It is the free agent market lacking the sure thing - no surefire No. 1 starter, no power-hitting slugger just entering the prime of his career. Still, the 2017 major league season will be largely shaped by where the cream of this year's free agent crop lands.
USA TODAY Sports examines the top talents available - some who will turn out to be brilliant values, and others regretful overpays. As the off-season launches in earnest, here's our top 55 - the free agents for whom it's worth keeping the hot stove lit:
(Age as of April 1, 2017, 2016 team)
1. Edwin Encarnacion (34, DH/1B, Blue Jays): Encarnacion is the top free agent on the market, and will command the largest payday. He likely will receive at least a four-year, $100 million offer, or perhaps even a five-year deal. He has averaged 39 homers and 110 RBI the last five years, hitting at least 34 homers every year, while hitting 42 homers with 127 RBI last season. Look for him to wind up in Boston to replace David Ortiz, or the Texas Rangers to replace Prince Fielder.
2. Yoenis Cespedes (31, OF, Mets):
When he opted out of the remaining two years of the three-year contract he inked with the Mets last offseason, the power-hitting Cespedes became arguably the biggest name and undoubtedly the best outfielder on the open market. The Cuban enjoyed his second straight excellent year at the plate in 2016, battling through a quadriceps injury to hit .280 with 31 homers and an .884 OPS. He turned down a reported nine-figure, heavily backloaded deal with the Nationals last offseason to rejoin the Mets, but the New York club might balk at offering the long-term deal Cespedes seems likely to seek.
3. Justin Turner (32, 3B, Dodgers): Turner’s offensive production over the last three years – a .296 batting average to go along with an .856 OPS and averages of 17 homers and 64 RBI – have helped him shed the utility tag. So has his excellent defense at third base, where he ranked second in the majors in UZR and Defensive Runs Saved last season. Turner is by far the top third baseman available in a thin market, so he’s likely to reject the Dodgers’ qualifying offer and get a multiyear deal in the $75 million range.
4. Kenley Jansen (29, RHP, Dodgers): The hard-throwing righty has developed one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 2.22 ERA with 180 saves over the past five seasons, notching a career-high 47 saves in 2016. Formerly a catcher, Jansen doesn’t have the miles on his arm that some of the high-profile relievers do. He’ll be sought after by a number of contenders in need of a ninth-inning man and along with Aroldis Chapman, will almost certainly eclipse Jonathan Papelbon’s record four-year, $50 million deal as a relief pitcher.
5. Aroldis Chapman (29, LHP, Cubs): No one in the world can throw a baseball as hard as the 28-year-old Chapman, who averaged an astonishing 100.4 mph with his fastballs in a 2016 split between the New York Yankees and the world champion Chicago Cubs. Chapman's heat makes him about as close to unhittable as a pitcher can be, but inking him to a long-term deal would mean betting on his ability to maintain his dominance if and when the velocity starts to decline as he enters his 30s. And Chapman carries some off-field concerns as well after the domestic dispute that earned him a suspension to start the 2016 season.
6. Dexter Fowler (31, OF, Cubs): A literal afterthought for the Cubs - club president Theo Epstein surprised the squad by escorting Fowler to a pre-workout huddle in spring training - Fowler once again made himself indispensable, producing an .840 OPS, 4.3 WAR and excellent defense in center field, enabling Jason Heyward to slide to right. Now, Fowler will be looking for the big payday that eluded him last winter, when the qualifying offer depressed his value. He should still get it.
7. Mark Trumbo (31, DH/RF, Orioles): There’s not a player on the market who has more power than Trumbo, who has 193 homers since 2012. He found utopia this year when he was traded to the Orioles, and promptly hit a major-league leading 47 homers with 108 RBI. He may be restricted to the American League as a DH, but can also play first base, which may fall into the Texas Rangers’ wheelhouse. A streaky hitter, Trumbo had the oddity of hitting just .173 with a .223 on-base percentage and .385 slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers. It may have been a fluke considering his career OPS against lefties is 179 points higher than last year’s .608.
