6 Hidden Free-Agent Gems That Are Being Overlooked for 2014
The main focus of the MLB offseason will soon turn to Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka, who will be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles, and free-agent starters Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, who are all still on the board.
While most interested teams have been waiting to see how the Tanaka situation unfolds, top free-agent hitters Nelson Cruz and Stephen Drew are also still available, along with closers Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney.
Aside from those players, there aren't many available on the free-agent market who are expected to make a significant impact on a big league roster. That doesn't mean there aren't those who could fill an integral role and help a team in some way, even if it's at the back of the rotation or off of the bench.
In July, contending teams will be looking for these types of players, who can be had now at a likely bargain rate.
Here are six such free agents who are still available.
Jeff Baker, IF/OF
Players who can bring a combination of defensive versatility while providing some hitting ability off of the bench are few and far between.
Jeff Baker is one of those rare players.
The 32-year-old has experience at five positions (1B, 2B, 3B, LF, RF) during his nine-year career and a career .826 OPS against left-handed pitchers. In 2013, he had a 1.073 OPS with 10 homers in 101 at-bats for the Texas Rangers.
There isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't love to have him coming off of its bench, and most would even have a spot in their starting lineup for Baker whenever a left-handed pitcher is on the hill.
Maybe his asking price is a bit steep for a part-time player and that's why he's still available. I'm sure Willie Bloomquist's two-year, $5.8 million deal with Seattle has something to do with that.
Or maybe teams are just overlooking the value of someone who might not bat more than 200 times during the season.
If he can be had at two years and $7 million or less, he's going to make some team very happy with what will be a very modest investment.
Scott Baker, SP
While the Atlanta Braves are taking a chance that Gavin Floyd can come back from May 2013 Tommy John surgery—they recently signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal—one pitcher who couldn't make a quick enough recovery last season could be overlooked, as he's set to enter the 2014 season nearly two years removed from the same surgery.
Scott Baker signed with the Cubs last offseason with the hopes that he'd return from April 2012 Tommy John surgery early in the season. After multiple setbacks, though, the former Twins ace didn't make his first start with the Cubs until September. It ended up being a bad $5.5 million investment.
Teams could now be shying away from the 32-year-old, but the reality is that the recovery from that particular surgery is closer to 18 months. A pitcher is rarely back to his previous form for two years.
If Baker can return to his pre-injury form— with a 3.14 ERA, 2.1 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9 in 134.2 innings in his curtailed 2011 season—he'd be worth much more than he'll likely end up settling for this offseason.
Jason Hammel, SP
In Jason Hammel's first 14 starts after being traded from the Colorado Rockies—the team which is last on any big league pitcher's list of attractive teams, Hammond went 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA, 29 walks and 87 strikeouts in 89.2 innings for the Baltimore Orioles. He also held opponents to a .599 OPS.
At age 30, Hammel was pitching as well as he ever had in his major league career before a knee injury sidelined him, limiting him to only five more appearances the rest of the way. He also had a hard time in getting back on track in 2013, posting a 4.97 ERA in 139.1 innings.
So which hammel will show up in 2014?
Teams probably aren't willing to invest a lot of money to find out, for fear that the guy who was so good early in 2012 may never show up again. If his price tag drops below $6 million, it's worth most teams taking a shot and hoping, at the very least, that he can be a solid back-of-the-rotation starter who can post at least a 4.25 ERA over 30 starts.
Tommy Hanson, SP
Once a top pitching prospect for the Atlanta Braves, Tommy Hanson burst onto the scene with a 2.89 ERA, 3.2 BB/9 and 8.2 K/9 in 21 starts as a rookie in 2009. He pitched well for the next few seasons, posting a 3.44 ERA in 56 starts.
But after a subpar performance in 2012, in which he had a 4.48 ERA in 31 starts, the Braves sent him packing in a trade to the Los Angeles Angels for reliever Jordan Walden.
It didn't quite work out for the Angels. Hanson continued to decline, posting a 5.42 ERA during a season that was interrupted by a forearm injury, and then banished to the minors for the first time since he broke into the big leagues.
After being non-tendered by the Angels, the 27-year-old now finds himself on the free-agent market earlier in his career than would've been expected and without the value most likely thought he would have.
While teams aren't lining up to give him a multi-year deal, Hanson is in a position where he could parlay a bounce-back season into a big raise in arbitration prior to the 2015 season—he would be under control for another season if he signed a one-year deal.
Of all the pitchers who are available as free agents, not many have the upside of Hanson. Considering that he was once practically untouchable as a prospect and an "ace of the future" for a Braves franchise that has one of the richest pitching traditions in the game, he's worth taking a flyer on.
Mark Reynolds, 1B/3B
When you think of Mark Reynolds, you think about strikeouts, mediocre defense at third base and extended slumps. He's certainly earned that reputation.
However, if you don't think about him in terms of being your team's starting third baseman, he actually brings a lot to the table.
He can play third base on a limited basis in a nicer way to describe his defense, which is actually quite good at first base. He also has the ability to put up huge numbers for at least a short period of time. He had a 1.013 OPS with 11 homers through his first 31 games with the Indians last season, and has a career .834 OPS versus left-handed pitchers.
Forgive me for thinking that the 30-year-old Reynolds could be one of the best right-handed hitting part-time players in the game if teams would just limit him to that role.
There's still a chance that the Yankees could give him another chance to be a starting third baseman if Alex Rodriguez's suspension is upheld, but he'd be much better off if a team gives him a two-year, $9 million deal to be a part-time player and nothing more.
Grady Sizemore, OF
For most who have played in the major leagues, being able to perform at 80 percent of their peak level usually isn't good enough. Even if you think of Grady Sizemore, after missing two full seasons recovering from knee surgery, as a guy who won't ever be as good as he once was, it doesn't mean he can't be a solid big leaguer.
At age 31, Sizemore can't be completely ruled out from a return to the same greatness that he had from 2005-2008 with the Cleveland Indians, when he boasted an .868 OPS while averaging 27 homers and 29 stolen bases per season.
It is a long shot, but if he's healthy again after his long absence, maybe he can be 75-80 percent of the player he used to be.
Even if he's declined to the point where he's a guy who can play only 100 games while posting a .725 OPS with 12 homers and 10 stolen bases, that's still pretty good value for what he'd cost a team this offseason.