MLB Free Agents: Projecting the 20 Best Bargains On the Hot Stove Market
Most of the Hot Stove headlines in Major League Baseball will go to the big-ticket free agents that have landed on the open market. Prudent teams, however, can often make major improvements to their rosters by targeting less-heralded players in free agency.
Given the big-money nature of MLB salaries in the 21st century, it's hard to argue that any free-agent signing is a true bargain, but when looking at players from a cost-to-production perspective, second-tier free agents can frequently pay big dividends.
While the focus will undoubtedly be on the negotiations teams hold with Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth and Adam Dunn, there are a myriad of other options more cost-conscious teams should explore during this 2010 free-agent season.
Here I'll go through 20 players who will fly under the Hot Stove radar, but who could be bargain producers for teams in the 2011 season. This only covers a subjective sampling on my part, but be sure to chime in if you think a potential bargain signing was overlooked.
Carlos Pena, First Baseman
The former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman endured his worst offensive season in his Tampa career in 2010, yet he still remains a productive and cost-effective option at first base that should draw a lot of interest this offseason.
Fans may be scared off by his high strikeout numbers and extremely low batting average, but he has consistently produced impressive home run totals, particularly in the most recent years in Tampa Bay.
His 2010 was a major down year and it will only increase his affordability, as it's possible he will have to settle for the same, or less, than the $10 million he earned in Tampa Bay in 2010.
Pena will not be a .300 hitter for a team that signs him, but he will hit close to (or more than) 30 home runs and provide Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base.
He has also shown decent patience at the plate in his career, as his on-base percentage sits at .351. For teams that are bidding on a higher-profile first baseman like Adam Dunn, Pena is an ideal cheaper alternative.
Carl Pavano, Starting Pitcher
A lot of doubt and derision surrounds starter Carl Pavano, based on his disastrous stretch as a failed free-agent signee with the New York Yankees in which he was basically hurt for his entire four-year career.
However, since his Yankees contract expired, Pavano has pitched 200 innings in consecutive seasons and resurrected his standing around the league (except in New York, of course).
He is older, as he's entering his age-35 season, and even though he's coming off the second-best season of his professional career, he doesn't have the type of resume that will demand top dollar in terms of annual salary.
A team shouldn't have to invest a ton of money or years into signing Pavano, and it would get a veteran capable of eating innings to fill into the middle of their rotation.
Magglio Ordonez, Right Fielder/Designated Hitter
There is a glut of old, corner-outfield/designated hitter-type hitters flooding the free agent market, but I think the best deal of the lot is Magglio Ordonez, the veteran outfielder most recently with the Detroit Tigers.
He is coming off a broken ankle that cost him the last two months of the 2010 season, but he has remained productive even as he's crossed the age of 36.
His slugging abilities aren't what they used to be, but he still gets on base at a high clip and still does produce with the bat. He's never posted a slugging percentage below .420 and was enjoying a solid 2010 season before being injured.
He seems to come with the least amount of baggage compared to the other comparable hitters, and on a short-term deal he should produce admirably for a team.
Russell Branyan, First Baseman/Designated Hitter
The big left-handed slugger is probably the next step down from Carlos Pena in terms of first-base production at a reduced price. In the right situation, Branyan should provide good value in 2011.
His biggest red flag is the fact that he battles chronic back problems that limit his availability on an everyday basis. But for a power-starved team, he is an ideal target, as long as they understand he can't play every day and would benefit from being in the American League to utilize the designated hitter slot.
He has averaged close to 30 home runs the last two seasons, his first years getting uninterrupted and consistent playing time.
His age probably means he won't require a big investment in terms of length, and his production at the plate will more than cover his salary.
Frank Francisco, Relief Pitcher/Closer
A power right-handed arm that was pushed out of the Texas Rangers bullpen picture in 2010, Frank Francisco has consistently been a high-strikeout late-inning reliever that would make for a solid addition to a team's bullpen.
His status is a bit tricky. If he is offered arbitration by the Rangers and declines in order to test the open market, he'll be a Type-A free agent, meaning a team would be forced to surrender its first-round pick if he signed with it.
However, if he's not offered arbitration, a possibility given Texas' interest in bigger free agents like Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, he makes for a potential low-end closer for a team looking to solve ninth-inning issues, or an elite set-up man that should still be affordable, given that his 2010 salary was around $3.6 million.
