What makes a great free-agent pickup?
In baseball, most of the biggest free-agent signings—guys like Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira—enter the process in their late 20s, already among the best players in all of baseball, with many peak years left.
These players are great, and any team would love to sign them, but few have the resources to bring an Alex Rodriguez on board, and even fewer could handle the hit that a bad signing—Barry Zito, for instance—would inflict on the franchise.
Veteran players are, quite amazingly, baseball's new undervalued commodity. As World Series participants Vlad Guerrero and Aubrey Huff showed us this past season, many of the best free-agent signings come from the over-30 crowd.
This year's crop of over-30 free agents is loaded with players who can contribute to any team. While some of these players will walk away with fat contracts, others will make the leagues GMs look like geniuses, signing on at a low cost and leading their teams to the playoffs.
Carlos Pena could quite possibly end up the best bargain in all of free agency.
While Pena's 2010 season was not one to remember—he hit under .200, and his 28 home runs represented his lowest total since 2006—this is a guy who led the league in homers in 2009, tied with none other than Mark Teixeira.
Pena's skill set really didn't falter too much in 2010. His HR/FB percentage remained about even with the previous year. He walked about as often and struck out about as often.
The problem for Carlos was ground balls. As a power hitter, Pena depends on fly balls for most of his offensive value, and he wasn't getting them last year. That's more likely a flaw in his swing than a deterioration of his skill set, and when those line drives and fly balls come back, Pena should go back to being an offensive force.
Carlos Pena is capable of playing a solid first base, hitting a ton of home runs, walking at a high rate and achieving an OPS upwards of .900. He's not Richie Sexson. He's not the home run-hitting first baseman that falls of the face of the earth in his early 30s. He's still a talented player, and some team in need of a first baseman will be lucky to have him.
Should Andy Pettitte come back for another season, it's probably safe to say he will do so as a member of the New York Yankees. Right now though, he's a free agent, and so he's included on this list.
Pettitte had a very solid 2010 season for the Yankees, and given his low ERA last year, some might question why he isn't higher on the list. The problem is his age. He's 39, and even if he did come back next season, it would almost certainly be his last year.
Beyond that, age leads to injuries. Pettitte only pitched 129 innings last year. And while his 3.28 ERA is nice, it's the first time he's cracked 4.00 since 2005.
Andy Pettitte can still be a solid third starter on a good team, but given how well he pitched in limited action last season, and his name value, he'll likely be overpaid by the Yankees should he play another year.
How much teams are willing to pay Aubrey Huff will obviously depend entirely on how much they buy his 2010 season.
Huff has had resurgent years before, most notably in 2008 when he hit .304 with 32 home runs for the Orioles. He followed that up with an atrocious 2009 season before leading the Giants to the World Series this past year.
Huff was a very good player back in the day, and by that I mean 2002-2004 with the Devil Rays. After a poor stretch from 2005 to 2007, we've seen two good years in the past three, so it's safe to say that Aubrey Huff can be a very valuable commodity for a Major League team.
But how valuable? He's not Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera. He carries a sizable risk in that you never know what you're going to get out of him, and as a first baseman, his upside is around that of Billy Butler or Derek Lee.
I wouldn't mind having him as my starting first baseman for the right price, but I think he will be overpaid.
What does Vladdy have left in the tank? That's the question on the minds of every GM in search of a DH this offseason.
Guerrero's 2010 was a tale of two seasons. In the first half of the season, Guerrero hit .319 with 20 homers and a .919 OPS. In the second half of the season, he hit under .280 with just nine home runs.
While his end of season numbers look tremendous—a .300 average, 29 home runs and 115 RBI—his OBP was under .350 for the season, and his .841 OPS isn't exactly earth-shattering for a DH.
Vladdy showed us last season that he still "has it," but he can no longer play the field and holding up over a long season is getting increasingly difficult.
He's still a well above-average starting DH, but if he's looking for a big payday, he could be disappointed.
Adam Dunn is either very underrated or very overrated, depending on how you look at things.
His offensive ability is top-notch. Yes, he strikes out a lot, but he also hits a ton of home runs, walks often and can even hit for a solid average most of the time. His defense, on the other hand, that will kill you.
More than any other player on this list, Adam Dunn's value is almost entirely dependent on what league you play in. In the American League, he's a DH with a consistent .900 OPS bat. He's 31, and he's still going strong. And as his free agency two years ago showed us, he's an undervalued commodity.
