2012 MLB Free Agency: 15 Free Agent Steals Still on the Offseason Market

Ben ShapiroAnalyst IIIDecember 20, 2011

2012 MLB Free Agency: 15 Free Agent Steals Still on the Offseason Market

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    The free agent "steal." 

    It's a dream for general managers and baseball fans. 

    You pluck a free agent off the market for a fairly reasonable price and he proceeds to exceed the expectations set by nearly everyone. 

    That's one iteration of it at least. 

    Sometimes a "steal" could be a player that succeeds in spite of sky-high expectations that often weigh down high-priced and high-profile free agents.

    Of course, any signing's value is determined largely by the terms of the deal. Would the Yankees signing of AJ Burnett have been okay had it been for two years and $32 million dollars? No but considering that his 2009 wasn't terrible and the Yankees did win the World Series, the end result of the deal would have been one ring, one decent season and one bad one, but that wouldn't have been disastrous. It's the additional three seasons (including two that have yet to be played) that have Brian Cashman and Yankee fans dreading his every outing.  

    If Albert Pujols and the Angels don't win at least the division this season then the signing will be called a "bust" by everyone. What if they win three of the following four and two rings though? That's still a ways down the road, but long-term contracts are just that– long-term. In other words, you've got to let a fair portion of the contract play out before making a determination as to whether or not it was a "bust" or a "steal."

    Already this offseason, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle have all signed big contracts with new teams. Many other lesser- and lower-profile players have singed deals as well. There's still plenty of talent left floating around, though.

    Are there 15 guys out there that could be "steals" for a lucky team?

     

Roy Oswalt

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    Roy Oswalt is a veteran starting pitcher with a nice resume. 

    He's still got good ability to pitch and he can be very tough to hit on most nights. 

    He's also getting up there in years. He'll be 34 on Opening Day 2012, and he's had 11 major league seasons as a starting pitcher. 

    His numbers have begun to tail off a touch, but he could still be a very good signing for the right team and for the right length of the deal. 

    Those are really the keys with Oswalt: years and team. 

    Roy Oswalt has never pitched for an American League team. Yes, he's had some inter-league play and he's also appeared in a World Series in 2005. He's never really spent time in the American League, though. With his numbers showing a decline and his lack of AL experience, Oswalt could still be a "steal"

    Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Atlanta would all be smart destinations for Oswalt, provided he is willing to take a two-year deal. Those teams all value pitching and, in San Francisco especially, he'd be surrounded by a very talented rotation.

    A team will have to be cautious, but under the right circumstances Roy Oswalt could still be a steal.  

Edwin Jackson

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    What if I told you that there was a pitcher on the market who has pitched in both leagues, has a fastball in the mid-nineties, has started post-season games and has thrown a no-hitter. Oh, and he's only 28 years old. 

    You'd probably want him, but who could afford that? 

    Okay, Edwin Jackson's resume isn't as good as that intro made it out to be. He's got control problems. He didn't look very good in that World Series start, either. 

    He does throw in the mid 90's, though. He has shown flashes of real pitching ability. Most importantly, he's still young. Not Clayton Kershaw "I can't believe how good this guy is and he's only 23 years old" young, but he's only 28. Stranger things have happened in baseball besides a pitcher figuring out how to make improvements at 28. 

    In 2009, Jackson showed some real potential of having a decent upside. He put together a very respectable season in Detroit. 

    Jackson's asking price isn't dirt cheap, but he's not asking for $10 million a year either. He's got the potential to earn that though and then some. 

Vladimir Guerrero

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    2011 was not what Vladimir Guerrero thought it would be. Guerrero was coming off what had been a very nice 2010 playing for the Texas Rangers. His season in Baltimore was not what he or the Orioles were expecting. 

    His home runs declined from 29 to 13. His runs batted in dropped from 115 to just 63. Is he done? 

    He might not be. Playing in Texas, he was in a hitter's park, surrounded by some of the game's best hitters. In Baltimore, he had neither of those things going for him. 

    So perhaps, in the right set of circumstances, Guerrero could regain some of 2010's form? 

    The natural choices are, of course, the powerhouse lineups of Boston and New York, but that's not happening. Neither team has any space for a designated hitter. Had Boston parted ways with David Ortiz then perhaps Guerrero might have been able to play in Boston on a one-year deal. 

