When MLB franchises are looking through free agents to try to improve their teams, mere quality isn't all they look for. This is especially true for small-market teams, as they have to look for players who are the best value—those who could do the most damage for how much they're being paid.
Generally, those who are better get paid more, but there are certain players who are better values due to their consistency and reliability. Someone who could be either good or awful is not a good player to acquire if you can grab a consistently solid player for a better deal.
Here are the 50 best free-agent deals this offseason. This includes those who are recently signed since their value can still be evaluated in hindsight.
Despite a poor season with Kansas City, Jeff Francis slips onto this list for two reasons. First, he had a track record of putting up solid pitching numbers in Coors Field, and that's hard to discount.
Second, he can be acquired for a very low price, and as long as he plays in a pitching-friendly park, he can put up modestly good numbers.
Ryan Ludwick was perhaps the Padres' most productive player behind Adrian Gonzalez for a couple seasons, though that's not saying much. You would think he would flourish elsewhere, but he has struggled badly in recent years.
Due to his struggles, he could be acquired for as little as a fourth outfielder costs, and it would be a great value move if his power comes back.
The problem with Rafael Furcal is that no one can tell what they're going to get. He could have a great year, but he could be terrible as well. He certainly isn't worth the eight figures he got last year. Yes, his struggles were partly injury-related, but you can only put so much blame on that.
If he's signed as a fourth infielder to mount a potential comeback, then he could be a nice addition, but he's still a high-risk option.
In a deep pool of closing pitchers, many of whom appear on the list, Jon Rauch does not match up in comparison. He's only had one good year as a closer, and his career stats are nothing special.
Should a team pick him up as a setup man, it could be a much better value, as he had success doing that in Washington. Besides, he's old enough that we would have seen closer talent by now.
Joel Zumaya, when healthy, had one of the best arms in the majors, but unfortunately we have seen very little of it. He will make the league minimum since no one really expects him to compete.
This actually gets him on the list, since if he shows us the Zumaya of old, that will already surpass any team's expectations. He's about as low-risk, high-reward as you can get if it works.
Endy Chavez came out of nowhere to have a solid season with the Texas Rangers. On a power-focused team, he was a very good defender and baserunner.
Chavez's stats are far from eye-popping, but if he keeps making good plays and hitting .300, he would be a very good value for a team.
On the surface, it may look like Vladimir Guerrero still has it and could be a great DH for another year or two. In reality, his numbers are slipping, and while he can still hit fairly well, he likely would not be worth the projected contract he would receive; there are better DH options.
While Casey Kotchman had a nice season with Tampa Bay, one which may have propelled him to the second tier of free-agent first basemen, he is far from a good value.
He rarely strikes out but rarely walks as well, and he doesn't hit for power as much as you'd expect from a first baseman. He's a guy I expect someone to overpay.
Last year I said that Aaron Harang needed a change of scenery, and on the surface he benefited greatly from that. He won 14 games with a 3.64 ERA, and he improved greatly over last season.
Having said that, he did play for the Padres. His value is not all that great as a result since anyone can be a quality starter for the Padres. He could still be a decent pickup for one year, though, if you know you'll be getting the Harang from 2008 or 2009, most likely.
The 2010 playoff hero for the San Francisco Giants has been consistently solid in his career, but it's tough to say whether he would be better as a nice starter or a great fourth outfielder.
With Cody Ross, I think most teams will know what they are getting, and his playoff experience and performance can't be discounted. He's not flashy, but he definitely gets the job done.
Because of the contract he was likely to get and his health issues, I could classify Sizemore as a fairly high-risk, high-reward situation. He's a great five-tool player when healthy, but he hasn't been that way since 2008.
A lot of teams were interested in him before he re-signed with the Indians, but because of his performance when he was healthy the past few seasons, I do not have confidence in him and don't consider this a good value move.
At 34, Juan Pierre is at the point of his career where his value is diminishing sharply. As a leadoff speedy player, he had a career low in stolen bases this past season, and I don't see that number bouncing back.
