Breaking down Hot Stove League from free agents to trade targets

(L-R) Where will Zack Greinke end up? Is David Price going to the Cubs? Should the Reds trade closer Aroldis Chapman? 

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The free-agent market opens Friday. The money will flow shortly thereafter. Players will be overpaid, just as they are always overpaid, and fans and club officials will wonder, once again, when the madness will end.

Stupid question, isn’t it?

Inefficiency, thy name is free agency, now and forevermore.

Here is my rapid-fire guide to the offseason, complete with trade candidates. I don’t pretend that it’s complete. Dozens of surprises will occur. The landscape on Feb. 6 will be a heck of a lot different than it is on Nov. 6, that’s for sure.

David Price: Two agents for free-agent starting pitchers predict that Price will sign with the Cubs. An executive who knows Price says that the Cubs are his first choice. It’s all talk until the contract is signed, particularly when the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals and Red Sox all could be in the mix.

Jason Heyward: Can we stop with the talk about Heyward’s offensive upside? Sure he’s only 26, but over the past four seasons his OPS-plus — that is, his OPS adjusted to his league and ballpark — has been consistently good, not great. He is who he is, and his contract will be a monster due to his age and all-around ability. Bet an opt-out, too — Heyward’s agent, Casey Close, negotiated such clauses for Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.


Greinke: He will pitch next season at age 32, so a shorter term with a high average salary is the most logical play. If the Dodgers won’t pay Greinke, the Giants might — and so could other NL contenders. Greinke surely prefers to remain in the league that allows him to hit, and he almost certainly would want to know the identity of the Dodgers’ manager and likely composition of the clubhouse before considering them long term.

Chris Davis: His 159 home runs led the majors the past four seasons, and his .533 slugging percentage ranks ninth. Sure, Davis also had the highest strikeout rate in the majors last season, but teams will accept the tradeoff for his rare power — and he can play the outfield and even third as well as first base. The Red Sox, Astros, Blue Jays and Cardinals are among the possible fits.

Darren O’Day: You won’t see his name on any “Top 10 free agent” lists, but he is easily the best reliever in a thin market, and could strike it particularly rich if some teams view him as a closer. Never mind that O’Day is 33. Over the past four seasons he has a .580 opponents’ OPS and 4.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Last season was his best yet, and he gets left-handed hitters out as well as righties.

Johnny Cueto: A Royals official described Cueto as the most “mysterious, confusing player I’ve ever been around.” The pitcher’s meltdown in Toronto during the ALCS, followed by his brilliance at home in the World Series, only added to the unknown. Is Cueto healthy after twice getting starts pushed back with the Reds due to elbow trouble? Or is he worth a major plunge considering that his ERA-plus the past four seasons is nearly as good as Greinke’s?

Yoenis Cespedes: The World Series exposed his occasional inattentiveness and other flaws, but some of those struggles perhaps stemmed from a shoulder injury. The bigger problem for Cespedes might be generating enough interest from high-revenue clubs. Two of his former teams, the Mets and Red Sox, are almost certainly out. The Yankees might be, too, along with the Cubs and Dodgers. Then again, all it takes is one team to jump — and the Giants, Rangers, Angels and Mariners all are potential volunteers.

Ian Desmond: Never mind his horrid first half; his market could be surprisingly robust. Desmond’s offensive statistics after the All-Star break were in line with his career numbers, and his defense also improved as the season progressed. He also will benefit from being the top shortstop in a thin free-agent group — and could even switch positions for the right club.


Matt Wieters: His contract will depend upon how teams view his value in his second season after Tommy John surgery. Wieters, who turns 30 on May 21, caught only 55 games last season, and never on three straight days. Still, he makes a ton of sense for the Braves, considering that he owns a home in Atlanta and attended Georgia Tech. The Nationals are another team with possible interest.

Justin Upton: His streakiness offensively can be frustrating, but Upton usually ends up in the same place; his career OPS is an impressive .825. Further increasing his appeal: Upton will play next season at 28. Is he everything people expected when the Diamondbacks made him the first pick of the 2005 draft? Maybe not. But he’s still pretty darned good.

This is where the market is deepest, with a multitude of available options.

Mike Leake: The youngest member of this group at 27. Ineligible for a qualifying offer because he was traded in the middle of last season. Has not been on the DL due to arm trouble since 2010.

