MLB Free Agency: 15 Free Agents Who Are Flying under the Radar
While fans fawn and drool over Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols this MLB offseason, the undervalued free agents on this list will stoke their competitive fires in the eternal truth of song.
“Mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood /Miss, no way it’s all good/ It didn’t slow me down. Mistaken/ Always second guessing/ Underestimated/ Look, I’m still around…”
Preach, Pink. Preach. There is undeniable baseball wisdom in those verses.
Beyond the nine-figure deals lies an uncharted ocean of overlooked players who also need a home.
Take them in for the right price, and by summer 2012 you’ll be reveling in yet another bit of wisdom from that prophet Pink:
Yep, I just linked to Pink twice in a post about baseball. We're breaking ground here, folks.
Note: I only included players who are unrestricted free agents, and excluded those with player or team options on their contract.
Carlos Pena, 1B
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Carlos Pena hit .159 in April without a single home run and his Chicago Cubs went 12-14. By the time May rolled around casual fans had completely forgotten about both parties—Pena was a free agent bust and the Cubs were a laughingstock.
While it would remain that way for the Cubs, Pena quietly righted the ship over the season’s second half. He finished with 28 home runs, a .357 OBP and a respectable 2.2 WAR. The latter ranked middle-of-the-pack among MLB first baseman, well ahead of Rookie of the Year candidate Freddie Freeman and just a few ticks behind big names like Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard.
Even at 33 Pena still does two important things well, hit for power and reach base. In a first base market that will orbit around the star power of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, the “other” NL Central first baseman can be had for a short-term commitment and considerably less money than the $10 million Chicago gave him last offseason.
Casey Kotchman, 1B
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Casey Kotchman caught the Tampa Bay Rays magic dust in 2011 and rode it to a career year. He topped .300 for the first time and helped steady the middle of a Tampa lineup that featured Joe Maddon’s usual bit of musical chairs.
Kotchman’s .335 batting average on balls in play raises a red flag, and he won’t ever develop the power scouts hoped for when the Los Angeles Angels made him the 13th overall pick in 2001. But be sure to balance that against the fact that he’s still just 29, makes a lot of contact and draws a fair number of walks.
Think Scott Hatteberg at his Moneyball peak with more defensive aplomb.
Omar Infante, 2B/Utility Infielder
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One of the more talented and versatile infield defenders in baseball, Omar Infante’s ability to play almost anywhere on the diamond makes him a potential fit for most teams.
Infante won’t overwhelm with the bat—.275/.318/.393 lifetime—but he’s better in that department than most guys with his defensive skill set. Infante’s value fluctuates with the way he’s used by the field manager. Play him primarily at second with backup stints at short and third, and he’s an average to above-average hitter compared to his positional peers.
Entering what should be the tail end of his baseball prime (he’s 30 next year), Infante can help a contender shore up infield depth or start regularly for a team with upward aspirations.
Kelly Johnson, 2B
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Call him Dan Uggla light.
Kelly Johnson is among just a handful of middle infielders with 20-HR power. Like Uggla, Johnson will never be a high average guy, but he’s also not as bad as last year’s .222 mark suggests.
An aberrant .277 batting average on balls in play helps explain Johnson’s woes, and that bit of bad luck artificially depresses his value. Smart teams with middle infield needs will make note and take advantage of this rare opportunity to get a valuable second baseman in his prime.
Ramon Hernandez, C
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Ramon Hernandez came to the Cincinnati Reds in 2009 looking like a veteran catcher on his last legs. He leaves three seasons later with the kind of offensive bonafides few catchers can match.
Hernandez posted a .297/.364/.428 line in 2010 and followed that up with an equally impressive .282/.341/.446 tally in 2011. Despite starting less than 100 games in each season, Hernandez carried a WAR of exactly 2.0 both years and with fellow backstop Ryan Hanigan, created one of the best catching tandems in all of baseball.
It’s unlikely Hernandez can start more than 110 games in a season at his age, but paired with a good backup he can give some lucky team a real boost.
Rod Barajas, C
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In a thin class of free-agent catchers, Rod Barajas is one of the few available players with a track record of above-average production.
Though his best days are surely behind him at 36, he proved last year he’s still potent with the bat. 2011 was Barajas’ third consecutive season with more than 15 home runs, and his 1.4 WAR in just 337 plate appearances marked a ninth straight year with a positive tally in that category.
Barajas' game has plenty of holes—that .284 career OBP comes to mind—but teams lacking catching depth could do much worse.
Coco Crisp, CF
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Never powerful or endowed with much patience, Coco Crisp finally managed to leverage his best asset—his speed.
Over his two years in Oakland, Crisp stole 81 bases, sixth in the majors, at an 87 percent success rate. By turning his quickness into a threat, Crisp’s produced consecutive seasons with a WAR over 2.0 for the first time since ‘04-’05.
Going on 32, one has to wonder how many good running years Crisp has in him. But for an auspicious sign, look at fellow free agent Jimmy Rollins. Even as Rollins suffered multiple leg injuries over his last few seasons in Philadelphia, he remained an efficient base stealer (84 percent success rate over the past two years).
There’s something to be said for those who understand the art of a stolen base, and Crisp now belongs in that company. Even if he loses a step over the course of this next contract, Crisp figures to add value with his legs.
David DeJesus, RF
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Staying in Oaktown for this next one, David DeJesus makes this list in spite of what he did last year.
There’s no way around it, DeJesus stunk in 2011.
Like Kelly Johnson, however, that stink resulted in large part from bad luck. A .274 batting average on balls in play kept DeJesus well under career levels offensively. As a result, DeJesus posted a WAR below 3.0 for the first time in seven seasons.
