MLB Free Agents 2012: 3 Most Underrated FAs-to-Be at Every Position
What happens if your team does not land Albert Pujols this offseason? What if, despite a desperate pursuit of Prince Fielder or Jose Reyes or CC Sabathia or C.J. Wilson or Jonathan Papelbon or Carlos Beltran, your team misses out? Who is left?
This is perhaps the question most under-examined by the modern baseball fan during the offseason. Too often, fans assume that if their team simply wants a player badly enough and opens the wallet wide enough, that player will come.
Therefore, they refuse to create contingent expectations in case of failure or rejection. Realistically, good general managers know as well as any fan who the best players available are, and they know much better than anyone else what that player is truly worth to their organization.
That's why player salaries do not leap 200 percent every winter—GM restraint.
Once this hypothetical leader is outbid, though, and decides not to offer more for a top talent, the alternative options become the important ones.
Baseball is a game won and lost at the margins, and getting the best value on the free-agent market is often more important than getting the best player.
With that in mind, here are three players at every position on the diamond who will be underrated and underpaid in 2012, and to whom your team could turn if the big boys turn elsewhere.
Catcher: Is There Anybody out There?
If you're a GM in search of a backstop this winter, you might be pretty well out of luck.
It's not as if no talent is there to be had, but the total package simply isn't available unless you buy in bulk.
Ryan Doumit can hit the cover off the ball, but to put him behind the plate is to invite defensive disaster.
Jason Varitek's value has been reduced essentially to intangibles, leadership, a veteran presence—all that. It's not a bull market for these men.
In case of emergency, though, break the glass on these three well-rounded catchers.
It isn't as though the Reds have need for Hernandez going forward—he'd probably be third on their catching depth chart next season.
That alone has probably helped push Hernandez under the radar, but here's what they will not tell you—even at age 36, Hernandez is one of the most consistent catchers one could find, a major asset behind the plate.
His middling power and only slightly above-average on-base skills make him useful, and he will not sign for much.
Shoppach's positive offensive career value to this point is tied up in 580 plate appearances over two seasons three years ago in Cleveland.
He does a number of things well, though, calling a good game and generally taking an assertive defensive role on the diamond.
He also mashes left-handed pitching, as C.J. Wilson can attest.
Molina posted a surprising .334 wOBA in 2011—surprising because he's usually the terrible hitter in the Molina catching family tree.
If a team snags him hoping for a repeat performance, they deserve their disappointment.
If, however, they sign him looking for a catcher with a rocket arm and athleticism behind the plate that belies his advancing years, they will get every cent of expenditure back in value added.
First Base: The Lesser Lords
There is King Albert, there is Prince Fielder and there is everyone else in this market.
Pujols will get his mega-deal, Fielder will outperform your expectations for him and three or four teams will be left looking for a first baseman at the end of the bidding war.
These three guys will then walk onto the battlefield, none the worse for wear, and happily help whichever of those clubs invests in each.
How strange was it that the movie version of Moneyball treated Carlos Pena as Billy Beane's Rosebud, even though Pena was and is more or less the perfect Moneyball player as Beane saw them back then?
He hits for terrific power and draws enough walks to have big value, even though he strikes out far too much for the taste of many scouts and will always struggle to top a .230 batting average.
Pena also plays great defense, and though I'm not usually one for placing monetary value on intangibles, Pena might be the ideal clubhouse and makeup guy.
He's an asset on any kind of team and will be a welcome consolation prize for someone soon.
The rumors of Lee's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Despite dreadful starts each of these past two seasons, Lee's final numbers in each have been just fine, and while he is no longer the borderline superstar he was from 2003-09, he still has some very useful skills.
He could head West if the Angels miss on the big boys, as Lee is from California originally and once expressed some desire to be nearer to home again.
Hawpe probably seems to be a very generous inclusion, and perhaps he is.
He sure has fallen off the face of the Earth the last year and a half at the plate.
In part, though, his 2011 struggles were the result of playing through injury—and anyway, numbers at PETCO Park must be taken with a grain of salt.