    He could go back to Texas, though. Toronto is also a possibility. Both teams will probably wait for other higher-profile, higher-priced free agents to make their decisions before pursuing Guerrero, but he won't be too pricey for whoever he signs with and, if he can put up an average around .300 (Guerrero hasn't hit lower than .290 since 1996), then he could be a nice short-term steal. 

Prince Fielder

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    Prince Fielder? 

    A "steal?" 

    Isn't he going to sign a contract that may exceed $200 million?

    Yes, Prince Fielder is the last remaining mega-star on the market.

    No, Fielder is not the same caliber of player that Pujols is. Fielder's best seasons are great but they're not in the same class as Pujols' best years. In addition, he doesn't have the same lengthy body of work that Pujols has. That's actually the key to Fielder being a "steal". 

    On opening day 2012, Prince Fielder will be 27 years old; Albert Pujols will be 32. Pujols is almost a full five years older than Fielder. Pujols' deal is paying him to produce amazing numbers– MVP-caliber ones until the age of 42.

    A 10-year mega-deal for Fielder would pay him for similar production. The difference is that Fielder would be only 37 at its conclusion. That puts the odds of him being productive all the way through the length of whatever mega-deal he signs this offseason much higher than those of Albert Pujols.

    He's going to be pricey, but he could still be a "steal" when compared to his peers.  

Paul Maholm

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    Some team will sign Paul Maholm this offseason and members of its fan base will inevitably say something like: "We signed Paul Ma-who?" 

    Paul Maholm. He's not going to dominate the opponent. He won't be a Cy Young contender, and if you're hoping to walk through the turnstiles of your favorite ballpark and witness a 20-strikeout masterpiece– well, he won't do that either. 

    That's okay, though, because he's not going to cost your team anywhere near what one of those types of pitchers would. 

    Maholm will go out and give you decent innings and a decent earned run average. If the team he's on is a team that can score some runs then he's going to win some games. Last season, Maholm had an earned run average of 3.66 and he only gave up 11 home runs in 162.1 innings pitched. He also played for the offensively-challenged Pirates, though. His win-loss record was a less-than-impressive 6-14. Jon Lester of the Red Sox had a 15-9 record last season; that's a dramatic difference. Lester's earned run average? A not-so-different 3.47. 

    On the right team with a good lineup behind him, Maholm could be a very nice pickup at a very nice price. 

Carlos Pena

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    The Carlos Pena craze has officially subsided. 

    In 2007 and 2008, Carlos Pena was the big bat on a Tampa Bay team that went as far as the World Series in 2008. He finished ninth in the American League MVP voting in both seasons.  Even in 2009, as his batting average began to drop off, he still managed to lead the American League in home runs, bashing 39 of them in 2009. 

    Then the average really started to plummet though. 

    Pena hit an abysmal .196 in his contract year of 2010. That earned him a one-year deal with the Cubs who were willing to see if he could figure out a way to make enough consistent contact to validate an everyday first base position. 

    It didn't work. Pena hit only .225 and was called out on strikes 161 times in 2011. 

    With former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein taking over the Cubs as President of Baseball Operations, the Cubs are going to be focusing on things like drawing walks, working the count and not striking out too much. 

    I'm sure no one is shocked to hear that the Cubs have not expressed an interest in resigning Carlos Pena. 

    What if you played on a team that just needed some power in the lineup, though? What if you were a team that was unlikely to compete for the playoffs in 2012, but could use someone in the lineup to hit a few home runs and keep the crowds happy? 

    If that was your team and you didn't have a young first baseman who was a "can't miss" type of prospect, then Pena for a one-year deal might not be a bad option. He won't finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting in 2012, but don't worry. No team will be paying him as if they expect that. 

Hiroki Kuroda

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    Hiroki Kuroda represents a number of oddities. First of all, he's pretty old; he's 36. Second of all, he's getting betternot worse, as he gets older. In his four seasons of major league baseball, his earned run average has gone from 3.73, to 3.76, to 3.39, and last season he finished with an earned run average of only 3.07. 

