Under-the-Radar MLB Free Agents Who Will Draw Big Interest Across the League
Robinson Cano should get at least $200 million as a free agent this offseason. There have been rumblings that Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann could each net $100 million. Ervin Santana and Matt Garza are also headed for huge paydays.
It's a safe bet that most teams in baseball will, at the least, be checking in with the agents for these impact players to find out what it would take to sign them.
But the most heavily recruited free agents aren't necessarily the most talented stars on the market. Teams are looking for great values. They're looking for players that fit needs on their roster and in the clubhouse.
Here are seven free agents who won't end up with the biggest contracts this winter, but they will have plenty of interest around the league.
Scott Baker, SP
Prior to Tommy John surgery that kept him out of action for nearly two years, Baker was having his best pro season in 2011 with a 3.14 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9 in 134.2 innings. Prior to that, he had established himself as a very solid mid-rotation starter for the Twins with a 55-42 career record and 4.32 ERA from 2005-2010.
After missing all of 2012, the 32-year-old finally made it back for three late-season starts with the Cubs in 2013 (15 IP, 6 ER, 9 H, 4 BB, 6 K), which should be enough to put him back on the radar of just about every team in the majors that is well aware of his previous success.
There will be much less risk than last offseason when the Cubs signed him to a one-year, $5.5 million deal in the hopes that he'd return to the mound early in the season. As a result, there will be a longer line of suitors.
Still, the long absence, small sample size upon his return and average fastball that was nearly three mph less than before the surgery (91 mph in 2011, 88.5 mph in 2013, according to FanGraphs) could limit his value once again. He might ultimately settle for the best one-year deal on the table so he can rebuild his value and re-enter the free-agent market again next offseason.
Jesse Crain, RP
Missing the last three months of the regular season is likely enough to keep Crain behind the long list of proven closers on the free-agent market. It will also limit the amount of interest he'll get from teams wiling to give him his first shot at a closing gig.
But those first three months of the season, in which he dominated with a 0.74 ERA, 11 walks and 46 strikeouts in 36.2 innings, will ensure that just about every team in baseball will be checking in and asking what it would take to sign the 32-year-old to pitch out of their bullpen in some capacity.
It wouldn't be a huge surprise if he took a discounted rate for a chance to close—the Astros and Cubs are possibilities—but he'd likely leave several three-year offers on the table from teams that want him in a setup role.
Franklin Gutierrez, OF
Throwing guaranteed money at a guy who has played in only 173 games over the past three seasons due to a multitude of injuries isn't likely on the agenda of any team this winter. But when that player is 30-year-old Franklin Gutierrez, a former Gold Glove winner in center field who hit 10 homers in only 145 at-bats when he was on the field in 2013, there shouldn't be a shortage of interest from teams hoping to sign him to an incentive-laden deal.
Aside from the injuries, Gutierrez's five walks and 43 strikeouts are also a concern. But if he stays healthy, a team would be getting a very good defender in center field capable of hitting 20-plus homers. At the least, he'd be a solid fourth outfielder that plays regularly against lefties—he has a career .818 OPS against them.
Dan Haren, SP
A so-so 2012 season and an awful first three months of the 2013 had pushed Dan Haren out of any conversation that included the top starting pitchers in the game. But as the Nats were falling out of contention, the three-time All-Star was turning things around.
Over his last 16 appearances (15 starts), Haren posted a 3.29 ERA with 18 walks and 84 strikeouts in 87.2 innings pitched. The Nats did make a run at a wild-card spot, which is why he wasn't traded, but it wasn't enough to get the 33-year-old back in the spotlight making too many meaningful starts before he hits free agency.
But since most teams won't or can't pay the price for Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tim Lincecum, Ervin Santana or Masahiro Tanaka, there could be much more interest in the next tier of starters. Haren could be at the top of that group, which should make him a very popular starting pitcher target this offseason.
Corey Hart, 1B/OF
Missing an entire season recovering from separate surgeries to both knees would normally deflate a player's value. And while Corey Hart's expected cost has likely gone down, his track record of success and the lack of right-handed power hitters on the free-agent market will ensure that teams won't shy away from the 31-year-old.
Over a six-year period from 2007-2012, Hart posted an .830 OPS with an average of 24 homers, 33 doubles and 13 stolen bases per season. His ability to play either first base or a corner outfield spot should also increase the number of suitors.
While he'd be willing to take a pay cut in order to stay in Milwaukee, according to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Hart could change his mind quickly once he realizes how popular he is on the free-agent market.
Scott Kazmir, SP
While there will be several very good starting pitchers on the free-agent market, all but a couple of them are right-handed. Scott Kazmir is one of those who happens to be left-handed. And his price won't be as high considering he was pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Independent League in 2012 and hadn't been an effective major league pitcher in years.
But Kazmir came back strong after signing a minor league deal with the Indians last offseason. In 29 starts, the 29-year-old had a 4.04 ERA with 2.7 BB/9 and 9.2 K/9. And he continued to get better as the season went along, posting a 3.06 ERA over his last 18 starts.
As long as the price tag doesn't exceed two years and $18 million, he could have at least half the teams in baseball involved in the bidding.
Dioner Navarro, C
At age 29, Navarro has already had an up-and-down career. He was a top prospect as a minor leaguer. He's been traded multiple times. He was an All-Star with the Rays in 2008. He failed to hit much over the next few seasons. His work ethic has been questioned.
The switch-hitting catcher has had a career resurgence, however, that started late in the 2012 season while with the Reds. Including his 89 games with the Cubs in 2013, Navarro has an .834 OPS with 15 homers in 113 games over the past two seasons. He's solid defensively, throwing out 25 percent of attempted base stealers over that span.
Several teams are in need of catching help this offseason, and most cannot afford Brian McCann. Navarro's going to cash in on his recent success, which would be the highest point of his roller-coaster career. But his price tag won't scare teams away.