Projecting Which Offseason Signings Will Be Biggest Bargains in 2014
Marlon Byrd, Bartolo Colon, Scott Feldman, Francisco Liriano, Mike Napoli, Hyun-jin Ryu and Koji Uehara all signed free-agent deals last offseason. All seven made the general manager who signed them look like a genius because their performances far exceeded their contracts.
Which free-agent signees from this offseason will be part of the "Biggest Bargains" group for 2014? Here are my top seven picks.
Carlos Beltran Signs 3-Year, $45 Million Deal with New York Yankees
After his third consecutive productive season of playing at least 142 games as an everyday right fielder and yet another great postseason—he now has a 1.128 OPS and 16 homers in 51 career playoff games—I thought Carlos Beltran could possibly get a three-year, $60 million deal as a free agent this offseason.
He did end up getting a three-year deal for his ages 37-39 seasons, but the New York Yankees got one of the best hitters in the game for only $15 million per year. The biggest question, obviously, is whether he will stay healthy and continue to produce at such a high level through his late 30s.
While a player's production can decline suddenly from one year to the next once he's in his 30s, Beltran has shown no signs of slowing down and has been one of the most consistent players in the game for more than a decade. Over the past 13 seasons, he's had a sub-.830 OPS only twice (.744 OPS in 2005; .768 OPS in 2010) and he's been an All-Star in eight of those years.
Beltran seems rejuvenated at the opportunity to be a Yankee, which could play a role in his performance:
Having the opportunity to come back again as a Yankee really means a lot to me. I grew being a Yankee fan. Grew up being a Bernie Williams fan. At one point I almost got the opportunity to sign with the Yankees. It didn't work out. But at the end of the day what is in the past, is in the past. I'm looking forward to joining this ballclub, looking forward to the challenges ahead.
The ability to utilize him in the designated hitter spot at least once or twice per week should also help greatly. Even if that number rises to four or five times per week or if he has to move to the designated hitter spot permanently by year three of his deal, he should still have enough value as a hitter to earn his salary.
Jesse Crain Signs 1-Year, $3.25 Million Deal with Houston Astros
By giving a 32-year-old reliever an opportunity to be a closer for the first time in his career, a team usually has a pretty good chance of getting that pitcher at a discounted rate. But in Jesse Crain's case, the Houston Astros may have gotten a discount on top of the discount with the one-year, $3.25 million deal that was agreed upon.
After a half-season of dominance (0.74 ERA, 2.7 BB/9, 11.3 K/9) in a setup role for the Chicago White Sox, Crain went down with a shoulder injury in late June that forced him to miss the rest of the season. Concern over that injury may have prevented him from getting a strong multiyear offer as a setup man, though it's hard to imagine a team not giving him a one-year deal with a much greater salary than the Astros gave him.
Not only will he help to solidify the Astros' revamped bullpen, which also includes veterans Chad Qualls and Matt Albers, he'll be a top trade chip in July as long as he's healthy.
Franklin Gutierrez Signs 1-Year, $1 Million Deal with Seattle Mariners
As an injury-prone player making between $4.3 million and $7 million and who was expected to play an integral role as the Mariners' starting center fielder over the past three seasons, Franklin Gutierrez was a major disappointment. He played in only 173 games due to multiple injuries while earning a total of $16 million over that span.
But as a player with a $1 million salary—he was re-signed by Seattle last month—and not counted on to be anything more than a fourth outfielder who plays regularly against left-handed pitching, the 30-year-old has a chance to make up for at least part of those lost years.
In 145 at-bats last season, he hit 10 homers. He also had 18 home runs in 2009 and stole 25 bases while winning a Gold Glove as a center fielder in 2010. Gutierrez is a talented player who hasn't been able to stay healthy.
His career .818 OPS against left-handed pitchers indicates that he could be great in the role he's expected to take on in 2014. Anything more would be a bonus, but it's very likely he can do much more if he can just stay on the field.
Corey Hart Signs 1-Year, $6 Million Deal with Seattle Mariners
Concerns over a degenerative hip condition caused the Boston Red Sox to pull a three-year, $39 million offer to Mike Napoli off the table last offseason. They eventually settled on a one-year deal that guaranteed him just $5 million, though he earned an additional $8 million in incentives after a productive and injury-free season.
Corey Hart now finds himself in a similar position, unable to land a multiyear deal after missing the 2013 season recovering from surgeries on both knees. The Seattle Mariners are guaranteeing the 31-year-old $6 million on a one-year deal—$1 million more than Napoli—but Hart will be able to match Napoli's total of $13 million in earnings through incentives.
If Hart is 100 percent recovered and his knees are strong, it's hard to believe that his performance will decline much. He's been highly productive in each of his six full big league seasons, posting an .830 OPS with an average of 24 homers, 33 doubles and 13 stolen bases from 2007 to 2012.
With the Mariners' ability to utilize him in the designated hitter spot, Hart can slowly be eased back into defensive duty, whether it be at first base, in the outfield or both while finding his pre-injury form at the plate. If he can find it within a few months, he'll either be an impact middle-of-the-order hitter for a Mariners team that is competing for a playoff spot, or he'll be traded to a contender.
Tim Hudson Signs 2-Year, $23 Million Deal with San Francisco Giants
After a devastating ankle injury that ended his season in late July, it's a surprise that Tim Hudson was able to land a multiyear deal at all. But his recovery has gone so well—he's expected to begin running in January, according to Alex Pavlovic of the Mercury News—that it became evident early on that teams would not be shying away from him in free agency.
In fact, the 38-year-old was the first free-agent starting pitcher to go off the board when he agreed to a two-year, $23 million with the San Francisco Giants on November 18. By signing early, he removed the potential of a bidding war that could've boosted his price much higher later in the offseason.
This could weigh heavily in the Giants' favor because, at the time of the injury, the veteran right-hander was pitching much better than the $11.5 million per season he'll be making over the next two years. Over his last 10 starts, Hudson had a 2.73 ERA while holding opponents to a .561 OPS.
Raul Ibanez Signs 1-Year, $2.75 Million Deal with Los Angeles Angels
Through July 13 of last season, Raul Ibanez had an .894 OPS with 24 homers in 72 games for the Seattle Mariners. Whether it was his 41-year-old body wearing down or just an extended slump, he posted a .642 OPS with only five homers in his final 52 games.
So while the Los Angeles Angels can't be too sure of what kind of hitter they're getting in 2014, it's not costing them very much to find out. Ibanez will make just $2.75 million and he'll likely get a majority of his at-bats at the designated hitter spot, where he was 22-for-78 with seven homers, two doubles and two triples last season.
Joe Nathan Signs 2-Year, $20 Million Deal with Detroit Tigers
While most teams are unwilling to invest big dollars in their closer these days, no one was going to blame the Detroit Tigers for doing it after back-to-back seasons in which their bullpen failed to hold leads in the playoffs.
But two years and $20 million for one of the best closers in the game seems like a relative bargain to fix what could've been the biggest weaknesses on a World Series contender.
As Joe Nathan enters his age-39 season, it's important to note that he's shown no signs of becoming any less effective in his role. He had a 2.09 ERA over the past two seasons with a 2.4 BB/9, 10.5 K/9 and 80 saves for the Texas Rangers.
Like fellow great closers Mariano Rivera, who was effective through his final season at age 43, and Trevor Hoffman, who didn't struggle until his age-42 season, Nathan relies heavily on command of his pitches and not necessarily fastball velocity, though he still throws in the low 90s, according to FanGraphs.
It's highly unlikely he'll regress during the course of his two-year deal, and there's a good chance they'll pick up his $10 million club option for his age-41 season in 2016.