MLB's Midseason All-Free Agent Steal Team
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A lot of money was thrown around this past offseason. The Los Angeles Angels spent over $300 million on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the Miami Marlins committed a couple hundred million bucks to sign a trio of stars, the Detroit Tigers inked Prince Fielder to a contract worth over $200 million.
And so on, and so on.
In all, it was a pretty typical baseball offseason. You've gotta love the whole "no salary cap" thing.
If you'd rather not dig all the big spending, just remember that not every free agent signed this past offseason is rolling in the Benjamins as we speak (though some probably are). Better yet, some of the guys who were signed for pennies are providing more value this season than some of the guys who were signed for millions.
It is these guys to whom we pay homage today. What we're going to do is take a look around the league and pick out free-agent signees at each position who have already established themselves as steals midway through the season.
And away we go...
Catcher: Kelly Shoppach, Boston Red Sox
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2012 Salary: $1.35 million
Kelly Shoppach returned to the place from whence he came this offseason. He was drafted by the Boston Red Sox way back in 2001, and he left the organization when he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in the Coco Crisp trade in 2006.
The Red Sox invited Shoppach back to be their backup catcher, signing him to a one-year deal worth $1.35 million.
Shoppach has only played in 32 games this season, but he's made the most of his playing time. In just over 100 plate appearances, he's hitting .267/.359/.522 with an .881 OPS. He's hit four home runs and driven in 12 runs.
According to FanGraphs, Shoppach's .881 OPS ranks third among all major league catchers with at least 100 plate appearances. He's just behind Carlos Ruiz and Jonathan Lucroy and just ahead of Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina.
For the season, Shoppach has a WAR of 1.1, which ties him with Carlos Santana and ranks him above standout catchers like Mike Napoli and Russell Martin.
At this rate, Shoppach is probably going to get a much sweeter deal this offseason. For now, the Red Sox should feel lucky to have him.
First Base: Carlos Pena, Tampa Bay Rays
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2012 Salary: $7.25 million
The Rays missed Carlos Pena at first base in 2011. Their first basemen only hit 10 home runs and slugged .388, racking up a grand total of 51 RBI.
So the Rays decided to bring Pena back this offseason, signing him to a one-year contract worth $7.25 million. That may seem like a lot of money, but it's a few million less than what the Chicago Cubs paid him in 2011.
Thus far, Pena is having a typical Carlos Pena season. His .199 batting average will make your eyes hurt if you stare at it for too long (trust me), but his .341 on-base percentage ain't bad, and he's up to 13 home runs and 36 RBI on the season. He's basically done in half a season what the Rays first basemen in 2011 needed 162 games to accomplish.
In addition, don't overlook Pena's defensive value. His FanGraphs stats indicate that he's been above average on defense this season, and that importance can't be overstated given Tampa's struggles in the field in 2012.
Pena has a WAR of 0.9 thus far in 2012. That's not great, but it ranks him ahead of guys like Adrian Gonzalez, Todd Helton and Carlos Lee among qualified first basemen.
It's easy to criticize Pena because of his low batting average, but he's been a valuable player for the Rays this season despite his flirtation with the Mendoza line.
Second Base: Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks
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2012 Salary: $5.5 million
Aaron Hill played well for the Diamondbacks after coming over in a trade from the Toronto Blue Jays last season, hitting .315/.386/.492 in 33 games.
Despite that, the Diamondbacks declined to pick up Hill's options for 2012 and 2013, which Hardball Talk noted were for $8 million per year. As a result, he became free to sign anywhere he pleased.
He ended up sticking around Arizona, signing a two-year contract worth a grand total of $11 million. The Diamondbacks effectively saved themselves $5 million.
Kevin Towers looks like a genius right now. Hill is hitting .300/.357/.512 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI this season. He hit for the cycle twice in June, and he managed to make it onto the NL ballot for the "Final Vote" for the 2012 All-Star Game.
Among qualified major league second basemen, Hill's .869 OPS ranks second behind Robinson Cano. He also ranks just behind Cano in wOBA (weighted on-base average) at .369.
Hill has a WAR of 2.8, according to FanGraphs. That's tops among NL second basemen and second behind—you guessed it—Cano among all major league second basemen.
And to think anybody could have had him...
Third Base: Jerry Hairston, Jr., Los Angeles Dodgers
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2012 Salary: $2.25 million
Major League Baseball needs more Hairstons. For that matter, the Dodgers probably figure that the one Hairston they have isn't enough.
The Dodgers signed Jerry Hairston, Jr., this offseason to a two-year deal worth $6 million, with the idea of using him as a utility infielder and part-time outfielder.
Hairston has become more of an everyday player than the Dodgers hoped, as he's already played in 53 games and logged 159 at-bats. He's played mostly at second base, but he's filled in at third base quite a bit with Juan Uribe hurt for much of the season.
Hairston has played well defensively at the hot corner, and for the season, he's hitting .296/.370/.415 with three home runs and 19 RBI. He hit five home runs and drove in 31 runs in all of 2011 with the Washington Nationals and Milwaukee Brewers.
Per FanGraphs, Hairston has a WAR of 1.2. That doesn't rank him among the league leaders at third base, but it does rank him above players like Alberto Callaspo and Ryan Zimmerman among third basemen with at least 100 plate appearances.
All the Dodgers need is another Hairston at short and at first base. Then they'd be set.
Shortstop: Rafael Furcal, St. Louis Cardinals
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2012 Salary: $6.5 million
The Cardinals picked up Rafael Furcal from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline last season, and he proceeded to hit .255 with seven home runs for them in 50 games. He then helped them the World Series.
Both Furcal and the Cardinals enjoyed their relationship, apparently, as Furcal agreed to re-sign with the Cardinals as a free agent in December. He got a two-year deal worth $14 million.
