Creating the 2013 All-Free Agent Steal Team for MLB
You won't find names like Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton on this list. Anibal Sanchez, Hiroki Kuroda, Nick Swisher and Shane Victorino won't be making an appearance either.
While the vast majority of free agents are going to get lucrative contracts—because, let's be honest, a six-figure salary, much less seven or eight, is a lucrative deal in the grand scheme of things—a number of players will sign deals that they simply outperform, making them the steals of the Hot Stove League.
It happens every year, and the 2012-13 edition of the Hot Stove League isn't going to be any different.
Lets take a look at the best team money can buy—one that won't come along with budget-busting salaries.
Catcher: Kelly Shoppach
2012 Stats (with Boston/New York Mets): 76 G, .233/.309/.425, 8 HR, 27 RBI, 23 R
You have only three starting catchers on the market in Mike Napoli, A.J. Pierzynski and Russell Martin, and none are going to come with annual salaries that could be classified as a steal.
So we have to turn our attention to capable backups, and 32-year-old Kelly Shoppach is the best of what's available.
While David Ross signed a two-year, $6.2 million deal with the Boston Red Sox and is a notch above Shoppach offensively, both are capable defensive catchers, and Shoppach will come at a fraction of that price (h/t Yahoo! Sports)
Sure, his stats don't look great, but I'm willing to throw out what he did in 28 games with the New York Mets after being traded there and look more at the numbers he put up with the Boston Red Sox prior to the deal: a .250/.327/.471 batting line with five home runs 17 RBI and 16 runs scored in 48 games.
I'd call that kind of production from a backup catcher who plays once a week for around $2 million a season a relative bargain.
First Base: Carlos Pena
2012 Stats (with Tampa Bay): 160 G, .197/.330/.354, 19 HR, 61 RBI, 72 R
The pickings on the free agent market for starting first basemen are even slimmer than they are for catchers, with only Adam LaRoche qualifying as a legitimate, everyday option at the position.
As far as platoon players go, 35-year-old Carlos Pena leads the list.
A former All-Star, Pena remains an excellent defensive first baseman who still has some pop left in his bat. But that pop brings with it an obscene number of strikeouts and a batting average hovering near the Mendoza line.
Pena is about as good an inexpensive option as there is on the free-agent market, with an annual salary in the $4-to-$5 million range.
Second Base: Kelly Johnson
2012 Stats (with Toronto): 142 G, .225/.313/.365, 16 HR, 55 RBI, 61 R, 14-for-16 SB
A career .255 hitter, 31-year-old Kelly Johnson has enough pop in his bat to contribute 20 home runs and 70 RBI to an offense and plays above-average defense. But like Carlos Pena, his batting average leaves much to be desired.
He's shown the ability to hit for a decent average before, with three seasons of .275 or better on his resume. But he hasn't finished a season above .230 since 2010.
Johnson made $6 million with the Blue Jays in 2012 and figures to get a bit less on the open market. A two-year, $10 million deal (with a team option) could be enough to get the job done. That's a contract that isn't going to break the bank for any team.
Third Base: Jeff Keppinger
2012 Stats (with Tampa Bay): 115 G, .325/.367/.439, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 46 R
He's not your prototypical third baseman, as he hits for virtually no power. But Jeff Keppinger plays solid defense, hits for average and can be slotted into either a No. 2 spot or the bottom half of a team's lineup.
Versatile enough to also play second base and shortstop, the eight-year veteran has never made more than $2.3 million in any season. He earned $1.525 million with the Rays in 2012.
Any team can afford him, and any team that passes on him for another option would be doing itself a disservice.
Shortstop: Alex Gonzalez
2012 Stats (with Milwaukee): 24 G, .259/.326/.457, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 8 R, 1-for-2 SB
Alex Gonzalez missed most of the 2012 season with torn ligaments in his right knee. But he's healthy now and would be an inexpensive pickup for any team looking for a short-term solution at shortstop and another run producer. (h/t ESPN.com)
He won't hit for a high average, but Gonzalez plays solid defense and has legitimate 20-home run power. Slotting Gonzalez in the No. 6 or No. 7 slot in a lineup could pay dividends for the team that takes a shot on him this winter.
Gonzalez made $4.25 million with Milwaukee in 2012, but that number figures to come down considering his injury. A one-year deal in the $3 million range would fit in nearly every team's budget.
Left Field: Ryan Ludwick
2012 stats (with Cincinnati): 125 G, .275/.346/.531, 26 HR, 80 RBI, 53 R
With a mediocre crop of corner outfielders available via free agency, Ryan Ludwick stands out as one of the few who will provide solid production without breaking the bank.
A decent defender, the 34-year-old turned down his end of a $5 million mutual option to stay with the Reds in an attempt to cash in on an excellent season and an NLDS performance that saw him hit three home runs in five games, tying Johnny Bench for the second most in Reds history.
While 16 of his 26 home runs came at Great American Ball Park, the difference in his OPS at home (.896) and on the road (.856) wasn't nearly as wide a gap as you'd think.
He won't come cheap, but a two-year deal in the $12-to-$15 million range sounds about right.
Center Field: Angel Pagan
2012 stats (with Giants): 154 G, .288/.338/.440, 38 2B, 15 3B, 8 HR, 56 RBI, 29-for-36 SB, 95 R
MLB's leader in triples with 15, the 31-year-old's numbers in 2012 are similar to those of Michael Bourn, who is guaranteed to sign a much more lucrative contract than Pagan is going to land.
