It's a brave new world for free agency in baseball, starting with how the process begins and continuing through next June's First-Year Player Draft. Change is all around, but one basic truth remains: Some big names could be signing some huge contracts this winter. At the top of the list is Josh Hamilton, the outfielder who has become one of the top offensive players in the game during a remarkable renaissance with the Rangers.
Right-hander Zack Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner, heads the list of pitchers on the market with the Angels, who acquired him from Milwaukee in a July trade, hoping to re-sign him. But they are bound to have plenty of competition. Some rules have changed, but the situation remains virtually the same for a team like the Rangers: They know one of their biggest stars can be pursued by other teams, now that Hamilton is a free agent. Players can begin signing with new teams after midnight ET on Friday. "I think he's going to go out there, test the market and then come back to us. No door's been closed," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said earlier this month, noting that the club would not be making a preemptive offer. "We're also very realistic about when a star player hits free agency at this point, the history of them returning to their original club. I think we have to prepare both ways and prepare the club for the possibility that he's not back. But we haven't closed any doors." Doors are opening all around baseball, with dozens of players becoming free agents as soon as the last out of the World Series was recorded Sunday night. Outfielders Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and B.J. Upton; catchers A.J. Pierzynski, Russell Martin and Mike Napoli; and starting pitchers Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster and Kyle Lohse are among the key players whose services are on the market. Established stars such as David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki and Torii Hunter are out there this winter, too, though it appeared that Ortiz and the Red Sox were close to a multiyear deal. Others, like Marco Scutaro and Angel Pagan of the Giants and Delmon Young and Sanchez of the Tigers, performed well this October, not only for their teams but for themselves. Jose Valverde, not so much. And outfielder Melky Cabrera's future is up for grabs as well after his 50-game drug suspension. The main change in free agency this time around is that the Type A/Type B compensation system, which used to allot Draft picks to teams that lose free agents based on those rankings, is gone. Now, a team must make a qualifying offer to a free agent -- a one-year deal for the average of the top 125 salaries the previous season, likely to be about $13 million this year -- in order to be eligible for compensation. Somewhat similar to years past, that would come in the form of an additional Draft pick at the end of the first round if the player rejects the one-year deal and signs elsewhere. But the process has changed considerably. Hamilton and Greinke, for example, will be treated different from each other and different than in years past under the new rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed last November. One change is they became free agents automatically and did not have to file for free agency. Hamilton, because he was with the Rangers all of 2012, must be tendered a qualifying offer by the Rangers if they want to be eligible for a compensation pick next June, and that offer must be made in the five days after the World Series ends. That's virtually a no-brainer, since not only would $13 million be a bargain for the Rangers but one year isn't something Hamilton is likely to accept with long-term possibilities out there. A player has seven days to decide to accept or decline the qualifying offer. On the other hand, the Rangers might not want to take that same risk with Napoli, for example. But if they don't make a qualifying offer, that won't mean they can't pursue him for a contract of any length. It just means they won't get compensation if he signs elsewhere. In Greinke's case, because he was acquired by trade in midseason, he is a free agent, period, and the Angels can't do anything else but get at the front of the line -- and they are ineligible to receive compensation if Greinke signs elsewhere. Essentially, both stars are in the same boat, along with more than 130 others who are free agents. They're free to listen to any offers immediately, and they'll be free to sign with anyone starting in five days. When it comes to the Angels and Greinke, the team that wanted him in July wants him going forward. So do several other teams, including the AL West-rival Rangers and perhaps the Angels' neighbors, the Dodgers. "It's something we'd like to explore," said GM Jerry Dipoto of getting the 29-year-old Greinke signed long term with the Angels, who engaged in free agency in a big way a year ago with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. In order to go after Greinke, the Angels are expected to add to the ranks of 2013 free agents by declining 2013 options on starters Dan Haren ($15.5 million) and Ervin Santana ($13 million). There are more than 50 such players whose options are on the table, with varying degrees of certainty they'll hit the market, including the Mets' David Wright and R.A. Dickey, the Nationals' Adam LaRoche and White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, who is among the most likely to be granted free agency since his option is for $22 million. The new story of free agency for 2013 is only just now unfolding as the process begins. And by the end of it, the results will be much the same: A few players will sign some big contracts, and a lot of them will change uniforms over the course of the next few months.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.