2012 MLB Free Agency: Re-Ranking Top 25 Available Free Agents
Prince Fielder is within his rights to wonder: What did I do wrong? The MLB free agent and erstwhile Milwaukee Brewers first baseman has established himself as one of the game's best sluggers, yet as premium holiday prices give way to clearance sales and bargain bins, the Hot Stove's second-hottest commodity has become the pricey gadget that never does come down in price.
Predictably, no one seems interested.
If Fielder is beginning to feel like a misfit, the rest of the market must be starting to feel exiled. Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and a handful of other perfectly solid potential assets are staring at what has suddenly morphed into a buyer's market, and yet, digging in their heels.
This week could be the turning of the tides. At a certain point, players like Paul Maholm are giving away a bunch of leverage by fighting for extra dollars as Spring Training creeps nearer, and teams can dangle their career prospects in front of them.
Here are the 25 best players left in the cold this unseasonably warm winter, hoping for some cold weather so that owners value a warm body just bit more highly.
25. Francisco Cordero
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Cordero, 37 in May, is pretty well out of gas.
Since 2007, he has lost roughly two miles per hour on his fastball and a strikeout for every 10 batters faced. By going to his change-up much more often in 2011, he was able to keep the ball on the ground at a career-best rate and stayed relevant as a tenuous closer.
Now, though, he is asking some team to believe he will sustain this new brand of success even as he approaches 40 years of age, and to make a substantial investment in that expectation.
The Reds are the best chance he has of getting a ninth-inning role going forward, so look for him to ultimately return to Cincinnati. The terms of the deal should be team-friendly, though.
24. Rick Ankiel
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On the eve of camp in February, someone will take a flier on Ankiel, and that's fine. He is a solid presence for his make-up off the bench and in the clubhouse, and he could provide modest value as a well-used defensive substitute specializing in throws.
On the other hand, two out of the past three years, Ankiel's on-base percentage has fallen shy of .300. He also has not cracked a .400 slugging average during that span.
He's not a ton of use, even as a fourth outfielder.
23. Ryan Theriot
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Once, Theriot was a productive shortstop who posted a .387 OBP for a division-winning team. That was once—in 2008.
Since then, it's been a slow and (occasionally) ugly decline for Theriot. He simply never had a good profile, as he couldn't stick at shortstop past his mid-20s and had too little power to sustain much offensive value.
Now Theriot has been non-tendered by the champion Cardinals, and needs to find a club who wants to throw some plate appearances to a second base-only utility infielder incapable of hitting right-handed pitching. He will find someone, but don't expect him to bounce back from the free fall that has been the past two years for him.
22. Wilson Betemit
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With the bat in his hands, Wilson Betemit is a fairly dangerous man. He's the right kind of infield bench bat to chase on the free-agent market, because unlike so many who advertise as such, he is actually an infield bench bat.
He batted .285/.343/.452 last season, and that was not outside his usual range of outcomes.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Betemit is as dangerous with his glove and arm, only the threat is posed to his pitchers, his teammates and the occasional fan in the sixth row of Section 28. He's utterly abysmal at every defensive position, save perhaps first base, and that's not a position at which good teams are looking for defensive support.
Unable to play an important position, then, Betemit relies fully on his ability to pinch-hit in order to have value. An AL team might have a role for him as platoon DH, but that's the best-case scenario only for a troubled team.
21. Hideki Matsui
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If Betemit can find a big-league deal, Matsui ought to be able to as well. He is certainly past his prime, but he remains a pure hitter. He will only DH, but can do it well and hits pitchers of each handedness.
His production dropped off notably in 2011, to a below-average wOBA for the first time in his career. That was in Oakland, though, which bears mention especially because the park is unfriendly to Matsui's specific skill set.
His .274 batting average on balls in play was the worst he has posted in the United States, by a fair margin. He could bounce back in the right situation in 2012.
20. Vladimir Guerrero
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The right-handed version of Matsui might be Guerrero. His plate approach is utterly reversed, but he still makes contact and stings the ball from time to time. The lost athleticism in his game has robbed Guerrero of some upside; he doesn't run or swing as efficiently as he once did.
Still, as accomplished and experienced as he is, Guerrero offers the potential to slug against southpaw pitching and knock in some runs. The Rays could feasibly sign Guerrero as a platoon DH, or as the full-timer in that role, and he would fit well.
19. Jason Varitek
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The .390 OBP and athleticism behind the dish that helped break a curse is not coming back. Once you accept that, though, Varitek becomes an easy pill to swallow. He remains a leader, and not the steady, boring kind.
He can handle a clubhouse, notwithstanding the overrated debacle that ended the 2011 run for Boston.
Varitek is now a .300ish OBP guy with a bit of pop and the smarts to make your pitchers better even from the bench, which is where he has the greatest utility. A switch-hitting backup backstop can survive a long time in baseball, especially if he's a plus make-up guy. Varitek still fits that bill.
