Free agency is quite often crucial to a team's short- and long-term success. While many players are drafted and brought through an organization's farm system, more times than not it comes down to the ability of a team to bring in top-end free agents.
However, the risks involved with signing free agents are apparent in every Major League Baseball season. Year in and year out, players fail to live up to their multi-million dollar contracts.
Who are the riskiest players available this year? Whether it is a player's age, inconsistency, or propensity to be injured, each player on this list has his own set of risk factors.
Here are the 15 biggest risks still available on the free agent market.
Rafael Soriano is coming off the best season of his career in 2010, saving a league-best 45 games with a 1.73 earned run average and a minuscule 0.80 WHIP as the Tampa Bay Rays' closer.
Soriano looked dominant for most of the season, showing glimpses of a closer that could be worth top money from teams looking for an answer in the back end of the bullpen. At 30, he could be worth that type of money.
But Soriano does not come without risk. The right-hander has had elbow problems in the past, which caused him to miss the majority of two separate seasons.
Although he has been healthy the past two seasons, Soriano comes with a much higher risk of injury than most relievers.
Perhaps the highest risk involved with Soriano is the money it will cost a team to acquire him. Though he has just two years as a big league closer, it may take a team top closer money to sign him. Soriano undoubtedly has the talent to become a solid closer, but there are certainly risks involved.
While his risk level is much lower than the others on this list, Soriano's risk must be considered by any team looking to sign him.
Orlando Hudson struggled at the plate in 2010, hitting just .268/.338/.372 for the Minnesota Twins.
Although he was solid in the field, Hudson showed signs of slowing down following a stellar season with the Dodgers in 2009. At just 33, many teams are hoping his down year is simply an anomaly for Hudson.
However, the signs seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. Scouts say that Hudson looks to be losing both his bat speed and foot speed in recent years.
The O-Dog's diminished offensive production will need to be countered by his defensive play if he hopes to continue playing at the highest level.
Though he is a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman, many teams will steer clear of Hudson in 2011, if only to see if his bat returns to form. While it may not take a large monetary investment, it is likely that Hudson will receive a one-year deal in an attempt to resurrect his career.
Carl Pavano has the best mustache in baseball. Unfortunately for him, it is unlikely to make him any additional money in free agency.
Pavano is coming off his best season since 2004, posting a 17-11 record with a 3.75 ERA for the Minnesota Twins in 2010.
Following several seasons where it seemed he was attempting to find a new identity, it seems as though Pavano has finally learned to pitch with his diminished velocity and lacking off-speed pitches.
At 34, Pavano would be a valuable piece to the starting rotation of many teams. However, his age and history of injuries will certainly be the topic of discussion with teams looking to acquire his services.
As the second best starter in this year's free agent class, the right-hander will likely get paid more than he would under different circumstances. This poses a much larger risk to Pavano's possible suitors.
If he is able to remain healthy and can be acquired at the right price, Pavano could be an important top-end starter for a number of teams.
Brad Penny started just nine games for the St. Louis Cardinals last season before succumbing to an injury in late May that cost him the rest of the 2010 season. Before tearing his latissimus dorsi, Penny was throwing well, posting a 3.23 ERA.
However, this injury will pose a great risk to any team attempting to sign Penny this offseason.
At just 32, Penny is young enough to return to the prominence of his days in Los Angeles as a member of the Dodgers. But Penny, at a stout 230 pounds, has the body type that can be a cause of concern in the later years of a pitcher's career. As the lat tear shows, it is difficult for a pitcher of his stature to endure the wear and tear of the baseball season year in and year out.
Throughout his career, Penny has been known for his overpowering fastball. As he gets older, it will be vital that he is able to maintain this velocity. Without it, Penny will quickly become vulnerable with his inability to keep the ball down in the zone.
Penny did show signs of improvement in 2010 before his injury. It will be interesting to see is Penny is able to maintain his form from early 2010 in future seasons. However, it seems as if Penny's risk may outweigh his reward.
Kerry Wood is coming off a stellar season in 2010. Following a deadline trade to the New York Yankees, Wood had a 0.69 ERA in 26 innings as Mariano Rivera's setup man.
The 33-year-old right hander has experienced injury problems throughout his entire career, dating back to his early days with the Chicago Cubs. A one-time promising prospect in the Windy City, Wood has not been able to stay healthy enough to make a serious impact.
Certainly, Wood's past health problems will be at the forefront of any discussion for his services. However, if he is able to remain healthy, Wood could be a vital piece in any team's bullpen.
Wood has been able to remain healthy in the past few seasons. While this does look promising for the future, teams should remain hesitant in offering Wood closer money.
Nevertheless, Kerry Wood would be a welcome addition to any bullpen—for the right price.
