"I hear the jury's still out on science." G.O.B. (Arrested Development, 2005)
Let me preface this article by stating that the players whom I rank as the top remaining free agents may not be the best players still unsigned.
However, they are players who should come at a relative bargain, are at a position with a shallow depth pool, and/or have the ability to produce.
I am also going to leave out free agents whom I do not believe will sign before Spring Training (note Spring Training countdown on left sidebar). In addition, I will consider what the cost of obtaining these players will be in terms of draft pick compensation.
Here is MLB.com's poorly updated list of available free agents.
And here are my Top Five Remaining Free Agents:
5. Morgan Ensberg (1B/3B) - 32 years old
Ensberg has had a nice career up to this point, displaying strong power numbers when healthy. However, the most impressive asset Ensberg brings to the table is his ability to get on base. His career .366 OBP is coupled with a less then stellar batting average of balls put in play (BABIP). Because of this, I am confident that his OBP is legitimate and expecting at least .350 a year is reasonable for Ensberg. Entering the 2007 season, PECOTA anticipated a .375 five-year average for Ensberg's OBP.
In addition to this, PECOTA expected only a marginal slip in Ensberg's isolated power (ISO). ISO is a statistic that measures a player's pure power. The 219 mark that PECOTA projects from the 2007 to 2011 season is 8 points higher then Ensberg's career mark.
It is interesting that Ensberg is still a free agent at this point. Tim Dierkes writes that Ensberg "would probably play for $3M and jump at a full-time chance." If you are a major league club and are in need of a corner infielder with solid on base and power abilities, I do not see why you would not dish out three million for his services. Consider that in 2005, Ensberg's last season as a full time player, he posted the third-highest win share total among National League third basemen.
There doesn't appear to be any information about an injury to Ensberg, so I have to think that he is either being picky about where to play, or teams think that he is well on his way to a drop-off. But in that case, I have to wonder who the Phillies, Giants, or Twins intend to man at the hot corner this season.
4. Jorge Julio (RP) - 29 years old
Keep in mind: I do not think Julio is the best reliever available. However, I do think he is the easiest to acquire as well as the one that will offer the fewest headaches. Julio has not made much noise over his career about being a closer the way Dotel has. He has also been able to consistently throw 60-plus innings a season—and as far as I can tell, has never landed on the disabled list.
Julio has posted a career normalized runs allowed (NRA) of 4.59—admittedly, a mediocre number. However, Julio has posted some solid seasons (and obviously a few duds). Had he achieved his career average for NRA, he would have ranked between Vizcaino and Villarreal among relievers with at least 60 innings pitched. To put that into further perspective, the best reliever on the Tigers with at least 50 innings pitched was Todd Jones at 4.26, with Fernando Rodney next at 4.80. Does Dave Dombrowski feel so confident in his rotation and bats that he can completely ignore the bullpen?
Let us also keep in mind that Julio has a decent resume of being a fireman. Julio has been successful in holding a save situation lead in 137 of 169 (81%) opportunities. Again, to put that into perspective, highly-sought reliever Francisco Cordero has a career mark of 83%. This is not to suggest that Julio is nearly as qualified as Cordero—rather, it is to suggest that at a fraction of the cost, Julio could be of great help to a lot of clubs.
3. Dallas McPherson (3B) - 27 years old
Dallas is one of those reclamation projects—he will come at a relatively low cost, and the once A- rated prospect is still young enough to be confident in a return to form. After taking all of the 2007 season off, McPherson will undeniably have a great deal of rust to remove, but he is only a season removed from hitting 24 home runs in under 100 games played.
McPherson will never fool anybody into thinking he has the ability to make regular contact. However, with his ability to hammer the ball out of the park, and age still on his side, what is stopping a team like the Twins or Giants from giving him a shot? Apparently, before the Cantu signing the Marlins were interested in him, but I think with the amount of bodies the Fish already have on their roster, this would be a poor signing for Dallas.
For those worried about McPherson's age, keep in mind two American League sluggers who took until their age-27 seasons to break out (here and here).
