MLB Free Agency and Trades 2012: 9 Key Deals That Have Slipped Under the Radar

Scott GyurinaCorrespondent IDecember 5, 2011

MLB Free Agency and Trades 2012: 9 Key Deals That Have Slipped Under the Radar

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    While media and fans alike fixate on the free-agent sagas of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and various other high-profile stars, shrewd general managers are moving behind the scenes to improve their teams with savvy moves that might fly under the radar of the the baseball world. 

    Only a handful of teams truly have the means to wade into the deeper end of the free-agent pool, but that doesn't mean there aren't valuable players to be had in the lower tiers of available talent.

    Realistically, the upper echelon of big-time players are only options for the top tier of high-revenue teams so the remaining clubs must mine the bargain bins to unearth hidden gems that fill their needs.

    Though most of these players aren't going to be All-Star-caliber players, they have the potential to play an invaluable role for their clubs, filling a critical role that could lead to success in 2012.

    Let's take a look at a few under-appreciated deals that have perhaps been missed by many while they focus on Jose Reyes' big deal and the still-undecided futures of the remaining superstars on the market.

Jamey Carroll: Minnesota Twins

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    Jamey Carroll certainly isn't a marquee signing that is going to fill seats or sell a ton of jerseys. He is however, a versatile utility player that has been invaluable to the Indians and Dodgers over the last several seasons.

    From 2008-11, over two seasons in Cleveland, as well as two in LA, Carroll has played 485 games, while seeing significant playing time at shortstop, second and third, as well as a handful games in the outfield.

    In those last four seasons, Carroll hit .284 with a .362 on-base percentage, a .705 OPS and an OPS+ of 94, while stealing 33 bases in 42 attempts. Earth-shattering numbers they're not, but from a player that you can play at five different positions, every manager in baseball would take them in a heartbeat. 

    He found fantastic success in Los Angeles, hitting .290, reaching base at a 36.8 percent clip, posting a .711 OPS and an OPS+ of 99. Carroll also swiped 22 bags while getting thrown out only four times.

    Carroll provided manager Don Mattingly solid cover for the oft-injured Rafael Furcal and held down shortstop until Dee Gordon was ready to make his debut in June.

    The soon-to-be 38-year-old Carroll will now take his game to Minnesota, where he will reportedly compete for the Twins' starting shortstop job. An opportunity will be present, as Tsuyoshi Nishioka was injured and terrible while healthy, and Trevor Plouffe's defense was shaky.

    At two years, $6.75 million, the deal to bring Carroll to Minneapolis is a relatively inexpensive safety net for Ron Gardenhire's infield, and they just may get a starting shortstop out of it.

Ryan Doumit: Minnesota Twins

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    The Minnesota Twins find themselves in a difficult position this offseason. Unsure if the injury-plagued duo of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be ready for Opening Day, already having lost Jim Thome to the Phillies, and facing the potential departures of free agents Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, the Twins are in need of some offense.

    In order to protect themselves from extended Mauer or Morneau absences and to add some versatility in case Cuddyer, Kubel or both leave, the Twins signed catcher/first base/right field/ DH candidate Ryan Doumit to one-year contract for only $3 million.

    Though Doumit is often injured himself, and played only 77 games in 2011, he helps offer versatility as a player who can play various positions of need, as well as a switch-hitting bat with pop.

    Over the last five seasons, Doumit has hit .280 with a .791 OPS and an OPS+ of 111. He has missed considerable time throughout his career due to a litany of injuries, but when healthy, he can hit from both sides of the plate.

    Over the course of his career, he is a .275 hitter left-handed with a .798 OPS and a .262 hitter from the right side, while posting a .718 OPS. He's clearly more potent from the left side, but the drop off to the right side isn't significant enough to relegate him to a platoon role.

    With all the injury concerns, as well as the uncertain futures of Kubel and Cuddyer, the signing of Doumit could prove to be vital over the course of 2012. 

Ty Wiggington: Philadelphia Phillies

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    While this move was trade rather than a free agent signing, the Phillies' acquisition of Ty Wigginton could prove vital for Charlie Manuel's squad. The only cost was a player to be named later and cash. His contract calls for $4 million in 2012 and the Phillies hold a $4 mil option on him for 2013 as well.

    Since the departure of Jason Werth to the Washington Nationals, the Phillies have lacked a right-handed power presence to balance out their lefty-heavy lineup.

    With Ryan Howard's devastating achilles tendon injury, the slugging first baseman's readiness is in doubt, and the signing of Wigginton provides some protection in case Howard's recovery takes longer than hoped.

    Wigginton has started games at first, second and third base, as well as right and left field over the last several seasons.

    Against left-handed pitching, he is a career .274 hitter with an .814 OPS. He's no slouch against righties either, hitting .261 with a .750 OPS.

    As mostly a part-time player, he has averaged 18 home runs in the last four seasons, and will provide great pop as a utility infielder and bat off the bench for Philly.

