Shrewd MLB Free Agency Signings That Would Pay Huge Dividends
While it's the marquee free-agent names that capture the offseason headlines, sometimes it is the mid-level moves with plenty of room for upside that wind up making the biggest difference in a team's race to the postseason.
Whether it is a low-cost, high-upside reclamation project that is added on a one-year deal, an international signing who proves himself in the States or a second-tier player who fills a major need at a reasonable price, there are a number of wise moves to be made each winter.
So here is a look at 10 shrewd potential free-agent signings that could wind up paying huge dividends for the teams I've predicted will add them.
Kansas City Royals Sign Jeff Baker
Predicted Contract: One year, $2.5 million
The Rangers signed Jeff Baker to a minor-league deal last offseason, and he won a job as their utility man out of spring training after going 23-for-55 in exhibition play.
His playing time was minimal throughout the season, but he made the most of his time on the field, hitting .279/.360/.545 with eight doubles and 11 home runs in 154 at-bats.
He played everywhere but catcher, shortstop and center field and rates as one of the most versatile players in all of baseball, but he's played more second base than anything else in his career.
Baker wears out left-handed pitching, hitting .314/.407/.667 with 10 of his 11 home runs in 105 at-bats coming against southpaws in 2013. He could be used in a platoon role with Emilio Bonifacio at second and give the team more flexibility all around.
Baltimore Orioles Sign Suk-Min Yoon
Predicted Contract: Two years, $8-12 million
The Orioles have been active on the international market of late, and they hit on their signing of Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year, $12 million deal prior to the 2012 season.
With a clear need to add pitching but a limited budget to work with, the Orioles could again look overseas to right-hander Suk-Min Yoon of Korea.
The 27-year-old was limited by injuries this past season and spent some time in the bullpen, finishing the year with a 3-6 record, 4.00 ERA and seven saves in 87.2 innings of work.
He enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, however, going 17-5 with a 2.45 ERA in 172.1 innings of work for the Kia Tigers. He followed that up with a solid 2012 campaign, in which he was 9-8 with a 3.12 ERA over 153 innings, so he has a decent track record of success.
On a relatively cheap two-year deal, he could be a steal—provided he's healthy—and give the Orioles rotation a much-needed boost.
Chicago Cubs Sign Chris Young
Predicted Contract: One year, $5-7 million
Acquired from the Diamondbacks in a three-team deal last offseason, Chris Young hit .200/.280/.379 with 12 home runs and 10 steals during a disappointing season with the A's last year, so it came as no surprise when the team declined his $11 million option this offseason.
Young has always struck out a ton and is a .235 career hitter, but he does have three 20/20 seasons under his belt and is capable of being an asset in the lineup when he's on a hot streak.
The Cubs have a pair of potential future stars in the outfield in Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, but for now, they are slated to use some combination of Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, Brian Bogusevic and Nate Schierholtz across the outfield.
Adding a veteran on a one-year deal to play center field who could potentially boost his value and be flipped at the deadline looks like a good move for the North Siders, and Young certainly fits that bill.
Washington Nationals Sign Boone Logan
Predicted Contract: Three years, $10-12 million
Left-handed relief pitching is always at a premium, and the three-year, $18 million deal that Jeremy Affeldt received from the Giants last offseason showed just how much teams are willing to pay for a good one.
Since the start of the 2010 season, Logan has appeared in 256 games, which is seventh among left-handed relievers over that span, and posted a 3.38 ERA and 10.3 K/9 while pitching for the Yankees.
The Nationals are in the market for a lefty reliever this winter, and while Fernando Abad (39 G, 3.35 ERA) and Ian Krol (32 G, 3.95 ERA) pitched well in that role last year, adding a proven veteran could certainly bolster their 'pen.
With Javier Lopez likely re-signing with the Giants, Logan looks like the best lefty reliever on the market, and with few other needs, the Nationals will likely go after him aggressively.
Tampa Bay Rays Sign Mike Morse
Predicted Contract: One year, $5-7 million
The Rays have made a living bargain-hunting on the free-agent market the past few years, and they have made some terrific additions with the likes of Casey Kotchman, James Loney, Fernando Rodney, Kelly Johnson and Roberto Hernandez, among others.
With Loney headed for a substantial raise over the $2 million he made in 2013, chances are he'll be playing elsewhere this coming year, so the Rays will be looking for another low-cost reclamation project to slot at first base.
A late-bloomer, Mike Morse hit .303/.360/.550 with 31 home runs and 95 RBI for the Washington Nationals during a breakout 2011 season. Injuries limited him to just 406 at-bats the following season, but he still managed to hit .291/.321/.470 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI.
The 31-year-old was traded to the Mariners prior to last season, and then again to the Orioles in August, but he hit just .215/.270/.381 in 312 combined at-bats. He'll likely have to settle for a one-year deal, but he could very well become the best bargain of the offseason.
