MLB Free Agency: 13 Biggest Contract Steals of the Offseason

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IFebruary 23, 2012

MLB Free Agency: 13 Biggest Contract Steals of the Offseason

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    Well, folks, spring training has begun. That means that all of the free-agency contracts that have been signed thus far this winter are now under the microscope. Will Pujols and Fielder live up to their respective deals, or will they falter? Only time will tell.

    Yet, from a fan's standpoint, I don't really see what all the hubbub over certain contracts is all about.  Some are screaming overpaid, when in reality, the contract in question is quite a steal.

    Take C.J. Wilson (pictured), now of the Los Angeles Angels. According to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times, the lanky lefty was looking for a deal in the $100 million range. When push came to shove, Wilson signed for much less than that.

    Since I'm feeling like pushing superstition and over-analyzing various deals, here are the 13 biggest contract steals of the offseason.

No. 13: Bartolo Colon

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    Prior to the 2011 season, Colon was bordering on irrelevant. Since 2008, he had only started 19 games and missed all of 2010 due to injury.

    However, the pitching-starved New York Yankees took a chance on the portly right-hander and gave him a minor-league contract. He impressed enough in spring training that he made the team and posted an 8-10 record with a solid 4.00 ERA over 26 starts. The best part was that he did it all for $900,000.

    Now, entering free agency again, one would think that a solid comeback year would warrant another one-year deal worth at least $4 million. Instead, surely taking Colon's age (he turns 39 in May) and conditioning into consideration, the Oakland A's signed him for $2 million.

    If he can repeat his successes of 2011, or even improve upon them, then this contract will turn out to be one hell of a bargain.

No. 12: Jason Marquis

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    This season, the Minnesota Twins will pay Marquis $3 million to be a part of their starting rotation. This is a fairly good deal, seeing as how Marquis is coming off of a two-year, $15 million deal during which he was very much a disappointment. Over that stretch, he started just 36 games and went 10-15 with a 5.10 ERA and 1.55 WHIP.

    Still, it should be noted that Marquis was injured for much of that contract and that he is better than those numbers indicate. Let's not forget that in 2009, he went 15-13 with a 4.04 ERA for the Colorado Rockies. That's pretty good considering how his home stadium was the hitter-friendly Coors Field.

    Moving into the pitcher-friendly Target Field, Marquis has the potential to have a great rebound year so long as he stays healthy, and thus, becomes a steal of the offseason.

No. 11: Casey Kotchman

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    Most first basemen today are power hitters with the ability to hit 30-plus home runs a year and also hit for a decent average. Casey Kotchman is the opposite of that in such that he hits for a decent average, and his power is only so-so. His greatest strength is his work with the glove.

    He earned $750,000 playing for the Tampa Bay Rays last year and hit .306 with 10 homers and 48 RBI in 146 games. For the upcoming season, he signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Cleveland Indians. The contract's minimum value is $3 million.

    That may seem like a lot for Kotchman after just one good season, which can be considered an overachieving one for the career .268 hitter. However, he can be a total pest at the plate, as evidenced by his .336 career OBP. Throw in his solid defense, and this deal is a bargain.

No. 10: Cody Ross

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    Cody Ross made $6.3 million for the San Francisco Giants last year to the tune of a .240 average, 14 homers and 52 RBI in 121 games. Throw in the eight outfield assists, and you've got yourself a guy who can play all three outfield positions and is decent at getting on base, not to mention is an awesome clubhouse presence.

    Yet, Ross did not sign a contract until Jan. 23, when he took a one-year deal worth $3 million to play for the Boston Red Sox. My best guess is that during negotiations prior to that date, Ross had been banking on his solid 2010 postseason (.294, five homers and 10 RBI) to land a lucrative deal.

    Instead, he's on a one-year contract and playing for a team that really needs help. His fiery personality should fit in fine with the Red Sox, and given the size of Fenway Park, he could be due for a career year for a low price.

No. 9: Jason Kubel

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    It's no secret that once the Twins moved to Target Field, Jason Kubel's offense suffered. He hit .282 with 61 home runs and 246 RBI in three full seasons at the Metrodome, compared to a .259 mark with 33 homers and 150 RBI in two years at the new stadium. As a result, it's not exactly surprising that he didn't receive a substantial raise from the $12.1 million he received from 2009-2011.

    This winter, the Diamondbacks enhanced their offense by signing Kubel for two years and $15 million, plus an option for a third year. It's a good contract for him, but far less than what I would have expected. If he can provide a spark in the team's revamped lineup, then he's definitely a steal.

No. 8: Ryan Madson

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    In stepping into the closer's role last year, for the Philadelphia Phillies, Madson converted 32 saves in 34 opportunities while posting a solid ERA of 2.37, all to the tune of $4 million. As he entered free agency, it appeared as though a lucrative deal was in store for him.