Wei-Yin Chen: Good and getting better, as his performances for the Orioles in each of the past two seasons attest.

Jeff Samardzija: Coming off his worst season, but those who know him well say that his mechanics got out of whack under White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Unlike Leake, he is eligible for a qualifying offer; a team would lose its top unprotected draft pick for signing him.

Hisashi Iwakuma: The Mariners have made no secret of their desire to keep him, and that is the likely outcome.


Marco Estrada: His breakthrough regular season and postseason should position him well, but the expected qualifying offer from the Blue Jays could hurt him on the market.

Ian Kennedy: Another pitcher who could be damaged by a qualifying offer; Kennedy is durable, but his ERA-plus has been below league-average the past four seasons.

Brett Anderson: Yet another qualifying-offer question. Should Anderson accept $15.8 million from the Dodgers or gamble that he could get, say, a two-year, $30 million deal somewhere else?

Yovani Gallardo: The best guess is that the native of Fort Worth, Texas, will stay with the Rangers. One caveat: He averaged fewer than six innings per start last season.

These teams —– the 10 worst in the majors last season — can sign free agents who receive qualifying offers without losing a first-round pick; such clubs would sacrifice their next highest-pick instead.

Kenta Maeda, RHP, Japan, age 27 (expected to be posted): The Diamondbacks are among the teams that long have coveted him, but will they pay the maximum $20 million posting fee in addition to the contract that Maeda would require?

Dae-Ho Lee, 1B, Korea, age 33 (free agent): MVP of the Japan Series; declined a player option with the Fukuoka Soft Bank Hawks with the goal of playing in the majors.

Yaisel Sierra, RHP, Cuba, age 24 (free agent): An estimated 350 scouts and executives watched him at a recent showcase in Jupiter, Fla. His average fastball that day: 94.7 mph, according to Baseball America.

Byung-Ho Park, 1B, Korea, age 29 (posted; bids due Friday): Led the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) in home runs in each of the past four seasons, but some scouts question whether he can handle major-league pitching.

Matt Harvey — Mets: The Mets shouldn’t break up their pitching unless they’re sick of Harvey, which they shouldn’t be. Besides, it’s difficult to imagine them getting the young impact middle infielder they would want for their ace, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time.

Stephen Strasburg — Nationals: The Nats entertained offers for him last offseason, but the circumstances are different now. Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister are about to leave the club as free agents, and the return for Strasburg as he enters his walk year probably could not justify a trade.

Carlos Gonzalez — Rockies: If the Rockies can trade Tulo, why not CarGo? Gonzalez is coming off a career-high 40 homers. He’s fairly priced at $37 million over the next two seasons. And rest assured, other teams covet his left-handed power.


Yasiel Puig — Dodgers: Just how badly do the Dodgers want him gone, if at all? We’re about to find out. Puig’s value is at a low point, but he will play next season at 25 and is under club control for three more years. Another option for the Dodgers: Trade Andre Ethier and/or Carl Crawford and sign an elite defender such as Heyward or Alex Gordon.

Jonathan Lucroy — Brewers: Played in only 103 games last season due to a broken left toe, and his offensive numbers took a hit. Still, his contract is incredibly attractive – $4 million next season plus a $5.25 million club option in ’17.

Aroldis Chapman/Jay Bruce — Reds: Don’t ask me what the Reds will do; ask owner Bob Castellini. Chapman and Bruce are entering their free-agent years — and also will have value in July if Castellini prefers to face reality then.

Starlin Castro — Cubs: Yielded to Addison Russell at short; now he must yield to Javier Baez at second. The good news for the Cubs: Castro rebuilt his value by hitting well and adapting to second base in the final two months.

Craig Kimbrel — Padres: Good luck. The early word on the Padres is that they will take the same approach that they did in July, listening on everyone, surveying the market for upgrades and remaining reluctant to rebuild.

Hanley Ramirez — Red Sox: New president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski needs to make Ramirez disappear and end the first-base experiment before it starts.


Clay Buchholz — Red Sox: Yes, Dombrowski exercised Buchholz’s $13 million club option, but does he actually trust him? Some rival executives think the answer is no.

Jurickson Profar — Rangers: Got off to a hot offensive start in the Arizona Fall League, but is serving only as a DH while recovering from a torn muscle in his right shoulder. The Rangers seemingly have no place for him in their middle infield; other teams want him.