Baseball is doing better than ever financially, with Maury Brown of Forbes recently reporting that MLB's gross revenue for 2013 will eclipse $8 billion for the first time in league history. With big national TV deals kicking in this year, Forbes predicts the revenue could be as high as $9 billion by 2014.
As such, teams are spending at a record rate. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports detailed the series of big contracts signed this winter, speculating that the league-wide tab for free agents will easily shatter the record of $1.75 billion spent during the 2006 offseason.
But that's not to say there weren't some relatively low-cost signings that can pay big dividends in 2014. Here's a look at the top five free-agent deals in term of contract value so far this offseason.
Contract: One year, $5 million
Team: San Francisco Giants
Analysis: Ryan Vogelsong has resurrected his career in San Francisco, but his 2013 was derailed by a variety of setbacks.
Vogelsong represented USA in the World Baseball Classic before getting off to a poor start, ranking among the league's worst in ERA for the first two months of the year. Just as he was in the midst of his best outing of the season on May 20, Vogelsong was hit by a pitch that broke a finger in his right hand. It sidelined him until August, and he could never string together any rhythm in 2013.
He finished with a 4-6 record, 5.73 ERA, 1.56 WHIP and 5.8 K/9 ratio in 19 starts, down from the combined 27-16 record, 3.05 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 7.2 K/9 ratio he put together with the Giants in 2011-12 following five years out of MLB. After the season, he admitted that playing in the WBC may have contributed to his slow start to the year.
The Giants were able to lock up Vogelsong for a fraction of other veteran righties on the market like Bartolo Colon (two years, $20 million), who could put up similar numbers with the New York Mets at a much higher price. Vogelsong’s 2013 can be viewed as an aberration, and he should be counted on to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation force for the Giants in 2014.
Contract: Two years, $8 million
Team: Toronto Blue Jays
Analysis: In an offseason when catchers like Brian McCann (five years, $85 million), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (three years, $21 million) and A.J. Pierzynski (one year, $8.25 million) each inked sizeable deals, Dioner Navarro quietly agreed to join Toronto.
The team has moved on from J.P. Arencibia and found a relatively cheap option in Navarro, who showed major promise with the Chicago Cubs this past season. In 89 games, Navarro batted .300/.365/.492 with 13 homers and 34 RBIs, and now he’s earned a crack at a starting job.
Navarro is only 29 years old, and when compared to the three-year, $26 million contract signed by 34-year-old Carlos Ruiz, his deal is very club-friendly. It remains to be seen if Navarro can succeed in an everyday role, but the Blue Jays don’t have to break the bank to find out.
Navarro was able to post solid numbers in a backup role with the lackluster Cubs offense, so it will be interesting to see how playing in a lineup that features potent hitters like Joey Bautista, Jose Reyes and Edwin Encarnacion.
Contract: One year, $4.5 million
Team: Cleveland Indians
Analysis: Closers are commanding big bucks these days, but the Indians were able to fill their void at the position for a reasonable price.
John Axford was among baseball’s best closers in 2011 (46 saves. 1.95 ERA) for the Milwaukee Brewers but struggled mightily in 2012-13 before being shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for the stretch run this past season. With St. Louis, Axford looked rejuvenated, posting a 1.74 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 ratio in 13 appearances.
While he comes with some question marks, Axford’s deal is far smaller than the ones secured by other relievers like Joaquin Benoit (two years, $15.5 million) and Joe Nathan (two years, $20 million). If Axford is able to come close to his form from a couple of years ago, it would be an absolute steal for Cleveland.
Contract: One year, $3 million
Team: New York Yankees
Analysis: The Yankees have a lot of moving parts in the infield, and Johnson is one of them who offers them a lot of options.
He and fellow free-agent veteran Brian Roberts are the top candidates to fill the void left by Robinson Cano at second base, while Johnson can also be an option at third base if Alex Rodriguez is suspended in 2014. Not to mention he played 53 games in left field for the Tampa Bay Rays this past season.
Johnson appears to be past his prime, with a .226/.307/.395 slash line the past three years, but still has some power in his bat. In 2013, Johnson batted .235/.305/.410 with 16 home runs and 52 RBIs. With the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, he could be able to dial up his home run total to 20-plus in 2014.
At $3 million in a position of need for the Yankees, Johnson will prove to be a valuable asset in an offseason when he's been overshadowed by the signings of new teammates like Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.
Contract: Two years, $4.5 million
Team: Baltimore Orioles
Analysis: Ryan Webb has quietly put together a solid career as a relief pitcher the past four seasons with the San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins, posting a lifetime ERA of 3.29. Since breaking in with the Padres in 2009, Webb has also been reliable, making just one trip to the disabled list in three-plus seasons, coming in 2011.
Webb pitched a career-high 80.1 innings for the Marlins in 2013, ending the year with a 2.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 6.0 K/9 ratio. He doesn't have the power numbers and big strikeouts to be a closer, but Webb should be a solid setup man at a discount price.
Other setup men like Joaquin Benoit (two years, $15.5 million) and Edward Mujica (two years, $9.5 million) commanded much more on the open market, but should post comparable stats in 2014. Webb isn't a household name, but he's just 27 years old and provides a dependable right-handed arm for Baltimore.