10 Biggest Gambles on 2014 MLB Free-Agent Market

Josh Schoch@JoshSchochAnalyst IIIOctober 22, 2013

10 Biggest Gambles on 2014 MLB Free-Agent Market

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    For 28 MLB teams, all that matters right now is free agency in the upcoming offseason.

    While the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals focus on the World Series, every other team is looking ahead to determine what it will be trying to do this winter.

    There are plenty of free agents up for grabs right now, but there are also many guys who are big risks.

    Whether it be one reason or another, these 10 guys are all big risks that could pay off or backfire horribly for the teams that sign them this winter.

P Fernando Rodney

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    Position: RP

    B/T: R/R

    Age: 36

    2013 Stats: 68 G, 66.2 IP, 3.38 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 37 SV, 8 BLSV

    Why He's a Risk: History Before Tampa Bay, Age

    Fernando Rodney was a nobody before he joined the Tampa Bay Rays in 2012. However, that year he went on to become arguably the best closer in the game, posting a 0.60 ERA as he converted 48 of his 50 save opportunities.

    Rodney came back to earth a bit in 2013, posting a 3.38 ERA and blowing eight saves. He was a solid closer, but he was very streaky. He blew three out of five saves before converting 18 straight, only to blow back-to-back saves right after the streak.

    The reason he is slowing down might have something to do with Rodney's age. He'll be 37 before next season begins, and his time as an MLB closer is almost up.

    Apart from slowing down, Rodney also never had much success with any team other than the Rays. He had a career ERA of 4.77 and had converted just 87 of his 124 save opportunities before he came to Tampa Bay.

    The Rays will likely try to keep Rodney for another year or so, but other teams will be looking into his previous success (or lack thereof) when considering him as a target.

    Best-Case Scenario

    While asking Rodney to duplicate his 2012 success would be absurd, we know that he has the potential to be a star.

    Teams looking into Rodney as a free agent are hoping that he can be a reliable closer.

    If everything goes right for Rodney, we could see him blow just two to four saves while posting an ERA of just above 2.00.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    Rodney is getting up there in age, and he may have hit the wall already.

    It's rare to find closers enjoying as much success as Rodney has these past two years at his age, and it's even rarer for them to keep it up at the age of 37.

    The team that signs him will know that he might end up blowing double-digit saves, and that there is a chance he won't finish the 2014 season as a closer.

P Roy Halladay

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    Position: SP

    B/T: R/R

    Age: 36

    2013 Stats: 13 G, 62 IP, 4-5, 6.82 ERA, 1.47 WHIP

    Why He's a Risk: Injuries, Age

    Roy Halladay was once the most feared pitcher in baseball, but his days as an ace are likely behind him.

    Doc had a miserable 2013 season, making just 13 starts and averaging less than five innings per start. He also posted an ERA of 6.82 and a WAR of -1.0.

    Power hitters got the better of him time and time again, as he surrendered 12 home runs in 62.0 innings of work, compared to 10 home runs in 233.2 innings in 2011.

    To make matters worse, Halladay's 2013 season was cut short. In his final outing, Halladay was pulled after facing just three batters due to arm fatigue.

    CNSPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury then reported that Halladay's issues weren't just with his arm:

    Halladay admitted that this has been a "stressful" season. He went on to admit that he’s dealt with more than shoulder issues. He said he recently began taking medication for an illness related to diet.

    Halladay hasn't been himself since 2011, and it will be interesting to see how he comes back from such a turbulent 2013.

    Best-Case Scenario

    Expecting Halladay to be the ace he once was is foolish. He's dealt with too many problems over the past year or so for him to come back and dominate.

    However, asking him to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter who wins 12 games and posts an ERA below 4.00 in 2014 is completely fair.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    We don't know if Doc will ever pitch again, and whether or not he'll be successful if he does.

    The worst-case scenario for a team that signs him is that it ends up getting into a bidding war and overpays him as he struggles on the field to the tune of a 6.00 ERA.