Limiting his role is the best way to optimize return, both on and off the diamond.
18. Eric Chavez
After threatening to retire for years, Chavez has finally allowed as how he will take offers when they come. Whether and to what extent they come may depend on the confidence several clubs (the Yankees, Blue Jays, Orioles, Braves, Cardinals and Tigers chief among them) have in their third basemen's viability and durability.
Chavez is no longer even an average batter. He's lost his power and, therefore, pitchers have gotten quite aggressive within the strike zone against him. He still fields third base better than one might expect of a 34-year-old, and that's his best chance to land a big-league deal.
He'd make an interesting platoon with Brandon Inge in Detroit.
17. Edgar Renteria
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No longer a great pure hitter or a great shortstop, Renteria is nonetheless more useful than he gets credit for as a spare part and even (on some squads) a starting middle infielder.
He will turn 37 in 2012, but can still move a little, hit a little and use his good hands to make all the plays he can reach.
Cincinnati made Renteria its regular shortstop in 2011 and lived to regret it. In 2012, the sledding will be a bit tougher for Renteria, who is one year older, after all, and didn't catch anyone off guard with his production last year.
Still, the two-time World Series champion will find a home.
16. Luke Scott
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If the Hot Stove market is now in clearance mode, Scott is in the back of the produce section. He's bruised, possibly rotten and certainly not fresh, but he just might work nicely in a stew or banana bread.
Scott has power, could once hit for average and (though vulnerable against lefties) absolutely mashes right-handed hurlers. He's not a great defender, but he can probably still handle a corner outfield role in limited duty and can play first regularly.
That said, he's 34, he's struggled to stay healthy for pretty much his whole career and he seems to be a bit off. Scott will come cheaply, and the chance exists that he returns little or nothing on the investment, but he could also pop 20 homers in the right situation.
15. Cody Ross
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Center field used to be available to Cody Ross, but it really isn't anymore. He struggled defensively even in right field last season in San Francisco. Without that positional value, Ross becomes an iffy regular.
He can hit, but only a little. He has power, but only a little. He doesn't draw many walks, and doesn't steal many bases.
Ross wanted a three-year deal when the offseason began. Six weeks in, the executives he spoke to have finally stopped laughing, so he could land a one-year pact soon.
14. Johnny Damon
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Health is a marketable skill. So are hustle and clubhouse popularity. Johnny Damon has all of those things in his tote bag, and he also still has some skills.
He's not the pure hitter he once was, nor can he play the outfield any longer, but Damon does some things well.
He began to cheat for a bit of extra power last season, cutting into his walk rate but keeping his fading skill set valuable. He ran out ground balls, cut his hair in funny ways and generally seemed to feel young again.
If he can keep that up, he can reach 3,000 hits in a couple years.
13. Wei-Yin Chen
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I could conjure up an obscure online scouting report about Wei-Yin Chen, 26, a Taiwanese pitcher in the Japanese League who's now a free agent with six teams interested in his services.
I could regurgitate that report, or rephrase it and pass it off as my own.
I doubt any of you will hold it against me, though, that all I really know about Chen is the following:
- He's left-handed;
- He's small, scarcely six feet and under 180 pounds;
- He has a 2.48 career ERA in Japan, and has walked only 2.2 batters per nine innings pitched.
He should sign with some big-league team at some point, but it will not be a high-impact signing.
12. Joe Saunders
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Missing bats is a critical part of being a mid-rotation starting pitcher in MLB, and Joe Saunders really, really can't do it.
Only seven pitchers induced swings and misses on a smaller percentage of his pitches than did Saunders in 2011. Mark Buehrle and Livan Hernandez had better rates. They made more batters look bad than Joe Saunders did.
Saunders is a fairly hot commodity on the market right now, which is a lark. He deserves a back-end starter's treatment, but will get the third starter's money.
The Diamondbacks come out looking very smart when Saunders signs that deal; they cut ties with him weeks ago.
11. Kerry Wood
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In November, Kerry Wood told the media he would either pitch for the Chicago Cubs in 2012, or retire. That was easy to believe, because Wood has taken below-market deals two or three times in his career in order to pitch for the team that drafted him in the city that his family has called home for a decade or more.
With the Cubs in a full-scale rebuild, though, Wood appears to be reconsidering that position.
It's certainly understandable that he might want to win a World Series ring before he retires, and teams like Philadelphia (one of several teams who would take interest if the Cubs don't make something work) could make that dream a reality.
10. Derrek Lee
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Though Lee is as far past his prime as were Matsui and Damon and the others, we're beginning to reach a new strata of available free-agent batter. Lee has real power yet, and the skills to be an average everyday first baseman.
9. Jorge Soler
Yoenis Cespedes gets all the pub, and good for him: He worked hard for it—made two videos.
Soler, though, is going to look like the better buy at some point. He's just 19, has no pedigree and will sign purely on the basis of someone, somewhere, liking his tools more than anyone else does.