Chris Ianetta: Los Angeles Angels

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    The catching position has been a sore subject for many Angel fans over the last few years. With Mike Napoli providing a slugging bat for several season, but little defense, and Jeff Mathis providing solid, if overrated defense and perhaps the least offense in the league, the Halos have had a conundrum behind the plate.

    When Mike Napoli was dispatched to Toronto in favor of a mix of Mathis, Hank Conger and Bobby Wilson, a large portion of fans were pleased, as they had grown frustrated with Napoli over the years.

    However, once he was traded to the arch-nemesis Texas Rangers and produced a monstrous career year, helping them to the World Series, those same fans began to severely lament his departure.

    Los Angeles' catching trio compounded the issue by providing as much offense as a pitcher might and making the position an absolute dead spot in the lineup. Mathis did the bulk of the catching, but hit .174 with a .484 OPS, literally making him one of the absolute hitters in all of baseball. It shouldn't come as a surprise though, since he is a career .194 hitter with an OPS+ of only 50.

    Conger fared marginally better, hitting .209 with a .638 OPS and Wilson hit .189 with a .540 OPS.

    To say an upgrade was needed might be a tremendous understatement.

    In an effort to bring some offense into the catching mix, the Angels completed a trade with the Colorado Rockies for Chris Ianetta. They had to sacrifice promising 21-year-old starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood, but the acquisition of Ianetta adds some needed pop and on-base ability to the Angels' lineup.

    Ianetta is a solid catcher, but hasn't ever thrown out more than 30 percent of base-stealers.

    At the plate though, he has averaged 14 home runs over the last four seasons, with an .808 OPS over that span. Though he'll likely never post a high batting average, he walks a lot, 70 times in 2011, and has exceeded a .370 OBP twice in four seasons. His ability to reach base will be a welcomed addition for a team that posted a lowly team OBP of .313 in 2011.

Jim Thome: Philadelphia Phillies

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    Jim Thome might be 41 and has been limited to strictly DH duties for the last several seasons, but if you need a powerful bat off the bench with a tremendous ability to reach base, then Thome is difficult to beat.

    Though he hasn't played much first since 2005, he may be able to play there occasionally, combining with Wigginton to man the position until Ryan Howard is fully healed.

    Even at his advanced age, Thome is a significant power threat, capable of taking anyone deep or waiting them out and drawing critical walks. 

    Over the last three seasons, Thome has averaged 21 home runs in only 366 plate appearances per year, while posting a strong OBP of .379 with a robust OPS+ of 140. Once again, he was among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance, continually exhibiting the patient, discerning eye that has allowed him to accumulate 1,725 walks in addition to his 604 career home runs.

    Very few pinch-hitters can boast the type of credentials that Jim Thome possesses. With a bat such as his on the bench, combined with Wigginton and Ben Francisco, the Phillies own an accomplished, veteran bench which will undoubtedly prove value in complementing their regulars. 

Joe Nathan: Texas Rangers

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    The signing of Joe Nathan does far more for the Texas Rangers than simply add a veteran presence at the end of their bullpen.

    Bringing the former elite closer from Minnesota to Arlington also allows the Rangers to drop out of the potentially expensive free agent market and find their starting pitching solution from within.

    Since Neftali Feliz was once a premier starting pitching prospect before his sojourn into closing, the natural move is to return the fire-balling youngster to the rotation where he's wanted to be all along. Texas has long viewed Feliz as a potential ace, so leaving him in the closer's role wouldn't necessarily be maximizing his value to the club.

    Of course, the move does come with risk, as Nathan missed all of 2010 after Tommy John surgery and struggled to find his previous form for large portions of 2011. He is reportedly healthy now though and the Rangers were convinced enough to give him a two-year, $14 million dollar deal, with an option for 2014 worth $9 million.

    If Nathan is healthy and can approach his pre-injury form, then the Rangers may have acquired a premium closer, as well as found a way to allow Feliz, their one-time top prospect, to assume his rightful place within their rotation.

    Between 2004 and 2009, Nathan was among the upper echelon of elite closers in the game, saving 246 of his 271 opportunities at a 91 percent success rate. He posted a 0.934 WHIP, and ERA+ of 237, struck out 11.1 per nine innings, as well as allowed only 5.8 hits per nine.

    With Nathan in the fold, the Rangers have a closer for now, and can now groom a potential ace for their future.

Jose Molina: Tampa Bay Rays

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    When the Rays declined to pick up the $3.2 million option on Kelly Shoppach and then traded away John Jaso, they created a hole in their roster that desperately needed to be addressed. 

    With no catching prospects near major league-ready, the Rays moved to bridge the gap with veteran Jose Molina, a graduate of the famed Molina brothers catching academy. 

    The deal to bring Molina to Tampa is worth $1.8 million and includes an option for 2013 as well. 