Hawpe actually played a pretty fair first base and could settle in as a platoon or bench player in the dusty mold of Daryle Ward, Jason Giambi and others.
Second Base: Options Restricted
If Brandon Phillips and Robinson Cano had had really brutal seasons, or if the Reds and Yankees owners (say) succumbed to a Ponzi scheme and got tangled in a hideous divorce—or something—the market for second basemen would be really interesting this winter.
As it is, Cincinnati and New York are going to exercise their options to keep those two players, and the market is really thin.
Still, these three can return more than their new teams will pay to get them.
One of the best stats in baseball is the fact that Jamey Carroll last hit a home run over 1,000 plate appearances ago, in July, 2009.
Yet Carroll still gets on base, still does a lot of things well and still fits the mold for a team that needs defense and OBP more than power from its middle infield.
Ellis is the secret weapon of the winter, the guy who could swing a divisional race to some underfunded small-market team.
He will not hit much, but few players at any position have been as consistently good with the leather over the past decade as Ellis.
Don't believe me? Over the last 10 years—Ellis' whole career—the numbers say he is a top-10 defensive player in all of baseball.
He's been better over that span than men like Jimmy Rollins, Jack Wilson, Brandon Inge and Carlos Beltran, among many others.
Hill might return to Arizona for a full season in 2012, but they don't figure to pick up his $8 million contract to do it, so everyone will at least get a long look at him.
Hill didn't hit much in 2010 or 2011, but his fielding remains steady, and he clearly still has the power potential that set him apart as a second baseman a few years ago.
He's a buy-low guy with big reward potential.
Third Base: Don't Pay for Ramirez
Aramis Ramirez's defense has been very bad the past three years.
In fact, statistically, he rated as the third-worst third baseman in baseball over that span—and I'm not sure the numbers aren't overrating him.
Ramirez is a statue at third base, a flat-footed nightmare with a good arm but no range who clings to the foul line as if being out of arm's reach would suddenly turn the field to a deep sea in which he could not swim.
He may be a fine hitter and a well-paid free agent, but these three players will be better decisions by whoever signs them.
Jerry Hairston Jr.
Despite operating under the illusion that the invisible line between home plate and second base represents the diamond's right-field boundary, Hairston has made a bit of a hitter of himself, never more so than during the NLCS.
Never mind the errors he committed defensively in that set—he is fine in terms of range and will make steadier plays as he gets more experience around that bag, rather than second base.
He's only a part-time solution, but he could be a good one.
He might be even worse than Ramirez as a defender, albeit with more vigor, but Betemit brings a caliber of offensive production too few baseball people appreciate.
He can have an impact as a switch-hitter who can get the job done and has some actual pop.
Betemit will land softly somewhere and get 400 or so plate appearances next year.
He couldn't even hit at Coors Field, so the end may be nigh for Kouzmanoff.
A team will earn itself a few critical runs at some point, though, signing the Kouz simply as a late-game defensive sub.
One can afford to sign Ramirez if one has a guy with a glove like this with whom to replace the big slugger in important situations.
Shortstop: No Shortage
Shortstop is a position of scarcity in baseball today.
Yuniesky Betancourt and Ronny Cedeno had jobs all season. Reid Brignac played in 92 games.
The Reds and Giants, who each made the playoffs in 2010, spent 2011 floundering without a reliable player either at the plate or in the field to play short.
Help is on the way, in a way.
Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins hit the free-agent market this winter.
Barmes evokes Alex Gonzalez a bit.
Like Gonzalez, Barmes is a toolsy and rangy defender. Like Gonzalez, Barmes hits for power but struggles to get on base sometimes.
It's an inconsistently successful skill set, but it works for Barmes, and he is not getting his due as a very valuable piece at a premium position.
This Alex Gonzalez is the same as the other and the same as Barmes—only different.
His only offensive tool is power, and it's not always there.
This Gonzalez, though, is smoother and stronger with his defensive actions and provides more value that way than either of his would-be comps.