    In other words, if he repeats his 2013 season, the team that signs him will be devastated.

SS Stephen Drew

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    Position: SS

    B/T: L/R

    Age: 30

    2013 Stats: 124 G, .253/.333/.443, 13 HR, 67 RBI

    Why He's a Risk: Injuries

    Stephen Drew is a productive shortstop...when he's healthy. The problem is that he isn't healthy all that often.

    In the past three seasons, Drew has played a combined total of 289 games, or 96.3 games per season. He's missed 197 games during that time, or 40.5 percent of the regular season during that span.

    Drew has also been hampered by his injuries, leading to a lack of production.

    Whereas he hit .272 in the first five years of his eight-year career, Drew has hit a mere .252 in the past three. The injuries he's sustained have taken a toll on him, but we know that Drew can be a very solid contributor if he stays healthy.

    The only question is whether or not he'll be able to make it through a 162-game season without getting hurt.

    Best-Case Scenario

    In a perfect world, Drew would play all 162 games in a season at full strength.

    If he can manage to remain healthy and productive from April through October, we could easily see him bat .280 with 20 to 25 home runs and 75 RBI.

    Drew has become an injury-prone player in the past three years, but if he stays healthy, he could be an All-Star.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    Other than a season-ending injury, the worst-case scenario for Drew would be to be plagued by several injuries in the same season.

    Drew has missed as many as 83 games in a season (2012), and he played through injuries for most of that season. He was lucky to bat .250 that year, but if these nagging injuries continue to take a toll on him, we could see Drew slow down and struggle or be forced into an early retirement.

    At this point in his career, Drew is still a viable option at shortstop. Teams will certainly be pursuing him, but they will be wary of his recent injury problems.

P Phil Hughes

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    Position: SP

    B/T: R/R

    Age: 27

    2013 Stats: 30 G, 145.2 IP, 4-14, 5.19 ERA, 1.46 WHIP

    Why He's a Risk: Inconsistency

    Phil Hughes has shown that he has the potential to be a good pitcher, but he's failed to reach that potential over the past few years.

    The good news for Hughes is that his career as a New York Yankee is likely over, according to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News.

    The launching pad known as Yankee Stadium has not been kind to Hughes in the past. Yankee Stadium had the most home runs of any stadium in 2012, and it became known as one of the most favorable hitters' parks in the game.

    Hughes has struggled over the past two seasons due in large part to his habit of giving up home runs. He surrendered 35 home runs in 2012 and another 24 in 2013, including 39 home runs at home during that time.

    While Hughes has found success at times, he has struggled at others, and he is a hit-or-miss free agent.

    Best-Case Scenario

    Teams know that much of Hughes' failure has to be blamed on the park he was in. While he will still be susceptible to giving up the long ball no matter where he pitches, he will give up much fewer in a pitcher-friendly park.

    If Hughes signs with a team that has a stadium that favors pitchers we could easily see him post an ERA just above 3.00 and win 12 to 15 games in 2014.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    The worst thing that could happen to the team that signs Hughes would be for it to realize that he gives up big hits no matter where he pitches.

    If those home runs become long doubles we could see Hughes continue to post an ERA around 5.00.

P Bartolo Colon

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    Position: SP

    B/T: R/R

    Age: 40

    2013 Stats: 30 G, 190.1 IP, 18-6, 2.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP

    Why He's a Risk: Age, What if 2013 Was a Fluke?

    Bartolo Colon broke out in a big way in 2013, leading the Oakland Athletics to the playoffs with his 18-6 record.

    Colon posted his lowest ERA since 2002 this season and was one of the best pitchers in the American League.

    However, Colon will turn 41 next year, and it wouldn't be shocking to see him fade away.

    Apart from aging, Colon has yet to prove that last season wasn't a fluke, as it was the first time he looked like an ace in over a decade.

    Colon could be a star, but he could also be a huge bust. Only time will tell with this aging pitcher.

    Best-Case Scenario

    Obviously the best-case scenario would be for Colon to prove that 2013 wasn't a fluke.

