Game-Changing Defensive Players Still on the Market
Teams this offseason have been looking to find free agents who are going to hit a bunch of home runs or win a lot of games, when they should be taking a player’s defensive skills into consideration.
Just because a free agent doesn’t have the best on-base or slugging percentage doesn’t mean that they can’t be valuable. And just because a pitcher doesn’t throw 90 miles per hour doesn’t mean that they aren’t worthy of a spot in the starting rotation.
For example, Brendan Ryan had the fifth-best UZR/150 out of every player in Major League Baseball (via FanGraphs) while hitting under .200 for the year. Because of his defensive prowess, he finished 2012 with a 1.7 WAR (via FanGraphs).
Now, teams may not want to start a guy like Ryan since he’s not very productive at the plate. But would a team sign him just as a defensive replacement late in the game? You bet. Unfortunately, however, he’s not a free agent and teams will have to find similar players who can add value on defense.
Here are some of those players who are still available and can help a team win games just based on their defense.
Adam LaRoche, First Baseman
Adam LaRoche is one of the top hitters still available on the free-agent market, but is also one of the top fielders.
LaRoche was the sixth-best first baseman in 2012 with a 5.7 UZR/150 (via FanGraphs), committing just seven errors in over 1,300 innings. He started eight double plays and finished 105 of them. Not to mention he did win a Gold Glove this past season.
Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reports that a deal between the Washington Nationals and LaRoche is either going to happen soon or not at all:
The Nationals have kept a two-year offer available to LaRoche all offseason, but LaRoche wants a three-year deal. With that situation remaining unresolved, one official familiar with the team’s thinking said general manager Mike Rizzo could press the issue soon, no quite an ultimatum but something close to it.
The Orioles have also looked into LaRoche, but are hesitant since Baltimore would lose a draft pick if they landed him, according to Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun:
[General manager Dan] Duquette has stressed the importance of building through the draft and the confidence he has in scouting director Gary Rajsich and his staff to uncover important building blocks. So you can’t expect Duquette to be thrilled to give up a draft pick for a 33-year-old infielder, no matter how much he may fit.
It seems that the market may not be as big as LaRoche would hope, and it’s in his best interest to just take the two-year deal with Washington instead of continuing to push for a third year.
Scott Rolen, Third Baseman
He’s started over 200 double plays over the course of his storied career and has eight Gold Gloves on his resume. He may be 37 years old, but he is still more than capable of contributing defensively on a nightly basis.
Danny Knobler of CBS Sports reports that the Reds feel the same way about Rolen, who could be willing to play for another year:
Rolen, who will turn 38 in April, seemed ready to retire when the Reds season ended with their playoff loss to the Giants.
But Rolen has now suggested to the Reds that he might want to go to spring training and give it another try, according to sources, and the Reds would be more than happy to give him a chance. The Reds believe he can help, on the field and especially in the clubhouse, where they value his leadership.
It’s not every day that a team gets to have a player like Rolen in their clubhouse or on the field, so it would be wise of the Reds to at least have him at spring training and see what happens from there.
Michael Bourn, Center Fielder
Michael Bourn isn’t just a speedy center fielder who can hit leadoff, steal bases and score runs. He’s also the best defensive player in baseball.
Among all qualified position players, Bourn had the highest UZR/150 last season at 22.5 (via FanGraphs). He’s won two Gold Gloves over the course of his career, but got robbed of winning a third in 2012.
Bourn is arguably the top remaining free agent remaining in general and several teams have shown interest in him, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports:
A possible [Rangers] run at Bourn seems to be more in the infancy stages, with Texas people asking around about Bourn, who has an impeccable reputation but mostly a mystery market thus far. The Mariners are known to have interest in Bourn, while the Red Sox are a team that’s checked in as well, though their interest may depend on a trade or injury.
As Heyman also notes, a return to the Atlanta Braves is not out of the question just yet, but Atlanta has already signed a center fielder this offseason in B.J. Upton. If Bourn were to go back with the Braves, he’d be playing left field which is his second-best outfield position.
Joe Saunders, Starting Pitcher
Finding a pitcher who knows how to cover first base and won’t throw the ball into the outfield on a routine bunt is harder than you think.
Joe Saunders is one of the pitchers still available who a manager won’t have to worry about when it comes to his glove.
Last season, Saunders finished in a tie for 12th among all qualified pitchers in defensive runs saved with four (via FanGraphs). Another interesting note is that only four players were able to steal successfully off of him in 2012 despite through close to 175 innings pitched (via FanGraphs).
Four teams have interest in Saunders including the Baltimore Orioles, according to Buster Olney of ESPN:
The Orioles have continued talks with Joe Saunders, a pitcher they would like to re-sign. He's also high interest from three other clubs.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 20, 2012
Saunders pitched in Baltimore for half of the 2012 season after being traded by the Arizona Diamondbacks. I would speculate that Saunders will end up taking a one-year deal with the Orioles.
Brandon Inge, Third Baseman
Brandon Inge may have only played in 673 defensive innings at third base last season, but he made each one of them count. Inge led all third basemen with at least 650 innings in UZR/150 with a 24.3 (via FanGraphs).
He has incredible range and a good arm for a 35-year-old. Inge’s bat isn’t very impressive, but still has the potential to be a starter since he can play a wide variety of positions.
The problem for Inge, however, is that there isn’t a big market for someone with his services. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Oakland A’s haven’t ruled out bringing Inge back just yet:
The A’s are not closing the door on any of their free agents, although neither Inge nor Bartolo Colon has been considered a strong candidate to return.
Inge may have to end up taking a deal with whomever is interested just to ensure that he’ll be playing in 2013. If Oakland doesn’t want to re-sign him, he may have a big problem on his hands.