A switch-hitter, Pagan is a table-setter atop any lineup who can hit from both sides of the plate, has some pop in his bat and is a superb defensive center fielder.
He's going to wind up with an annual salary that pays seven figures. But considering what high-profile free-agent center fielders like Bourn, Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton are going to sign for, Pagan will be a steal on a two- or three-year deal that pays him between $10-and-$12 million annually.
Right Field: Ichiro
2012 Stats (with Mariners/Yankees): 162 G, .283/.307/.390, 9 HR, 55 RBI, 77 R, 29-for-36 SB
There's no doubt that 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is going to take a significant reduction in salary when you factor in his age and decline in production. The days of the $17 million salary he received in 2012 are long gone.
But he remains a highly productive player in the right environment, evidenced by the .322/.340/.454 batting line that he posted after joining the Yankees.
Ichiro remains an excellent defensive player with one of the best throwing arms in the game, and he still has enough speed to cause problems for the opposition when he gets on base.
He's still capable enough to command from $8-to-10 million a season, yet he's going to wind up signing for far less—between $4-and-$6 million a season—making him the steal of the winter.
Designated Hitter: Lance Berkman
2012 Stats (with Cardinals): 32 G, .259/.381/.444, 2 HR, 7 RBI
He turns 37 in February and is coming off of an injury-filled 2012 that limited him to only 32 games in the field.
Playing the field isn't in his future—if he decides to play at all—but serving primarily as a designated hitter could do wonders to limit his chance of injury and keep him productive.
After earning $12 million last year, Berkman is going to have to take a significant reduction in salary if he wants to extend his playing career.
A one-year, $6 million deal for a player who only two years ago posted a .301/.412/.547 batting line with 31 home runs and 94 RBI is certainly a risk worth taking and could make Berkman a steal if he stays healthy.
We have speed at the top of the lineup and power in the middle, with Keppinger following the power bats in a spot to move them along.
It's not the greatest lineup in the world, but it's one that is more than capable of putting runs on the board.
No. 1 Starter: Brandon McCarthy, 29
2012 Stats (with A's): 18 G, 8-6, 3.24 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 111 IP, 115 H, 24 BB, 73 K
Injuries limited McCarthy to only 18 starts and 111 innings in 2012, but there's little question that McCarthy can hold his own against potent lineups around the game.
He's not a power pitcher and won't rack up gaudy strikeout totals. But his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park makes him an intriguing option for all teams, regardless of the ballpark that they play in.
His season ended early after getting hit in the head with a line drive, an injury that required emergency surgery. So McCarthy will need to prove he's still "got it" for teams in 2013 on a one-year deal.
With a salary around $10 million, McCarthy is a bargain if he's fully recovered.
No. 2 Starter: Shaun Marcum, 31
2012 Stats (with Brewers): 21 G, 7-4. 3.70 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 124 IP, 116 H, 41 BB, 109 K
A shoulder injury limited him to only 21 starts for the Brewers in 2012, but he still posted a solid 3.70 ERA and 1.27 WHIP over 124 innings of work, averaging three walks and almost eight strikeouts per nine innings.
From 2010 through 2011, Marcum averaged 198 innings per season, a 3.59 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, with similar walk and strikeout ratios: 2.3 BB/9 and 7.3 K/9.
A two-year deal in the $14-to-$16 million range makes Marcum a bargain.
No. 3 Starter: Joe Saunders, 31
2012 Stats (with D-Backs/Orioles): 28 G, 9-13, 4.07 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 175 IP, 195 H, 39 BB, 112 K
He's durable, having logged at least 170 innings in each of the past five seasons. At an average salary around $7 million, Saunders is a bargain for a middle-of-the-rotation arm.
No. 4 Starter: Scott Baker, 31
2012 Stats (with Twins): Did Not Pitch
He missed all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery and has signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs for $5.5 million (with incentives that could bring the total to $7 million). But Scott Baker will prove to be a steal this winter.
In nearly 1,000 career innings for the Twins, Baker averaged 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings while walking only 2.1 per nine, pitching to a 4.15 ERA. In 2011, he threw to a 3.14 ERA and struck out more than eight batters per nine innings.
Baker needs to prove that he's fully recovered from surgery. But he's a quality starter who will thrive in the National League.
No. 5 Starter: Kevin Correia, 32
2012 Stats (with Pirates): 32 G, 12-11. 4.21 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 171 IP, 176 H, 46 BB, 89 K
Correia has won 12 games in three of the past four seasons playing for the Padres and Pirates, teams that don't offer great run support.
He's not a dominating starter by any means, doesn't strike out many batters and will surrender runs, but not too many that a quality team can't overcome.
As far as fifth starters with experience go, a one-year, $5 million deal for Correia makes him a bargain.
Closer: Matt Capps
2012 Stats (with Twins): 30 G, 1-4, 3.68 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 29.1 IP, 28 H, 4 BB, 18 K, 14-for-15 SV
The Twins declined Capps' $6 million option for 2013 after Capps struggled with shoulder injuries in 2012. But if healthy, Capps could be an inexpensive, experienced closer for a team without an established option in the ninth inning.
A one-year deal in the $3-to-4 million range might actually be more than he'll wind up getting. But most teams can fit that into their budgets.