MLB Free Agents: Impact Players Your Team Can Sign at a Huge Discount
Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports
Top free agents like Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke have gotten the majority of headlines this season. Trades involving James Shields and R.A. Dickey have provided flashy news as well.
Names like Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher are still available, and teams looking for an impact bat will likely look toward those players to change their fortunes for next season.
But there are still plenty of second- and third-tier free agents that can fill holes on playoff contenders or clubs simply looking to fill out their rosters with dependable major league veterans. Best of all, they won't cost nearly as much money as the marquee names.
Teams seeking power in the outfield or at first base have several candidates to choose from. Many arms that can provide bullpen depth—or perhaps make for a bargain-priced closer—are out there too.
Here are six free agents who can make an impact for the right team at a much lower price than the flashy, expensive names on the open market.
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Ask the Baltimore Orioles or Detroit Tigers whether or not Raul Ibanez can make an impact. For that matter, ask Alex Rodriguez.
Ibanez hit three crucial home runs off the bench for the New York Yankees during the divisional series and ALCS. He was the Yanks' most effective hitter, batting .318 with those three home runs, five RBI and a 1.196 OPS.
But Ibanez wasn't just a postseason surprise. He had a productive regular season with the Yankees as well. Though he hit .240, Ibanez compiled a .761 OPS, 19 home runs and 62 RBI in 425 plate appearances.
No, Ibanez isn't a full-time player anymore, but he can give a team some left-handed pop. He'll surely be looking for a raise over his 2012 salary of $1.1 million, but will still cost far less than a player like Nick Swisher or Cody Ross.
Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies have all shown interest. Ibanez could fit nicely with any of those clubs. Perhaps the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians should be included on that list too.
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Brian Wilson isn't looking to be a bargain on the free-agent market. If so, he would probably have already re-signed with the San Francisco Giants.
But the open market may give the 30-year-old right-hander no other choice. A reliever coming off the second Tommy John surgery of his baseball career will likely make MLB teams reluctant to invest big money in Wilson.
Joakim Soria appears to have set the market for recovering relievers looking to pitch in a setup role or as a backup closer. He signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Ryan Madson isn't far behind in annual salary, inking a $3.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels.
Wilson might have more to prove than those other two relievers because he's recovering from a second reconstructive procedure on his elbow. Additionally, his 2011 season wasn't terribly impressive with a 3.11 ERA and a strikeout rate that dropped from 11.2 to 8.8 per nine innings. Wilson also allowed more hits and walks per nine innings.
A team looking for bullpen help, like the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners or New York Mets, could be the right fit for Wilson.
The Texas Rangers are also reportedly still looking for a reliever, even after signing Joakim Soria. Why not give Wilson a shot? (That would give my buddy Chris Cox at 103.7 The Game in Lafayette, La. happy.)
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Carlos Pena did not have a good 2012 season, hitting .197 with a .684 OPS. But he did still manage to crank out 19 home runs and 61 RBI in 600 plate appearances for the Tampa Bay Rays this season.
Teams looking for power from the first base or DH spots on their roster could do worse than sign a player who can still put a baseball in the seats and draw plenty of walks.
Pena made $7.25 million this year with the Rays, taking a pay cut from his $10 million 2011 salary. He'll probably be in line for a further reduction next season, considering that he didn't hit 20 home runs and hit under .200.
This could be a great bargain for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, maybe in a first-base platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Perhaps he could provide some insurance at first base or DH for the Seattle Mariners.
Maybe Pena could be a veteran presence with the Houston Astros as well.
Editor's update: Pena signed a one-year, $2.9 million deal with the Astros on Monday, according to MLB.com.
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Second base isn't typically a position where teams expect to get 20 home runs. That's the appeal of Kelly Johnson, who can provide some middle infield pop.
The downside is that Johnson doesn't give a team much in batting average. This year, he hit .225 with a .684 OPS for the Toronto Blue Jays. But he does get on base, compiling a .313 OBP. He also bring some speed, as demonstrated by his 14 stolen bases.
Johnson made $6.4 million in his final year of arbitration eligibility. The guess is that he'll receive less than that through free agency, especially with his power numbers dropping over the past two seasons.
But will there be any starting jobs available for Johnson? The one team that looks like a possibility is the Miami Marlins, but they probably won't want to pay Johnson too much.
Perhaps he could compete for a job with the San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins or St. Louis Cardinals if those teams think he can supply some power.
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Closers who don't strike out many batters aren't in high demand on the free-agent market. That demand is even less when a pitcher missed the second half of the season with rotator cuff inflammation.
But for a team looking for relief depth or who believes that an experienced closer has value at the back end of a bullpen, Matt Capps could have some appeal.
Capps was non-tendered by the Minnesota Twins after the season, who didn't want to pick up his $6 million option for 2013. He made $4.75 million this year, and it's doubtful he'll find a salary like that on the open market.
The Twins may be interested in bringing Capps back at a lesser price. If healthy, perhaps they could flip him to a contender at the trade deadline, which likely would have happened this year had Capps not gotten hurt.
Other teams that could show interest might be the Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins, Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs. Not only would Capps provide a veteran arm in the bullpen, but as with the Twins, those teams might hope he could be traded off later.
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How much does Jim Thome have left at the age of 41?
The Philadelphia Phillies gave him a try as a pinch-hitter and backup first baseman. Maybe they thought he could help in interleague play too. But Thome wasn't really a great fit, and he was eventually traded to the Baltimore Orioles.
With the O's, Thome wasn't a major factor during the pennant chase or in the postseason. But for an American League team looking for help at first base or designated hitter, Thome could still give a team some left-handed power.
The Orioles fit that criteria, but they are probably looking to upgrade at first base and keep Chris Davis at DH.
Another stint with the Minnesota Twins seems feasible too. Would Thome want to end his career with the Seattle Mariners? He could be a good fit there.
What about the Houston Astros? They need a DH for their first year in the AL. According to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, the team is chasing Lance Berkman. But if he follows through with plans to retire, Thome could be a decent—and cheaper—option at that position.
Editor's update: Carlos Pena was signed by the Astros on Monday (Dec.17), according to MLB.com.
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