Which players might the Dodgers pursue in free agency?

Masahiro Tanaka

Soon-to-be free agent pitcher Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t lost a decision since Aug. 2012 and will pitch Game 6 of the Japan Series on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Yesterday, we analyzed the Dodgers’ 12 in-house free agents. Don’t be surprised if only a few players out of that group return — say, four or less. Signing 26-year-old infielder Alexander Guerrero was the first indication that the Dodgers are serious about getting younger. All of their in-house free agents are more than 30 years old. So are all of the players on this list, with one outstanding exception at the top.

So free agency might not be the Dodgers’ preferred route of acquiring players this winter.

And, as you’re about to see, the free agent market isn’t what it used to be. A deeper list of impact players will be found on the trade market — even for a team with money to spend and no breakthrough prospects on the cusp of starting, like the Dodgers. As SI.com pointed out today:

… the reduced threat of star players departing as free agents and the increased chance of a playoff berth with the addition of the second wild card resulted in a very quiet trading deadline during the season, meaning most teams have yet to cash in their top trade chips. The likely result is that some of the most significant players to change teams this offseason will do so via trade, just as (Shin-Soo) Choo, R.A. Dickey, Wil Myers, Jose Reyes, James Shields and Justin Upton, among others, did last offseason.

FoxSports.com reported in August that the Dodgers nearly traded for Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick at the non-waiver deadline. Would the Dodgers revisit those discussions? One big reason they might not: Since Kendrick is under contract through 2015, Guerrero would be blocked at second base for another two years. Guerrero played shortstop in Cuba, but most observers believe second base is the best position for him in the majors.

If Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price is dangled as trade bait — and it’s hard to find any analyst who considers him untouchable this winter — the Dodgers might be more tempted. However, the Rays are going to demand some blue-chip prospects in return for the 28-year-old Price, whose 3.21 ERA since 2009 is the fourth-lowest among qualified American League pitchers. Even if the Dodgers can put together the best package of prospects for Price, would there be any elite talent left in their system? Price will demand a large commitment from any team, especially one trying to emphasize its love for drafting and developing.

There’s some history here: The Dodgers drafted Price out of high school back in 2004. He didn’t sign, went to college, and was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2007 before anyone else could get him. So it’s fair to say that Price has been on the Dodgers’ radar for quite some time.

Kendrick and Price are a couple obvious targets, but the reality is that the Dodgers have fewer major holes to fill this winter — through trades, free agency, or their own system — than any in recent memory. Free agents Juan Uribe, Mark Ellis, Ricky Nolasco and Brian Wilson all played key roles in 2012, but only Uribe would be hard to replace in-house.

Re-signing Clayton Kershaw to a long-term extension is the team’s first priority. Then the Dodgers will turn their attention elsewhere. Maybe to Uribe, maybe to Nolasco, maybe to someone outside the organization.

The list of potential targets is short — and short on star power. There’s no Robinson Cano on this list, but it’s an interesting list nonetheless.

The top names to pay attention to this winter:

1. Masahiro Tanaka

He’s the best pitcher in Japan (24-0, 1.27 ERA) and just turned 25, making him the main prize among free agent pitchers this winter if he posts as expected. As such, plenty has been written about Tanaka. He’d be the most expensive import in baseball history, which bodes well for baseball’s biggest free spenders. A revised posting system was supposed to be announced today, but it appears Tanaka’s suitors will have to wait until Monday to learn how to obtain his services. The Dodgers, Cubs and Yankees are all scouting him heavily. Whichever team wins the right to negotiate with Tanaka might not have enough money left over for a champagne celebration.

2. Eric Chavez

The 35-year-old third baseman thrived in a platoon role with the Arizona Diamondbacks (9 HRs, .282 average in 80 games). He also filled in a couple times at first base and took turns at DH when the Diamondbacks visited American League parks. If the Dodgers decide to pass on re-signing Michael Young, whose defense at third base is suspect, Chavez could slide into the backup third baseman/first baseman’s role and provide some insurance if Uribe’s 2013 season turns out to be a fluke. Better yet, they could platoon: Against right-handed pitching last year, Chavez (.827 OPS) was superior to Uribe (.765). Against left-handed pitching, Uribe (.781) was superior to Chavez (.700). Chavez, a Southern California native, made $3 million last year. The Dodgers can afford that.

