As 2010 comes to a close, the free agent market is no longer what it was just a month ago. Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth have signed, and top relievers like Bobby Jenks and Pedro Feliciano are now off the market.
This thinning of available talent can be dangerous for teams in need of a boost. While Adrian Beltre, Carl Pavano and Rafael Soriano can help just about any team, few clubs want to get into a bidding war over their services.
Thankfully, there are bargains remaining for any smart general manager with holes in his roster and some money to spend. While the elite talent will be overpriced, several above-average players remain under the radar. These players range from injury-prone starting pitchers to a couple of future Hall of Famers well past their prime.
The market might not be in love with these guys, but these types of moves win championships if executed properly.
There are plenty of reasons for major league teams to cross Jeff Francis off their lists. The former Rockies starting pitcher, who will turn 30 in just a couple of weeks, has a career 4.77 ERA. His career strikeout rate is just above six, and his control has been nothing to write home about either. He missed all of 2009, and part of 2010 with an arm injury, and in what was supposed to be a prime season last year, Francis went 4-6 with a 5.00 ERA in 19 starts.
Francis was a highly regarded prospect, and considered one of the more promising young pitchers in baseball half a decade ago. He's never quite put things together, and despite a solid season in 2007, his career has clearly gone nowhere. But if I am a major league team looking to fill a hole in the back of my rotation, I would take a long look at Jeff Francis.
In Francis' last fully healthy season, 2007, the left-hander went 17-9 with a solid 4.22 ERA and a career best 4.19 FIP. He was 26, just entering his prime, and seemed poised to become a solid No. 2/No. 3 starter. But injuries disrupted his 2008 and eliminated his 2009.
Given Francis' age, it's difficult for some people to imagine he has much more to offer than he has already shown, but he took a huge step forward at 26 years old in his last full season. Though his 2010 results weren't pretty, he pitched to a career best 3.88 FIP. His BB/9 hit a career low at 1.98, and his groundball percentage a career high at 47 percent.
Jeff Francis is far from a sure thing, and his pure stuff will always limit his ceiling. But he took a huge step forward at 2007, and since coming back from injuries has displayed a very impressive skill set. I wouldn't be shocked if Jeff Francis, who can likely be had for a small major league deal, was better over the next two to three years than Carl Pavano.
The market for baseball talent is far more efficient today than it was a decade ago. Players with unusual skills, such as the ability to avoid outs or play elite defense, are no longer the undervalued commodities they were in a pre-Moneyball era. But that doesn't mean there are no inefficiencies in the market for baseball talent. It simply means teams now have to take on more risk to unearth hidden gems than they did in the past.
The point of the game is to minimize risk and maximize upside. If a player is 90 percent likely to miss this upcoming season, but 10 percent likely to play like Albert Pujols, he's worth a few million dollars. Many general managers don't see things this way.
It's understandable. They are paid, in part, to be risk averse and to make to conservative, responsible decisions with their boss's money. But for a team with financial flexibility and the willingness to take a risk, this opens up some great opportunities.
Nick Johnson is one such opportunity. Johnson has dealt with injuries his entire career, but when he's been on the field, he's been a very good player. In 2005 and 2006, Johnson was worth 10.1 WAR. By comparison, Mark Teixeira has been worth 8.9 WAR over the past two seasons. Johnson is a good defensive first baseman, a .290 hitter with 20-homer pop and quite possibly the best on-base skills in the league.
Johnson missed all of 2007 and most of 2008 with injuries. And after a bounce-back year in 2009, he missed almost all of last year. There is a good chance he'll be injured next year, too, but for an offensively challenged team, Johnson possesses considerable potential value.
Two years ago, Brian Fuentes was among the most sought-after players on the market. He was coming off a 2.73 ERA and 30 saves as a member of the Colorado Rockies in 2008. He didn't throw as hard as Jonathan Broxton or Kerry Wood, but his 11.78 strikeout rate topped both that year.
Fuentes signed a massive contract with the Los Angeles Angels to replace record-setting closer Fransisco Rodriguez, and while his numbers have not been nearly as impressive across the board as they were in Colorado, Fuentes has been an all-around solid reliever.
