The most discerning MLB general managers understand the art of buying low.
These talent evaluators don't just throw money at any player on the scrap heap. They know exactly when to spring for a free-agent ace rebounding from major surgery. They choose just the moment to pull the trigger on a deal for a floundering star who is ready to explode.
On the trade and free-agent markets, most players are wildly overvalued. However, there are also players who aren't. They are the players with defects—everything ranging from injury concerns to PED links to major underproduction.
Here's the ranking of the top 10 “buy low” options on the MLB winter market this offseason. The list begins with No. 10—the safest bet, and counts down to No. 1—the player with the largest upside, but also the highest risk.
10. David Murphy
2013 Stats: .220/.282/.374, 26 doubles, 13 home runs, 77 OPS+, 0.4 WAR
David Murphy picked a terrible time to have the worst season of his career.
As Matthew Pouliot of HardballTalk.com noted, Murphy lost 200 percentage points off his OPS in 2013. The left fielder was consistently poor throughout the season, as he managed an .800 OPS or better for just one month. However, a resurgence is highly possible.
Murphy's power didn't desert him, as he still hit 13 home runs. In eight big league seasons, he owns a .778 OPS. While his contract year did not go to plan for Murphy, potential suitors will have the chance to buy an accomplished hitter at a discount price.
9. Starlin Castro
2013 Stats: .245/.284/.347, 34 doubles, 10 home runs, 72 OPS+, -0.1 WAR
2013 Salary: $5 million (first season of seven-year, $60.57 million deal)
Starlin Castro posted career lows in just about every statistical category in 2013.
His average dropped, his OBP tumbled below .300 and the young shortstop struck out at his highest rate ever. It's certainly troubling that Castro laid an egg in the first year of his big contract. While his numbers were down by Castro's standards, a quick peek at the list of free-agent shortstops serves as a reminder that he's still a solid option at the position.
The Cubs need pitching badly. As Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune explained, flipping Castro could help the team fix that problem:
“You have to think a young shortstop would bring a lot of pitching, or at least one pitcher better than what Jeff Samardzija was supposed to be.”
The team also has an heir apparent to Castro in Javier Baez, which would enable them to absorb the loss.
If not for that massive deal anchoring him down, Castro would be the ultimate “buy low” candidate. As it currently stands, he's still an intriguing option at a very weak position around the league. If he regresses more in 2014, though, his value will plummet.
8. Josh Johnson
2013 Stats: 2-8, 6.20 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 9.2 K/9
2013 Salary: $13.75 million
Josh Johnson was so bad in 2013 that it's almost hard to remember how good he used to be.
Last season for the Toronto Blue Jays, the righty made just 16 starts as he dealt with elbow injuries. Johnson's season was cut short in August and he eventually had to undergo surgery on his pitching arm, per Matt Snyder of CBS Sports.
A dismal season and elbow woes are not exactly how any pitcher wants to enter the free-agent market. The one positive from Johnson's 2013 season was that he posted the highest K/9 ratio of his entire career.
Clearly, Johnson can still produce swings and misses when he's physically right. A return to the NL with a one-year deal could be just what the tall right-hander needs to get back on track.
7. Michael Morse
2013 Stats: .215/.270/.381, 13 doubles, 13 home runs, 84 OPS+, -1.6 WAR
2013 Salary: $6.75 million
Michael Morse was terrible for not one, but two teams in 2013.
The slugger posted a sub-.700 OPS in a half-season for the Seattle Mariners before getting shipped off to the Baltimore Orioles. Morse's production didn't pick up with the change of scenery either, as he hit just .103 in limited duty for the Orioles.
Morse's best season came in 2011, when he finished with 31 home runs and a .303 average for the Washington Nationals. Moving forward, Morse still provides enormous raw power, but at the cost of a low average and huge strikeout numbers.
6. Carlos Ruiz
2013 Stats: .268/.320/.368, 13 doubles, 5 home runs, 90 OPS+, 1.4 WAR
2013 Salary: $5 Million
Carlos Ruiz is not returning to his 2012 form.
In 2012, he hit .325/.395/.540 with 32 doubles, 16 home runs and a .935 OPS. In 2013, Ruiz only made it into 92 games due to a 25-game suspension for using amphetamines and because of a strained hamstring. Ruiz's power all but vanished, as he totaled just five home runs and posted a .368 slugging percentage. Plus, the catcher is about to turn 35.
