The All Free-Agent Team: The Best Unsigned MLB Players Still on the Market
Two weeks before Christmas and the hot stove was blazing; Zack Greinke signed with the Dodgers, Josh Hamilton joined the Angels, and the Tigers brought back Anibal Sanchez.
As we neared the holidays, the hot stove simmered down a bit, but the market stayed active with the Indians making a splash by signing Nick Swisher, the Red Sox trading for Joel Hanrahan and the Diamondbacks surprising everyone to land Cody Ross.
Since Christmas and into the new year, however, the hot stove has come to its typical lull. The biggest move recently was by the Cubs, who locked up Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million deal.
Other than that, there have been a few interesting signings, but nothing has generated shock waves through the league.
It is this period of tranquility in early January, combined with the start of the NFL playoffs, which often leads to most fans putting the hot-stove talk on the back burner. People often forget there are still quality free agents on the market—the type of guys who can still change a team's fate for the upcoming season.
The remaining free-agent market isn't laden with superstars, and it is fairly thin at certain positions—as you will soon see—but there are still enough impact players available to make the weeks leading up the start of spring training very interesting.
The change in free-agent compensation rules, requiring teams not picking in the Top 10 of next year's MLB draft to surrender their first-round picks to sign a player to whom a qualifying offer was made, has resulted in players who would have often been signed months ago remaining free agents.
The difficulty of signing these players by the perennial contenders who seek their services—but would have to sacrifice a first-round pick—has led to discussions on the possibility of teams making sign-and-trade deals—the type of thing you usually only hear about in the NBA.
Regardless, there are still four top-tier free agents who were offered qualifying offers by their 2012 teams who remain on the market. They are joined by a number of middle-of-the-rotation quality pitchers, a deep bullpen and several respectable hitters.
This slideshow will compile the best possible 25-man roster for 2013 using the top remaining free agents. I'll take a look at how the players fared last season, what you can expect from them in 2013 and who are their most likely suitors.
It may not be a playoff-contending squad, but I'm confident they could beat the Astros in a seven-game series. That's not saying much, but there is still enough talent on the market that avid fans should still keep an eye on hot-stove rumors right up until catchers and pitchers report.
If you think I left off someone who belongs on the team, feel free to include any suggestions in the comment section.
Catcher: Miguel Olivo
We start at the catcher position, where the free-agent market may be the weakest. And, yes, it is that bad.
There were really only two starter-quality catcher free agents to begin the offseason, and they have both since signed with new teams: Russell Martin abandoned his pinstripes and joined the Pirates, while A.J. Pierzynski left the White Sox for the Rangers.
The market was so weak to begin with that the Braves exercised a $12 million option on Brian McCann despite knowing that it is unlikely he'll be ready for the start of the 2013 season.
Anyway, that leaves us with Miguel Olivo. Is he really the type of guy you want logging 100-plus games behind the plate for your team? Most likely not.
However, over Olivo's 11-year career, he has some pronounced skills, such as being a good game manager and his above-average power at the position, with 12 or more home runs in each of the last seven years, including a career-high 23 in 2009. He even owns a respectable 34 percent rate of throwing out would-be base stealers.
Here's the downside: He is a below-average contact hitter who is historically bad at drawing walks. He holds a career OBP of .275, and his 1.6-percent unintentional walk rate is the 37th worst of all hitters who have accumulated at least 250 plate appearances since 1950.
His 2012 Season: .222 AVG/.239 OBP/.381 SLG, 27 R, 12 HR, 29 RBI, 3 SB, 0.4 WAR
Olivo only played in 87 games last year, as he saw his playing time diminish down the stretch due to the rise of John Jaso.
Olivo drew but seven—that's right, just seven—walks all season in comparison to his 85 strikeouts. Olivo's power didn't wane, homering 12 times in 315 at-bats, but his ghastly .239 OBP made him almost impossible to play.
When you balance the things he does well with the things he does terribly, you are left with a pretty average catcher, as indicated by his 0.4 WAR.
At 34 years old and with over a decade in the league, Olivo is what he is. He bumped his walk rate a bit in 2011 but regressed last year and is still among the league leaders at pitches swung at outside the strike zone.
He can still be a good veteran presence and offer some pop off the bench, but unless his OBP rises significantly, he isn't fit to start.
Logical suitors: Royals, Cubs, Yankees, Padres
Who I think will sign him: Los Angeles Dodgers
A.J. Ellis emerged as a solid starting catcher, but his numbers dipped a bit in the second half, perhaps from a heavy workload. With little depth behind him, Olivo would pair well with Ellis and provide another veteran bat off the bench for a team in win-now mode.
