10 Low-Risk, High-Reward MLB Free Agents Still on the Open Market

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIDecember 24, 2013

10 Low-Risk, High-Reward MLB Free Agents Still on the Open Market

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    Suffice it to say, the 2014 MLB free-agent market is getting thin. 

    Sure, Nelson Cruz is still available. Plus, a number of front-line starters are still unaccounted for as the Masahiro Tanaka posting saga has held up the entire market for starting pitchers. Of course, all of those players are expected to command top dollar. 

    However, there are also quality contributors to be acquired at bargain prices. Many of them are bullpen options and bench bats, but there are even a few All-Stars in the mix.  

    Here's a rundown of the top 10 low-risk, high-reward MLB free agents still on the open market. 

    Note: All stats via Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Jesse Crain

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    2013 Stats: 0.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 2.4 WAR

    In 2013, Jesse Crain posted an impressive 0.74 ERA in 38 games and even earned an All-Star nod.

    However, the right-hander didn't pitch in a game after June 29 due to a shoulder strain. The Tampa Bay Rays actually acquired Crain from the Chicago White Sox right before the trade deadline even though the reliever was on the DL at the time. The 32-year-old never appeared in a game for the Rays. 

    For the White Sox, though, Crain racked up 46 strikeouts in 36.2 innings, which was good for a 11.3 K/9 ratio. That figure matched his career best from 2012. Shoulder injuries are, of course, never good news for pitchers. As Joe Pawlikowski of River Ave Blues observes, Crain also missed 22 games in 2012 with a shoulder strain. 

    There is no doubt that Crain's injury track record is a cause for concern. On a one-year deal, though, a team can potentially add a premier setup man with minimal risk. 

Mark Reynolds

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    2013 Stats: .220/.306/.393, 21 home runs, 154 strikeouts, -0.3 WAR

    With 21 long balls in 2013, Mark Reynolds has now cleared the 20-home run plateau in six straight seasons.

    Of course, with that power comes an inordinate number of strikeouts. Last season, Reynolds struck out 30.6 percent of the time, which was the fifth-highest rate in MLB, according to FanGraphs. As his underwhelming .393 slugging percentage demonstrates, nearly all of Reynolds' offensive value is tied to his ability to hit home runs.

    Defensively, the 30-year-old is best suited for first base, but Reynolds also played 54 games at third in 2013 and even made a couple of appearances at second for the New York Yankees. The chances of Reynolds returning to the Bronx improve greatly if Alex Rodriguez's 211-game ban is upheld.

    However, Reynolds would also be a strong match for a National League club where he could be utilized as a power bat off the bench. 

Francisco Rodriguez

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    2013 Stats: 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 1.2 WAR

    Francisco Rodriguez is the first reliever with closing experience to hit the list. 

    The right-hander was 10-for-10 in save opportunities with the Milwaukee Brewers before getting shipping off to the Baltimore Orioles in July. With the Orioles, Rodriguez assumed a much less prominent role, and for that reason he was not expected to return to the team. 

    As Dan Connolly of the Baltimore Sun reports, that could change now that the club's deal for Grant Balfour has fallen through. Rodriguez will post big strikeout numbers wherever he lands, and that's always a valuable commodity out of the bullpen. 

Michael Young

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    2013 Stats: .279/.335/.395, 8 home runs, -1.2 WAR

    It might sound ridiculous, but Michael Young is the top third base option on the free-agent market, per CBS Sports.

    Young isn't likely to secure a job as an everyday player, but as a bench piece he's an intriguing option. In 2013, the veteran logged time at both corner infield spots and even appeared in a handful of games at second base and shortstop. 

    Young, who owns a .300 career average, is also an accomplished bench player. Last season, Young hit .364 (4-for-11) as a pinch hitter. His best days are behind him, but the seven-time All-Star will provide defensive versatility, high average and veteran leadership to his new club in 2014. 


Bronson Arroyo

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    2013 Stats: 14-12, 3.79 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 2.5 WAR

    Having pitched at least 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons, Bronson Arroyo is one of the most consistent pitchers in the game.

    As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports writes, Arroyo is in the market for a contract of at least two years. If the right-hander could be signed on such a deal, he would represent an excellent value. While starters like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez are clearly a cut above Arroyo, they're also all expected to command much lengthier deals. 

    The workhorse would be a solid addition on a two-year deal in the neighborhood of the $20 million pact that Bartolo Colon received from the New York Mets. 

Grant Balfour

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    2013 Stats: 2.59 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 38 Saves, 1.4 WAR

    It will be interesting to see what type of deal Balfour has to settle for after the Orioles backed out of a two-year, $15 million agreement due to concerns about his shoulder. 

    That contract already seemed team-friendly enough for a pitcher coming off an All-Star campaign in which he posted 38 saves. Even after the botched deal with the Orioles, there still appears to be a strong market for the reliever. Balfour told Jim Duquette of MLB Network Radio that four teams are in on him and that he has "at least one offer on the table." 

    According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, "Balfour pointed out...that two respected doctors said that he is completely healthy." Balfour's agent Seth Levinson later released a statement confirming that claim (via the Baltimore Sun).

    Assuming his shoulder holds up, Balfour will be a steal for his new employers in 2014. 


Jeff Baker

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    2013 Stats: .279/.360/.545, 11 home runs, 0.7 WAR

    Jeff Baker crushed left-handed pitching for the Texas Rangers last season.

    The 32-year-old put up a 1.073 OPS against lefties and swatted 10 of his 11 home runs off them. Stats like that make Baker an ideal platoon option for an array of clubs. The Rangers are a fit, as the newly acquired Shin-Soo Choo hit just .200 off left-handers in 2013. 

    Baker also brings defensive versatility to the table, as he spent time at the infield and outfield corner spots last year and even appeared in one game at second base. If he's utilized sparingly against right-handers, Baker could have a huge season in 2014. 

Delmon Young

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    2013 Stats: .260/.307/.407, 11 home runs, -0.9 WAR

    As a former No. 1 overall pick, Delmon Young has never come close to living up to his prodigious potential.

    In 80 games for the Philadelphia Phillies last year, Young produced just a .699 OPS leading to his release. However, after resurfacing with the Rays, Young put up a far more respectable .780 OPS and a 117 OPS+. As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports tweets, Young has added first base to his resume this offseason "with the goal of increasing his versatility for interested clubs."

    That can't hurt, but Young is still best suited for the American League, where he can split time between the field and the designated hitter's spot. 



A.J. Burnett

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    2013 Stats: 10-11, 3.30 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 1.7 WAR

    It remains to be seen if A.J. Burnett will pitch in 2014. 

    Originally, the 15-year veteran was picking between the Pittsburgh Pirates and retirement, as he expressed to Colin Dunlap on 93.7 The Fan. However, the Orioles are now in the frame as well, according to Roch Kubatko of MASN reports. 

    If Burnett does return for 2014, he's likely to earn a deal in the $15-million range. While that's far from cheap, it also entails far less risk than signing one of the big-name starters to a multi-year deal. 

Mark Mulder

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    2013 Stats: N/A

    Even though he hasn't thrown a big-league pitch since 2008, Mark Mulder is looking to make a comeback. 

    As Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports, Mulder is open to an incentive-laden or "creative contract." Cafardo adds that the left-hander has already worked out for the San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Angels, Phillies and the Giants. Mulder has also reportedly raised his velocity from 88 to 92 MPH. 

    Due to his extensive layoff, no team can afford to bank on such a wild card to fill a rotation spot. Still, for a pitching-rich team, Mulder would make for a perfect flier with an enormous upside. 



    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck