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Friday, January 15, 2010

Look out for falling prices...

When I previewed free agency in mid-November there were 83 featured players.  As of this morning, 48 of them had either signed, accepted arbitration, or retired, including all of the players who I expected to dictate the market: Holliday, Bay, Lackey, Chapman, Figgins, and Valverde.  At this point, with the beginning of Spring Training only a month away, those who remained unsigned are starting to get anxious.  Many teams have already declared themselves "spent" this offseason.  So, with demand shrinking, we are also looking at an inevitable drop in prices, particularly at those positions which still feature a fair supply of options.  During the waning months of the last offseason, several players signed cheap, short contracts and proceeded to produce well above their pay grade, including Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, and Orlando Hudson.  If you believe, as Eric Karabell says, that "there is no such thing as a risky one-year deal," than this is a great time for general managers to play with the house's money.

Orlando Hudson & Orlando Cabrera

This is the second time the Orlandos have found themselves in this unsavory position in the last twelve months.  Last winter both players signed one-year deals for under $4 Million.  Frankly, I don't understand it.  Both players are Gold Glove-winning middle infielders who are solid, sometimes superlative, offensive catalysts, and are also widely recognized as good teammates and energizing clubhouse presences.

Hudson is suffering in part because of his mysterious benching by Joe Torre late in last season.  Torre elected to turn to Ron Belliard (who's also still available) more and more in September and October, even though Hudson was an '09 All-Star and really only had one poor month (June).  In fact, his OPS+ (109) was the highest of his career.  Nevertheless, though O-Dog very well may have had legitimate beef with Torre's decision, he never voiced any displeasure and he embraced his newfound role, even coming up with a pinch-hit homer in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Cabrera's season had a slightly different arch, as he slumped with Oakland through the first four months of the season, but when he came to the Twins, he immediately became a favored member of the club, lauded by fans and management, who inspired his teammates and came up with several big hits (none bigger than the homer he hit in Game 163 against Detroit).

To me, these seem like players who you want on your club, but for the second year in a row the bulk of general managers have disagreed.

Potential Suitors (for Hudson): Cubs, Twins, Tigers, Nationals
Potential Suitors (for Cabrera): Astros, Reds, Twins

Miguel Tejada

The former AL MVP has the opposite problem from Hudson and Cabrera, whose perceived weaknesses are clearly as hitters.  Tejada proved in '09 that he is still a force to be reckoned with at the plate, by leading the NL in doubles and batting .313.  Even though he's a free swinger (only 19 BB in '09), there are very few teams that would welcome his addition to their lineup.  The problem is that many believe that Tejada's defensive skills have eroded to the point that he is no longer a satisfactory option at the game's premier defensive position, shortstop.  As such, Tejada's marketability in the coming months depends largely on his willingness to make a switch, probably to third base or designated hitter.  If he can swallow his pride and commit to such a conversion, just as Michael Young did prior to last season, he will see a dramatic increase in suitors and a corresponding increase in salary.

Potential Suitors: White Sox, Angels, Twins, Athletics

Erik Bedard & Ben Sheets

One of the new business of baseball catchphrases is "reestablish his market."  It refers to players who need to take a short-term contract, not only because current demand necessitates it, but because it will be better for them in the long run.  Assuming they prove their health and effectiveness, Bedard and Sheets could be in line for much, much larger paydays a year from now.  Both have the potential to be frontline starters.  Sheets is a four-time All-Star (he started the game for the NL as recently as 2008) who is still in his early thirties.  Bedard is also just 31-years-old and looked on his way to becoming an Ace before injuries limited him to only thirty starts in two seasons with Seattle.  Even so, in those thirty starts, Bedard went 11-7 with a 3.24 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, and 162 K in 164 IP, which gives you a sense of what he might've been capable of if he was fully healthy.

This is where Karabell's maxim really comes under fire.  If your teams signs one of these pitchers, you expect them to produce, at the very least, like a #2 (just ask those Cubs fans who assumed Rich Harden would be a Cy Young contender in '09 after he looked so dominant during the second half of '08).  Unfortunately, the odds are that at least one of these guys not only will fail to fulfill that expectation, but will probably miss most of the season, potentially crushing a whole city's dreams in the process.

Potential Suitors: Cubs, Dodgers, Rangers, Cardinals, Brewers

Johnny Damon

I count myself among those who believe that Damon will eventually return to the Yankees, although I'm not sure I have a particularly strong rationale.  Of course, Damon is a great fit in New York, hitting between Jeter and Texeira, and turning the occasional can of corn into a home run trot.  I also believe Damon is justified in asking for more than a one-year deal, though perhaps not for quite the salary he's rumored to be demanding (more than $10 Million a year).  Johnny's been very dependable, playing in 140+ games in every season of his career, and scoring 90+ runs in every season since 1998.  A multi-year contract is the natural reward for such durability, even if the man is 36 years young.  His caveman physique promises to hold up for at least a couple more.

Damon isn't as appealing outside the Bronx, as it might be difficult to find a similarly forgiving ballpark. Even so, he's a disciplined hitter who still has moderate speed and power.  Many teams would be lucky to have him, especially if they can get him for the same price as Mark DeRosa (2 yrs./$12 Mil.).