Miguel Olivo, Catcher
Teams looking for help at catcher but not interested in making the commitment to someone like Victor Martinez (or overpaying for John Buck, like the Florida Marlins randomly decided to do) would do well to look Miguel Olivo's way.
His game has its flaws, as he strikes out a ton and doesn't walk hardly at all. But he is good for double-digit power and has a cannon for an arm.
He only earned $2 million in 2010 and had his 2011 option for $2.5 million declined. He is a much less-damaging Type-B free agent (meaning his signing team isn't penalized at all, but the team that loses him receives a supplementary draft pick).
Javier Vazquez, Starting Pitcher
Javier Vazquez suffered through a disastrous season in his return to New York, seeing his fastball lose velocity and his breaking pitches often lacking crispness. Yet he still brings a lot to the table as a bargain-basement deal for a team needing a starting pitcher.
He has never been on the disabled list and his lowest innings-pitched total came in 2010, but it was still 157. In the 10 years prior to 2010, he had basically thrown 200 innings each year and those were largely effective innings in which he averaged eight strikeouts per nine innings and didn't walk many hitters.
Will he be able to rebound from the 2010 disaster or is his career toast? A team won't have to pay $11 million to find out, as he's sure to take a salary decrease in guaranteed money in 2011. If he goes to a pitcher-friendly ballpark, he could bounce back with a solid season and be a big bargain.
Orlando Hudson, Second Baseman
Quality second basemen are a rare species in the current landscape, and Orlando Hudson is a good bargain for a team needing to fill a hole in the infield.
He doesn't have the eye-popping statistics of some of his contemporaries at the position, but he can hold his own with the bat and he is steady in the field.
He's relatively inexpensive, considering he made $5 million in 2010, and even if he gets a bit of a raise in his next deal, that's a bargain price for what should be a productive second baseman.
He also has the hilariously overrated benefit of being considered a high-intangibles player, so a team will probably value his clubhouse presence to boot.
J.J. Putz, Relief Pitcher
Injuries are always a concern with J.J. Putz, but his pitching remains at an extremely high level when he's able to toe the rubber late in games.
His 2009 was a disaster with the Mets, but in his previous years in Seattle, plus in his 2010 season on the south side of Chicago, he was highly productive, dabbling as a closer and just piling on strikeouts.
Even though he dealt with injuries again in 2010, he posted his lowest WHIP since 2007 and struck out almost 11 batters per nine innings, a great rate for a reliever.
He only earned $3 million in 2010 so he could be a valuable addition to a team's bullpen for next year.
Hideki Matsui, Designated Hitter
Godzilla-san might be getting towards the end of his rope, but he has remained productive into his late 30s and, if he lands in the right situation in 2011, he could still produce an .800 on-base-plus-slugging percentage while hitting 20 home runs.
The right situation would be as a full-time designated hitter, as he was with the Yankees in 2009, not as the occasional outfielder (even if it was only 18 games) the Angels tried to make him in 2010.
At around $6 million annually, his production would be a nice boost to an offensive starved team. It's possible he might start declining in 2011 given his injury history and the mileage on his legs, but it's a good value to sign him and pencil him in at DH.
Brandon Webb, Starting Pitcher
Brandon Webb is basically a lottery ticket at this point, as a team that signs him can't expect him to contribute without a doubt in 2011.
However, for a mid-market team he is the type of risk worth taking: If he rehabs and gets his velocity and strength back, he's a potential front-line starter signed for way below market value thanks to his lack of health in recent years.
Whoever signs Webb can't expect an immediate return on investment, but he will come at a low guaranteed salary and, if he gets his arm health back, he could help a team either contend in 2011 or become a valuable trade chip at the July trading deadline.
Bill Hall, Utility Player
Still relatively young as he enters his age-31 season in 2011, Bill Hall is a valuable piece thanks to his versatility and pop. He should be able to approach double-digit home runs again in 2011, and he can literally play everywhere around the diamond.
If he's only expected to chip in 350 plate appearances or less, then he is a valuable member of a roster.
His cost is a bit high for a utility player. But he is arguably worth a premium cost because he's more likely to be productive if forced into everyday duty compared to other less offensively-gifted role players around the league.
Kerry Wood, Relief Pitcher/Closer
It was the tale of two half-seasons for Kerry Wood, as his first half in 2010 was a disaster after he was signed by the Cleveland Indians to be their closer.