8. Jose Bautista (36, RF, Blue Jays): Bautista picked a lousy time to have the worst season since becoming an everyday player seven years ago. He played just 110 games, batting .234 with 22 homers and 59 RBI with an .817 OPS. It’s hardly what he envisioned when he was seeking in excess of a five-year, $150 million deal this spring. The Blue Jays extended a $17.2 million qualifying offer, but have shown no interest in signing him to a long-term deal.
9. Mark Melancon (32, RHP, Nationals): One of the premier closers in baseball with a 1.80 ERA and 147 saves since 2013, Melancon traded to Washington from PIttsburgh in July. Melancon is known for his nasty cutter and has given up just 10 home runs over the past four seasons. He may not garner the same sort of attention as Chapman or Jansen, but should prove to be an equally-effective and cheaper option this offseason.
10. Neil Walker (31, 2B, Mets): Walker was on his way to a career offensive year in 2016 when he hit the disabled list in late August due to a nagging back injury that would require season-ending surgery. The switch-hitter made big strides from the right-handed side of the plate en route to tying a career high with 23 homers despite playing in only 113 games in the campaign. Walker expects to recover from surgery in time for a full spring training, and when healthy he's a safe bet to post numbers near his career .273/.339/.436 career norms while playing decent defense at second base, qualities that typically merit multi-year deals with eight-figure annual salaries.
11. Ian Desmond (31, OF/SS, Rangers): Desmond famously turned down a huge extension in Washington several years ago, wound up settling on a one-year deal with the Rangers for 2016 and went on to have one of the best seasons of his career. A career shortstop, Desmond exclusively played outfield in 2016, but suitors this offseason could pursue him as an infielder. Coming off his fourth career 20/20 season, that versatility should earn him a nice contract - although the Rangers extending him a qualifying offer might crimp his market a bit.
12. Jeremy Hellickson (29, RHP, Phillies): Teams in search of a starting pitcher this offseason aren’t going to find many of them on the free-agent market. In fact, Hellickson may be the best of the bunch – which isn’t saying a lot. That said, he did have a solid 2016, posting a 3.71 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 12-10 record for a Phillies team that had the worst run differential in the majors. Hellickson’s 32 starts and 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio were career highs, so he should find plenty of demand as a No. 3 or 4 starter.
13. Rich Hill (37, LHP, Dodgers): After meandering for most of his 12-year career, Hill emerged as one of the majors’ top pitchers in 2016, fashioning a 2.12 ERA in 20 starts and striking out 10.5 per nine innings. There will be concerns about his age and stamina – Hill’s 110 1/3 innings this season were his highest total since 2007 – but the quality of his work is unassailable. Hill’s new yearly average salary will at least double the $6 million he made last season.
14. Matt Wieters (30, C, Orioles):
Meet perhaps the only man who has worked the game's qualifying offer to perfection. Wieters, 30, accepted the Orioles' qualifying offer last winter, banking $15.8 million while reestablishing his value with an All-Star season, hitting 17 homers and driving in 66 runs. Good - but not good enough for the O's to feel comfortable slapping the qualifier on him again. Now, he hits the market healthy, two years removed from Tommy John surgery and not at all tied to draft pick compensation. Take a bow, Scott Boras.
15. Josh Reddick (30, OF, Dodgers): Reddick struggled badly in his two-plus months in L.A. and doesn’t figure to return, but he was having a solid year before that with the Oakland A’s, putting up an .816 OPS in 68 games. Once a Gold Glove outfielder, Reddick slipped defensively last season, when he missed time with a broken thumb. And he followed on his career-long trend of not hitting lefties (.155 average, .366 OPS). Reddick will command some interest, but he might be best served by taking a one-year deal and reestablishing his value for the 2017-18 free agent class.
16. Ivan Nova (30, RHP, Pirates): One of the more interesting cases on the 2016 market, Nova's situation bears some similarities to that which landed J.A. Happ a three-year deal with the Blue Jays last offseason: Like Happ, Nova appeared to make good on long-held promise in a partial season under the tutelage of Pirates' pitching guru Ray Searage. For Nova, that meant 11 strong starts to finish out 2016 with a borderline miraculous improvement in walk rate: The long-limbed righty allowed only three free passes in 64 2/3 innings with Pittsburgh and struck out 52 batters in that stretch. Interested teams will need to assess whether Nova's apparent and sudden improvement in Pittsburgh was one he can sustain with another club.