Punto had a great season with the bat, posting a .388 OBP in 166 plate appearances.
It's not likely he can do that again, but he can field the baseball efficiently and sometimes brilliantly everywhere he goes.
It's a wonder, then, that in his 11-year career he has never been given a real chance to play shortstop on even a semi-regular basis.
He might get that chance this winter—and boy, would he fit nicely in Pittsburgh.
Left Field: The Strangest Position in Baseball
What should a left fielder look like?
If your team is after one, do you want them pursuing Carlos Beltran for elite production, or adding a very athletic defender?
Maybe you would prefer the team concentrate its resources in a more important part of the diamond, and filling left with a player who simply does something well.
In any case, no Carl Crawford is out there this winter.
For better or worse, when it comes to true left fielders, these under-the-radar guys are really the best options if a team elects to make left field a priority.
Willingham is no anonymous candidate, but he does deserve more attention than he has gotten as a guy with elite power upside.
Hitting 29 home runs and knocking in 98 doesn't put the same shine on one's numbers as reaching 30 and 100 might have, but so much the better for whichever team makes off with Willingham this winter.
He might move to first base.
As statistical methods go, throwing out a sizable data set because it does not mesh with human observation is not so good. But let's do it anyway, for just a moment.
Whatever plagued Felix Pie in 2011, it dragged him to new depths of being awful.
He was cut—by the Orioles, no less—and he deserved to be. He was not any good last season.
In 2010, though, Pie hit .274/.305/.413, and he flashed some of the defensive and athletic tools that had everyone so excited about him as a very young man.
Incidentally, he will be just 27 years old in 2012, so that phrase still applies to him in some ways.
Pie will never be a star, but he could be a fine role player on a number of teams, and his dismissal from pro baseball was probably out of turn.
Nix might be the missing piece of a very effective four-player outfield mix in a number of towns.
The Nationals will probably try to keep him without even letting him get far from home, but Nix's blend of pop at the plate and a good arm afield will make him attractive in several quarters.
Center Field: Specialize or Die
Center fielders are hot properties, and it would be stunning if another elite player at the position made it to market anytime soon.
Therefore, the only way to improve in center field is through careful specialization.
Buying two parts for the price of one and getting the full benefit of their complementary skills can lend a team a big marginal advantage.
Here are three guys with the chops to be part of such a plan.
Crisp generally hovers just below average when it comes to plate production, but he does enough to have value on that side of the baseball. He stole 49 bases in 2011.
The real reason he is underrated, though, is that few think of him as a first-division defensive center fielder.
That's a rare commodity, and Crisp can be very good out there when healthy.
DeJesus is a man defined more by his lack of weaknesses than by a specific strength.
He plays the outfield well, he has modest power and speed and he's a pretty fair hitter, as his .284/.356/.421 career line attests.
That's actually what makes DeJesus valuable to a team trying to specialize.
He is not likely to be deployed as an everyday anything, but as a fourth outfielder who finds 450-plus plate appearances, he adds enormous flexibility.
If managers were but a little more creative, Ankiel would be more valuable.
He can hit the occasional homer off of a right-handed pitcher and he has a little speed, but honestly, the Yankees or Red Sox should sign Ankiel and use him almost exclusively as a defensive outfield arm sub late in games.
When the tying run reaches first base, put in Ankiel and force the next batter to homer to score that guy. When the bases are loaded with one out, bring in Ankiel and make a double play distinctly possible even on a fly ball.
This is what Ankiel does. He throws as well or better than anyone else in the game today, and he can change a game from the outfield.
Right Field: Loaded
Right field is a rich position this season.
Carlos Beltran will probably sign to play there for someone.
Cody Ross, Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew head a list of accomplished players whom no one underrates (a nice way to say they're overrated) who call that position home.
For value, though, and for teams without the wherewithal to lure Beltran, there are these three overlooked studs.
All Michael Cuddyer has done the past few seasons is hit for good power, play five positions and take on a major leadership role with the Minnesota Twins.
