Friday, November 04, 2005

Free agents

Here's a quick rundown of the big free agents this off-season and my analysis of such. Players are listed in order of relative importance:
* - indicates that there is a 2006 option on the player's contract. This could be a player option (the player decides to stay for another year), a team option (the team decides) or a mutual option (they both have to agree). Options must be exercised soon, or players will become free agents.

First Base
Paul Konerko, Tino Martinez*, Kevin Millar, Frank Thomas, John Olerud
Konerko will probably get big money, and I think he probably deserves it. He'll be just 30 years old when the season starts, and he's one of the more reliable sluggers in the AL. He's a career 349/488/279 hitter, which is great until you consider that New Comiskey Park is a good hitter's park. So while Konerko is a good slugger and a fine defensive third baseman, he doesn't really deserve huge money. But since he's one of the best hitters on the market, he'll probably get good money from some teams that need a bat at first base (i.e. the Mets).
Frank Thomas still has some life left in him. If he can stay healthy (which is a huge if), he's still productive as a DH or bench player. Millar is a decent hitter, but not for a 1B. Olerud and Martinez would make good backups or bench fixtures.

Second Base
Mark Loretta*, Mark Grudzielanek, Mark Bellhorn, Tony Graffanino
I can't see why the Padres wouldn't exercise their option on Loretta, one of the best 2B in baseball. So that leaves Grudzielanek as the only real solution for a team that needs a 2B, and I think the Cardinals will likely re-sign him unless someone like Boston steps in. So for the other teams that need a 2B (Seattle), they better get creative.

Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Gonzalez, Royce Clayton
Furcal will likely be the most sought-after free agent in the offseason, and rightfully so. He's not a great hitter, but he's good enough, since he's probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball. He still steals bases, and he's also just 28 years old. Good news for whichever team signs him, with the Cubs looking like early favorites. Even if Furcal gets $12 million a year, it's probably a good deal.

Third Base
Bill Mueller, Joe Randa, Jose Valentin
Mueller is still a fine 3B, but he's also going to be 35 next season. He's a great short-term solution for some team, but there just isn't an impact player available at the hot corner, unless some team wants to get creative with a trade. Randa and Valentin are decent stop-gaps, but nothing to invest a lot of money in.
It will be interesting to see what the Red Sox do about Mueller. He's a big part of their clubhouse, but there's absolutely no reason to re-sign him when you've got a younger, cheaper, major-league ready player like Kevin Youkilis waiting in the wings. The Red Sox need to spend all available money on Johnny Damon. and pitching.

Johnny Damon, Brian Giles, Hideki Matsui, Jose Guillen*, Jacque J0nes, Mark Kotsay*, Reggie Sanders, Jeromy Burnitz, Sammy Sosa, and others ...
Brian Giles will likely be a better player than Damon over the short-term, say the next year or so. But Giles will be 35 in 2006, whereas Damon will be 32. Damon is not a really sound long-term investment. He's a player who's had two uncharacteristically good years in 2004 and 2005, and he's also an aging center fielder. But if a team wants the 2006-7 top-notch Damon, they're going to have to get the 2008-10 mediocre Damon as part of the deal.
Giles is just an amazingly underrated player, even now. He'd be a great fit for the Cardinals, although St. Louis is a pretty old team already, and they don't want to become in 2006 what the Giants became in 2005, the league's old-folks home. But if you want a left fielder to contribute big-time for a year or two, Giles is your man. He is, without a doubt in my mind, the best hitter on the free agent market. But his age and dwindling defensive skills make him a less preferable alternative to Damon and Furcal.
The Yankees will likely make a move to re-sign Matsui if they don't get Damon. And even if they do get Damon, they'll need somebody to play left field. A Matsui/Jacque Jones package deal wouldn't be a bad move, as it would shore up two positions for about as much money as Damon alone would command. By the way, there's every reason to believe the options on Guillen and Kotsay will be exercised.
If you're looking for a one-dimensional bat to stick in a corner outfield position, Reggie Sanders and Jeromy Burnitz aren't too shabby, even at their age. Sammy Sosa may have had a dreadful year in Baltimore, but I just have to believe that he's got some good slugging still left in him, and if a team took a flyer on him as a DH, I don't think they'd be disappointed.

Bengie Molina, Ramon Hernandez, Mike Piazza, Brad Ausmus
Molina is the only real solution to a team's catching problem. He's a good if not great hitter who's a solid defensive backstop. Hernandez is a vastly overrated catcher both offensively and defensively, and some team's going to waste good money on a contract for him. Piazza's catching days are done, although he can still contribute with the bat as a DH. Ausmus isn't really worth the trouble, as he's just getting older and even worse at the plate.