First Base: Adam LaRoche
At first base, we find Adam LaRoche, who might be the best free agent still unsigned. Unfortunately for LaRoche, he was one of the four players (discussed in the introduction) whose team made him a qualifying offer of one year, $13.3 million.
LaRoche quickly rejected the offer, looking for a multi-year contract. Now, any team (who picks outside of the Top 10) who signs him will forfeit its first-round pick and the bonus money allotted for the pick.
As a result, a middle-of-the-order left-handed hitter who has hit at least 25 home runs in four of the past five seasons—excluding an injury riddled 2011 campaign in which he only played 43 games—remains on the market.
LaRoche would offer an upgrade at first base—a position at which he continues to improve and posted a 6.1 UZR at last season—for probably about half the league, but interest has been tempered due to his status.
LaRoche has had his fair share of red flags in the past, including struggling early on in the season and some off-the-field concerns, but at age 33 and healthy, he has developed into a complete player who has put together a very solid end-of-the-season batting line almost every year since 2006.
His 2012 Season: .271 AVG/.343 OBP/.510 SLG, 76 R, 33 HR, 100 RBI, 128 OPS+, 4.0 WAR
LaRoche's 2012 season was his pièce de résistance to date in his career. His 4.0 WAR was more than double his previous best (1.9 WAR in 2009), and he set career highs in hits, home runs and slugging percentage.
LaRoche missed three quarters of 2011 due to a torn labrum and partially torn rotator cuff that ultimately required season-ending surgery in June.
However, prior to the injury, LaRoche had been trending in the right direction, and his 2012 season looked like a continuation of improvement upon his 2010 campaign with the Diamondbacks, when he had 25 home runs, drove in 100 and posted a line of .261/.320/.468.
What this means for the upcoming season is that if LaRoche is fully healthy and is placed in the right environment, he should pick up where he left off in 2012.
He is still a better hitter in the second half, but the gap has been narrowed to where there isn't much of a difference. He's in good shape for his age and holds his own against lefties, so all signs point to a repeat of last year's impressive offensive output.
He should offer above-average defense and serve as a solid No. 5 hitter for whomever decides to sacrifice a pick and sign him
Logical suitors: Orioles, Rangers, Giants, Nationals
Who I Think Will Sign Him: Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox and Mike Napoli have been stuck in contractual turmoil for weeks now, and it looks as if the deal could be abandoned. LaRoche has been rumored as the Plan B option for the Sox, but he may be an even better fit at 1B than the converted catcher Napoli.
His left-handed bat would play well in Fenway, and he would give them another veteran power hitter to pair with Ortiz in the middle of the lineup.
The Nationals re-signed LaRoche to a two-year, $24 million deal, effectively taking the clear-cut best first baseman off the market.
It looks as though Mike Napoli might be back on the market soon, but until he is, you can take your pick between the likes of Juan Rivera, Casey Kotchman and Lyle Overbay for the best remaining first basemen.
Yes, the re-signing of LaRoche was a major blow for any team still in need of a first baseman.
Second Base: Kelly Johnson
Kelly Johnson remains as the lone starter option at second base and headlines what's left of the position in free agency.
Johnson, who will be 31 this upcoming season, is coming off arguably his worst season in the majors, other than an injury-shortened 2009 campaign.
Johnson is a bit maddening as a player; the converted outfielder shows flashes of brilliance and All-Star potential in spurts but can just as easily go into prolonged struggles where he flirts with a .200 batting average.
Johnson has a good combination of power and speed, but when he struggles to make contact, his stat sheet suffers and he's exposed as a marginal starter.
He's always maintained a consistently solid walk rate but has struck out 148, 163, and 159 times over the last three seasons respectively.
When things are going well—like in 2010: .284/.370/.496, 26 HR, 13 SB—he looks like a prototypical No. 2 hitter, but when he struggles—like 2012: .225/.313/.365, 16 HR, 14 SB—he looks like a No. 8 hitter.
Defensive metrics provide mixed reviews, but Johnson is generally considered a middle-of-the-pack, unspectacular defender at second.
His 2012 Season: .225 AVG/.313 OBP/.365 SLG, 61 R, 16 HR, 55 RBI, 14 SB, 1.4 WAR
Johnson was still fairly productive overall as a hitter despite hitting .225 and striking out 159 times. Even when he's striking out more than usual, he can still provide some pop, draw the occasional walk and give you league-average production at second base as he did in 2012.
He posted a career-worst UZR of -6.9 at 2B, but after two years in the black (7.1 in 2010, 2.5 in 2011) and a DWAR of 0.8, it may be a little fluky.