Since signing with the Angels, Fuentes has maintained a very solid strikeout rate above eight per nine innings. His control has been somewhat of an issue, but when you're striking out a batter per inning, slightly-below-average control is acceptable. And while Fuentes is even more of a fly-ball pitcher now than two years ago, he continues to keep the home runs at a manageable rate.
Brian Fuentes should not be a bargain. He has name value and closing experience and saves, but for some reason, teams do not seem to be high on him. Maybe it's because he's a left-hander and doesn't throw very hard. But whatever the reason, he can close in this league, and that does have some value.
Jim Edmonds is not the player he was was five years ago. He's not capable of hitting .300 with 40-plus home runs, and while his defense is still solid, he's no longer a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder. He's 40 years old, and it is not clear at the moment whether he will play in 2011. But if he does, he represents a decent value for the team that signs him.
After sitting out all of 2009, Edmonds returned to the major leagues this past season at 39 years old to prove he still had something left in the tank. He hit .276, his highest batting average since 2004, and his .846 OPS was just three points lower than Jayson Heyward's.
Edmonds brings a solid all-around skill set to the table. He's no longer a strikeout machine, and he has the ability to walk at a well above-league-average rate. He's still got some pop in his bat as well. Between 2008 and 2010, Edmonds posted a .237 isolated power (SLG - BA), the fifth highest among outfielders with at least 600 plate appearances during that time frame—higher than Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton and Jason Bay.
Jim Edmonds has been a very good player for a very long time. He's not going to make the All-Star Game anymore, but he could help out just about any team both offensive and defensively.
Will Kevin Gregg sign at a bargain price? A month ago, I didn't think he would. But a deep pool of free-agent relievers may leave Gregg few options.
Kevin Gregg was one of the better relievers in the American League last season. He saved 37 games for the Blue Jays, and his ERA of 3.51 was definitely serviceable. Gregg combines good stuff and a high strikeout rate with an uncanny ability to avoid the long ball. Despite his shaky control and fly-ball tendencies, Gregg has been a successful, and fairly consistent reliever for four years now.
Since grabbing the closer role in Florida in 2007, Gregg had saved 121 games for three teams in four years. That alone is impressive, as are his constituent ERAs in the mid-threes. No, he's not Mariano Rivera or Joakim Soria. But for a closer with a four-year track record in his prime, Gregg could come cheap.
What a difference 12 months can make. A year ago, Derek Lee was coming off one of the best seasons of his career. In 2009, he hit .306 with a .393 OBP and 35 home runs. Last year, the 35-year-old first baseman hit .260, his lowest batting average since 1999, with just 19 home runs and a .774 OPS.
Given how poorly Lee played for much of last season, 2009 is looking like an aberration. It's not that Lee hasn't been a very good player over the past decade—he has. But outside of an MVP-caliber season in 2005, and another near-MVP caliber season in 2009, Lee has never been a superstar. He's posted solid power numbers, hit for a good average, and reached base frequently.
A good player, but given the position he plays, not a great player.
But 2010 was different. Last season, Lee was not a good player, he was a below-average Major League first baseman. Given his age and the position he plays, many believe he's nearing the end of this playing career.
That's possible. But he is a good player, he did have a .972 OPS a year ago, and he did play much better after a trade to Atlanta. He could be a big-time bargain.
Chad Qualls really struggled last season. The 32-year-old Diamondbacks closer made 70 appearances, pitching to an incredible 7.32 ERA. Given the volatile nature of relievers, a bad season can not only lose a player money—it can keep them out of the big leagues. But teams should not be afraid to take a shot on Chad Qualls.
Qualls has a very valuable skill set. The big right-hander doesn't throw very hard, but he succeeds in getting batters out with a strikeout rate above seven and good command of the strike zone. Control was an issue last season, but has been a strength in the past, and his extreme groundball nature helps to limit any damage.
Qualls was coming off a very impressive couple of seasons. In both 2008 and 2009, he posted expected FIPs bellow three. Even last season, his HR/FB adjusted FIP was a solid 3.93, driven by a high ground-ball rate and solid strikeout-to-walk rate.
He doesn't look like the elite reliever he was for a couple of seasons, but Chad Qualls can help any major league bullpen.
