Hidden Gems on the 2014 MLB Free Agency Market
MLB free agency is about a week old now and there still hasn't been much action. But expect that to heat up with 13 players declining their respective qualifying offers on Tuesday, cementing the dynamics of the offseason market.
Big free-agent names like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka will likely garner the most media attention this winter, but keep your ear to the ground for low-profile signings that could have big impacts in 2014.
When the Red Sox signed Jonny Gomes to a two-year deal last November, it hardly made a blip on the MLB free agency radar. Eleven months later, it proved to be one of the best signings by Boston general manager Ben Cherington, as Gomes played a major role in reshaping the culture of the clubhouse and delivered in the clutch, helping the Sox win their third World Series title in 10 seasons.
Before the flurry of MLB free agency takes hold, let's take a look at some of the hidden gems on the market this winter.
Jeff Baker, 1B
Jeff Baker is a 32-year-old journeyman who has played for five different teams since making his MLB debut in 2005. He proved to be a solid bench player for the Texas Rangers in 2013, posting a .279 batting average, 11 home runs and 21 RBI in 175 plate appearances.
Baker hasn't shown much power, with his career high being 12 home runs in 2008, but his production last year is encouraging and should earn him some looks on the market. Granted, you can't expect Baker to keep up his longball pace from last year throughout a 162-game season, but his 15.9 at-bat/home run ratio would have been No. 6 in baseball if he qualified.
Baker makes a lot of sense as a low-cost platoon option at first base and could even work his way into a starting job if he finds the right team. The cost-conscious Tampa Bay Rays might be looking for a new first baseman if James Loney decides to go elsewhere, and Baker seems like a good fit.
Corey Hart, 1B/OF
When you miss the entire season due to injury, there is sure to be some hesitation from potential suitors during free agency.
That's the conundrum MLB teams face with Corey Hart this winter as the slugger looks for work. He turns 32 in February and, according to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, would be willing to take a hometown discount from the Brewers to stay with the organization that drafted him in 2000.
Hart dealt with problems from both knees in 2013 before undergoing season-ending surgery in July. A player with two problematic knees certainly causes concern, but Hart's track record makes him worth a flier. If Hart is anything close to the player that averaged 24 homers and 78 RBI with a .277/.335/.495 slash line from 2007-12, he could be a discount compared to other right-handed hitters like Nelson Cruz with relatively the same impact.
Hart has primarily played in the outfield during his nine-year career, but he can also play first base, a move that could help keep him on the field longer. Moving to an American League team, where he could play designated hitter, also makes sense for Hart at this point in his career.
Dioner Navarro, C
This offseason's free-agent class features a few quality catchers, with the most notable being Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. While those two figure to get the biggest paydays, Dioner Navarro should also have a host of suitors.
Navarro turns 30 next February and is coming off a 2013 campaign in which he set career highs in batting average (.300) and home runs (13) while adding 34 RBI. Those are impressive numbers for a player who made 266 plate appearances in 89 games for the Chicago Cubs while backing up Welington Castillo.
The switch-hitter fared well against pitchers from both sides in 2013, batting .361 against lefties and .279 against righties. There's no reason to think Navarro can handle the responsibilities of an everyday catcher again, as he averaged 118 games from 2007-09 in Tampa Bay.
While he only hit a combined .249 in that previous three-year run as a starter, Navarro told Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago in September that he's ready for more playing time in 2014. Look for him to reclaim a starting job in what figures to be something of a carousel of catchers around the league next year.
Rajai Davis, Outfielder
The speedster could make a serious impact for the right contender after spending the past three seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Rajai Davis has established himself as one of the premier base stealers in baseball, averaging 43 stolen bases from 2009-13. He's also posted a .271/.317/.382 slash line in that span and could give a boost to the bottom of batting orders for teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Philadelphia Phillies, who each need outfield help.
He doesn't have much pop in his bat, but Davis hit a combined 14 home runs the past two years, which is better than any other two-year span in his career. Davis doesn't show any sign of slowing down despite turning 33 recently and would be a valuable addition to a contending lineup.
Ryan Vogelsong, SP
In 2013, Ryan Vogelsong never could recapture the form that made him a surprise force in the San Francisco Giants rotation from 2011-12. In those two seasons, Vogelsong went a combined 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA after spending four years out of MLB in Japan, playing a key role in the Giants' 2012 World Series run.
But he posted a 4-6 mark with a 5.73 ERA this past season in 19 starts, with a couple of major factors working against him. Near the end of the year, Vogelsong told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area that participation in the World Baseball Classic might have had an effect on him.
Vogelsong struggled mightily in his first nine outings of year with a 2-4 record, 7.19 ERA and .318 opponents' batting average. In the midst of his best start of the year, a scoreless five-inning performance against the Washington Nationals on May 20, Vogelsong broke his hand on an attempted bunt, keeping him out until August.
The Giants declined his $6.5 million option for 2014, but the club will consider bringing him back while also exploring the market, per Baggarly. In a year when there are plenty of other veterans like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez in line for sizable free-agent deals, Vogelsong could provide the same impact at a fraction of the price.
He's become a new pitcher since resurfacing with the Giants, but he is already 36 years old. Without a WBC in 2014 and his hand injury behind him, Vogelsong has the potential to put up similar—if not better—numbers than the other marquee names on the market.
Bruce Chen, SP
Like Vogelsong, Bruce Chen is 36 years old and could be near the end of his baseball career. But the crafty southpaw has been able to redefine his game even though his average fastball has dipped below 86 miles per hour.
Chen played a major role on the Kansas City Royals pitching staff in 2013, one which led the American League with a 3.45 ERA. He started the season as a long reliever but was moved back to the rotation in July, posting 6-4 record, 3.61 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 15 starts.
The biggest concern with Chen is his durability, as he's never topped 200 innings pitched in any of his 15 MLB seasons. Still, he deserves consideration for a short-term deal as a middle-of-the rotation starter by demonstrating his ability to pitch to his strengths.
Other younger southpaws like Jason Vargas will command bigger deals, but Chen is a low-risk, low-cost alternative who could produce similar results.
Jesse Crain, RP
Jesse Crain was on the verge of helping the Tampa Bay Rays during their playoff push this past September, but was ultimately held out due to a shoulder injury. Tampa Bay knew it was taking a risk when acquiring the injured right-hander from the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline, and Crain could never return from the disabled list.
So now Crain hits the open market without having pitched an inning for the Rays. The injury concern is a bit unsettling, but the 32-year-old merits consideration as a top setup man or possibly a closer this winter. Before he went down with his injury in 2013, Crain posted a 0.74 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 38 appearances for the White Sox.
With such a dominant first half of the year and a fastball that averaged about 95 miles per hour, Crain might have convinced some teams like the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers or Texas Rangers that he could fill their respective voids at closer. He has just four career saves and is coming off a notable shoulder injury, but Crain could be a ninth-inning solution for the price of a setup man.
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