Los Angeles Angels Sign Mike Pelfrey
Predicted Contract: One year, $6-8 million
The No. 9 pick in the 2005 draft, Mike Pelfrey started off his career slowly but looked to have turned the corner for the Mets in 2010, when he went 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA.
He took a step back in 2011, however, going 7-13 with a 4.74 ERA. He was then sidelined after just three starts in 2012 with an arm injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.
The Twins took a chance on him with a one-year, $4 million deal this past year, and on the surface, he had a terrible season, going 5-13 with a 5.19 ERA in 29 starts.
However, his 3.99 FIP suggests he suffered through some bad luck, and now with a full season between him and the aforementioned surgery, he could be in for a bounce-back season in 2014.
The Angels will likely look at any and all options to fill out their rotation behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, and signing Pelfrey on a one-year deal to fill the No. 5 spot could be a low-cost way for them to bolster the staff.
New York Mets Sign Rafael Furcal
Predicted Contract: One year, $4-6 million (w/2015 option)
The Cardinals picked up Rafael Furcal at the deadline in 2011 and were pleased enough with his play down the stretch that they signed him to a two-year, $14 million extension when he hit free agency that offseason.
A .275/.337/.364 line and 54 runs scored in the first half of the 2012 season earned him the starting nod at shortstop for the NL in the All-Star Game. He dealt with injuries in the second half of the year, though, and hit just .239/.297/.303 over 142 at-bats.
That was followed by Tommy John surgery last spring, and he subsequently missed all of the 2013 season as a result. Now 36 years old, he'll be looking for someone to take a chance on him on a one-year deal.
After Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta, Furcal looks like the only other viable starting option on the market, and for a Mets team with other areas to address, taking a chance on Furcal could be a good option.
Mets shortstops hit just .215/.285/.276 with a position-low three home runs last season, and even if he can come close to replicating his 2012 production, Furcal would be a significant upgrade.
Cleveland Indians Sign Jesse Crain
Predicted Contract: One year, $3-5 million
Long one of the best setup relievers in baseball, Jesse Crain has a 3.05 ERA and 1.231 WHIP in 532 career appearances over the course of his 10-year career.
The 32-year-old was in the middle of the best season of his career in 2013 when injury struck, posting a 0.74 ERA and 11.3 K/9 over 38 appearances to earn a spot on the AL All-Star team.
A shoulder injury landed him on the DL on June 29, however, and while he was traded to the Rays at the deadline, he would not see the field again in 2013. That will no doubt cut into his value on the free-agent market, but at the same time, it could make him an absolute steal.
In recent years, the likes of Grant Balfour, Jose Veras, Rafael Betancourt and others have made the move to closer after spending the early stages of their career as setup men, and for an Indians team in need of bullpen help, Crain could be the answer.
Pittsburgh Pirates Sign James Loney
Predicted Contract: Two years, $14-18 million
James Loney burst onto the scene as a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, hitting .331/.381/.538 with 15 home runs and 67 RBI over just 344 at-bats to finish sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
He hit a solid .281/.341/.411 while averaging 12 home runs and 83 RBI over the next four seasons, but he struggled in a contract year in 2012 and was traded to the Red Sox at the deadline that season.
He finished 2012 with a .249/.293/.336 line and just six home runs and 41 RBI over 434 at-bats. That left him without many offers on the open market last winter, and the Rays wound up signing him on a one-year, $2 million deal.
The 29-year-old hit .299/.348/.430 with 13 home runs and 75 RBI in 2013, and now ranks as perhaps the top first-base option behind Mike Napoli.
The Pirates went with a platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones at first base for most of the season before acquiring Justin Morneau in August, and all told, they got a .264/.346/.422 line with 17 home runs and 71 RBI out of the position. Loney would bring some stability to the position and should still fit within their price range.
Minnesota Twins Sign Bronson Arroyo
Predicted Contract: Two years, $24-28 million
Aside from a down 2011 when he went 9-12 with a 5.07 ERA, Bronson Arroyo enjoyed a terrific eight-year run with the Cincinnati Reds. In 265 total starts with the team, he went 105-94 with a 4.05 ERA and won 14 or more games five times in that stretch.
He's gone 26-22 with a 3.76 ERA over the past two years, and he has thrown at least 199 innings in each of the past nine years as one of the most durable pitchers in all of baseball. The right-hander ranks third in baseball in innings pitched behind CC Sabathia and Dan Haren since the start of 2005.
The 36-year-old made $16.4 million last season, and while he likely won't make that much in 2014, he still has plenty left in the tank and no shortage of suitors.
The Twins ranked dead last in starting-pitching ERA last season at 5.26, a full 0.45 higher than the next-worst team, so they'll be looking to add arms this winter. Arroyo would give them a consistent veteran they can count on to front their staff.