Grant Balfour is the fourth reliever to make my list, a fact that almost explains itself. With so many good relievers left on the market, and few playoff-caliber teams in dire need of a closer or setup man, pitchers like Grant Balfour and Chad Qualls can be had at bargain prices.
Balfour has been a mixed bag since his breakout season in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Rays. The hard-throwing righty fits the closer mold, and his high strikeout rates are likely here to stay. But his control has been up and down. Last season, Balfour walked just 2.77 batters per nine innings, by far a career low. His ERA fell from 4.81 in 2009 to just 2.28 last season.
A reliever who throws in the mid-90s and strikes out a batter or more an inning is a valuable commodity. Balfour does not have the closing experience of Gregg or Fuentes or Qualls, but he's probably the best pitcher of the three.
He's a little under the radar, and his poor 2009 season should keep prices down. But he can close in Major League Baseball.
In 2008, Manny Ramirez talked his way out of Boston. He pulled his best Babe Ruth impression down the stretch, garnering MVP consideration in half a season and leading the Dodgers to the playoffs.
In 2009, Manny Ramirez signed with Los Angeles late in the offseason. He missed 50 games on a PED suspension, and his name was linked to the 2003 PED testing list.
In 2010, Manny Ramirez had the most unusual season of his career. He disappeared. Yeah, there was a mid-season trade and his tenure in LA ended, but more than any season in recent memory, Manny stayed out of the news.
It's probably because of this that Manny is now incredibly under the radar. Yeah, he's getting up there in age. Injuries are a concern and he's not the same player he was a couple of years ago. But he can still rake.
Even if we forget what he did in 2008, we're still looking at an elite offensive talent. Over the past two season, Manny has an OPS of .915. That's 10 points higher than Hanley Ramirez's, and the 13th best OPS in baseball over that period.
Manny has his limitations. He's a DH at this point, and he will miss some time due to injuries. But we're still looking at one of the best hitters in the game. Manny will be the Vladimir Guerrero of 2011.
Another reliever? Again, this is a case of a good relief pitcher who's selling price will be far lower than in most markets. If you can choice between Kevin Gregg, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, Grant Balfour, and Chad Qualls, you don't have to pay a premium for any one of them.
Rauch has always been a solid setup man, and he put together one of his best seasons in 2010 after grabbing the closers role when Joe Nathan hit the DL. Rauch has great control, and good stuff, and limits home runs fairly well despite a high flyball rate. Last season, he posted a career best 2.94 FIP and saved 21 games for the Twins.
In most off-seasons, he'd be a slam dunk closer. This year though, Rauch is the kind of guy a competitive team can bring in to pitch the seventh or eighth inning and count on if their top closer goes down.
Adam Laroche is not a great player. He's always going to strike out a bit too much, and he's never going to hit for a great average. He also doesn't walk too frequently, leaving his OBP in in the .340 range most of the time. But he is a solid player.
Since breaking into the big leagues with Atlanta in 2004, Laroche has a career OPS of .827. That's not great for a first baseman, but it's solid. You can count on him to hit .260-.280 with 25 or so home runs and a solid OBP and SLG. He's also a pretty good defender.
Laroche is the kind of player that's always going to be a bargain. He's got a valuable skill set and you know exactly what you'll get from him, but few teams want Adam Laroche starting for them on the opening day. You could do worse.
It's amazing that Jim Thome is still playing as well as he is. The 40-year-old first baseman seemed past his prime five years ago when Ryan Howard usurped his role as the Phillies starting first baseman.
Since returning to the American League in 2006, Thome has hit 159 home runs with a .944 OPS. Over the same time period, Mark Teixeira has posted a .919 OPS and hit 168 homers.
Thome is just 11 home runs shy of 600. Baring any steroid allegations, Thome seems to be a lock for Cooperstown, an underrated player who accumulated insane enough numbers that the voters simply can't keep him out. He says he wants to play two more years, but at the rate he's going, he could probably play two more decades.
Thome was one of the better hitters in the American League last year. In 108 games, he posted a 1.039 OPS and 25 home runs for the Twins. While his performance certainly raised his price this off-season, he hasn't received the kind of attention those numbers warrant. He could out-slug Mark Teixiera in 2011, but he'll likely cost a team well under $10 million a year.