    While he might not win 11 of his first 13 decisions again next season, it's possible that he posts an ERA around 3.00 and wins 15 to 18 games.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    If Colon's 2013 does end up being a fluke and his age catches up with him, he could be nothing more than a fifth starter in a rotation.

    Teams know that Colon could easily fall back into his losing ways, and they must be wary of his history when determining how much to pay the 40-year-old.

CF Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Position: CF

    B/T: L/L

    Age: 30

    2013 Stats: 134 G, .298/.355/.426, 9 HR, 53 RBI

    Why He's a Risk: Injuries

    Jacoby Ellsbury is talented enough that the market for him is already taking shape.

    Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe has connected him with the Detroit Tigers, saying that he could potentially fix the Tigers' issues at the leadoff spot.

    However, teams need to take into account his injury history.

    Apart from injuring his foot in September and almost missing the start of the postseason because of it, Ellsbury played just 74 games in 2012 and a mere 18 games in 2010.

    While we've seen Ellsbury dominate when healthy (158 G, .321 BA, 32 HR, 105 RBI in 2011), he has had enough injuries for teams to keep an eye on his health and take it into account when negotiating with him.

    Best-Case Scenario

    When he's healthy, Ellsbury has the potential to be one of the best center fielders in baseball.

    If he can stay healthy for a full season, we could see him bat over .300 once again and put up solid power numbers in the process.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    If you're a superstitious fan who looks for patterns, you'll know that Ellsbury shouldn't play much in 2014.

    In 2010 he played just 18 games, and in 2012 he played in 74. The pattern is that he misses a significant amount of playing time in even years, which would mean that 2014 could be disastrous for him.

    Even if you just look at his numbers and history of injuries, you can tell that there's a chance that Ellsbury fails to remain productive all year.

P A.J. Burnett

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    Position: SP

    B/T: R/R

    Age: 36

    2013 Stats: 30 G, 191.0 IP, 10-11, 3.30 ERA, 1.21 WHIP

    Why He's a Risk: Age, Inconsistency

    A.J. Burnett proved that there's still some gas left in the tank during the 2013 season, as he posted a career-best 3.30 ERA and helped lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to the NLDS.

    Burnett has put together two solid seasons in Pittsburgh, going 26-21 with an ERA of 3.42 over that time. However, this comes on the heels of two horrendous seasons for the New York Yankees, posting an ERA of 5.26.

    Few pitchers have been as consistently inconsistent as Burnett has in his career, and as he nears 40 years of age that will only get worse.

    Turning 37 before the 2014 season will only exacerbate his problem with consistency, and Burnett will be a wild card if he decides to come back for another year.

    Best-Case Scenario

    Burnett pitched well enough this year to warrant him coming back for more in 2014. However, it's unlikely that he could be just as good next season.

    If Burnett comes back to Pittsburgh, we could see him win another 12 games with an ERA around 3.50, but anything more than that is too much to ask.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    If worse comes to worst, Burnett will be forced into retirement midway through the 2014 season.

    We know that Burnett has struggled in the past, and any team that signs him is taking the risk that he might not have enough left in the tank to pitch well for another full season.

P Tim Lincecum

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    Position: SP

    B/T: L/R

    Age: 29

    2013 Stats: 32 G, 197.2 IP, 10-14, 4.37 ERA, 1.32 WHIP 

    Why He's a Risk: Inconsistency

    Tim Lincecum is a two-time Cy Young winner, but he hasn't looked like it over the past two seasons.

    After quickly becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the game of baseball, Lincecum has slowed down.

    In 2012, he went 10-15 and posted an ERA of 5.18. It seemed like that season could've just been a fluke, but his 2013 season wasn't much better outside of a no-hitter in the middle of the year.

    Whichever team signs Lincecum is lucky that he's looking for a short-term deal, because even if he does struggle, he won't be with the team for too long.

    Best-Case Scenario

    While I won't go so far as to say that Lincecum could win the Cy Young Award for a third time this season, the best-case scenario is that he does in fact raise his value once again.