For any team that wants a leadoff outfielder who can provide just that but not much else, Pierre is a viable option, and he could be a good fourth outfielder for a contender.
Matt Capps is back on the Twins after re-signing with them. While he had a great 2010 season with the Minnesota Twins, he struggled in 2011. Is the Twins' offer of $4.75 million in 2012 a good deal, though?
I would say so, although he has been less consistent than I would like to see in a reliever. Multiple iffy seasons are a red flag, which knocks down his value. At least he was bought at a lower rate than this past season.
From one who started his career as a Pirate to another, Paul Maholm has been a fairly inconsistent pitcher, but his good seasons have been overshadowed by playing for the Pirates.
The fact that so few pitchers seem to survive after leaving Pittsburgh worries me about him, but if he can play like he did this past season, he's actually a nice pickup, and I would imagine he would be a low-risk addition anyway.
Continuing with the trend of inconsistency, Kelly Johnson can be a good offensive second baseman and has been a few years. In just as many years, however, he has struggled at the plate.
He's a nice pickup for a team that needs offensive help since his defense is good enough to get through games, but that offensive production may not happen, which teams like Seattle have had to deal with enough already.
Frank Francisco has been a consistently good relief pitcher, and when becoming a closer, he remained exactly that. As a result, a deal in the $6 million per year range seemed appropriate, and that's exactly what he got with the New York Mets.
If the closer free-agent pool was weaker, he would have been far higher in the rankings, but he only has two seasons of closing experience, far less than many others on this list.
Coco Crisp would be higher on the list if I could get a better feeling for what his strengths really were. One year he's an all-around good player, one year he's a defensive stud and last year he was a base stealer.
If he can get over injuries and struggles the past few seasons, he could be a great pickup, though he may be the riskiest of the three Oakland outfielders, which diminishes his value.
At this point in his career, you know exactly what you'll get with Jamey Carroll. He's a reliable infielder who would make a great fifth infielder for a contending team.
I'm actually surprised the Twins gave him a multi-year deal, but given their injuries, that move was definitely a good value since the Twins can install him wherever he's needed.
In the past four seasons, Javier Vazquez has had a great season, a good season, a mediocre season and a bad season. Luckily, the bad season was not the most recent, but the inconsistency lingers.
Vazquez is a good value if a team is just looking for a back-end innings eater, which he can still do. The fact that he's mulling retirement when he can still play knocks him down the rankings, though, since I have to wonder if his heart's in it.
Josh Willingham had a career year in Oakland just in time for free agency, something which is a red flag on the value end. His 29 home runs and 98 RBI are great, but his strikeouts shot up, and his batting average went down.
Someone will pick him up for his bat, and while I don't see him hitting those numbers, he will still be a capable bat in any lineup, so he's not a bad value pickup.
Joe Nathan is in a very tough situation. On one hand, he struggled after coming back from Tommy John surgery, and one has to wonder if he's done as a quality closer. On the other hand, he was one of the elite closers in the league when healthy.
A high or low ranking could be justified on this list, so I went for the middle. I do think the Rangers overpaid for him due to the points I noted, but if he bounces back, it will absolutely be worth it.
Interest has seemed to tail off just a bit on Jackson in comparison to others, which makes his value a lot more realistic. He should be a solid addition to any team so long as it's looked at properly.
Jackson has yet to have a truly dominant season, and his high WHIP gives me pause. He's a far lower value than many are making him out to be.
Ryan Madson has been a consistently great reliever who has yet to have a bad season; his only poor year was as a failed starter. This likely puts him in line for a big payday.
What keeps me from putting him higher on the list is that he's only been closing a season and a half, and spending big money on that sort of player is something that should be done with a bit of care.
I'm putting him higher on the list than I thought I would since I'm trusting teams to look at his body of work, rather than just the 2009 season. Hill is a capable second baseman on defense despite his recent hitting struggles.