He deserves far more attention than he gets. The problem seems to be that many see him as a man without a position, but honestly, he's a perfectly natural right fielder with a rocket arm.
He just needed to play elsewhere a fair amount the last three seasons because of Minnesota's injury epidemic.
Fukudome had a crummy August and September for the fading Indians, but he is one of the game's most underrated players.
He could bat in the top two lineup slots for 15 or more teams, with probably a .370 OBP skill in the National League.
His power comes and goes and he's good but not great in the outfield, but Fukudome is an asset too few recognize.
It's easy to look at Kubel, note his hefty frame and extreme want of speed on the bases and assume he's a one-dimensional left-handed slugger. Many people do so.
It's not really a fair charge, though. Kubel may be below-average in right field, but by very little, and he's actually a fine pure-hitter as well as having good power.
Starting Pitcher: Don't Pay for Left-Handedness
C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle and CC Sabathia will dominate the market this winter, and in one case, that's okay.
Sabathia is transcendent, and any team that can acquire him ought to.
In the cases of Wilson and Buehrle, though, there is danger of overpayment simply because they are left-handed and durable.
Value by volume works, but it is a better formula for a rebuilding team than a contender in this day and age.
The two southpaws are very accomplished but not overwhelmingly talented, whereas these three right-handed hurlers are getting rather overlooked.
Coming off the worst season of his sparkling career, Oswalt had been rumored to be contemplating retirement, but his agent recently shot that down.
It seems Oswalt will play somewhere next season, which means he will be a very undervalued asset after the Phillies (almost inevitably) decline his $16 million option.
Oswalt is perpetually underrated, but some team will sign him this winter and land a co-ace kind of arm for far less than he is worth even at age 34.
The hardest-throwing starter in the National League, Jackson hits the market at the right time after improving his control and posting a 3.55 FIP in nearly 200 innings this season.
He is big and strong and durable, and better still, he has the skills to be nearly untouchable against righties and still tough on lefties.
Jackson might get three years and $30 million this winter, but he's worth more.
In four big-league seasons, Kuroda has a 3.45 ERA and has shown a lot of impressive things.
He throws mostly in the 91-94 mile-an-hour range with his fastball, but his stuff is not as impressive as his command thereof.
He's a great pitcher because he does not walk batters, focuses on ground balls and has figured out these last two seasons how to strike out big-league hitters.
He will be a mere consolation prize for a pitching-starved team who wanted Wilson or Jackson, but he could be a better value than either.
Relief Pitchers: Never Pay for Saves
Jonathan Papelbon is going to make huge money somewhere this winter.
So will Heath Bell and, if he's lucky, so will Ryan Madson.
It's all because the market foolishly rewards the accumulation of saves and the closer mentality.
It's not that those three men do not deserve decent contracts. It's just that these three will provide much better bang for one's buck.
The specifics escape me, but it feels as though the Cardinals have more pressing things on their plate this winter than retaining Dotel.
Assuming that to be true, they will not likely pick up his $3.75-million option, and they could try to get him back for less.
That gambit might work, because Dotel is ill-appreciated by too many as the rare right-handed specialist.
He ought never to face left-handed sluggers, but he can shut down right-handed ones with the best of 'em.
At age 37, he still missed a ton of bats this season, and he'll probably do it again next year.
Wood will be back with the Cubs in 2012 or play not at all, according to Wood.
That probably will not do much to help him get paid the way he deserves, but it's good for the Cubs to know, because Wood is a solid right-handed set-up man.
He's become an extreme fly-ball guy and probably does not belong in the game against good left-handed hitters, but since the Cubs have Sean Marshall to take care of that, Wood should still be a useful asset.
Here's a guy who belongs in the game against lefties, if perhaps only then.
Gonzalez has pitched in five games for the Rangers this postseason, facing six total batters and getting four out.
He will generally do even better than that against left-handed batters, so if the Rangers do not retain him, someone will have a spot for Gonzalez.