    Unfortunately, despite the Phillies giving Jonathan Papelbon $50 million over four years, other teams did not use that to set the trend for closers' salaries. Thus, Madson was only able to get a one-year, $8.5 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds.

    This deal wasn't signed until Jan. 20, the later part of free agency, so you have an idea of just how long Madson held out for a larger deal. He is incredibly reliable out of the pen, and with the Reds in prime position to take home the NL Central, Madson could prove to be a candidate for Bargain of the Year if he produces like he did last season.

No. 7: Carlos Beltran

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    Carlos Beltran made $17 million playing for the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants last year, and the oft-injured outfielder was playing for his next contract all year long. Fortunately for him, he finished the season with a .300 average, 22 homers and 84 RBI in 142 games.

    This offseason, he ended up signing a two-year, $26 million deal with the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. The pay cut isn't much, but think about the player involved.

    Beltran is a switch-hitter who proved last year that he still has some juice left in his swing.  Throw in six All-Star berths and three Gold Gloves, and the Cardinals have a guy who just might make it into Cooperstown someday.

No. 6: Hiroki Kuroda

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    Hiroki Kuroda made $12 million pitching for an underachieving Los Angeles Dodgers team, and he finished the career with a losing record of 13-16. However, he posted a phenomenal 3.07 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and struck out 161 batters (an MLB career high), going 7-6 after the All-Star Break.

    That being said, one would think that Kuroda would demand a raise despite the fact that he just turned 37. Instead, with few offers on the table, Kuroda ended up signing a one-year deal with the New York Yankees worth $10 million.

    The pay decrease isn't much, but if he can maintain his consistency in the tough AL East, Kuroda could very well be an offseason steal.

No. 5: Hisashi Iwakuma

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    Believe it or not, Iwakuma almost came to the majors last season. The Rakuten Golden Eagles posted him, and with a winning bid of $19.1 million, the Oakland A's won the right merely to negotiate with him. A deal was not reached within the 30-day time frame, and Iwakuma remained in Japan.

    However, he was a free agent this winter and signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners.  It was far from as lucrative as what the A's paid just to speak with him, as Iwakuma's deal with the Mariners is just a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, plus $3.4 million in incentives.

    Simply put, now that Michael Pineda is gone, the Mariners need a solid arm in the starting rotation. Given Iwakuma's experience and repertoire, his being on the team could put the Mariners in the right direction, and should he do well, they will have received him for a killer price.

No. 4: Raul Ibanez

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    Last season, Ibanez finished out a three-year, $31.5 million deal he signed with the Phillies prior to 2009. Over the course of the contract, the veteran outfielder hit .264 with 70 homers and 260 RBI.

    Given how he only hit .245 last year and also turned 39 over the summer, it's no wonder that contract offers for Ibanez were few and far between. Even though he'll turn 40 in June, the New York Yankees gave him a one-year deal worth $1.1 million, plus incentives. 

    I know that some of you out there may think Ibanez is done, but he still hit 20 homers and drove in 84 runs last year. Given the short porch in right field in Yankee Stadium, he certainly has the potential to become an incredible contract steal.

No. 3: C.J. Wilson

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    As I mentioned in the introduction, C.J. Wilson entered the offseason looking for a $100 million deal, preferably over five years. He got his five-year contract, but it was for $77.5 million with the Los Angeles Angels.

    If a $22.5 million discount isn't a steal, then I don't know what is.

No. 2: Edwin Jackson

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    It's no secret that Edwin Jackson is one of the most unpredictable pitchers in baseball.  Despite a solid second half in the 2010 season, he struggled in 2011. With the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, Jackson went 12-9 with a 3.79 ERA and less than average 1.43 WHIP. On the year, he earned just under $6.3 million.

    Once he hit free agency, he originally sought a three-to-five year deal. Given his unpredictability and the resulting lack of lucrative offers on the table, he signed a one-year, $11 million deal with the Washington Nationals.

    Seeing as how Jackson fared slightly better in the NL last year, I'd say expect a solid season from him in 2012. Yes, there's no telling what kind of numbers he'll post, but he definitely has a shot at being the steal of the offseason.

No. 1: Yu Darvish

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    Yu Darvish hasn't played one major league game yet, so there's no telling just how much of a steal he could be. On top of that, he isn't a conventional steal. The Texas Rangers paid $51.7 million just to negotiate with him and then signed him to a six-year, $60 million deal.

    However, a few things need to be taken into consideration. First, some were saying that a total commitment to Darvish would cost well over $100 million. The Rangers ended up paying $111.7 million, and while that is over the $100 million mark, I wouldn't call it "well over."

    Also, look at Darvish's career numbers in Japan. The guy went 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 1,259 strikeouts in just seven seasons. In MLB, a guy with those numbers would probably be earning upwards of $20 million.

    Instead, the Rangers are only paying him $10 million a year. Look up "steal" in the dictionary, and you'll see a picture of Darvish's contract next to his stats in Japan.