end up with a nice four-years at $10-$12 million a season. If he’s injured and can’t produce anywhere near his peak, he may end up with another one-year, prove-yourself contract.

3. Johnny Damon

Damon stated publicly that he wants to finish up his career in Boston. At the same time, the Yankees will be looking for a center fielder younger than Bernie Williams in eight months. If Damon’s intent on staying in Boston, he may have to resist the lure of George Steinbrenner’s wallet. Damon’s had some hit-or-miss seasons over the last four years. He was a bust in Oakland and signed for $8 million a year with the Sox in 2001. After a mediocre 2003, Damon had a break-out season last year, hitting 20 home runs with 94 RBIs and a .380 OBP. He also scored 123 runs out of the lead-off spot. If he keeps up that level of production, King George will be drooling in anticipation of a bidding war.

4. Bret Boone

Will the real Bret Boone please stand up? Boone’s contract will depend upon whether he follows his 2001/2003 model or his 2002/2004 model. If he hits close to .300 with 35 home runs and 120 RBIs, he’ll have numerous suitors looking for a great second baseman. If he hits .265 with an OBP below .320, he’ll draw considerably less attention. Additionally, now that his name has been publicly associated with steroids, teams may be scrutinizing Boone’s performance a little closer this year. Boone has age working against him as well. He turns 36 this season and probably shouldn’t get more than a two or three year deal.

5. Erubiel Durazo

In a weak free agent class, Durazo is a sleeper pick. He’s an on-base machine with a career OBP of .387, but he’s never hit more than 22 home runs or driven in more than 88. He’s also a liability in the field, and his walk totals decreased by nearly 50 percent between 2003 and 2004. Yet, if Durazo finally has that breakout year many in baseball have been waiting for, he could land a decent contract. He’s just a few months older than Damon and Garciaparra. So if he comes into his own this year, he may land a nice deal from a team in need of a Designated Hitter.

Pitchers

1. Tim Hudson

Health, health, health, health, and health are the five issues (or is it just one?) facing the top five free-agent-to-be pitchers, and none of them embody that more than Tim Hudson. There’s no doubt that the Braves’ latest ace is the real deal. In Oakland, he was arguably the best pitcher among the Big Three. His ERA is constantly well below the league average, and until last year, he was a workhouse, placing in the top three for innings pitched in 2001, 2002, and 2003. But questions surround Hudson’s health as he lost his effectiveness last season after an oblique muscle injury. Hudson’s also had a declining strike out rate over the last few years which is often a warning sign of a pitcher losing his effectiveness. It will be interesting to see how a switch to a new league and an idolized pitching coach affects Hudson’s season.

2. A.J. Burnett

Of all the players on this list, Burnett has the best upside. He’ll be 29 by Opening Day 2006 and could be one of the game’s premiere power pitchers. However, he’s never had an injury-free season and has started just 23 games over the last two years. If he’s healthy and can maintain his strike out rate of nine per nine innings, expect the boys from Boston and New York to woo A.J. Burnett until he’s sick of steak dinners, limo rides, and visits from Derek Jeter, Curt Schilling, and everyone in between.

3. Kevin Millwood

Kevin Millwood’s name has appeared on everyone’s list of free agent pitchers for the past few seasons, and every year, he’s been a disappointment. It’s becoming more and more obvious that he’s break-out season of 1999 may just have been a fluke. He struggled last year, giving up more hits than innings pitched for the first time since 2000. His 4.85 ERA was inflated due to the tight new park in Philadelphia, but even his park-adjusted ERA was a career high. If Millwood doesn’t show some more consistency, he may just end up signing one-year, $7-million deals until he retires.

4. Matt Morris

Before the 2004 season, Morris would have been number two or three on this list, but injuries and an off-season shoulder surgery have dropped him down a few spots. If Morris can get his ERA back to the 3.40 range and reestablish himself the strike-out pitcher he was in 2001 and 2002, he’ll be in a position to draw big bucks. However, if his arm acts up and his K/9 IP ratio continues to drop, teams will be very wary to approach him.

5. Billy Wagner

Early last year, Wagner delighted the fans in Philadelphia by lighting up the radar gun at Citizen’s Bank Park with his 100 mph heater. In the summer, he left the fans high and dry as injuries limited him to a four-year low of only 48.1 innings pitched. While he still managed to record 59 strike outs, an injured Billy Wagner may not get more than the $8 million the Phillies are paying him. If he has another dominating season, teams will be lined up down the block to secure the services of one of the hardest throwing lefty relievers in the game.

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