    The reasoning behind taking a short-term deal is that The Freak thinks that he's good enough to bounce back over the next season or two, and he wants to sign a long-term deal after that. If he accomplishes that goal, he will have been a success.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    The worst-case scenario is obviously that Lincecum continues to struggle and ruins his future in the game because of it.

    If Lincecum is as bad as he was in 2012 again, there's no way he'll sign the long-term deal that he's hoping for.

P Josh Johnson

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    Position: SP

    B/T: L/R

    Age: 29

    2013 Stats: 16 G, 81.1 IP, 2-8, 6.20 ERA, 1.66 WHIP

    Why He's a Risk: Inconsistency, Injuries

    Josh Johnson can be among baseball's most dominant pitchers.

    He can also be among the worst pitchers in the game today.

    Two years ago, Johnson looked like he would sign a massive deal after the 2013 season, as he was among the most feared pitchers in the game.

    However, being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays last offseason seems to have derailed Johnson, as he went 2-8 with an ERA of 6.20 in 2013.

    Combine that with the fact that his season was cut short due to injury, and you can see why teams will be hesitant to pay much for JJ.

    Best-Case Scenario

    Johnson probably won't get back to prime form right away, but he can still be the second or third starter in a team's rotation.

    If he wins 12 games and posts an ERA just above 3.00, 2014 will have been a nice comeback.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    We may never see the dominant Josh Johnson of the past ever again, and the 2013 version of Johnson might be all that's left.

    Don't be surprised if Johnson's injury history leads to him posting an ERA above 5.00 once again in 2014.

C Brian McCann

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    Position: C

    B/T: L/R

    Age: 29

    2013 Stats: 102 G, .256/.336/.461, 20 HR, 57 RBI

    Why He's a Risk: Injuries, Price Tag

    Brian McCann is among the hottest assets on the free-agency market this year, and he could be paid a fortune for his services behind the plate.

    Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York reported that an MLB general manager said that McCann's contract could top $100 million.

    While $100 million isn't what it used to be, that's still a ridiculous amount of money for an aging catcher. However, it could become a reality, as Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports that some of baseball's wealthiest teams are pursuing McCann, including the Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, White Sox, Blue Jays, Cubs and Angels.

    It's just not smart money management to pay so much money for a catcher who will turn 30 before the 2014 season. As Dan Szymborski of ESPN (subscription required) writes, most catchers begin a steep decline in their 30s:

    [McCann] already has 1,046 games behind the plate under his belt -- or in the case of a catcher, on his knees -- and the position tends to wear down players in their 30s. Only 26 other players in baseball history accumulated 900 games or more behind the plate before their age 30 season. Not counting Yadier Molina for obvious reasons, only nine of the 25 catchers on that list played 600 games at catcher over the rest of their career.

    Even among those survivors, most of those catchers did not age gracefully. Gary Carter's last year as a force was at age 32 and his knees were shot after nine surgeries. Jason Kendall bounced back well from a gruesome ankle injury, but was done as an underrated star by age 30. Time caught up with Bill Dickey at 32 and Benito Santiago, a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, spent his 30s as a journeyman stopgap.

    If it wasn't enough that most catchers struggle at this point in their careers, it doesn't help that McCann has already dealt with serious injuries, including undergoing shoulder surgery last offseason and playing just 102 games in 2013.

    McCann could be this year's Josh Hamilton, as the biggest bust in the free-agent class.

    Best-Case Scenario

    McCann is going to seek out a long-term contract, and he'll probably get it. The most that any team can hope for is a few more All-Star Game appearances and solid power numbers over the length of the contract.

    As for the 2014 season, the team that signs him will no doubt hope for him to bat .290 with 25 to 30 home runs.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    McCann's shoulder injury is scaring a lot of people. It's not the type of injury that just goes away for a catcher, and his defense could suffer because of it.

    Combine that with the fact that catchers often have injury-riddled ends to their careers, and McCann might not be worth anywhere close to the $100 million he could be receiving.