To be clear, DeJesus isn’t a difference maker heading into his 32nd birthday. He is a plus fielder and career .284 hitter coming off a .240 season. The contract year slip-up will drop the asking price and make DeJesus an affordable acquisition.
Andruw Jones, RF
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We could/should have foreseen Andruw Jones’ regression over the past five years, the inevitable consequence of a bad body, too many big league innings and an undisciplined plate approach that required his superior bat speed to compensate for poor intuition.
Now I think Jones has finally leveled, reaching that end-of-career plateau before the final drop.
Jones won’t run down balls in the alley or play everyday. Those days are gone.
He will hit home runs, enough of them to merit serious interest from teams paying attention. Remarkably, Jones hit a home run exactly once every 14.6 at bats in each of the last two years.
Those numbers are actually a bit better than his career mark of one every 17.5 at bats, and prove Jones carries enough pop to retain some value.
At this stage in his career, Jones likely wants a final crack at the ultimate prize, and an AL contender could add him as a DH/fourth outfield flex player for little cost.
Josh Willingham, LF
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Could it be? A third Oakland outfielder?
I guess that man crush on Billy Beane is starting to cloud my judgment.
Regularly ranked behind Twin free agents Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer and consensus top outfielder Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham has all the markings of a bargain.
While the team that lands “The Hammer” shouldn’t expect a repeat of his 29-bomb 2011 campaign, 20 to 25 is a safe estimate.
Which is to say Willingham’s power isn’t a sudden surprise. 2011 was his fifth consecutive year with an OPS+ of 115 or more. Combine that with a .361 lifetime OBP and Willingham has the profile of a very capable hitter.
Willingham isn’t without red flags. He’ll be 33 next season and giving him anything over three years begs for trouble.
Still, if other teams fall over themselves for Kubel, Cuddyer, Beltran, Nick Swisher and Grady Sizemore, the organization that waits for Willingham will land a nice consolation prize.
Hiroki Kuroda, SP
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Over the past four seasons, and without much fanfare, Hiroki Kuroda has become one of the most successful Japanese-born pitchers in big league history. He leads all of his transplanted countryman in career ERA, ERA+ and strikeout-to-walk ratio—and all by healthy margins.
It’s quite an accomplishment considering Kuroda came over at age 33 and did not pitch through his prime like his fellow Japanese hurlers Hideo Nomo, Tomo Ohka, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu.
Kuroda fits all the strikethrower, innings-eater cliches without showing any signs of letup. And three straight seasons with a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 3.00 suggest he’s even a bit stronger than those yeoman typecasts suggest.
The only snag may be Kuroda’s willingness to play outside Los Angeles. Kuroda wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause when the cash-strapped Dodgers tried to move him midseason, and may opt to return home if the L.A. doesn’t have the money to retain him.
Should his mind change, he’s one of the most reliable arms on the market.
Rich Harden, SP
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Which Rich Harden do you see?
Do you see the Rich Harden who threw just 174.2 innings over the last two years with an ERA above 5.00?
Or do you see the Rich Harden who struck out more than a batter an inning in 2011 with an xFIP of just 3.68? The same Rich Harden who is still just 29 years old.
Harden’s had so many injuries and false starts—he’s thrown more than 150 innings just once in nine years—it’s easy to forget he’s only now getting around to his third decade of life.
After a particularly rough run the last two years in Texas and Oakland, the buzz around the one-time ace couldn’t be much quieter. The climate is right to sign Harden at a bargain.
I wouldn’t plan around Harden, his body is simply too injury prone for that kind of faith, but it makes sense to take a chance on a pitcher with 949 strikeouts in just 928.1 career innings—especially for the right price.
Javier Vazquez, SP
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Like Carlos Pena in Chicago, most fans forgot about Javier Vazquez when his Florida Marlins fell out of contention in June. At that point Vazquez was 4-8 with an ERA north of 5.80 and had all the stink of an old pitcher coming off a bad season.
A retirement presser seemed like the inevitable next step.
So it surprised me, and I would imagine most fans, when the end-year tally showed Vazquez with a 3.69 ERA and a sparkling 3.24 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Trending against conventional wisdom for a veteran starter, Vazquez got stronger as the year progressed and earned himself another pay day.
Vazquez's best qualities are his enduring talent for missing bats and remarkable durability. Vazquez now has 14 straight seasons with at least 26 starts and has 150 strikeouts or more in 11 of those campaigns.
The Marlins got him for a one-year commitment last year and the 35-year-old figures to lose bargaining leverage with each passing year. He’s an affordable option for a team seeking back-end-of-the-rotation help.
Javier Lopez, RP
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One stat captures Javier Lopez’s value.
Over his two-year stint with the San Francisco Giants, left-handed hitters registered 191 at bats against Lopez. Those same lefties managed just four extra-base hits.
That’s right, four.
Late in the game, with the tying run on first base and a lefty slugger at the plate, there are few men better suited for the task than Javier Lopez.
Kerry Wood, RP
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It happens every year, good-to-great free agent relief pitchers get overlooked because they’re not deemed “closers.”
Usually Tampa Bay swoops in and builds one of the league’s best bullpens out of these castoffs. Instead of paying the $6 million dollar premium for a guy who happens to pitch the ninth inning, they spend half of that or less on players with equally good measurables.
The Rays of course realize that relief pitching is the most chronically misjudged, overvalued and readily available resource in baseball. No need overpaying when there are so many arms in the sea.
(OK, so the metaphor isn’t perfect.)
Cubs veteran Kerry Wood best fits the castoff profile this year .Wood’s had more strikeouts than innings pitched in each of the past four years and lost little of the dominant fastball that made him one of the game’s premier starters in the early aughts.
Last year the Cubs paid just $1.5 million for his services, and because Wood still hasn’t won a championship, I’m thinking a contender could get him for less than even that paltry sum.