17. Michael Saunders:(30, OF, Blue Jays): Plagued by injuries and inconsistency much of his career, Saunders hit a personal jackpot of sorts in his final year with the Blue Jays. He played in a career-high 140 games, produced 24 homers and a career-best .815 OPS and was not slapped with a qualifying offer. He'll be an attractive corner outfield option for multiple teams.
18.Jason Hammel (34, RHP, Cubs): The Cubs' depth, epitomized: Hammel won 15 games, posted a 3.66 ERA and didn't even throw a postseason pitch. He'll bank on teams bidding for his apparently predictable back-end rotation production: He's 35-28 with a 3.68 ERA the past three seasons, averaging 171 innings pitched.
19. Wilson Ramos (29, C, Nationals): Ramos will be one of the more intriguing cases of the offseason, having torn his ACL late in September. He was having the best season of his career (.307, 22 HR, 80 RBI) and reportedly turned down an extension before his injury, intent on testing the waters of free agency. Ramos could wind up on a one-year deal as he likely won’t be ready for the start of the season. An American League team might make more sense, giving him the ability to DH while working back to full strength behind the plate.
20. Mike Napoli (35, 1B/DH, Indians): Party at Napoli's wasn't just a rallying cry in Cleveland; after hitting 34 homers, the burly slugger figures to throw a nice free agency bash for himself. Though he's limited in the field and batted just .232 in 964 at-bats the past two seasons, Napoli's raw power will be a significant lure. And after eight playoff appearances in four stops over 10 years, he's as close to an October lock as exists on the market.
21. Carlos Gomez (31, OF, Rangers): Designated for assignment by the Astros in August, Gomez had a resurgence down the stretch with the Rangers, batting .284 with eight home runs in 33 games. He’s not far removed from his great 2013 and 2014 seasons and is an attractive option as a top-tier defender with 20/20 potential.
22. Kendrys Morales (33, DH, Royals): Morales endured a brutal first two months but salvaged much of his free agent value by batting .296 with an .888 OPS and 24 of his 30 homers from June on. He’s strictly a designated hitter at this stage, but has hit at least 22 homers and produced an OPS in the .800 range in four of the last five years. Quite a few teams would happily take that.
23. Brandon Moss (33, 1B/OF, Cardinals): Moss is a streaky hitter who can collect home runs in bunches when he’s hot. He had two separate streaks of seven homers over a 12-game span in 2016. However, he does strike out a lot and won’t hit for a very high average (.226 the past two seasons). He can be a valuable addition to a team seeking left-handed power (25 of his 28 homers in 2016 came against right-handed pitchers) and someone who can back up at first base or either corner outfield spot.
24. Carlos Beltran (39, OF, Rangers): After earning his ninth All-Star nod at age 39 in 2015, Beltran will pursue what could be the final contract of his Hall of Fame career this offseason. Due to the Yankees' cadre of defensively limited veterans, Beltran spent more time than he should have in the outfield last season before joining the Rangers at the trade deadline and serving mostly as the club's designated hitter thereafter. A switch-hitter, Beltran managed an .850 OPS in 2016 and still offers plenty of offensive value to any contender seeking one more good bat and a steady, respected clubhouse presence.
25. Travis Wood (30, LHP, Cubs): His ability to play left field notwithstanding, Wood can fill a variety of roles on a pitching staff. The Cubs used him mostly as a short reliever this past season, posting a 2.95 ERA with four wins and 12 holds. Yet just three seasons ago he made 32 starts, pitched 200 innings and posted a 3.11 ERA. Wood’s most marketable asset is his ability to get left-handed hitters out. They hit just .128 off him in 2016 with two home runs in 120 at-bats.
