MLB Free Agents 2014: Ranking the 8 Best Last-Minute Values
Teams that have patiently waited out the free-agent market in hopes that prices would fall are in luck. Even those teams that may not have been strategically planning for a last-minute acquisition could have a bargain fall into their laps in the near future.
Late last offseason, the Cleveland Indians landed Michael Bourn at a discounted rate in mid-February, while the Milwaukee Brewers didn't sign Kyle Lohse until late March at a team-friendly rate of $11 million per season over three years.
There are several impact players still available on the free-agent market this time around and not enough interested teams to drive the price up. Here are the top eight last-minute values.
8. Joe Saunders, SP
Joe Saunders didn't sign until February last offseason. But the Seattle Mariners didn't exactly get a bargain, as the left-hander got $6.5 million on a one-year deal. After posting a career-high 5.26 ERA in 32 starts, the 32-year-old isn't likely to get close to that guaranteed salary in 2014.
If you look beyond his poor 2013 season and focus on Saunders' 4.04 ERA with an average of 13 wins and 195 innings per season between 2008-12, there's a strong likelihood that he can bounce back as a solid No. 4 starter on a winning ballclub.
And it won't cost much to find out. Expect the former All-Star to land a one-year deal for no more than $3 million.
7. Oliver Perez, RP
While fellow lefty relievers J.P. Howell, Boone Logan, Javier Lopez, Eric O'Flaherty, Manny Parra and Matt Thornton have each landed multiyear deals for between $2.75 million (Parra) and $5.625 million (Howell), Oliver Perez remains unsigned after back-to-back seasons of proving that he could be a reliable and effective pitcher out of the bullpen.
His reputation as an inconsistent starter could be haunting him, though, because the 32-year-old has a 3.16 ERA with a 3.9 BB/9 and 10.7 K/9 in 68 relief appearances for the Mariners in 2012-13. He might have to settle for a one-year deal for a lower salary than the aforementioned relievers.
6. Ryan Madson, RP
The one-year, $8.5 million contract that the Cincinnati Reds gave Ryan Madson prior to the 2012 season went to waste, as the right-hander sustained a season-ending elbow injury in spring training.
The Los Angeles Angels rolled the dice and gave him $3.25 million in hopes that he'd be able to return healthy at some point during the 2013 season. After several setbacks made it highly unlikely that he'd return, the team released him in early August.
It's not surprising that teams are shying away this offseason. But the 33-year-old, who had a 2.37 ERA with a 2.4 BB/9, 9.2 K/9 and 32 saves for the Philadelphia Phillies when last healthy in 2011, will be approximately two years removed from Tommy John surgery on Opening Day and reportedly threw 93 mph in a recent audition for about 15 teams, according to Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.
5. Kendrys Morales, 1B/DH
That $14.1 million he would've been guaranteed had he accepted the Mariners' qualifying offer early in the offseason is probably looking pretty good right about now. Instead, Kendrys Morales is still unemployed, and the limited number of teams looking for a pretty good, but not great, middle-of-the-order hitter who is a better fit as a regular designated hitter isn't helping his cause.
While the Baltimore Orioles would appear to be a terrific fit, and they remain in contact with Morales' representatives, according to Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, it's yet to be seen whether they'd be willing to surrender their top draft pick to sign him.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in need of a first baseman and appear to be the best National League fit, but they could also shy away because of the draft pick compensation and the defensive concerns.
It wouldn't be a surprise if the 30-year-old switch-hitter had to settle for a deal that was close to half of what he would've gotten from Seattle's qualifying offer.
4. Nelson Cruz, OF
The Mariners were rumored to be closing in on a deal with Nelson Cruz, and Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune tweeted that it was "only a matter of time." But the loss of starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma to a finger injury that could keep him out for at least the first few weeks of the season has their attention turning to the pitching market.
For the 33-year-old Cruz, who had his sights set high despite a 50-game PED suspension late last season, this could be a major blow if talks with what was believed to be his main suitor are on hold, as was reported Thursday by Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish.
If his price tag drops further, more teams would likely get involved because, let's face it, there aren't too many teams that wouldn't love to have a hitter like Cruz ( .842 OPS and 27 homers per season since 2009) in the middle of their lineup. But only if the price was right, which appears to be where it could be headed for most teams.
3. Stephen Drew, SS
After Jhonny Peralta landed a four-year, $53 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier in the offseason, it was assumed that Stephen Drew would likely get more. But the left-handed-hitting shortstop is still unemployed, and the team expected to be his top suitor, the New York Mets, doesn't appear willing to offer him the big-money multiyear deal he was seeking after posting a .777 OPS for the world champion Boston Red Sox in 2013.
The Red Sox and New York Yankees both appear to be fits—Xander Bogaerts would play third base and Will Middlebrooks would likely become trade bait for the Sox; Drew would play third base in 2014 and then take over at shortstop in 2015 with Derek Jeter retiring—but neither team appears to be in a rush to sign the 30-year-old.
With no sense of urgency to sign Drew, the indication is that most teams believe his price will eventually come down.
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, SP
After a terrible 2012 season and a poor start to the 2013 season that had the San Francisco Giants contemplating a move to the bullpen for former ace Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young winner was finally able to turn things around over the past four months of the season (4.00 ERA, 132.2 IP, 119 H, 45 BB, 125 K).
While he wasn't dominating like he once was, his level of consistency and his youth—he'll be 30 in June— convinced the team that he was worth the two-year, $35 million investment to keep him from bolting as a free agent.
In the case of Ubaldo Jimenez, he'd never reached Lincecum's level of dominance, but he had established that he was a very good front-line starting pitcher before struggling badly over a two-year period. That ended in late May of last season, when the right-hander pitched as well as he ever had throughout his career.
Over his last 23 starts, he posted a 2.41 ERA with 58 walks and 147 strikeouts over 138 innings pitched. But concerns about whether the 30-year-old could carry over that success to a multiyear contract has him unemployed with pitchers and catchers already reporting to camp around the league.
Even if he does get one more year than Lincecum's two-year deal, Jimenez is not likely to get more than $12-$13 million per season, which is probably half of what he's worth if he does continue pitching as he was when the 2013 season ended.
1. Ervin Santana, SP
Zach Greinke, the top free-agent starting pitcher last offseason, landed a six-year, $159 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers after posting a 3.48 ERA with a 2.3 BB/9 and 8.5 K/9 in 212.1 innings the previous season. He had a 59 percent quality start rate and held his opponent to two earned runs or less in 22 of his 34 starts.
The top starting pitcher in this year's free-agent market posted a 3.24 ERA with a 2.2 BB/9 and 6.9 K/9 in 211 innings pitched last season. That would be Ervin Santana, who also had a 72 percent quality start rate and held his opponent to two earned runs or less in 18 of his 32 starts.
The object of that comparison was not to prove that Santana deserves $159 million. Greinke is a former Cy Young winner, has had a better career and has earned the reputation of a top-of-the-rotation starter. Santana, meanwhile, has been a bit inconsistent and had a terrible performance just two seasons ago.
But aside from the K/9 rate, which helps on payday, the pitcher the Dodgers paid might not be that much different than the one who could sign for around four years and $60 million this offseason.
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