3. Hiroki Kuroda

The Dodgers had some interest last winter in Kuroda, who ultimately re-signed with the New York Yankees. Assuming they fall short on Tanaka this year, the Dodgers would still like some insurance in case Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley don’t bounce back from their respective season-ending surgeries in 2012. Why would the 39-year-old left-hander make sense this time around? Kuroda is still more durable than the average fourth starter — he threw 201 innings this year — and still effective (3.31 ERA). A one-year contract provides a convenient bridge to 2015, when Double-A prospect Zach Lee could be ready for a full-time role in the Dodgers’ rotation.

4. Stephen Drew

The 30-year-old shortstop is coming off a bounceback season with the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. He’s only a fit in Los Angeles if Hanley Ramirez agrees to move to third base, and there isn’t a strong indication that the Dodgers are ready to move in that direction. Yet. Ramirez’s declining range is a concern and he has some experience at third base, with the Marlins a year ago and for the Dominican Republic in the most recent World Baseball Classic. Drew is considered an above-average defensive shortstop, and his 2012 slash line (.253/.333/.443) would be acceptable for the Dodgers’ number-seven hitter. As offense goes, “acceptable” is about as good as it gets from a shortstop in this paltry free agent crop.

5. Barry Zito

The Giants paid Zito $20 million to go 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA in 2013. The 35-year-old lefty won’t even sniff that much money this winter. If the Dodgers fail to sign Tanaka or Kuroda, signing Zito to a low-cost, one-year deal might be nothing more than a desperate ploy. On the other hand, Zito might be the perfect reclamation candidate for pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. While the idea of Zito in a Dodgers uniform might be impossible to imagine, the same was said about Brian Wilson a couple months ago. Stranger things have happened.

6. Ryan Madson

Madson is simply looking for a chance next spring after the Angels aborted his comeback attempt from Tommy John surgery in 2012, cutting the veteran reliever in August. The fact that he didn’t throw a pitch in the majors all year means that Madson will probably settle for a minor-league contract with a 2014 spring training invitation. Why the Dodgers? It’s a low-risk acquisition, and general manager Ned Colletti just turned a pair of former veteran closers, Wilson and Carlos Marmol, into reliable middle relievers last year. If Madson is healthy, the Dodgers could give the 33-year-old right-hander a chance to pitch near his home town of Moreno Valley — but that’s a big “if.”

7. Roy Halladay

Halladay turns 37 in May and is coming off season-ending shoulder surgery. When he was healthy enough to pitch for the Phillies, Halladay’s fastball had lost about 10 mph from its triple-digit peak along with a fair amount of movement. Like Madson, the question for Halladay is when and if his arm can bounce back from the surgery. A 6.82 ERA in 2013, questionable health and lack of control will certainly drive down his market value — maybe enough that the Dodgers decide to take a one-year flier on Halladay.

8. Jhonny Peralta

Peralta recently said he’d like to re-sign with the Tigers, even as a left fielder. The 31-year-old is more likely to find work elsewhere at shortstop, his natural position. He’s a career .268/.330/.425 hitter who can also play some third base if Ramirez stays put. But after seeing his batting average jump 64 points from 2012 to 2013, it might have come as no surprise when Peralta was suspended 50 games for alleged PED use. He’s listed as three years younger than Uribe, but suitors might be scared by the prospect of another .239/.305/.384 season like Peralta had in a hitter’s park (Comerica) in 2012. No real upgrade on offense from Uribe there.

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About J.P. Hoornstra

J.P. Hoornstra covers the Dodgers, Angels and Major League Baseball for the Los Angeles Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Torrance Daily Breeze, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, San Bernardino Sun, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, Whittier Daily News and Redlands Daily Facts. Before taking the beat in 2012, J.P. covered the NHL for four years. UCLA gave him a degree once upon a time; when he graduated on schedule, he missed getting Arnold Schwarzenegger's autograph on his diploma by five months.