2012 MLB Free Agency: 10 Available Bats Who Could Notch Big Postseason Hits
Lance Berkman appeared to be drawing near the end of the line when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals prior to 2011. He was far from finished, but it looked like his days as a franchise face were over.
Instead, Berkman batted .301/.412/.547, struck out barely more than he walked (15.8 percent of all plate appearances to 15.7 percent) and, when the lights shone brightest, came through with one of the biggest non-game-winning hits in World Series history.
In Game 6 last October, his team trailing by one and down to its final strike, Berkman laced an RBI single that prolonged the game and led to the Cardinals' heart-stopping victory.
Berkman re-upped with the Cardinals well prior to hitting the free-agent market, but many of this year's crop still hope for the right chance to come aboard a hopeful team and tip the scales in a spot just like that one.
Here are 10 players left on the market who are capable of that kind of impact in October.
10. Dan Johnson
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It's a wickedly small sample size, but Johnson now has two huge home runs to his credit—homers that changed the courses of playoff chases.
He has thump, would come cheaply and could be easily stowed at Triple-A until a strong, left-handed pinch-hitter were needed around playoff time. He's also a good guy to have around one's ball club—the kind of mentor some of the league's best young sluggers still need.
He is no Berkman, but Johnson has done huge things for the Rays, and he could again.
9. Brad Hawpe
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The past year and a half has been unkind to Brad Hawpe. He had a run of very solid performances for the Rockies from 2006-2009, but since then, he has lost his power, struck out too much and looked slow on his best swings.
Still, the former slugger should latch on somewhere as a spare piece; Laynce Nix got a job with the Phillies, for example.
Hawpe need not be a major player to have a key role in the playoffs, especially if (as he should) he signs with an NL club. The ideal place for him to succeed might be Washington, a team on the come that could slide into the postseason as soon as 2012, if the league expands the tournament to include a second wild-card entrant.
8. Austin Kearns
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Kearns is clearly past his prime, in the same way as are Johnson and Hawpe. What he can still do, though, is draw the occasional walk and hit the occasional home run.
Those are valuable skills in October. As analyst Joe Sheehan is fond of saying, "Ball go far, team go far."
Players without power often have the bat knocked out of their hands by superior playoff pitching. The preponderance of relievers used in the postseason today makes a batter who can take advantage of a mistake a key asset. As a rule, relievers do not walk as many batters as starters do, and walk fewer. Their great vulnerability is usually to the home run.
Kearns is the sort of bench bat/platoon guy who can avail himself of those opportunities.
7. Cody Ross
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Having established his October bona fides en route to the NLCS MVP award in 2010, Ross took to free agency at a bad time. The market for outfield talent has been thin, yet unrewarding.
Even Carlos Beltran got only two years and $26 million, so Ross will be lucky to make $15 million himself. He is no longer viable as a center fielder, which hurts his value, but as a platoon corner man or solid fourth outfielder, he could still contribute to a playoff team.
6. Wilson Betemit
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Whichever team ends up signing Wilson Betemit will do so with full understanding that he is not an answer as a regular infielder. His glove is atrocious at any position; he belongs in the AL, where he can DH against right-handed pitching and spot-start at third base when needed.
Once playoff time comes, though, Betemit could be the guy who bats eighth in a dangerous team's order, and who socks a two-run double at a very opportune moment to swing momentum.
Despite nine thoroughly empty plate appearances for the Tigers in the 2011 playoffs, Betemit should look very good to GM Dave Dombrowski in the wake of the news that Victor Martinez is out for the year. Betemit might better fit the team's needs than any remaining free agent.
5. Johnny Damon
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Experience alone should never inform a team's choice of whom to bring in to fill a key void, but in Johnny Damon's case, his track record is certainly on his side. The energy he brought to a team that should have been positively sparking already was palpable, and that counts for something.
Everywhere Damon goes, good vibes and playoff appearances follow.
He is getting old and ill-suited to even limited defensive work. With his passable speed and power, though, and his willingness to bat anywhere, Damon can still be an impact player when he gets into a groove.
He would most help out the Tigers, a team for whom he played in 2010.
4. Derrek Lee
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For two straight seasons, Derrek Lee has been traded midseason after very sluggish starts, only to explode for big numbers in limited playing time in his new city. He evokes Berkman in some ways—the guy teams think is done before he is really done, and who has a shot at a very surprising final surge.
Lee, like Berkman, is an underestimated athlete, and if he can stay healthy, he could launch a big home run for someone like the Cleveland Indians this autumn.
3. Yoenis Cespedes
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It's possible Cespedes needs a full season of seasoning in the minor leagues, but that looks like the worst-case scenario. More realistically, he should spend a month or two on the farm of whichever team signs him; the smart money is all on the Miami Marlins.
Thereafter, then, he would be available to contribute as a key cog for a contending team. In Miami, he would likely bat sixth, but that's where Cody Ross and Nelson Cruz made names for themselves the past two Octobers.
Cespedes has all the power to hit a huge home run to turn the tide of a game and a series.
2. Carlos Pena
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Selfless, insightful, even-keeled and positive, Pena increases any team's chance of reaching the playoffs simply by being a leading presence in their clubhouse. He deserves better than the tepid attention afforded him thus far this winter, and should be able to extract eight figures from one team or another.
Once on the squad, Pena also should remind whomever he joins that he has on-field value, too, in the forms of plus-plus power and a great glove at first base.
He is an ideal fit for the Brewers, but is out of their price range. He could well land with the Rangers.
1. Prince Fielder
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Surprise! Bet you didn't see this one coming. Prince Fielder referenced in a Bleacher Report free-agency article, despite the utter lack of reliable news or rumor about his destination? Wild!
It's hard not to talk about this. It truly seems like Fielder will end up signing for half (or less) what Albert Pujols got in December, and at that level of overall investment, the bargain he becomes is dizzying.
Fielder will probably be better over the next five years than Pujols, yet here he sits on January 19, waiting for the right offer. It may not come. When he accepts an offer at long last, though, it will be fun to watch him shred the league that has so undervalued him.
Hoisting a World Series trophy at season's end would be the perfect gesture.