    He's not a "blow the opponent away" strikeout pitcher, but he's perfectly capable of consistently getting big league hitters out. Unless, of course, they happen to launch a home run. Last season, Kuroda yielded 24 of the big flies, and that's probably going to be seen as a "red flag" for potential suitors. 

    Of course, that will also drive his price down a bit. In a season in which C.J. Wilson received a five-year, $77.5 million contract and Kuroda's fellow countryman Yu Darvish may end up costing a prospective bidder as much as $100 million, when all is said and done Kuroda is likely to represent a much more cost-effective option. 

Carlos Beltran

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    If he's healthy then he's probably going to be a steal. 

    Isn't that always the story with Carlos Beltran, though? 

    From 2005 through the conclusion of the 2008 season, Carlos Beltran played in an average of 149 games a year. He put up some great numbers, too. 

    Then in 2009 and 2010 he played in 145 games– combined . Obviously, his production was dramatically impacted. 

    The 2011 season saw Beltran return to the field for 142 games for both the Mets and the Giants, who acquired him in a trade in July. 

    His production wasn't what it once was, but he hit .300 with 22 home runs, 84 runs batted in and an OPS of .910. Those are very good numbers, especially when one considers that the RBI totals were probably impacted by the fact that he played for both the Giants and Mets– two of baseball's more anemic offenses last year. 

    Carlos Beltran could cost about $12 million dollars a year for a two- or even a three-year deal. He'll be 35 next season, so that length of a deal would be risky. If he stayed healthy, it would be a real nice deal, though. 

Cody Ross

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    Cody Ross entered the 2011 season as a solid and reliable but unspectacular regular outfielder. 

    He can still field the position, but Ross fell prey to what was basically a season-long slump not just by Ross but by the entire Giants' offense as a whole. 

    No one had a great year in San Francisco with the bat, and Ross was no exception. A career .261 hitter hit just .240. A career slugging percentage of .456 was reduced to .405. Now, Ross is a free agent, and even though he's only 30 years old his tepid performance last year is going to have an impact on the contract he eventually receives. 

    It's probably going to be a fairly short-term deal for a fairly low cost. Maybe Ross is just done? Maybe his numbers last season are the first of a series of declines that will eventually force him out of the league? That's probably not the case, though. 

    He'll probably bounce back and produce at a better rate next season, and if the team that's signed him has only paid for the type of mediocre performance he produced in 2011 then there will be some value in that contract. 

Coco Crisp

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    The reigning American League Stolen Base King is still a man without a job for the 2012 season. 

    That's going to change though. 

    Coco Crisp had a nice little season playing on a bad Oakland team in 2011. There are probably a lot of people unaware of this, but 49 stolen bases in only 136 games is very impressive, especially when coupled with above-average play in center field. 

    He's still out there looking for a deal, too. 

    Someone is going to sign him because, quite frankly, there aren't that many guys out there who can run the bases like Crisp. The ones that are out there are making a lot more money (Carl Crawford) or destined to make a lot more money (Desmond Jennings and Jacoby Ellsbury). 

    Crisp doesn't have the all-around game of those guys, but he's also not going to cost nearly as much. If you want an MVP candidate, then you can place a call to Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington and ask about Jacoby Ellsbury. 

    If you just want a really good centerfielder who can fly around the base paths, then you'll want to give Steve Comte a call he's Coco Crisp's agent. 

Francisco Cordero

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    Francisco Cordero hasn't had less than 34 saves in a season since 2006 and he's had more than 40 twice. So why is the market on him so quiet? 

    Wasn't Jonathan Papelbon snatched up for massive four-year, $50 million deal just days after free agency began? 

    Didn't the new look Miami Marlins ink Padres closer Heath Bell to a big deal too? 

    So why is the Cordero market so quiet? 

    Well, the fact that he's 36 doesn't help. 

    He also experienced a perplexing drop off in the number of strikeouts he got last season. He had only 42 in 69.2 innings pitched. Generally speaking, baseball people tend to like closers who strike people out. Closers enter close games, it's hard to score without men on base and batted balls still leave open the possibility of errors and misplays. 

    Strikeouts make for a nice, clean, men-on-base free final inning. Plus, a drop off could signal that arm strength in declining. 

