Every baseball fan knows the big free-agent signings of this offseason.
Prince Fielder returned to his childhood roots with a monster deal with Detroit. Albert Pujols promptly walked away from his St. Louis Cardinals and a World Series championship and headed west, signing with the Angels. Nolan Ryan placed his hopes (and his checkbook) with Japanese pitching phenom Yu Darvish, paying over $100 million for him, despite the fact he's never pitched in the Major Leagues.
Apart from these big-name signings, there are five free agents that will be All-Stars this season, none of whom cost anywhere near the $50 million-plus deals that were commonplace this winter.
Aoki caught a break last week when Brewers outfielder Corey Hart tore his meniscus. He is expected to miss at least one month, and Aoki is likely to be Milwaukee's Opening Day. His only other competition will come from Carlos Gomez, and a strong Spring should help solidify Aoki's role on his new team.
A career .329 hitter in Japan, the 30-year-old posted the lowest batting average of his career last season, which was still at .292. His on-base percentage also dropped sharply, which allowed Milwaukee to take advantage of what is a clear-cut bargain.
He possesses speed and some pop, but won't hit too many home runs. Expect him to hit around .290, maybe a bit higher, and possibly follow speedster Nyger Morgan in the Brewers' lineup.
The 41-year-old future Hall of Famer returned to his old stomping grounds after inking a one-year deal with Philadelphia in January. Last year, he appeared in 93 games for Cleveland and Minnesota, batting .270 with 15 home runs and 50 runs batted in. With Ryan Howard in an apparent decline, and battling further complications with his surgically-repaired Achilles tendon, Thome is a clear-cut choice to fill in.
Phillies' medical staff were impressed with his physical conditioning during the offseason, and at only $1.25 million, there really is no downside to this signing. If Howard fails to produce, look for Charlie Manuel to turn to Thome, who ranks eighth all time on the career home runs list—trailing Sammy Sosa by a mere five homers. Moving up in that list, as well as being one of the most well-liked players will get him a much deserved All-Star nomination.
Wada finally put it all together in 2010, breaking out in Japan with a 17-8 campaign in which he had a 3.14 ERA.
Last season, he built on that success, going 16-5 with a minuscule 1.51 ERA in 184.2 innings pitched. He is competing for a spot in the rotation, but given the history of the horribly inconsistent pitchers Baltimore often showcases, there is no reason to think he won't get a shot early on.
The left-hander showcases a mid-to-high eighties fastball, that can occasionally touch 90, which is not overpowering in any way. He mixes in off-speed pitches well, and this is how he attains success. Wada has a strong work ethic, constantly pouring over scouting reports on opposing teams and hitters. If he can locate his pitches well, there is no reason why he won't surprise a lot of skeptics this season.
Someone could definitely make the case that bringing Carlos Pena back to Tampa is the steal of the offseason.
Given the fact that the market for first basemen was so strong this winter with the likes of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder available, getting the more reasonably priced Pena was a smart move.
He led the Cubs last year with 28 home runs and 80 RBIs, but managed a .225 average, which scared off several potential suitors. However, his OPS of .819 is what matters to Tampa Bay.
In a lineup that features Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and Evan Longoria, Pena will benefit from more protection than he had in Chicago, which should only help his numbers. He provides the Rays with another quality bat, as well as an above-average defensive first baseman. Look for Pena to help lead the Rays in their charge for an American League East championship.
Madson is the steal of the offseason.
Drawing only an $8.5 million deal, this right-hander departed Philadelphia after the Phillies' front office shelled out over $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon.
What is even more astonishing is the fact that since 2009, these two have matched each other virtually pitch for pitch. Essentially, Philadelphia gave up a first-round pick on top of the $50 million to land Papelbon, while the Reds are on the hook for a mere $8.5 million.
Last season, Madson closed out 32 of 34 contests for the Phillies, with a WHIP of 1.154—slightly higher than Papelbon's 0.993. However, Papelbon blew three saves, picking up 31 of 34 save opportunities, with one of the blown saves capping off the infamous Boston meltdown in September.
Papelbon has relied on his high four seam fastball in recent years, which could prove to be more problematic in Citizens Bank Park. With a revamped rotation and Madson closing the door, the rest of the National League Central will have their hands full come April.