Potential Suitors: Yankees, Cubs, Royals, White Sox

Felipe Lopez

In many ways Lopez resembles Hudson and Cabrera.  He is a good, but not great offensive player.  In '09 he batted .310 with a strong .383 OBP, but very modest power (9 HR, .427 SLG) and only six stolen bases (it's hard to believe that Lopez once swiped 44 in a season).  He doesn't have any Gold Gloves on his resume (which are meaningless, anyway), but Lopez is good at second (7.8 UZR in '09), capable at third (2.0 UZR in 83 career starts), and could still play shortstop in a pinch (no errors in ten starts there in '08).  Moreover, at 29, he's younger and presumably cheaper than the either of the Orlandos or Tejada.  After playing on four teams in two years, it's easy to see how Lopez gets overlooked (just ask Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton how the "journeyman" label can wear a brother down).  Lopez could probably be had especially cheaply by any team that was willing to offer him some stability and plenty of playing time.

Potential Suitors: Nationals, Mets, Twins, Cubs, Dodgers, Tigers

Jermaine Dye

Jermaine bottomed out in the second half of '09, posting a measly 590 OPS after the break, after having an All-Star-worthy first half (942 OPS).  He'll be 36 later this month, so GMs are understandably concerned that this may be the beginning of steep decline.  However, for somebody willing to roll the dice, perhaps with an incentive-laden deal, Dye has the potential to be this year's Bobby Abreu.  In five seasons with the White Sox, Dye averaged 33 HR and 92 RBI per year.  A move to left field or designated hitter might help keep him fresh and productive for at least one more round.

Potential Suitors: White Sox, Royals, Giants, Reds, Cubs

P. S.  Some will notice that I listed the Cubs as potential suitors for almost everybody.  That isn't necessarily because I'm a hopelessly optimistic Cubs fan, though I may be, but moreso because I think Jim Hendry is in desperation mode and will be looking to make some desperation moves (a.k.a. Marlon Byrd) as the beginning of the season nears.  In these cases at least he can't do much damage (unless Hendry decides to spectacularly overpay...which is, of course, is what he'll probably do).

P. P. S.  Papa Grande was going to be part of this post, until last night it was announced that he signed with Detroit.  Nonetheless, I'd like to take the opportunity to salute one of my favorite closers.

Jose Valverde

This offseason has proven once again what I've been saying for years: Papa Grande is the most underrated closer in baseball.  After two straight seasons leading the NL in saves, Valverde converted only 25 in 2009, mainly because he missed six weeks in the first half.  However, his last blown save of the season came on June 28th, after which he went 4-0 with 19 saves, a 1.67 ERA, and 36 K in 35 appearances.

Even despite a somewhat mediocre 2009 campaign, Valverde trails only K-Rod, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Cordero (yeah, didn't expect to see his name either, did you?) in saves over the last three seasons.  He has an excellent strikeout rate (10.3 K/9), ERA (2.84), and WHIP (1.15).  The one case against him is that he yields the occasional long ball (22 in 190 innings since '07), but some of that has to do with the homer-happy confines in Houston and Arizona.  Savvy GMs will undoubtedly notice that Papa Grande's numbers have consistently been even better away from his home ballparks.

That doesn't necessarily mean he won't be welcomed back to his former homes with open arms.  No two teams are more familiar with Valverde's talent than Arizona and Houston.  The Astros let him walk mainly because the expected his price to be comparable to the other premier closers who went on the market in recent years.  K-Rod, Nathan, Mariano, Cordero, Billy Wagner, and Kerry Wood all make upwards of $10,000,000 a year.  One can understand why Papa Grande might believe he also belongs in that class.

P. P. P. S. Valverde got hosed.  Next year K-Rod will take home nearly twice as much money.  Will he have twice as many saves?  Certainly not.  Will he have more saves?  I'd be willing to take the over on the guy who doesn't pitch for the Mets.

Meanwhile, Ed Wade is trying to explain to Drayton McLane why he's paying Bradon Lyon $15 Million, while the team that was afraid to give Lyon save opportunities nabbed his All-Star closer for $14 Million.  Let's compare:

Papa Grande '07-'09: 2.84 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 217 K, 190 IP, 116 SV
Brandy Lyon '07-'09: 3.31 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 141 K, 212 IP, 31 SV

Valverde has to be wondering whether Lyon is one of David Copperfield's bastard children, because I'll be damned if this isn't the second time a team has been fallen for the bait and switch at Valverde's expense.  After Valverde led the league in saves in '07, the D-Backs shipped him to Houston (a.k.a. Hell) so they could install Lyon as their closer.  That worked out swimmingly, as Valverde led the league in saves, again, and Lyon, well, by the end of the season he was, again, a set-up man.

Good luck, 'Stros.  And Kudos to David Dombrowski, who waited out the market and landed the best free agent reliever, while other teams blinked and overpaid for Lyon (3 yr./$15 Mil.), Fernando Rodney (2 yr./$11 Mil.), Mike Gonzalez (2 yr./$12 Mil.), Trevor Hoffman (1 yr./$8 Mil.), and Billy Wagner (1 yr./$7 Mil.).

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