It will be a small deal, but it will look big if and when he becomes Cespedes in four years—at a fraction of the cost.
8. Hiroki Kuroda
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Age should be the only roadblock to faith in Kuroda. He's headed for 40 years of age, but along the way, all he has really done is prove (time and again) that he possesses all the skills a pitcher needs to succeed in the United States.
He doesn't walk batters; he does strike out batters. He gets the ball on the ground and he mixes his pitches. Kuroda is a solid mid-rotation starter, maybe even a number two, but Joe Saunders is going to be offered more money this winter, and Kuroda could end up in Japan.
7. Ryan Madson
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Ryan Madson seemed on the verge of a $44 million deal way back in November. That deal would have tied him to the Philadelphia Phillies for four years, and it would have suited him just fine.
Alas, it fell through. Madson's money went to Jonathan Papelbon, and two months later, Madson is looking desperately at the Angels, the Red Sox and what he hopes is the Scott Boras Mystery Team Special.
The chances of getting an average eight-figure salary on a multi-year deal are now minuscule. The chances of landing any sort of closer job are better, but not terrific.
6. Paul Maholm
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Underrated pitchers are never easy to spot. People talk about Roy Oswalt and Gavin Floyd as underrated pitchers, but they're pretty well-respected. They can't be that underrated.
Paul Maholm can be that underrated. He has a career strikeout rate of 14.3 percent, and a career ERA of 4.36. He's never won so many as 11 games in a season, and he lost 14 in 2011. He's a perfect candidate to be underrated, because everyone thinks he is terrible.
Maholm is not terrible. He has a career ground-ball rate of 52.3 percent and has walked fewer than eight percent of the batters he has faced. He can be a good pitcher; he just needs the right defense behind him and to mix his pitches carefully.
He's underrated, and he's about to be discovered.
5. Carlos Pena
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From whence comes the value added from signing Johnny Damon or Derrek Lee, thence lies the value of Carlos Pena. He can slug (better than either of those two), he can defend first base (better than either of those two) and he is a positive force in the clubhouse (more than either of those two).
Pena should be attractive to many teams, being (as he is) a better alternative to both Lee and Damon. Frankly, he deserves a multi-year deal, but it probably is not out there.
He could do best by signing with a contending club and getting a big audience for whatever success he will have in 2012.
4. Roy Oswalt
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While everyone else on the free-agent market has spent the winter lowering their expectations, Roy Oswalt is working backward. He began the offseason with the assertion he would seek only a one-year deal, waffling as he was between playing on and retiring.
Now, however, Oswalt is looking for a three-year contract, and he should certainly get it if he really wants it. He's basically had three-quarters of a Hall of Fame career. He has had back problems, it's true, but never serious arm problems.
Oswalt should be good for 160-180 top-end innings for each of the next few years, and that will earn him a tidy deal in Kansas City or Boston.
3. Yoenis Cespedes
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The money here is going to get silly. Someone is going to give Cespedes six years and something like $50 million. That's the level at which Daisuke Matsuzaka was compensated, only without the massive drain of a posting fee paid out to a third party.
Cespedes has the tools to back that up... kind of. He certainly is a physical specimen. He has the potential for 30-35 homers, 30 steals and a bushel full of outfield assists in a season. He's a remarkable athlete.
He is not, however, a remarkable player. His baseball instincts are untested; his swing is raw. He could be great, or he could be, as Matsuzaka was, a disappointment whose inability to adjust to MLB never allows him to reach his considerable potential.
2. Edwin Jackson
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Since the start of the 2009 season, Edwin Jackson has a higher fWAR than Mark Buehrle. He's higher than Josh Beckett. He's higher than Yovani Gallardo, James Shields, Roy Oswalt and David Price.
He also has the fourth-highest average fastball velocity over that span. Here, again, he stands ahead of Beckett, along with Price, plus CC Sabathia and Mat Latos.
The pertinent comparison is Beckett. He and Jackson are fairly comparable pitchers, actually. The biggest difference is that Beckett had a younger, faster start (see: 2003 postseason). The second-biggest is that teams tossed him around the league even as he was establishing himself, such that he has pitched for Tampa Bay, Detroit, Arizona, Chicago and St. Louis since the start of 2008.
Beckett, meanwhile, settled down from his prodigious start, but got dealt to the Red Sox. Boston gave him a contract extension that amounted to a four-year, $68 million free-agent deal. Jackson is now looking for four years and $60 million, but is having trouble finding it.
That's not justice. Someone should pay this man. They'll be glad they did.
1. Prince Fielder
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Albert Pujols might be a better player than Prince Fielder at this moment, but boy, was he a bad buy relative to what Fielder will end up getting. Even if Pujols' age is accurate, he is four years Fielder's senior. He's a better fielder and better baserunner, but not a measurably better hitter for the next four seasons, according to a reasonable projection.
Fielder is a better and different player than Mo Vaughn ever was, but a decade after Vaughn crashed and burned, Fielder is paying the price.