    Maybe Cordero's best days are behind him? Maybe his velocity will fall off precipitously and he'll cascade into an ugly finish to what has been a very nice career. Or maybe he's got more in the tank? 

    If he does, then a team isn't going to have to pony up a Heath Bell or Jonathan Papelbon type of deal to secure Cordero's services. He might be a nice short-term find. 

Andruw Jones

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    It's easy to forget what a remarkable career Andruw Jones has had. 2012 will be his seventeenth season in the big leagues. Naturally, he must be getting old really old. 

    Actually, Jones is only 34 years old. He entered the majors with a splash by jacking a pair of home runs and hitting .400 in the 1996 World Series as a 19 year old. Not bad, right? 

    Jones has been bouncing around the majors since he left Atlanta following the 2007 season. If he's healthy and if he's in a good lineup, Jones can still be a pretty good outfielder. He's not as mobile as he was when he was winning ten consecutive Gold Gloves from 1998 to 2007, but there are worse guys to pencil in a lineup card. 

    Jones made only $2 million last season, and this season he's unlikely to get any sort of dramatic raise. He could easily earn more than that price as a part-time player on a good team. 

Johnny Damon

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    He won't be headed to Boston, but make no mistake about it. Johnny Damon will have a spot on a team by Opening Day 2012.

    What team will that be? 

    Well, it won't be any team that already has a filled designated hitter. Rule out New York, Boston and Chicago. It probably won't be Tampa again, or Detroit. It's hard to tell, but he'll catch on somewhere. He probably won't even earn what he did last season. 

    Damon made $5.25 million last season. He had a subpar season, but he still ended up hitting 16 home runs and stealing 19 bases. Those are nice numbers on team with a pretty weak offense. 

    The other important thing to remember about Damon is that he's officially on the 3,000 hit quest now. He finished the 2011 season with 2723 hits. That means that if he averages 139 hits per year for two more seasons he'll become just the 29th member of the 3,000 hit club. It's about as sure a milestone to gain entry to Cooperstown as one can find. In Major League history, there are only two, 3,000 hit club members that aren't in the Hall Of Fame: Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro. 

    Damon will land somewhere next season and put up a nice mix of power and speed and all at an affordable price. 

Darren Oliver

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    18 seasons, eight different teams and seven trips to the postseason. It's been a wild ride for Darren Oliver, and since he's not retiring there's not much of a reason to expect a dramatic change. 

    Oliver will probably sign somewhere in the offseason. He'll probably have a solid year out of the pen. Why wouldn't he? He hasn't finished a regular season with an earned run average over 4.00 since 2004. 

    All of that would make one think that Oliver would be retained frequently but he's not. This offseason is no different. Fresh off back-to-back World Series trips with the Texas Rangers, Oliver is a free agent again. 

    It's only a matter of time before someone signs him. Good middle relievers are tough to find, and they're generally not that expensive. Oliver's recently expired Rangers contract was for two years and $6.25 million. That's a fair price for one of the few consistent middle relievers in all of baseball. 

Ryan Ludwick

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    In 2008, Ryan Ludwick was a stud. He was an all-star. He hit 37 home runs, drove in 113 runs and was "Robin" to Albert Pujols' "Batman" on the St. Louis Cardinals. 

    Now? 

    Um, things have sort of declined since the 2008 season. Last year, Ludwick started out in San Diego, where no hitter ever really wants to play. He was traded at the July trade deadline to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he didn't improve upon his miserable .238 average in San Diego; his average in Pittsburgh was only .232. 

    Ludwick really had his best years in St. Louis. Then again, that was also the only really good team he's ever played on. Maybe he's one of those players who feeds off the energy of success to the point where it could have a dramatic effect on his on-field performance. 

    Maybe one of those perennial contenders will take a chance and find out this offseason? 

    It could happen. After all, it's not as if Ludwick is going to bust a team's budget. Last year, he made $6.78 million, but guys that hit in the .230's don't usually get raises (unless of course they're Adam Dunn). 

    That means Ludwick will patiently wait for a decent offer from what he hopes will be a decent team. That team will then wait to see if shades of 2008 Ryan Ludwick emerge. If they do, then Ludwick could be a great bargain for 2012.