Should a change of scenery help to change that, then this is actually a good pickup.
Freddy Garcia actually had a very nice year for the Yankees, and as a result he can build on that as his career starts to wrap up.
He is likely to still be a big bargain for a team due to his low salary the past couple seasons and how he's performed. He is far from an innings eater and doesn't strike people out, but he finds a way to win games, and that's what matters.
If we're looking at talent and quality, Roy Oswalt would obviously be a lot higher on this list. However, a poor season with the Phillies combined with the apparent issues going on that I never quite got my head around means that I'd be reluctant to sign him long-term.
I hope that Oswalt can bounce back, but the way last season went down diminishes his value big time.
Clint Barmes is only mediocre with the bat, and he's not going to improve on that .252 average. However, he may be one of the most underrated defensive infielders in the game, as he has great range and can make plays.
He is likely a great value since good defense does not seem to be quantified quite as much in contracts, especially if his numbers are unimpressive playing mostly in Colorado, of all places.
Chris Capuano finally made a real return as a full-time starter in 2011, and while his ERA was a bit high, so were his strikeouts and innings pitched.
The two-year contract signed by the Dodgers could end up being a big bargain, since even if he just ends up being an innings eater, those go for more than what he'll make.
Erik Bedard is in the exact same boat as Capuano. The only difference is that he was better at his best than Capuano, and as a result he ends up being the better value.
I may be overrating Michael Cuddyer to non-Twins fans since he plays whatever position a team wants him to, yet his defense in all positions is never very good. However, he has had a few great hitting seasons, and he tends to be quite reliable.
Due to the above issues, though, he may actually end up underpaid since a team may be unsure what to do with him. Besides, the versatility does greatly add to his value.
Ironically, the catching free-agent class is so bad that despite not playing 100 games a season normally, Ramon Hernandez can get a nice payday.
He has been very good on both the offensive and defensive end, though, so he is not someone a team would have to worry about adding.
With all the issues the Cubs had, Aramis Ramirez quietly put together a great season and put him in good position for free agency. He's a poor defensive third baseman, but he's a great pickup for any team needing a bat.
While he will probably be expensive, it won't be as outlandish as the Cubs' deal, which I actually think will work in his favor and make him a better value.
Johnny Damon is an aged veteran who has quietly continued to produce. I can tell he wants that 3,000-hit mark, so any team that signs him will get 100 percent effort.
Even though his WAR has stayed up, that's probably the only stat that has stayed constant of late on him. He's a solid DH to pick up, and a safe one at a $5 million or so salary.
I gradually kept moving him higher on this list because I have a gut feeling that he'll quietly surpass everyone's expectations again, since we presume this will be the year he finally starts slowing down, and he keeps proving people wrong.
Heath Bell has been one of the elite closers the past few seasons, and the $9 million per year deal was definitely deserved. However, pitchers who move on from the Padres do not have the best success, and that has to be kept in mind when considering value.
If Jose Reyes can put up numbers like he did last season, then he'll definitely be one of the pickups of the year. However, he has had injury concerns and inconsistency, and as a result the Marlins definitely overpaid for him.
He's ranked as high as he is because there's a definite possibility that the Reyes we saw this season is the real one, since he put up big numbers despite missing a good number of games.
Ironically, finishing the second half of the season as a setup man may increase both demand and value for K-Rod. Teams will definitely be interested in a guy who has 291 saves and has never had a bad relief season.
Of course, this means he will likely get an eight-figure deal, which I still think is much for a closer. Rodriguez has proven he can make things happen, though.
Everyone remembers the obscene contract Carlos Beltran got from the Mets and the injury-riddled seasons. As a result, the deal he gets is probably going to be less than we expect.
Before he was oft-injured, though, he was a great power hitter and good center fielder as well. He can still hit at least, and his hopefully modest contract should look great in hindsight.