After his power surge in 2009 en route to 35 home runs, Derrek Lee showed signs of aging in 2010, hitting just 19 homers between the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. Following his trade to Atlanta, Lee hit just three dingers in 129 at-bats.
Several scouts have noted that Lee has lost a significant amount of bat speed in the past year. This will lead a hitter to not only hit for less power, but also hit for a lower average.
Lee, a .282 career hitter, will lose a vast amount of value if both his ability to hit for power and hit for average are lacking.
However, Derrek Lee is a notoriously solid defensive first baseman, something that is becoming evermore important in today's game.For a team willing to take a risk on an aging player, Lee will certainly pay dividends in the field.
If he is able to return to his offensive prowess of 2009, Lee's new team could get a huge bargain on the two-time All-Star.
Following a season during which he hit a career-high 24 home runs, Johnny Damon had a wildly average season for the Detroit Tigers in 2010.
Playing in 148 games, Damon hit .271/.355/.401 with just eight homers and 51 RBIs. While his significant loss of power can mostly be attributed to playing in the pitcher-friendly Comerica Park, Damon is unlikely to return to the power of 2009.
At 37, Johnny Damon will likely be nothing more than a viable left field option for a team looking for a veteran for one season. Although Damon has never had any significant injuries, his age is sure to catch up with him eventually, if it hasn't already.
Damon is a below-average outfielder, and does not produce the power necessary to be an every day designated hitter.
With that being said, Damon could be worth a short-term deal for a team looking for a veteran outfielder, but only if his price is not too high.
Damon's teammate in 2010, Magglio Ordonez hit .303 with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs in just 84 games played.
Ordonez, whose season ended in July with a broken ankle, has had several injuries in his career that his caused him to miss substantial time.
Following a season-ending injury in 2010, teams shopping for Ordonez will undoubtedly put emphasis on his past health problems. The 36-year-old outfielder is not getting any younger; while he will almost certainly be a .300 hitter, his ability to stay healthy will put a high risk on any contract he is offered.
In addition to his injury problems, Ordonez's power numbers have dipped significantly since 2008. While his ability to hit for average is unquestioned, he will have to return to the power-hitting Ordonez of old to be worth a multi-million dollar contract.
Following the ankle injury, it is likely that Ordonez will find himself as a designated hitter for the remainder of his career. Whether his production outweighs his risk factors remains to be seen.
Brandon Webb is another pitcher with the high risk, high reward stigma attached to him this offseason.
Webb, who has not pitched since Opening Day 2009, clearly has an injury history that will steer some teams away. However, Webb, who won a Cy Young award with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2006, has the talent to return to prominence in 2011.
Unlike Rich Harden, Webb has the frame and mechanics to support his pitches, which features a power sinker that made him one of the league's best just a few years ago. If Webb is able to remain healthy, he could ultimately become a front-end starter for nearly any team in the league.
The only risk involved with Webb is the fact that he has not thrown in a game in two full seasons. While any team to sign him will most certainly be reassured that he is healthy, it can never be fully known if a pitcher is healthy until he has experienced the wear and tear of an entire Major League season.
Webb has the ability to either be the comeback player of the year, or cost a team a multi-million dollar contract on a player who is unable to return to his form of old.
At 40 years old, Jim Thome has remained remarkably productive, considering his age. Thome hit .283 with 25 home runs in just 276 at-bats as the Minnesota Twins' designated hitter in 2010.
One cannot expect Thome's numbers to remain at such a level in 2011. Prior to 2010, Thome had not hit over .280 since 2006, when he was with the Chicago White Sox.
Thome's production in 2010 can be partly attributed to his role as designated hitter; more specifically, Thome was used primarily against right-handed pitchers, leaving a glaring hole in the lineup against left-handers.
However, many teams would be willing to give Thome a one-year contract to do just that in 2011. Despite his injury problems and ever-aging body, Thome offers a power presence that is desperately needed by many teams across the bigs.
The biggest risk when it comes to Thome is his inability to hit against left-handed pitchers. He will likely best fit on a team with depth on the bench, so that there will be another hitter to fill the void against lefties.
For such teams, Thome could be an important addition if he is able to remain healthy.
Since breaking his wrist in 2008 while with the New York Yankees, it seems as if Hideki Matsui's age has caught up to him. Matsui has had nearly identical statistics over the past two seasons, batting .274/.361/.459 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs for the Angels in 2010.
While his statistics look similar at a glance, Godzilla struck out much more often in 2010, up to 98 from 75 in 2009 with the Yanks.This may show that while his power numbers are only slightly down, Matsui has had to cheat in order to catch up to the same pitches he used to be able to hit.
At 36, it appears as if this problem will only continue to get worse.
Like Thome, Matsui is no longer a viable option against left-handed pitchers. The former Yomiuri Giant hit just .236 against lefties in 2010, with 36 strikeouts in 140 at-bats.