If you're in the National League, though, why do you want Adam Dunn? Despite his very good bat, Dunn was worth about one more win than the replacement-level first baseman in 2008 and again in 2009. Why? Because his glove cost his team more than 30 runs in the field—in left field and at first base!
Adam Dunn did a bit better last year, and he's not exactly worthless to a National League team, but it's strange that given his defensive struggles, Dunn is reluctant to switch leagues. As a DH, he's valuable. As a first baseman, not so much.
Carl Pavano's 2010 season came out of nowhere, right? Not so fast. While his ERA was much lower in 2010 than in the previous season, his FIP was almost exactly the same. Pavano's "poor" 2009 season was much more a product of bad luck than poor performance.
Pavano has actually been a very solid pitcher the past two years. Last season, he walked just 1.5 batters per nine innings and induced ground balls about half the time. The year before, while his walks were a bit higher, so were his strikeouts, and his FIP and expected FIP were both in the 3.95-4.00 range.
Pavano is a third starter right now, and ironically, his durability and consistency the past two seasons have to be seen as positives on his resume. He's still Carl Pavano, and it's not like he's pitching at an ace level, but a pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 who can give you 200 innings a year is a valuable commodity.
While Pavano should be paid a decent sum of money this offseason, it seems likely one or two teams will look at Pavano's 17 wins and 3.75 ERA and, ignoring his track record and true skill level, give him a large contract. He's a pitcher, he won a lot of games, and thus he is very likely to be overpaid.
Rafael Soriano had a breakout year in 2010, saving 45 games for the Tampa Bay Rays with a sub-2.00 ERA. While Soriano is among the better relievers in the league, his injury history worries me.
In his younger years with Seattle, Soriano had major injury issues, and he missed most of the 2008 season on the DL. While he came back to close for the Braves in 2009 and had a very impressive stint in Tampa Bay, this isn't something we can dismiss.
Furthermore, though Soriano's skills have long been gold, his strikeout rate plummeted last season. Coupled with a high fly-ball rate, this could mean disaster in the near future, even if he can keep the walks at a very low level.
The point is, Soriano has question marks. Despite his elite results last season, he's not an elite closer. If he can stay healthy and reclaim those lost strikeouts, Soriano will be well worth a fat contract, even as a reliever. But until then, I have to leave him a bit low on my list.
Mariano Rivera is still one of the best closers in baseball, but he is slowing down. For only the second time in the past decade, Mariano Rivera failed to reach the seven K/9 mark last season, a huge drop-off from his 9.77 K/9 last year.
But Rivera still has pinpoint control, he can still strikeout a batter when he needs to, and he still rarely gives up home runs. His skill set is still elite, and his results are even better. Even at 41 years old, Mariano Rivera is likely to be one of the top few closers in the league next season.
Rivera had a bit of a down stretch a few seasons ago, and many thought he was slowing down entering his late 30s. He rebounded with perhaps the best year of his career in 2008. But he is 41, he has to slow down eventually and maybe this is it.
If it is, he probably only has a couple of years left, and likely not quite at the level we've seen of late.
Derek Jeter had a bad 2010 season. In 739 plate appearances, the Yankees shortstop hit .270/.340/.370, all career lows, and despite what his Gold Glove might tell you, he played well below-average defense.
So why is he No. 7 on our list? Why not just retire?
For one, he's Derek Jeter. He's a guy with a career batting average of .314 and almost 3,000 hits. He's obviously very talented, and even at 36, you don't write a guy like that off without good reason.
And more importantly, as bad as 2010 was, 2009 was that good. Jeter almost won the MVP award a year ago when he hit .334/.406/.465 with 18 homers, 30 steals and some of the best defensive play of his career.
I think Jeter is declining, and I doubt we see another .330 season from the captain. But he can still play shortstop, and despite what some might say, he's only a little below league average there. If he can hit like Derek Jeter, he's still an extremely valuable player. One bad season hurts, but it doesn't make me think he can't recover.
One of the most underrated starting pitchers in all of baseball, Kuroda has done nothing but perform at a top-of-the-rotation level since entering Major League Baseball in 2008.