26. Joe Blanton (36, RHP, Dodgers): An ugly finish in the NLCS can't dampen a second consecutive remarkable out of the bullpen, as Blanton produced a 1.01 WHIP as the team's most viable bridge to closer Kenley Jansen. While banking on any reliever his age to repeat such feats is often foolish, Blanton has certainly figured things out in a relief role and doesn't have years of appearance trauma built into that right arm of his.
27. Brad Ziegler (37, RHP, Red Sox): A pennant race seemed to agree with Ziegler, as almost every key stat improved after his July 9 trade from Arizona to Boston, where he posted a 1.52 ERA and recorded 12 holds and saves in 16 opportunities. Can he somehow replicate a career-high 7.7 strikeouts per nine rate? Age would suggest no, but a market starved for relief pitching figures to pay for his veteran reliability.
28. Sean Rodriguez (31, INF, Pirates): He's still putting the super in "utility player," as Rodriguez appeared at every position but catcher in 2016 and slashed .270/.349/.510 in 342 plate appearances. Oh, and he also hit 18 home runs. With so many teams looking to maximize platoon advantages, Rodriguez should attract decent interest as a do-everything right-handed bat.
29. Neftali Feliz (28, RHP, Pirates): The former All-Star closer and AL rookie of the year redeemed himself in 2016 after a dismal 2015 season. Feliz struck out 10.2 batters per nine and had a 3.52 ERA in 53 2/3 innings, clearly his best season since his rookie year in 2010.
30. Brett Cecil (30, LHP, Blue Jays): After three excellent seasons in Toronto's bullpen, Cecil took a big step back in 2016, with both his ERA (2.48 to 3.93) and FIP (2.34 to 3.64) increasing significantly. Yet his age, experience and strikeout rate (11 per nine innings) suggest he can be a key part of a contending bullpen in 2017.
31. Andrew Cashner (30, RHP, Marlins): Even with his velocity at a career-low (93.8 mph per Fangraphs), Cashner could still be a productive starter despite his recent results (11-27 with a 4.72 ERA since 2015). Maybe a change of address could rejuvenate his career.
32. Greg Holland (30, RHP, Royals): He's more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery and nearing 90 mph on the radar gun in workouts for clubs. That's a far cry from the 95-mph heat he'd feature when he was the closer for a dominant Kansas City bullpen. But a modest one-year deal with a club option could be a shrewd investment for a team with the patience and know-how to nurture him back.
33. Bartolo Colon (43, RHP, Mets):
Colon's free-agent case is almost completely unprecedented, as he is truly one-of-a-kind: A 43-year-old maintaining effectiveness against Major League hitters two decades his junior despite throwing almost exclusively fastballs in the high 80s. Colon entered 2016 as an insurance policy for the Mets' vaunted young rotation, and finished it as one of their healthiest and most dependable starters. A reunion seems likely, though Colon should certainly get some outside interest: He's thrown at least 190 solid innings in each of the past four seasons, and his Mets teammates revered him for his resume, his work ethic, his approach, and his unflappable persona.
34. Derek Holland (30, LHP, Rangers): While Holland enjoyed his healthiest season since 2013, his performance was sub-par -- 4.95 ERA over 107 1/3 innings. The lefty has dealt with multiple injuries and setbacks -- shoulder and knee -- over the last few seasons. After throwing 213 innings in 2013, he’s thrown a combined 203 innings since then. While he is still young, he has seen his fastball velocity drop from 93.4 to 90.7, per Fangraphs, and subsequently his strikeout rate dip from 8.0 to 5.6.
35. Jason Castro (30, C, Astros): His offensive numbers have been dipping since batting .276, smacking 18 homers and producing an .835 OPS during an All-Star 2013 season. Now, clubs will bid on his .215/.291/.369 line the past three seasons, though Castro remains a solid veteran presence behind the plate and in the clubhouse.
36. Boone Logan (32, Rockies, LHP): Logan pitched three seasons at Coors Field and lived to tell about it, slashing all his key stats each year to produce a 3.69 ERA and, perhaps most notably, a 1.01 WHIP and 3.23 FIP this season. Oh, and he held left-handed batters to a .142 average.