Johnson struggled as the team struggled but looked like he had given up down the stretch, hitting .195/.284/.333 in the second half.
Johnson hit well in April and May but got caught in one of his prolonged funks for the rest of the season that he was unable to fight his way out of despite a 16-14 HR-SB campaign.
Johnson is a hard player to peg. In the six seasons since 2007, he has hit .225 or under and posted an OPS of .692 or lower three times, while he has hit .276 or better and posted a OPS of .795 or higher in the other three seasons.
There hasn't been much of a middle ground for Johnson; he either hits well and inflates his counting stats, or he struggles mightily but still manages to post league-average production.
A lot will depend on where he signs; he often seems to go as the team goes. His strikeout rate isn't improving, so another year closer to last year seems likely, but he should still offer 15-15 HR-SB production and a solid glove up the middle, regardless.
Logical Suitors: White Sox, Rockies, Marlins, Twins
Who I Think Will Sign Him: Oakland A's
The A's moved Cliff Pennington over to second base after acquiring Stephen Drew for their playoff run last year.
The A's have since lost both Pennington and Drew but added Hiroyuki Nakajima to replace Drew at SS.
The A's are left with Adam Rosales and Jemile Weeks atop the depth chart at 2B for the time being. Johnson would offer an upgrade over both and fits in well with what the A's try to do on offense.
He has some pop, has a good batting eye and is a low-volume, high-percentage base stealer—the type of characteristics that usually appeal to Billy Beane.
Shortstop: Alex Gonzalez
Shortstop rivals the catcher position for the least amount of remaining talent available in free agency.
Jason Bartlett is a slick-fielding defensive shortstop who showed upside after hitting .320/.389/.490 for the Rays in 2009, but he has since struggled to stay healthy. In the three seasons since, he has hit .241/.310/.317 with a combined six home runs and entered the season after hitting .133 in just shy of 100 plate appearances last year prior to a knee injury that led to his release.
Additionally, everyone finally got the memo that Yuniesky Betancourt is not a starter.
That leaves the battle-tested but yet still capable Alex Gonzalez as the lone starter quality option at shortstop. Gonzalez will be 36 years old for the upcoming season, but he's less than three years older than Jason Bartlett—which just doesn't sound right but is completely true.
Gonzalez was signed as a free agent out of Venezuela in the Marlins' second season of existence and has gone on to have a surprisingly lengthy career despite injuries, mediocre offensive production and achieving journeyman status.
Gonzalez doesn't do anything above average at this point, but prior to last season's injury, the Braves saw enough to trade for him in 2011, and the Brewers trusted him enough to start at SS to open 2012.
He's slowly treading into below-average defense territory, and much like his starting catcher counterpart Miguel Olivo, he's never been particularly adept at drawing walks, but he still offers solid power production.
His 2012 Season: 24 Games, .259 AVG/.326 OBP/.457 SLG, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 0.2 WAR
Gonzalez was having a typical season before it was cut short due to a torn ligament in his right knee. If anything, through the 26 games he played, he still showed he had enough left in the tank as a hitter to be worth starting.
There hasn't been much information on how Gonzalez has rehabbed, what shape he's currently in or if he'll be 100 percent by Opening Day.
The Red Sox showed some interest before going with Stephen Drew. The Brewers apparently have a "standing offer" for him to return in 2013 but only as a backup to Jean Segura. However, Gonzalez still wants an opportunity to play everyday.
If he's good enough to go, teams should expect his downward trend to continue defensively. But Gonzalez could still post starter-quality offensive production in spite of a middling batting average, subpar walk rate and almost zero speed on the basepaths.
Logical Suitors: Brewers, Braves, Mariners, Reds
Who I think Will Sign Him: Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are making a concerted effort to contend in 2013; they own two solid veterans atop their rotation, have a budding superstar in center field in Andrew McCutchen, signed Russell Martin and, despite trading Joel Hanrahan, have a capable closing option in veteran Jason Grilli.
The Bucs signed Clint Barmes to a two-year deal to play shortstop last year—a move that didn't make much sense at the time and still doesn't. If healthy, Gonzalez would provide an upgrade, solidify the infield and relegate Barmes to a utility role, where he belongs.
Third Base: Brandon Inge
I promise the market gets better after third base. Similarly to the shortstop position, what's left of third base in free agency leaves a lot to be desired, and the position is headlined by another 35-year-old coming off a season-ending injury.
With the other remaining options including the likes of Chone Figgins and Orlando Hudson, Inge is the best option more by default than by choice. That said, after it looked as if his career had entered its twilight stage once he was cut loose by the Tigers, Inge had a revival of sorts once the A's picked him up.
