MLB Free Agency: 7 Sleepers Who Could Really Help Out Teams Next Year
The 2012 MLB season will, in large part, be shaped by the major players of free agency. Prince Fielder, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, CC Sabathia—these are the big guns, the guys who will be coveted by every fanbase, but had by only one.
Chances are, your favorite team will not enter 2012 with Fielder or Pujols in the middle of the lineup. You will miss out on Reyes’ blinding speed and the remarkable consistency of Sabathia’s quality starts. You will settle for smaller names, incremental improvements and affordable gambles over big splashes and marquee additions.
But fear not.
There is plenty of talent to be had beyond the franchise-types and Scott Boras clients. 2012’s free-agent class will be incredibly deep, and difference makers will appear from all levels of salary structure, not just the top one percent.
With that in mind, here are seven “under-the-radar” (read: affordable) free agents who could become key factors 2012.
7. Javier Lopez, RP
Most baseball fans don’t generally follow the every-three-or-four-day exploits of bullpen specialists, and therefore probably aren’t aware of just how good Lopez has been for the Giants in his two seasons with the team.
In 27 games in 2010 with the Giants, Lopez posted an obscene 1.42 ERA and 0.68 WHIP. He was instrumental in getting San Francisco through the playoffs, allowing only one hit in last year’s postseason, and lowering said WHIP to a ridiculous 0.35
Lopez has been so effective because the Giants have found a role that suits him perfectly. Late in games, he gets lefties out. They don’t try to extend him into a closer’s role or ask him to dominate right-handed hitters. He is a specialist. And as specialists go, he is one of the best in the game.
Lopez would be a phenomenal addition to any club looking to solidify their bullpen. Signing him won’t turn any heads, but watching him eviscerate the Ryan Howards and Chase Utleys of the world certainly will.
6. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
Like most Cubs, Aramis Ramirez has been grossly overpaid.
In recent years his production has been good, but not five-years/$75 million good, and consequently, he probably won’t get the respect he fully deserves on the free-agent market. Ramirez is the rare player who has gone from undervalued to way overvalued, and now will likely be undervalued again.
Ramirez’s defense is as strong as ever—he is always a candidate to hit .300, and because of his past contracts, GMs will be very cautious about what they offer him. After all, anyone who has paid attention to the Cubs in recent years knows that his big contract hasn’t exactly resulted in wins for the Cubbies.
Ramirez is a top-notch third baseman who will likely be available for less than he deserves. He has been overpaid for the last five years, and is now a candidate to be underpaid, making him an ideal fit for those looking to avoid giving mammoth contracts to bigger names.
5. Edwin Jackson, SP
It’s hard for me to put Jackson on this list because I honestly don’t know what to make of him. Seemingly, neither do the general managers of MLB teams.
He has shown top-of-the-rotation ability at times, has a no-hitter on his resume, and seems to be constantly on the verge of a breakout season. At the same time, he is constantly being shuttled from one team to another, and in an league full of teams desperate for starting pitching, his nomadic career path certainly isn’t a good sign.
Jackson has pitched for six teams in eight major-league seasons. He has alternated between terrible and good, sometimes in the same season (2010 with the Diamondbacks: 5.16 ERA, 1.496 WHIP. 2010 with the White Sox: 3.24 ERA, 1.213 WHIP).
It seems like Jackson is going to break out for real one of these seasons, and signing him at this point in his career is an extremely cost-effective way to solidify a starting staff. At best, he is a legit No. 2 or 3 starter. At worst, he is a back-of-the-rotation guy who will occasionally give you front-of-the-rotation-type starts.
4. Michael Cuddyer, RF
The hipsters of Internet message boards love Michael Cuddyer.
He’s the guy who’s cool to like because he’s not cool to like. Any article that puts forth the idea that a team should sign a big name like Carlos Beltran will likely be met with several comments promoting Cuddyer as a more affordable, less flashy option.
And they’re right. Not about Cuddyer being better than Beltran—that’s just ridiculous—but about Cuddyer’s affordability, and potential value to a given team.
Cuddyer’s stats won’t blow you away, but they are consistent. He will hit .270, get his 150 hits and play a solid right field. He has been well paid by the Twins (he will make $10.5 million this year), but his contract isn’t so prohibitive as to put him the in the "mid-market teams will absolutely not be able to afford him” range.
3. Jack Wilson, SS
If you can’t pay for elite free agents, you most likely aren’t going to get an elite offensive talent. But you might be able to get a top-of-the-line defender and, in the right situation, solidifying a defense may be just as important as acquiring a big bat.
Jack Wilson is extremely affordable, and is one of the best defenders in the game at one of the most important defensive positions. Although his range and fielding percentage aren’t what they were from 2005-2007, Wilson is still solidly in the top third in the league in nearly all defensive categories when healthy.
For most franchises, shortstop is not a position that is going to generate tremendous offensive power anyways. At around $5 million a year, Wilson is an already-affordable player who will become more affordable due to his injury-riddled 2011 season.
Defensive strength up the middle is something that every MLB team should be seeking. If he can stay healthy, this is exactly what Jack Wilson brings to the table.
2. Jonathan Broxton, RP
Things have kind of fallen apart for Jonathan Broxton since 2010.
For four of his first five major-league seasons, Broxton was one of the best relievers in the game. His ERA was consistently under 3.00. He hovered around 11 K/9. His potential as a closer was limitless, as was his eventual paycheck. Or so it seemed.
But for the last two years, Broxton has been absolutely pedestrian. His 2011 ERA is above 5.60, his K rate has dropped and he is walking more batters than he has since his rookie year.
Because of his statistical decline, Broxton will not get the free-agent offers of an elite closer. However, I believe that somewhere within him, that potential is still alive. Taking a chance on Broxton would be a cheap gamble for a team looking to solidify their bullpen.
On a team with an established closer, Broxton would have a chance to rebuild his career. You can never have too many quality relievers, and Broxton still has the ability to be exactly that.
The 2011 Dodgers have been an unmitigated disaster, and using free agency to move to greener pastures could be exactly what Broxton needs to revive his promising career.
1. Derek Lee, 1B
Like most players on this list, Derek Lee’s career has seen better days.
He is no longer the impact player or middle-of-the-order threat he once was, and his defense has certainly slipped. However, Lee has been surprisingly effective at the plate in the NL recently, and might simply need to find a team (and a role) that he feels comfortable with.
In a 39-game stint with the Braves last season, Lee hit a decent .287/.384/.465/.849. He subsequently struggled early in 2011 with the Orioles, but has been fairly effective back in the NL with the Pirates this season, hitting .278/.316/.722/1.038 in a small sample size.
Lee’s days of All-Star selections may be over, but he could still be a nice (not to mention cheap) addition to a young, emerging NL team, like the Pirates, going forward.