37. Jon Jay (32, Padres, OF): He was leading the NL with 24 doubles in late June when a hit-by-pitch sent him to the disabled list with a forearm fracture. He finished with a .291 average and .339 on-base percentage, but just two homers and two steals. A decent everyday option/trade chip for a rebuilding team, and not a bad extra/platoon outfielder for a contending one.
38. Pedro Alvarez (30, Orioles, DH): As he gets older, Alvarez's versatility seems to diminish, and his market may be narrowed to the AL. That said, he still ripped 22 home runs in 109 games, and his .249 batting average was his best since hitting .256 in his rookie year of 2010. The power is still there if you can find a way to keep the glove stashed away.
39. Edinson Volquez (33, RHP, Royals): Sometimes, playoff heroics come with a bill attached. The Royals won both of Volquez's starts in the 2015 World Series, but in 2016, his ERA jumped from 3.55 to 5.37 and he led the majors with 113 earned runs given up. Still, he pitched 189 1/3 innings, and his strikeouts per nine innings dipped to just 6.6 from 7.0. Perhaps a return to the National League - he produced a 3.04 ERA while striking out 6.5 per nine for the 2014 Pirates - will be the right match.
40. Angel Pagan (35, OF, Giants): Like Casilla, Pagan won multiple rings in San Francisco but doesn’t figure to return. The switch-hitting Pagan hit a career-high 12 homers and stole 15 bases last season, but he battled injuries for much of his last four years with the Giants, averaging 107 games played. At this point he’s better suited for a fourth-outfielder role, which would allow him to keep his legs fresh.
41. Luis Valbuena (31, INF, Astros): Hey, who couldn't use this guy? In 90 games, he cracked 13 homers, got on base at a .357 clip and once again bounced between three infield positions. Not exactly the centerpiece of anyone's off-season plans - but certainly a valuable spare part on a team needing versatility.
42. Sergio Romo (34, RHP, Giants): San Francisco's bullpen was a bundle of toxic assets by year's end, and Romo was one of its playoff goats, giving up crucial ninth-inning hits to Kris Bryant in Game 3 and Ben Zobrist in Game 4 of their NLDS loss to the Cubs. But Romo's 2016 wasn't a total wash, as he posted a 2.64 ERA and eased into the closer role after Sept. 20 as the Giants finally locked down a wild card berth. The question is how concerned teams will be with the flexor tendon strain that limited him to 30 innings, and the cumulative effect of averaging 67 appearances from 2010 to 2015.
43. Lourdes Gurriel (23, INF/OF, Industriales-Havana): When he turned 23 on Oct. 19, Gurriel discarded some of the international-bonus-pool restrictions that might have depressed his value. As an athletic multi-position player who showed marked improvement at the plate in his last few years in Cuba, Gurriel holds plenty of appeal. The Houston Astros, who signed his older brother Yulieski, are among the interested teams.
44. Steve Pearce (33, 1B/OF, Orioles): At this stage of his career, Pearce is a solid bench player who can still do damage against left-handed pitchers. In 82 at-bats vs. southpaws last season, Pearce put up an impressive .317/.417/.622 slash line with seven homers and 18 RBI. Despite getting fewer than 400 at-bats, he’s hit at least 13 home runs in each of the past three seasons. Defensively, he’s a capable first baseman, but he probably shouldn’t be patrolling the outfield any more. (The Orioles are the only team that’s been bold enough to play him at second base.)
45. Santiago Casilla (36, RHP, Giants): One of the key relievers during the Giants’ run of three championships in five years, Casilla fell out of favor by blowing nine of his 40 save chances in 2016. Though no longer overpowering, Casilla could still serve the role of setup man – which he’s quite familiar with – or even closing occasionally. He did hold batters to a .235 average while striking out better than one per inning last season.
46. Matt Holliday (37, OF, Cardinals):
Once one of the game’s most consistent power hitters, Holliday has begun to show his age over the past two seasons as injuries have become more of a problem. His career-low .246 average and .783 OPS in 2016 confirm the decline. As a below-average outfielder who played an uneventful 10 games at first base, his most likely landing spot would be with an American League team as a designated hitter.