Once he was traded to the New York Yankees on July 31, he dominated and posted a minuscule 0.69 ERA in 26 innings, striking out 31 hitters.
Health is the biggest red flag with Wood and it always has been since Dusty Baker ruined his arm in Chicago. But he could be a good value for a team looking to fill a hole at closer.
He may be able to be signed below his $10.5 million salary in 2010 and, if so, that's a good bargain if he is pitching the ninth inning.
Jon Garland, Starting Pitcher
Jon Garland declined his 2011 option with the San Diego Padres, looking for a better deal on the open market. He throws a lot of innings every year but he doesn't miss bats and he has been prone to being hit hard, giving up around 20-30 home runs a year.
He's coming off a great 2010 season, but the important thing to remember is that he was pitching his home games at notoriously pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
I think the market will pass Garland by and he will again become a bargain for a team. He may be looking for a bigger salary for longer guaranteed years, but that may not be out there for him.
A team could wait out his market and find him open to a shorter deal, only a little bit higher than his previous 2010 salary of $4.7 million. If so, he's a bargain.
If a team overpays for him for three or more years, he becomes a large non-bargain though.
Hisanori Takahashi, Relief Pitcher/Starting Pitcher
The veteran of Japanese baseball enjoyed a very strong first season in the United States, and all for the low cost of only $1 million.
The Mets couldn't reach a new agreement with him and he's now a free agent. A team looking for a swing man that could either be penciled in to the back end of a rotation or pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, or even face just left-handed hitters, Takahashi is a valuable pitcher.
He struck out eight per nine innings in 2010 and held left-handed hitters to a .544 OPS against, impressive numbers that should get the left hander lots of suitors. He is up there in age, at 36 next season, but could still contribute from the left side.
Ty Wigginton, Utility Player
Wigginton hits for power and drives in runs while not walking much at all and not being particularly great defensively. However, he can play numerous positions and his power and versatility are both valuable commodities on the open market.
He is a consistent threat to hit 20 home runs in a season. As a potential utility player who could slide into everyday duty due to injury or ineffectiveness at either corner infield position, he is a good value if signed for around $3 million.
Matt Guerrier, Relief Pitcher
A sinker-ball pitcher who has long thrived in the Minnesota Twins bullpen, Matt Guerrier will not light up radar guns or rack up high strike out totals, the usual calling cards of valuable relief pitchers.
He is, nonetheless, a good bargain for a team looking to fill in a hole in middle relief, as he is durable and he has established a strong track record over numerous years in Minnesota.
He doesn't come with as high a potential for volatility as many other relievers do, thanks in large part to his reliance on ground balls, and he should be a positive signing for a team in need of bullpen help.
Adam LaRoche, First Baseman
The Diamondbacks declined Adam LaRoche's 2011 option, so he's on the open market and he's a quality player who could help a team needing a first baseman.
He will not threaten 40 home runs ever, but he's capable of posting 20 home runs consistently while taking a decent number of walks and playing solid defense at first base.
So he's basically a solid player who slots in nicely below $10 million per year in salary, which would help a team in need of stability on the right side of the infield.
Yorvit Torrealba, Catcher
A veteran defensive-minded catcher that is not a total embarrassment with the bat and won't cost a ton in salary, Yorvit Torrealba is one of the best options in the catcher bargain bin this offseason.
He posted a very solid 37-percent caught-stealing percentage in 2010 and is known for his defensive abilities first and foremost. He also has had two straight years with an OPS around .720, not great but not at all a hindrance for a catcher that won't usually play every day.
He's also only entering his age-32 season, so he shouldn't be too worn down to contribute in 2011. And he only made $1.25 million in 2010. For a few million dollars, he's a solid option at a thin position across the league.
Chad Qualls, Relief Pitcher
Qualls was horrific in the first half of 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, as he lost his gig as the team's closer and contributed to the general horror show that was the Diamondbacks bullpen in 2010.
However, his year was not nearly as bad as it seemed: Opponents hit an unbelievably lucky and unsustainable .399 on balls put in play vs. Qualls, which explains why his ERA was such an ugly 7.32 on the year.
His strikeout numbers and walk numbers were mostly in line with his career norms and a team that takes a chance on him at a low cost should be rewarded with a solid bullpen arm in 2011.
His performance is due to slide back to his pre-2010 levels and his numbers in 2011 stand to look a lot better.