Still, the veteran backstop should have multiple options. Troy Renck of the Denver Post reported that the Colorado Rockies are pursuing Ruiz. The main draws are his playoff experience and his skills in handling pitching staffs.
Ruiz would represent a far more compelling "buy low" candidate if he weren't a ghost of his former self at the plate.
5. Corey Hart
2013 Stats: Did not play due to injury
2013 Salary: $10 million
Corey Hart missed all of 2013 after undergoing surgeries on both of his knees.
It was brutal timing for Hart after he had totaled 30 home runs in 2012 and clocked at least 26 homers in each of his two prior seasons. Had the right-handed hitter posted stats like that again in 2013, he would have scored a major multi-year deal.
Now, however, Hart just wants to make thinks right with the Milwaukee Brewers. He explained to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
I'd definitely take a discount to stay here because I think I owe it to them to stay here and be a cheaper player...Nobody wants to play for free but I basically sat there and watched all season. I owe it to them and the fans to come back at a cheaper price.
It's a generous offer from Hart. With 30-home run potential, however, the Brewers won't be the only bidder for the two-time All-Star.
4. Kevin Youkilis
2013 Stats: .219/.305/.343, 7 doubles, 2 home runs, 78 OPS+, -0.4 WAR
2013 Salary: $12 million
Kevin Youkilis only played in 28 games for the New York Yankees in 2013 due to back problems that kept him off the diamond.
According to Mark Feinsand of the Daily News, there are no longer "any issues" with his health. After back-to-back subpar seasons, however, Youkilis will have a bit of an issue in landing a new deal.
The infielder will be intriguing option for teams looking for power at the corner infield spots, but at a substantially lower price tag than the $12 million he earned in 2013.
Youkilis will be 35 by Opening Day 2014. With another big season, he could play his way into one last multi-year deal. Another dud of a season, however, will see him fall off the radar altogether.
3. Brett Anderson
2013 Stats: 1-4, 6.04 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 9.3 K/9
2013 Salary: $5.75 million
2013 was a lost season for Brett Anderson.
The lefty appeared in 16 games for the Oakland A's and ended the season in the bullpen. Despite his struggles, the A's have already picked up his $8.5 million option for 2014.
Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that move could be the precursor to a trade, with the Blue Jays as a potential landing spot.
Oakland has a stable of young starting pitchers, so relying on the injury-prone Anderson doesn't make much sense. In five big league seasons, the 25-year-old had made 30 starts just once. For less pitching-rich teams, however, trading for Anderson is a risk worth taking.
There simply aren't that many left-handed starters with his level of talent. Now, if only Anderson could just stay healthy.
2. Roy Halladay
2013 Stats: 4-5, 6.82 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 7.4 K/9
2013 Salary: $20 million
For the first time since 2004, Roy Halladay failed to win 10 games last season.
After making just seven starts, the veteran had to undergo shoulder surgery in May. When the two-time Cy Young Award winner returned in August, it did not turn out well.
John Finger of CSN Philly explained that, “His velocity was gone, and the bite on his breaking pitches had no teeth.”
That's a rough assessment regarding Halladay, and it doesn't bode well for the 36-year-old's future. However, Finger also noted that Halladay had hurried back from the surgery to help out the club. With a full offseason to rest, Halladay has the chance to regain that edge.
For a contender, the eight-time All-Star could be the X-factor in 2014. For that to happen, though, Halladay will have to settle for an incentive-laden deal just a year after pulling in $20 million.
1. Johan Santana
2013 Stats: Did not play due to injury
2013 Salary: $25 million
Johan Santana is the ultimate reclamation project.
According to Andy Martino of the Daily News, the New York Mets have already dropped $5.5 million to buy out the lefty's $25 million option for 2014.
Santana missed all of 2013 as he rehabbed from surgery to repair a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder. That was the second time that Santana had undergone the same procedure.
As Adam Rubin of ESPN New York pointed out, it took Santana 19 months to recover from his first surgery. That means there's no guarantee he'll pitch in 2014 even though he has already begun to throw.
For a team with a deep starting staff, Santana represents the perfect flier. When he's physically right, Santana is one one of the most devastatingly effective pitchers in recent memory. The only catch, however, is that he may never be healthy enough to pitch again.