This could be an issue for a team lacking depth on the bench, as Matsui has become a liability against left-handed starters.
With issues both in terms of production and his ability to stay healthy, it looks as if Matsui will be worth no more than a one-year contract on a team deep enough to cover his weakness against left-handed pitchers.
When Harden came into the majors with the Athletics in 2003, he looked as if he was a star in the making. Seven years and countless trips to the disabled list later, Harden has never realized his full potential.
The Rangers decided to give Harden a shot in 2010; unfortunately for both parties, the experiment was a failure. Harden posted a 5-5 record, with a 5.58 ERA, 75 strikeouts and 62 walks in 92 innings pitched.
Harden started just 18 games. In fact, the right-hander has not started 30 or more games in a season since the 2004 season, his second year in the majors.
At just 29 years old, there are many teams still willing to give Harden another shot. Harden is quite possibly the highest risk, highest reward free agent on the market.
If he can resurrect his career and return to the form his showed in 2004, Harden has the ability to significantly help any team's starting rotation.
However, it is hard to believe that Harden has lasted this long with such poor pitching mechanics. Sadly, Harden is an injury waiting to happen if he is unable to repair his volatile mechanics.
Perhaps, a team with a strong pitching coach will be willing to give Harden a one-year contract in an attempt to fix his mechanical problems.
If an organization is able to keep Harden healthy, he could be one of the biggest bargains of the offseason.
After a dismal 2009 season, a rejuvenated Vladimir Guerrero produced once again in 2010, this time for the Texas Rangers. Guerrero hit .300/.345/.496 with 29 home runs and 115 RBIs last season for the Rangers, who made their first ever World Series appearance.
Following an injury-plagued 2009 season, the Angels were quick to dump Vlad, who had given them five seasons as the team's best hitter. Written off by many baseball enthusiasts, Guerrero found a home in Arlington as the Rangers' designated hitter.
Nobody, perhaps not even the Rangers themselves, expected such a great season from the 35-year-old.
This year, it is certain that Guerrero will not be overlooked by anybody. However, potential buyers beware: Vlad is a risk that some may not be willing to take.
Guerrero, especially at this juncture in his career, is extremely injury prone, and is limited exclusively to the role of designated hitter.
(If you want proof, take a look back to this year's World Series, when the Rangers attempted to play Vlad in right field. It was not a pretty sight to see.)
The chances of Guerrero staying healthy for an entire season, as he did in 2010, are highly unlikely in the years to come. In addition, following a great season, Vlad will likely be asking far too high for his services.
If Guerrero is given a high-priced contract, no matter its length, it could be one of the biggest risks of this year's free agency.
Manny Ramirez had the worst season of his Hall of Fame-caliber career in 2010, hitting .298/.409/.460 with just nine home runs and 42 RBIs while splitting time between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox.
As his production declines, it will become increasingly difficult for possible suitors to put up with Manny's antics. In addition to his decreased production at the plate, the 38-year-old has become even more injury prone, which will cause even the teams willing to put up with him to hesitate.
With a significant loss in bat speed, and absolutely no place in the field, Ramirez will likely be in the same category as Thome and Matsui. Although Ramirez can hit against both left- and right-handed pitchers, he will need to return to his pre-2009 power numbers to be a feasible option as a middle of the order hitter.
Unlike the other players on this list, Ramirez comes with off-field baggage to go along with his diminished offensive production and aging body.
For any team brave enough to sign Ramirez, it is sure to be a media circus.
Adrian Beltre had a standout year in 2010 for the Boston Red Sox, batting .321/.365/.553 with 28 home runs and 102 runs batted in.
In what was probably his second-best year in the bigs, Beltre guaranteed himself a contract that will probably exceed his statistical output.
This situation is nothing new to Beltre. In 2004, while in a contract year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Beltre had the best season of his career, hitting .334/.388/.629 with 49 homers and 121 RBIs. Following that year, Beltre signed a five-year, $64 million with the Seattle Mariners.
Beltre never lived up to his contract in Seattle, never hitting higher than .276 or more than 26 home runs. His numbers were by no means poor, but they simply did not warrant the contract he received.
In fact, Beltre has never hit over .300 or had more than 100 RBIs in any season other than those two contract years.
Once again, Adrian Beltre finds himself in the same position in 2010. After a one-year stint in Beantown, Beltre will have to move on, following the trade for highly-touted first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. This will move Kevin Youkilis to third base, leaving no space for Beltre.
As the best third baseman on the market, Beltre will be able to demand a top-level contract from a team desperate for a middle of the order slugger. At 29, he is likely to get a multi-year contract worth much more than his statistical output.
For this reason, Adrian Beltre is the biggest risk available on the free agent market.