Like Albert Pujols, Fielder is a great hitter who is expected to get a huge contract this offseason. Unlike Pujols, he is a poor defensive player who will have to DH sooner than one would like.
That knocks down his value outside the top 10 since paying $20 million a year for a DH seems like overkill. However, there's nothing to me that shows Fielder's power will diminish, and he should continue to be highly productive.
Papelbon was naturally going to get the biggest free-agent deal for a reliever, and the four-year deal with Philadelphia was huge indeed. While this would be cause for concern, Papelbon is an elite reliever, with even his bad season looking good in comparison to many other closers.
Papelbon is a great value pickup even at his price no matter what others may say on him, plain and simple.
I can't put a closer in the top 10 since it's tough to consider a closer that valuable unless he is lights-out like Mariano Rivera. Francisco Cordero has come close, though, quietly having great season after great season.
On top of being a great closer for the Reds, the 36-year-old could be a bargain option due to his age compared to other relievers, which would only add to his value, as he still has a few years left in the tank.
The past two seasons, Bruce Chen has been a very good starting pitcher that has been under the radar thanks to playing with the Royals. His solid numbers kept the team going, and the $9 million the Royals are paying after re-signing him for two years is a good bargain.
David DeJesus struggled this past season after having a career year in 2010 before he got injured, but that was the first poor season he had. Before that, he was a consistently good outfielder who would be an asset in any lineup.
He will be a great bargain due to recent struggles, and he will pay dividends for the team that signs him.
Like DeJesus, Kubel struggled this past season, but before that he was a great power hitter with serviceable defense. Like DeJesus, the struggles mean that a team could end up with a great bargain when they sign him.
C.J. Wilson is going to have a big contract when this is all said and done, so I almost dropped him down the list. However, the past two seasons he really has developed into an ace.
Since he's only 30 and a recent starter, he could easily have five more years before he slows down, and as a result nearly any deal would be a great value.
On the surface, it looks like Rollins has struggled since his MVP season in 2007 and his past four seasons were not that good. In reality, he remains a very talented shortstop, and he still supplies great production to the Phillies.
The fact that his stats seem unimpressive on the surface, especially in comparison to Jose Reyes, means he could easily be a steal for a team in free agency.
There are teams that will look at Carlos Pena's poor batting average and as a result consider him not worth that much money. All his other stats, however, are great, with high walk and home run counts to start.
If the contract is kept in the seven figures per year range, then he is a great, underrated pickup since he's buried behind Fielder and Pujols. At least with Pena you know exactly what you're going to get.
The availability of marquee free agents like Fielder and Pujols means that David Ortiz may be overlooked by a few of them, and as a result he could slide under the radar and be a great value pickup.
Ortiz is still a great DH at 35 and can still be elite even if he doesn't end up making prime money. Just as long as teams don't presume they're getting an MVP candidate, it will be a great move to acquire him.
For as much discussion as C.J. Wilson has gotten, the real prize may well be Mark Buehrle. He has been consistently good for the Chicago White Sox his entire career, and when things get tough he steps up his game.
He got a four-year, $58 million deal, and given his consistency this is a great deal. Even in his bad years, he would be able to put up good enough stats to play to that type of contract, and few pitchers can say that.
In four seasons with the Dodgers, Kuroda put up consistently great numbers. For whatever reason, his win-loss records were poor, but he was one of the most productive pitchers in the league.
Due to his age, there could be a fairly inexpensive deal in place for him, which would make him one of the best values to come in a long time. There are enough teams interested in him where this likely won't happen, but I'm positive a team will be getting a big bargain.
UPDATE: Pujols has reportedly agreed to a 10-year deal worth between $250-260 million with the Los Angeles Angels.
Yes, Albert Pujols is going to command a monstrous contract, but he's been consistently amazing year after year, and to put it bluntly, players like him usually don't end up in free agency.
He's the best value for what you're getting since he has an MVP-type year every season. Heck, a $20 million a year deal would be a bargain with how some contracts are for some players.