Mauer is big catch of next free-agent class

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Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins dives back toward first after a single during the American...
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Dayn Perry

Dayn Perry is a frequent contributor to His second book, "Reggie Jackson: The Life and Thunderous Career of Baseball's Mr. October," is available from HarperCollins Publishers. Read more of his work at the NotGraphs blog.

Many of you have been waiting breathlessly for my considered take on the Mark McGw-

What's that? No? You haven't?

Fair enough. In that case, rather than disinter the assaulted-beyond-death McGwire story, we'll talk about free agents — a.k.a., actual baseball. And, no, we don't mean the charred remains of the present free-agent class. Rather, we'll turn our attentions to next winter and preview the 2010-11 class of guns for hire. In summary: It's a more alluring crop than the current one.

So what follows are the top 20 free agents slated to hit the market after the upcoming season. In the event of contract extensions, retirements, serious injuries or statistical surprises, the rankings and names could change. But at this (outrageously early) juncture, here's how the next round of free agents shakes out ...

The Best

1. Joe Mauer, C
Opening Day 2011 Age: 28

Mauer is the best baseball player on the planet not named Albert Pujols. He's a quality defensive catcher who hits like an All-Star first baseman. As free agents go, he's also young. If the Twins, who are moving into a new ballpark built largely on the backs of Minnesota taxpayers, don't re-sign the homegrown MVP, then they're betraying their fans. So stay tuned. Regardless or where he winds up, Mauer will command a contract in excess of $200 million. He'll be worth it.

2. Cliff Lee, LHS
Opening Day 2011 Age: 32

Lee won the AL Cy Young in 2008 and followed it up with a Cy-worthy performance in 2009 (including a legendary start in Game 1 of the World Series). Since cliff lee became CLIFF LEE, he has shown durability, composure on the mound, exceptional command and an ability to keep the ball in the park. He'd be the ace of all but a few staffs.

3. Brandon Webb, RHS
Opening Day 2011 Age: 32

Consider this ranking — even though it's quite high — a bit of a hedge. Despite his past excellence, Webb is a bit of an unknown quantity at the moment. He pitched just four innings last season and then underwent major shoulder surgery. He's slated to be ready by Opening Day, but such a serious shoulder malady is not to be dismissed. When healthy, though, Webb is on the short list of the best pitchers in baseball. If he proves himself recovered and in vintage form, he'll be the top pitcher on the market.

4. Derek Jeter, SS
Opening Day 2011 Age: 37

By the time he ends his career, Jeter will likely stand as the second-greatest shortstop ever to play the game (but he won't be overtaking Honus Wagner for top honors). As 2009 proved, he's still playing at a high level. Still, at Jeter's age, decline can set in quickly. No matter what happens in 2010, his next and probably final contract will be with the Yankees. How he fares in the upcoming season will determine the parameters. If recent history is any guide, though, Jeter will still be a force.

5. Carl Crawford, OF
Opening Day 2011 Age: 29

Throw out Crawford's injury-riddled 2008, and he has been a productive hitter since his second full season in the majors. Crawford is also an elite base runner, and he's without question the best defensive left fielder in baseball. (Crawford could even provide plus defense in center.) You'd like to see a higher walk rate out of him, but his batting averages are generally high enough to compensate. Of course, you're paying for the defense and base running almost as much as the bat.

6. Jayson Werth, OF
Opening Day 2011 Age: 32

Werth has been outstanding since being signed by the Phillies before the 2007 season. He has hit for power (60 homers over the past two seasons), gotten on base (OBPs of .404, .363 and .373 with the Phillies), run the bases (64 steals and just eight times caught in his career) and played excellent defense in right. Werth's a complete player, and the reasonable assumption is his skills will be intact when he hits the market.

7. Victor Martinez, C/1B
Opening Day 2011 Age: 32

Martinez will be on the wrong side of 30, and he's not the type who figures to age well (i.e., he's large and slow). However, he can rake (he's a career .299 AVG/.372 OBP/.465 SLG hitter), and his defense behind the plate is better than advertised. He's never going to be mistaken for Pudge Rodriguez when it comes to behind-the-plate durability, but he's eclipsed 1,000 innings at catcher in four different seasons. We'll probably learn much about his current stamina this season in Boston. Given the terminal shortage of catchers who can hit, Martinez will make a nifty consolation prize for those dreaming of Mauer.

8. Josh Beckett, RHS
Opening Day 2011 Age: 31

Beckett is good, but let's be objective: He's not an ace on most staffs. Beckett's career ERA of 3.79 is solid enough, but just three times in his career has he managed at least 200 innings in a season. It's also worth noting that since Beckett arrived in Boston and supposedly achieved "ace-dom," his ERA is 4.05. That's a tick or two better than the league average, but the numbers simply don't rise to the level of Beckett's reputation. That said, if you're looking for a No. 2 man, then Beckett is a reasonable choice. Just be sure pay him like a No. 2 man. Lee and a healthy Webb are both significantly better.

9. Carlos Pena, 1B
Opening Day 2011 Age: 33

Since coming to Tampa, Pena has averaged 39 homers and 95 walks per season. He can also field his position. He's going to strike out a lot, and most seasons he won't hit for a high average (although he's better than last year's .227 mark). However, Pena's outstanding secondary skills — his aforementioned ability to hit for power and draw walks — make him a highly productive hitter. An MVP he's not, but a winning part of the lineup he is. He's also the best first baseman on the market.

10. Adam Dunn, OF/DH
Opening Day 2011 Age: 31

First, the limitations: Dunn will need to be a DH, he's going to strike out and he's not going to challenge for a batting title. Now, the strengths: He's an excellent power hitter (316 career bombs, .520 career SLG), he gets on base (.383 career OBP), and he doesn't need a platoon partner. Dunn's numbers with the Nationals last season prove he can produce outside of the hitter-friendly park in Cincy. The two most important things a hitter can do are hit for power and get on base, and Dunn does precisely that.

The Rest

11. Mariano Rivera: He's the greatest closer ever, but he'll be 41 years old. After the 2010 season, he'll be either a Yankee or a retiree.

12. Manny Ramirez : He'll be 39, which means sudden decline is possible. For now, though, Ramirez is still a highly productive hitter. He needs to be a strict DH, though.

13. Huston Street: The second-best closer on the market will be just 27.

14. Joe Blanton: Blanton will be good for 200 innings per season and an ERA at or better than the league average. That has value, and he's a candidate to take the next step in 2010.

15. Javier Vazquez: The terminally underrated Vazquez is a slightly better pitcher than Blanton, but he's also four years older.

16. Rafael Soriano: When healthy, Soriano is one of the game's top right-handed relievers.

17. Ted Lilly: When healthy (a common refrain), he's a quality starting pitcher who's capable of sub-4.00 ERAs.

18. Jorge De la Rosa: Last year's campaign was a bit overvalued because of De La Rosa's win total, but another strong season in 2010 will make him an attractive target.

19. Derrek Lee: Somewhat inconsistent but always productive. Lee was quietly outstanding in 2009.

20. Paul Konerko: Konerko has had a fine career, but ... can he hit outside of U.S. Cellular Park? Can he hit right-handed pitching? Can he hit at age 35?
Tagged: Red Sox, Twins, Yankees, Mariners, Cubs, Nationals, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Rays, Derek Jeter, Adam Dunn, Derrek Lee, Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez, Carlos Pena, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Joe Mauer, Brandon Webb, Joe Blanton

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