Inge has established a reputation as a fan favorite, clubhouse leader and skilled defenseman at the hot corner. He doesn't offer the same positional versatility he did in the past, but he has shown he is still capable of being a top-notch defensive third baseman.
Inge is a lifetime .234 hitter and hasn't hit over .250 in the last seven seasons. He still offers some power but shouldn't be expected to exceed 20 home runs in a season at this point in his career.
His strikeout has always been poor and has hovered around the 23-26 percent range, while he has maintained a steady walk rate in the 7-9 percent range over the past five seasons. It all adds up to a savvy veteran, who offers some pop and above-average defense but will struggle to post a .300 OBP and .400 SLG.
His 2012 Season: 83 Games, .218 AVG/.275 OBP/.383 SLG, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 0.8 WAR
The Tigers released Inge, who had previously spent his entire career with the franchise, after nine games. The team moved him to second base, but it wasn't working out, and after hitting .100 in 20 at-bats and a 6/0 K/BB ratio, the Tigers decided to go in a different direction.
It looked like it could be the end for Inge, but he was one of a number of hitters who was rejuvenated by the A's magic in the Bay Area last season.
Inge still only hit .226/.286/.389 for Oakland but tacked on 11 home runs and 52 RBIs—numbers that would've looked very impressive extrapolated over a full season—while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. Unfortunately, Inge suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, cutting his season short.
Inge underwent shoulder surgery in September with the usual recovery period being six months. If all goes well, his return to full strength would coincide with the start of spring training.
Some teams have kicked the tires on him, but he's yet to sign. The health of his throwing shoulder is a very big concern given that his primary value is tied to his defense.
Assuming the recovery time period holds true, we should expect more of the same from Inge: good defense and some power but at the expense of an unimpressive batting line. He may be just productive enough to still warrant a starting job in 2013.
Logical Suitors: Colorado Rockies, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's
Who I Think Will Sign Him: Atlanta Braves
The Angels make a lot of sense too, but Inge would make for a great platoon partner with the left-handed and inexperienced Juan Francisco, who is slated to replace the position Chipper Jones has manned for so many years.
Inge would offer some infield defensive prowess to an infield that includes Dan Uggla at second base and is unsettled at shortstop.
Right Field: Scott Hairston
Scott Hairston has been a highly sought-after option to play right field this offseason, and the interest has only picked up since the Diamondbacks snagged Cody Ross much to the surprise of his expected suitors.
Hairston, who was the closest he has ever been to a full-time everyday player last season at age 32, offers the most power of all the remaining right field options and could be a late bloomer who develops into an everyday starter in his later years.
Hairston is a converted second baseman, a once-prized prospect in the Diamondbacks system a decade ago.
He was forced to move to the outfield by the time he reached the majors and has since become capable of handling all three outfield positions, even though he was primarily utilized as a left fielder prior to last season.
Hairston can mash—he has a lifetime slugging percentage of .449, an even 100 OPS-plus and recently hit 27 home runs and 33 doubles in about a season and a half's worth of work (543 at-bats).
But the one thing that Hairston is best known for and why he so sought after by teams like the Yankees is his aptitude against left-handed pitching.
Hairston slugged .550 against left-handed pitching last year (compared to .457 against righties) and owns a career .276/.325/.500 line against lefties.
Hairston has generally been a part-time player or fourth outfielder for much of his career, but he received the most at-bats with one team in a single season last year and produced starter-quality numbers, despite a low walk rate. This may be his best chance to finally be a starting outfielder.
His 2012 Season: .263 AVG/.299 OBP/.504 SLG, 52 R, 20 HR, 57 RBI, 8 SB, 1.5 WAR
Hairston's ability to hit the long ball played a big part in the Mets' hot start to 2012, and though the team cooled off, Hairston kept hitting through most of the summer.
Receiving consistent at-bats, Hairston was one of the team's best hitters behind David Wright. He hit lefties well, flashed power, filled in admirably at all three outfield spots and looked the part of an everyday player.
That is, except for the month of September, when he still managed four home runs but hit .192 and struck out 16 times without drawing a single walk.
There are a lot of reasons why, if he re-signs with the Mets or goes to a team where he'll be expected to do more than platoon, Hairston could duplicate last year's solid batting line and increase his counting stats.
For one, we don't know what he could do with 600 at-bats, but we know he hits lefties well and can hold his own against righties.
We also know he has the raw power to take a ball out of every park. There is a chance he could be exposed as a glorified part-time player who just isn't worthy of a full season's workload, especially given his inability to draw walks.
That said, at worst, he should continue to be a matchup nightmare for lefties and continue to hit around 20 home runs, regardless of where he ends up.