MLB Free Agents in the Best, Worst Bargaining Positions at 1-Month Mark

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IDecember 1, 2013

MLB Free Agents in the Best, Worst Bargaining Positions at 1-Month Mark

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    During MLB free agency, teams covet youth, consistency, unique skill sets and any productive players who can be obtained without sacrificing future draft picks.

    Those who meet most of those criteria find themselves in terrific bargaining positions at the one-month mark; those who don't will likely wind up with fewer guaranteed years and dollars than they deserve.

    By looking at how rosters have been constructed in recent years and the terms of free-agent deals that were signed earlier this offseason, we can get a sense of which sort of players appeal to a wide range of suitors. Matt Garza and Bronson Arroyo, for example, shouldn't have much difficulty securing generous contracts that come close to reaching their initial asking prices.

    On the flip side, several veterans don't suit the style of baseball that most teams want to play in 2014.

     

    *Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

Best: RHP Bronson Arroyo

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    The contracts signed by Jason Vargas (four years, $32 million) and Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) prove that teams value innings-eaters. They would rather rest easy knowing that a not-so-special arm is taking the mound every fifth day than lie awake at odd hours wondering if an All-Star-caliber individual is going to spontaneously combust.

    Unlike Vargas or Nolasco, Bronson Arroyo has posted a better-than-average ERA in four of the past five seasons.* He's also the only member of this durable trio to avoid the disabled list for his entire major league career.

    The elephant at the negotiating table is Arroyo's birth certificate—he turns 37 in February.

    But Tim Hudson, who is one-and-a-half years his senior and coming off ankle surgery, had little trouble securing a multi-year deal.

    Arroyo understandably has a handful of teams pursuing him from both leagues, according to Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio, and no compensatory draft pick tied to him.

    Also keep in mind that Vargas and Nolasco received their money from the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins, clubs from relatively small markets. Meanwhile, Arroyo has generated interest from desperate high rollers in win-now mode like the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies.

    Life is good.

     

    *The exception being 2011, when Arroyo suffered from one of this decade's flukiest home-run-to-fly-ball ratios.

Worst: 1B James Loney

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    Scoring is gradually waning across the majors.

    The St. Louis Cardinals recognized that and invested $53 million in an offensive-minded middle infielder, Jhonny Peralta, and agent Scott Boras advised Kendrys Morales to decline a $14.1 million qualifying offer despite his limited skill set.

    Here's some good news for James Loney: Beyond those two, only a handful of respectable run producers reached free agency this offseason. There aren't many superior unsigned veterans battling him for first base vacancies.

    However, there are a handful of younger, cheaper trade candidates who have more of the position's prototypical (read: desirable) characteristics. Billy Butler, Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland and Mark Trumbo have all been subjects of trade speculation leading up to the MLB winter meetings (Dec. 9-12).

    Further hurting Loney's bargaining position is the fact that several logical destinations haven't made him a high priority.

    The Seattle Mariners, coming off a season of struggles against left-handed pitching, ought to be scared off by his dramatic lifetime platoon splits. The Colorado Rockies, meanwhile, prefer Justin Morneau in their search for Todd Helton's successor, according to The Denver Post's Troy Renck.

Best: OF Nate McLouth

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    Nate McLouth compares very favorably to David Murphy, who received a two-year, $12 million contract from the Cleveland Indians earlier this offseason.

    Both have just passed their 32nd birthdays, but McLouth is coming off a much more productive season in terms of reaching base and wreaking havoc between the foul lines. His platoon splits weren't particularly dramatic this past year (.753 OPS vs. RHP, .640 OPS vs. LHP), and his lifetime splits aren't quite as noticeable as Murphy's.

    In revealing that the Baltimore Orioles have an interest in re-signing McLouthThe Baltimore Sun's Dan Connolly provides another stat that bolsters his bargaining position: McLouth is fourth among active players in career stolen-base success rate (84.9).

    The veteran outfielder isn't truly a full-time player at this stage of his career, but unless he accepts a heavy hometown discount from the O's, he's about to get paid like one.

Worst: OF Rajai Davis

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    Rajai Davis is marginally inferior to Nate McLouth in several areas that, when considered in concert, soil his free-agent stock.

    First off, as a right-handed batter, he's only fit to serve as the smaller half of a platoon. Davis posted a .551 OPS, .638 OPS and .594 OPS against opposing right-handers in 2011, 2012 and 2013, respectively. This past season, unfortunately, 71.2 percent of all MLB plate appearances came against right-handed pitching.