47. Matt Joyce: (32, OF, Pirates): Yet another Pittsburgh platoon reclamation story. Joyce came to camp on a minor league deal, made the club and then produced a stunning .403 on-base percentage in 293 plate appearances - 251 of them against right-handed pitchers. He also hit 13 home runs. All this after bottoming out in 2015 with a .174/.272/.291 line for the Los Angeles Angels.
48. Charlie Morton (33, RHP, Phillies): Morton was an $8 million risk that backfired for the Phillies when Morton tore his hamstring running out a bunt in just his fourth start in April. He underwent season-ending surgery, but his arm will have relatively light tread for a pitcher of his experience. Morton has a 3.95 ERA over his last 73 starts and would be a low-risk, medium-reward option for the back of a rotation.
49. R.A. Dickey (42, RHP, Blue Jays): Dickey endured a rough season for the Blue Jays in 2016, with a 4.46 ERA that represents his worst in a big-league season since his emergence in 2010. But though Dickey is 42, his signature knuckleball means age should play less of a factor in his market -- Phil Niekro, one of Dickey's mentors, won 85 games after his 42nd birthday. Dickey threw more than 200 frames in every season from 2011 to 2015 and offers guaranteed innings in the back of a rotation. But at this point, he's likely better served playing in a pitcher's park, as his tendency to allow home-run balls stung him 114 times across four seasons with Toronto -- the second most of all MLB pitchers in that span.
50. Chase Utley:(38, 2B, Dodgers): There can't be anything left in the tank, right? Well, that's what almost everyone thought when the Dodgers traded for him in a quiet pre-playoff move in 2015. Then, they brought him back and he seized the primary second base and leadoff roles, producing a .329 OBP in 521 plate appearances atop the Dodgers' order. And the Dodgers swear by his leadership ability. Look for another gig with a playoff-bound team.
51. Jonathan Papelbon (36, RHP, Nationals): It’s been a strange couple of years for the temperamental six-time All-Star. Acquired by the Nationals in July 2015, he had the infamous scuffle with Bryce Harper, returned in 2016, was replaced in July and ultimately released in August. Papelbon pitched well early in the year and still has some gas left in the tank. He won’t draw the same amount of interest as Jansen, Chapman and Melancon, but could be a good fall-back option.
52. Jon Niese (30, LHP, Mets): His struggles in 2016 will give teams pause, but Niese has been one of the most consistent starters in baseball for more than half a decade, going 59-59 with a 3.86 ERA with the Mets from 2010-2015. The lefty is prone to home runs and never dominates, but should be considered an affordable option to fill out a rotation.
53. Rajai Davis (36, OF, Indians): Davis was an everyday player in 2016 mostly because of Michael Brantley’s season-long injury woes. But the veteran showed he still has excellent wheels, leading the American League with 43 stolen bases (in 49 attempts) and scoring a career-high 74 runs. He also hit a career-high 12 home runs, but none will be remembered quite like his two-run shot off Chapman in the World Series that helped send Game 7 into extra innings. He remains a valued fourth outfielder who can shine in the right platoon situation.
54. Colby Lewis (37, RHP, Rangers): The aging starter likely will receive a one-year deal, and why not back with the Rangers where he won 17 games in 2015? He was off to another successful season until he landed on the disabled list on June 22 with a strained right oblique muscle. He started 6-0 and was 6-1 with a 3.21 ERA before the injury occurred. His return from the DL in September was a disaster -- 0-4 with a 6.38 ERA.
55. Colby Rasmus (30, OF, Astros): Coming off career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage (.206/.286/.355), as well as offseason hip and abdominal surgeries, there may not be a ton of demand for Rasmus’ services. On the plus side, he can play all three outfield positions and should be fully healthy by spring training.
Contributing: Bob Nightengale, Jorge L. Ortiz, Scott Boeck, Ted Berg, Jesse Yomtov, Gabe Lacques, Steve Gardner
Gallery: Top free agents