If I am Brian Sabean, I would give Dallas a two year contract worth $3M plus incentives, adding a third-year option which would become automatic if Dallas manages to reach the incentive benchmarks, with an opt-out after year one.
2. Jason Jennings (SP) - 29 years old
Jason Jennings isn't going to fool anybody at the plate, and he doesn't have the upside or potential to be a teams #1, #2, or even #3 starting pitcher. However, if a team has waited until a little over a month before looking to fill a role such as that, they deserve to get what is available.
The hittable Jennings has had to endure a career at Coors Field in Colorado. For a pitcher who already has a difficult time missing bats, pitching in a park that inflates hit totals more than any other ballpark has certainly not helped. However, that does not mean that Jennings is suddenly Pedro Martinez—not in the least.
But let us look at Jennings healthy, non-Coors Field numbers (keep in mind, these numbers are simply for reference and should be taken as such):
Year - ERA, WHIP, BAA
2006 - 3.97, 1.32, .254
2004 - 4.86, 1.43, .271
2003 - 5.38, 1.79, .318
2002 - 3.35, 1.23, .234
Keep in mind, this method does not take into account luck on either spectrum. However, what it does show is that away from Coors Field, Jennings is about the equivalent of a league-average #3 starter. If a team were to take into account regression due to age, wear and tear, etc, achieving his 2004/05 road splits does not seem out of the question. Put a solid defensive unit behind him in a pitching friendly ballpark and a team could expect to have a Gil Meche, Joe Blanton, or Boof Bonser type on their hands.
For the cost (monetary and prospect wise), Jennings hits #2 on my chart of top remaining free agents. He will undeniably be a lesser starting pitcher then a Kyle Lohse, but will come at a fraction of the cost. This would be a smart signing for the Astros, White Sox, or Braves.
1. Corey Patterson (OF) - 28 years old
Speaking of the Braves—how has Atlanta Braves made a multi-year offer to Patterson? The most recent rumor has the 28-year-old Patterson re-signing with the Baltimore Orioles—although if Roberts and Bedard leave town, I can't see a reason for him to do such unless the price is absolutely perfect.
Conversely, the Braves are in dire need of a CFer. Patterson loves to swing, and seems to have a hobby of missing and fanning opposing catchers. However, it appears as though some of the free swinging tactics of the past have subsided and Patterson has finally matured as a hitter. This is good news for the toolsy outfielder who was once a top-rated prospect in the Cubs organization, and about whom Baseball Prospectus had the following to say in 2001:
"Corey Patterson is still one of the best prospects in the game, but not a lock to win the job in center field this spring. He has the arm and range for the position and will be one of the best in the league when he improves his routes to the ball. In 2000, he started spreading his stance, but not quite to a Von Hayes stretch. The Cubs spent a lot of time working on his bunting for base hits and apparently almost none on his selectivity. He kills off-speed stuff, struggles with heat, and adjusts well within at-bats. Without improvement, he’ll be a mix of Garret Anderson's and Devon White’s better skills. But he’s going to improve."
However, that was back in 2001, and a lot has changed since that time. Baseball Prospectus wrote a lengthy piece on Patterson a day ago, suggesting he is more of a fourth outfielder then a starter. I must disagree.
After the 2007 season, Patterson's OPS+ sat at 83, far from spectacular and even further from where experts expected him to land at this point in his career. However, consider that the lowest and third lowest season OPS+ of Patterson's career occurred at age 20 and 21. Since this time he has posted totals of 78, 114, 95, 54, 94 and 80 for a 6 year average of 86. In 2007 the median CFer had an OPS+ of 88, suggesting that Patterson is only marginally worse then the absolutely average CFer.
While there is speculation that Patterson's agent will require a three-year, $24M contract for 2008-10, I find it difficult to believe that at this point, Patterson would not accept a three-year contract for $15M. That total would be substantially less then what PECOTA projected Patterson to be worth—a value of over $8M a year. The Braves should move quickly on this one, and lock him up for cheap.