Furcal was on fire out of the gate this season, hitting .370 with a .933 OPS as late as May 16. He's cooled off since then, hitting .193 with a .511 OPS in 43 games, but Cardinals fans saw enough early on to be convinced that Furcal deserved to be the starting shortstop for the NL at the All-Star Game.
He doesn't actually deserve that honor, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that Furcal has provided good value for his $6.5 million salary.
His WAR, according to FanGraphs, is 1.4. That ranks him well behind fellow NL standouts Ian Desmond and Jed Lowrie, but it does rank him ahead of standout AL shortstops like J.J. Hardy and Derek Jeter.
Jeter, for the record, is earning $16 million this season. That's nearly $10 million more than Furcal.
Just throwing it out there.
Left Field: Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
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2012 Salary: $7 million
When the Twins and Josh Willingham agreed to a three-year contract worth $21 million this offseason, few people seemed to notice.
I presume this is partially because they're the Twins and partially because he's...well, he's Josh Willingham. Compared to other MLB Joshes, Willingham doesn't have much star power.
No matter. This season, Willingham definitely has the numbers. He's hitting .269/.380/.545 with 18 home runs and 59 RBI. He's even managed to tame Target Field, as he's posted a .601 slugging percentage in 39 home games so far in 2012.
Among qualified major league left fielders, Willingham's .394 wOBA ranks seventh, just behind Matt Holliday and just ahead of Melky Cabrera, according to FanGraphs. His 2.8 WAR ranks eighth among left fielders.
That WAR ranks him ahead of stars like Mark Trumbo, Carlos Gonzalez and Alfonso Soriano (who very much deserves "star" credit for the season he's having).
Well played, Twins.
Center Field: Gregor Blanco, San Francisco Giants
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2012 Salary: $480,000
I'm stretching the rules a little bit with this one. To this point in the season, Gregor Blanco has logged far more time in right field for the Giants, who have played Angel Pagan in center field virtually the entire season.
But since Blanco is a natural center fielder who is basically playing out of position in right field, I'm going to allow it.
Blanco was going to be on this list one way or the other, of course. For less than $500,000, the Giants found themselves one of the most valuable outfielders in all of baseball so far this season.
Blanco is hitting .253/.341/.380 on the season with four home runs and 15 stolen bases. Those numbers are merely decent, but Blanco has boosted his value tremendously with his defense in the outfield. His 8.2 UZR in right field places him among baseball's best defensive right fielders, according to FanGraphs.
It's largely because of his defense that Blanco has a 2.0 WAR. That ranks him ahead of Hunter Pence, Curtis Granderson and Shane Victorino among major league outfielders.
Methinks somebody is in line for a raise.
Right Field: Cody Ross, Boston Red Sox
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2012 Salary: $3 million
Cody Ross is a right-handed pull hitter with a tendency to hit the ball in the air.
In other words, he's the perfect hitter for Fenway Park. Ben Cherington came to that same conclusion this offseason, ultimately signing Ross to a one-year deal worth $3 million.
Ross spent a couple weeks on the disabled list in May and June, but he's been one of Boston's best hitters when he's been healthy. He's hitting .275/.350/.550 with 12 home runs and 39 RBI in 53 games. He hit just 14 home runs and drove in 52 runs in 121 games with the Giants in 2011.
And, as expected, Ross has owned Fenway Park. He's slugged .604 with seven home runs in 28 home games to this point.
Ross has a WAR of 1.7, according to FanGraphs. That ranks him ahead of standout right fielders like Torii Hunter, Ichiro, Jay Bruce and Nick Swisher.
He's also in line for a raise this offseason.
Starting Pitcher: Chris Capuano, Los Angeles Dodgers
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2012 Salary: $3 million
Chris Capuano didn't have a season to brag about with the New York Mets in 2011. He went 11-12 with a 4.55 ERA and a WHIP over 1.30. Batters hit .270 against him.
It was thus pretty easy for the Dodgers to pick Capuano up on the cheap, signing him to a two-year deal worth $10 million. He's making just $3 million this season.
For their $3 million, the Dodgers have gotten a pitcher with a 9-3 record and a 2.62 ERA. Capuano has logged 12 quality starts, just as many as Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels.
The numbers suggest that Capuano has had luck on his side this season. Per FanGraphs, he currently has a .259 BABIP that's suspiciously low and a 3.65 FIP that's over a run higher than his ERA. He's certainly been good, but he hasn't been as brilliant as his record and ERA suggest.
Not that this matters to the Dodgers, of course. They'll gladly take what they've gotten from Capuano to this point.
More would be nice, though. The Dodgers are going to need all hands on deck in the second half to nab a postseason berth.
Relief Pitcher: Fernando Rodney, Tampa Bay Rays
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2012 Salary: $1.75 million
Fernando Rodney had a season to forget with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. He was only able to make 39 appearances, posting a 4.50 ERA while walking 28 batters in 32 innings.
The Rays gave Rodney a home, signing him to a one-year contract with a base $1.75 million salary. The plan was to add him to a list of closer candidates and then see what he could do.
Presently, the only closer in baseball who has more saves than Rodney's 24 is Baltimore's Jim Johnson, who has 25. Rodney is also striking out better than a batter per inning, and he has his BB/9 down to 1.19. His BB/9 was 7.88 in 2011.
Rodney has already logged 37.2 innings—over five more than he logged all of last season. He's allowed just four earned runs, good for an ERA of 0.96.
Andrew Friedman doesn't have a whole lot of money to work with in Tampa Bay, but I'm convinced that he could build a winner with a half-filled piggy bank and a paper bag full of shiny rocks. He's a crafty one.
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