    He enjoyed a fine offensive season with Toronto in 2011, hitting .281 with a .757 OPS and a 103 OPS+ in 55 games.

    However, he wasn't brought to Tampa for his offense, as his bat is often exposed as inferior when called into regular action. He is however, renowned for his catching ability, game-calling and owns a career caught-stealing rate of 40 percent. Molina may not block balls as well as he used to, but he is generally considered one of the best at framing pitches, and has never thrown out less than 28 percent of attempted base-stealers in a season.

    In Tampa, the Rays possess an immensely talented, young pitching staff which could benefit from the calming presence of Molina. He's not likely to provide much offense, but the guidance of the pitching staff and playing a mentor role to Tampa's inexperienced catchers, Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos could prove invaluable to the Rays.

Aaron Hill: Arizona Diamondbacks

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    In re-signing Aaron Hill to a two-year, $11 million contract, the Arizona Diamondbacks hope they have locked down second base for the next couple of seasons.

    During his short, 33 game stint with the Diamondbacks, Hill resembled the player he was for a few seasons in Toronto just a couple years ago. Over the course of the several seasons, the soon-to-be 30 Hill has been an enigma, varying between a powerful offensive force with a great glove and a free-swinging out machine.

    Hill broke out in 2007, hitting .291 with a .792 OPS, while slugging 17 home runs and driving in 78 runs.He then suffered through a truncated 2008 season which ended in late May after a collision in the field resulted in a serious concussion.

    He returned with his greatest full-season performance in 2009, hitting .286 with an .829 OPS, while setting a career-high with 36 home runs, 108 RBI and was rewarded with the lone All-Star berth on his resume.

    The next two season proved frustrating for Hill, as he continued his power surge with 26 home runs in 2010, but hit only .205 with a .665 OPS. 2011 proved similarly disappointing, as he hit .246 with a .655 OPS, but hit only 8 home runs in 137 games for the Blue Jays, although he set a career-high with 21 stolen bases.

    Toronto then traded him to Arizona in late August, in exchange for Kelly Johnson and John McDonald.

    Apparently, he needed a change of scenery, as he appeared reinvigorated with the Diamondbacks. In 33 games, he hit .315 and posted a .386 OBP with a 137 OPS+, while continuing to play above-average defense at second.

    At 30, Hill should still have some solid years in him, and if he can approach anything near his peak form from just as recently as 2009, he could prove to be a savvy, relatively inexpensive signing for the D-Backs. 

Melky Cabrera: San Francisco Giants

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    Before you scream, "what in the world is this guy talking about?" let me state that I am fully aware that Melky Cabrera has had an uneven career so far, skewing more toward the below-average crowd than the breakout star he was last year. 

    However, the former Yankee, Brave and Royal produced a surprising 2011 in which he fulfilled much of the potential that some had predicted for him over the last few seasons.

    He became expendable to the Yankees and they sent him to Atlanta as part of the trade that brought Javier Vazquez and Boone Logan to the Bronx prior to the 2010 season. Melky then suffered through a miserable season with the Braves before taking his talents to Kansas City for 2011.

    In KC, he enjoyed a stellar season in which he finally approached the type of production that he had hinted at a few times during his time with the Yankees.

    Over the course of 155 games, Melky hit .305 with 18 home runs, 87 RBI, and .809 OPS and a 121 OPS+. All were career highs, as were his 102 runs scored, 201 hits, 44 doubles and 20 stolen bases.

    As a switch-hitter, he succeeded from both sides of the plate, as he hit .306 with an .818 OPS left-handed, and .304 with a .788 OPS from the right side.

    Encouraging to those that may fear that his production was a product of hitting in Kansas City, Melky hit .321 on the road with an .871 OPS, compared with .289 and .742 at home. Likewise, 12 of his 18 home runs were hit on the road.

    The San Francisco Giants liked his 2011 season so much that they traded talented, left-handed starter Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals along with minor league southpaw Ryan Verdugo in order to acquire Melky.

    It's no secret, the Giants are desperate for bats, and their acquisition of Melky could potentially prove to be a masterstroke.

    Sanchez had a fantastic 2010 season and helped the Giants to the World Series title that year. He struggled with injury and command issues throughout 2011 though, and became expendable to San Francisco.

    With TIm Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong still in the fold, the Giants decided to take advantage of Sanchez's trade value before he became a free agent after the 2012 season.

    They proved that it's difficult to win with no offense, even if you have a stellar pitching staff like the 2011 Giants did.

    While it's impossible at this juncture to know which Melky Cabrera will show up for the Giants, it was similarly difficult to know which Jonathan Sanchez would emerge in 2012, the budding young ace he looked like in 2011, or the Oliver Perez-like, erratic lefty he has been at times over his career.

    Out of necessity, the Giants opted to gamble on Melky's upside, rather than that of Sanchez, and I feel that this could turn out to be an under-appreciated move that will greatly impact the 2012 season in San Francisco.