Starting Pitcher
A.J. Burnett, Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn, Roger Clemens, Matt Morris, Paul Byrd, Jeff Weaver, Kenny Rogers, Tom Glavine*, Esteban Loaiza*
Burnett is thus far the biggest pitcher on the market. But he's really not that good. He's shown potential, but he's also shown a lot of control trouble (averaging 96 BB/season), and none of that is likely to improve now that he's 29. He's a B-level starter who's going to get paid like an A-level starter because he's just the best thing out there.
Both Kevin Millwood and Jarrod Washburn are much, much smarter investments than Burnett. The only reason Burnett will get more money and attention is because he's younger (both Millwood and Washburn will be 31 next season). Millwood is still a top-quality pitcher, even at age 31, and Washburn has been a reliable, above-average starter for several years now, even approaching true excellence at times. They may not be as reliable over the long-term, but considering the money Burnett is likely to receive, they're much better bargains.
If Roger Clemens comes back (who knows?), it will be with the Astros, so he can pitch to his son, a catching prospect in the organization. Roger's end-of-season injury troubles might finally be the sign that his long career is coming to a close. While I can't rule out a 2006 return (he would turn 44 next August), there's simply no way he'd be as good as he was in 2005. And 2007 is out of the question.
Matt Morris isn't quite at the level of Millwood and Washburn, but he's a great arm for a team that can't afford the big boys. As is Paul Byrd, although he'll be 35 next season, and much tougher to rely on. Jeff Weaver is a real enigma who could be a great buy for somebody. But he just can't seem to get everything together, and could just as easily be an all-out bust.
Kenny Rogers would be a good buy for a low-end contract, 40 years old or not. Glavine will likely return to the Mets, unless his 2006 option is just too expensive. And I can't imagine why the Nationals wouldn't want Loaiza back.

Relief Pitcher
Billy Wagner, B.J. Ryan, Kyle Farnsworth, Tom Gordon, Ugueth Urbina, Julian Tavarez, Octavio Dotel, Trevor Hoffman
There is no A-level closer available on the market, although it's always tough to tell just who an A-level closer is. Wagner is probably the best option, even though he turns 35 next year and isn't what he used to be. The best bet here just might be B.J. Ryan, who's had 3 straight excellent seasons out of the Baltimore bullpen, with his strikeout rates off the charts. And he'll just be 30 next year.
Kyle Farnsworth has a high ceiling, but has yet to put together 2 good years back-to-back in his career. Tom Gordon will be the bargain buy for a team that wants to convert him back into a closer, as he's been baseball's best setup man over the last 2 seasons. The Yankees would be very wise to re-sign him, as the Rivera/Gordon tandem is the most fearsome in the game. Urbina is another setup man who could close, although his mercurial attitude leaves him questionable. He did have a fine 2005 split between Detroit and Philadelphia.
Julian Tavarez is a valuable setup man, but no closer. Dotel probably shouldn't be a closer, although someone will likely try. And Trevor Hoffman is just done, as every peripheral stat would suggest. He will be this year's Troy Percival; an aging closer who gets a good contract on name recognition and then just falls apart. Hoffman will be 38 next year, and the Padres are very wise not to re-sign him when they've got incredibly cheap options in their own bullpen.

Well, that's what's out there this year. A lot has been said about the poor quality of this year's free agent market. While I guess that's true, I think a lot of people are shortchanging the number of B-level pitchers out there, as well as underrated players like Furcal and Brian Giles. What they mean is that there's no superstar free agent, which is true. Although we must point out that superstars are created by the media, not always in accordance with their performance on the field. Carlos Beltran is maybe the 20th- or 25th-best player in baseball, but he became a superstar because the media made him so. And he paid the price when the New York fans bought into the marketing.
But the main reason that there's no superstars out there is because the intelligent teams aren't letting their big superstars get away. More and more often now teams are signing good players, especially good young players, to long-term contract extensions before they even reach free agency. Teams are finally learning that obtaining players through free agency requires you to overpay. So they're overpaying their superstars a little right off the bat to avoid the big payday that free agency would bring about.
The Twins recently signed Johan Santana to a contract extension, which was a fantastic move for them. They'd never be able to afford him on the open market. Santana is so good that only the Yankees, Red Sox, and maybe the Dodgers or Mets could afford him as a free agent. The Brewers did the same thing with their wunderkind pitcher, Ben Sheets. And the Cardinals signed Albert Pujols to a huge 10-year deal to keep him in St. Louis. Because nobody could afford Albert on the open market.
It's not just these superstars, but more B-level stars that small-market teams are snatching up. The Rangers signed Hank Blalock to a long-term deal, and the A's recently signed Dan Haren to one. I could go on and on. What this does is that it takes a lot of top-notch talent off the market. Therefore, the teams that survive on free agency, like the Yankees or Red Sox, are still spending top dollar to bid on free agents, even though the quality of those free agents is lower. The Yankees have to get A.J. Burnett simply because they have no other options outside of a trade. And, as they learned during the Randy Johnson deal, they don't have enough prospects to get a really good player, and the Commissioner's office won't let them just buy them off with money.
More and more teams now, even the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, are trying to revive their farm systems to wean themselves off free agency. I think the skyrocketing prices we saw in the early 2000s are pretty much a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future. Teams are actually starting to see the long-term costs of relying on free agency, as even the Yankees can't afford to staff their team entirely on free agents if they expect to compete. This is good news for baseball.
Although I must say this: Isn't it hilarious to hear the country's foremost capitalists arguing against the free market system? Wouldn't you love to hear the head of some other industry talk about revenue sharing? It just tells you that when these rich assholes are involved, principles don't matter -- money matters. Wouldn't Karl Marx have found this hysterical? Ah, America.

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