    Davis is also one year older than McLouth, which makes an enormous difference when your value is predicated on baserunning and defensive versatility. There's skepticism that he can continue making a living as that sort of player.

    He'll play the 2014 season as a 33-year-old. Two major leaguers—Coco Crisp and David DeJesus—played at least 500 innings in center field at that age last summer. Endy Chavez, Andres Torres and DeWayne Wise were the only older outfielders to top 100 innings in center, and none of them produced enough with the bat to merit more than 300 plate appearances.

    Although Davis has led the American League in stolen bases over the past five seasons, sustaining that production is highly improbable. Father Time will soon compromise his durability and speed, leading to fewer base-stealing attempts and/or reduced efficiency.

    Because most teams emphasize on-base percentage, Davis doesn't appear to be a fit atop any lineup with his pedestrian .299 mark from 2011 to 2013.

Best: RHP Matt Garza

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    During an offseason in which no free-agent pitcher deserves a $100 million contract, Matt Garza has the best chance of obtaining one anyway.

    Garza cannot rival Ervin Santana or Ubaldo Jimenez in the durability department, but that isn't expected to impact his market value. The stress reaction in Garza's elbow that forced him to miss the final couple months of the 2012 season didn't affect him last summer, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. Neither the Chicago Cubs nor Texas Rangers provided treatment for it at any point.

    Moreover, a midseason trade involving those teams made the 30-year-old right-hander ineligible to receive a qualifying offer this winter. As a result, any team can pursue Garza without forfeiting a future draft pick.

    This is outstanding news for Garza because it invites the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers to bid on him. Rosenthal tweets that they're firmly committed to retaining their 2014 first-rounder but also interested in adding rotation depth, even after signing Dan Haren, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.

    Masahiro Tanaka isn't an option right now, as American and Japanese officials are continuing to negotiate a new international posting system. The bidding for Garza could intensify at the winter meetings if the Dodgers and others grow impatient with Tanaka's unresolved status.

Worst: 1B/DH Paul Konerko

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    Paul Konerko isn't tied to the Chicago White Sox, but he probably approached this offseason with the mindset that he would re-sign with them if he decided to continue playing in the big leagues.

    The All-Star slugger has spent the past 15 seasons in the Windy City and the past eight as White Sox captain. One of this millennium's most durable players, Konerko was an integral member of the organization's 2005 world-champion roster.

    Even coming off an ugly, sub-replacement-level campaign in which he batted .244/.313/.355, Konerko can count on his longtime team—currently in rebuilding mode—to demonstrate its loyalty by offering a generous chunk of 2014 payroll and playing time, right?

    Nope.

    Just a week before he filed for free agency, the White Sox officially signed Cuban legend Jose Abreu to a six-year deal. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf can say all the politically correct things he wants on local sports radio (h/t Chicago Tribune), but that doesn't soften the cold truth—the White Sox have kicked Konerko to the curb.

    The 37-year-old doesn't need our sympathy; most veterans receive this treatment once they develop chronic injuries and lose all mobility. Konerko apparently isn't an exception.

    There ought to be several teams interested in offering major league deals to him, but they figure to come with tiny base salaries.

Best: RHP Joe Nathan

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    With Mariano Rivera now retired from the game, it's time for Joe Nathan to seize the title of highest-paid reliever.

    Although free agents Grant Balfour, Chris Perez and Fernando Rodney also have multiple years of closing experience, Nathan beats them easily in the consistency department. He has 35-plus saves in eight of the past 10 seasons—he battled elbow issues in 2010 and 2011—and a 90.9 percent conversion rate during that dominant decade.

    The Texas Rangers didn't want to run the risk of having Nathan accept a $14.1 million qualifying offer, so they never extended one to him. That means the best bullpen arm available is only going to cost his next team in terms of dollars and cents, and this offseason has proven that the league isn't averse to paying for quality.

    The 39-year-old has reached the open market at a time of ninth-inning transition for notorious high spenders like the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees. Moreover, ESPN's Buster Olney tweets that the Baltimore Orioles might free up payroll by listening to offers for current closer Jim Johnson.

    Two years removed from winning bidding wars for Michael Cuddyer and Aramis Ramirez, respectively, perhaps the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers could open up their wallets again.

    By winter's end, Nathan will get well-compensated with a multi-year contract. An average annual value of $15 million isn't out of the question.

     

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.