Over the past three years, Kuroda has made 83 starts and thrown almost 500 innings, with an ERA of 3.60. And even at 36, Hiroki just keeps getting better. 2010 was easily his best year in the big leagues, with a 3.39 ERA and 7.29 strikeout rate.
Kuroda has a complete skill set. His strikeout rate is on the rise, he rarely walks anybody and he keeps the ball on the ground. Even outside of Dodger Stadium, Kuroda has a career ERA of 3.72 and a career FIP of 3.65.
Kuroda has proven himself a legitimate No. 2 starter in this league, and he should be paid as such. While his age makes a contract of more than two-three years unwise, Hiroki Kuroda is clearly the second-best pitcher on this list.
If the White Sox had made the playoffs, Paul Konerko might very well have won the MVP award. That's the kind of season the Chicago slugger had in 2010.
Konerko has been around for awhile, and his 2007-2009 struggles looked to many like the beginning of the end. But Konerko isn't really that old, and he showed last year he's not done yet.
In 631 trips to the plate, Konerko hit .312 with a .393 OBP, 39 homers and 111 RBI. His .977 OPS was a career high, placing him fourth in the American League.
That season is just too good to be a fluke, and Konerko prior to 2007 was one of the very best players in baseball. His offensive explosion has to make us rethink his struggles the previous few years. Was he just banged up?
At 35, he's not repeating 2010, and injuries are a concern, as is a real decline. But .312/.393/.584 with 39 home runs? That can't ignored. Konerko is back on the map.
Can Adrian Beltre repeat his massive contract year?
We asked that question about this time six years ago. Most of us said no, but he can still be a very good player. We ask that question again today, and the answer is much the same.
Don't get me wrong. Beltre is not 25, he's 31. And he's not coming off a legendary 48 home run season. But his 2010 season was among the best in the bigs.
Even if Beltre can't repeat what he did last year, he's still a pretty good hitter and one of the leagues best defenders. And just because he hasn't consistently hit in the .300s with 30-40 home run power, we can't dismiss what he did in 2010.
Teams shouldn't pay him like an MVP candidate, but he should be paid like a difference-maker at third base.
With the exception of one poor season in 2008, Victor Martinez is a very consistent player. You know exactly what you will and will not get from V-Mart.
He's going to hit .300, he'll chip in 20-25 home runs, he'll walk a decent amount and he'll play serviceable but not good defense behind the plate. It turns out this set of skills is very rare and very valuable.
Martinez turned down a pretty sizable offer from the Red Sox, so it looks like he'll be going after big money this offseason. That's not unfair. Yes, he's a catcher, and he's 32. Yes, he's not great behind the plate. But he can play the position and he can rake.
His lack of walks last season is a bit troubling, but it's more likely a fluke than anything else. I expect a few more good years from V-Mart before he really start to break down, and his bat can play at first base. A three-four year deal at a high annual salary wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
It took Jayson Werth a while to completely figure things out, but once he did, he immediately became one of the best oufielders in baseball. After three years of monster production in Philadelphia, Werth is hitting the open market and looking to make some money.
Werth has a very robust skill set. He can hit for a decent average, though likely not as high as he hit last season. He walks frequently, and he has good power. His home run production last year was a step down from 2009, but that was mostly just a fluctuation in HR/FB rate. He can steal some bases, and he also plays a decent right field.
The only problem for potential suitors? Werth is represented by Scott Boras. He seems to believe he's worth something along the lines of what Matt Holliday got last year (seven years, $120 million), as opposed to what Jason Bay got last year (four years, $66 million). He's not.
I think Jayson Werth is a really good player. But he's two years older than Holliday was when he hit the market. His bat is arguably as good as Holliday's, though that may be a stretch, and Holliday is a far better defender.
Either way, Werth is borderline elite Major League outfielder and the youngest player on this list. He will receive a big pay raise come 2011.
Anyone surprised to see Cliff Lee sitting at No. 1 on this list isn't paying attention.
Quite simply, Cliff Lee is one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball and has been for a few years now. His ability to command the strike zone is something we haven't seen since Greg Maddux more than a decade ago, and his performance in the playoffs is unmatched.
After a Cy Young 2008 season and very good 2009 and 2010 seasons, Lee is going to get paid a lot of money. The Yankees, Rangers and Angels seem to be the teams most interested, but quite a few teams are going to put in a call.
When it comes to Cliff Lee, age is nothing but a number.