Searching for free agency's hidden gems, one category at a time
It was said countless times throughout the postseason, but it bears repeating here: The Giants won the World Series with a group of misfits. Their patchwork lineup, featuring Cody Ross, Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria, blazed through October, shocking the baseball world en route to the franchise's first title in 56 years.
As the Hot Stove kicks off and MLB executives salivate over Carl Crawford and Cliff Lee, these under-the-radar players shouldn't be forgotten. Chemistry matters, as San Francisco so eccentrically demonstrated, and minor ingredients can be just as vital to a team's success as its superstars. Signings can't be classified as big-name versus insignificant. A perfect clubhouse match -- such as Aubrey Huff in San Francisco -- can pay a bigger dividend than a high-profile acquisition like Jason Bay.
Here are five types of free agents to keep an eye on as the offseason heats up. Although they're overlooked now, we could be singing these players' praises come next October.
After being cast aside by the White Sox following the 2009 season, Thome experienced something of a renaissance last year in Minnesota. The Twins' slugger smacked 25 homers -- including a majestic, walk-off blast against his former team -- while hitting .283, his highest mark since 2006. The Twins followed his resurgence to their second straight AL Central title.
Five years removed from his Triple Crown-threatening 2005 campaign, Lee hits the market labeled as washed-up. He finished last season batting .260, his lowest average since 1999, and has more skeptics than believers entering his 14th year in the majors. He did have a .306/35/111 campaign just two years ago, and could thrive in an environment where he isn't expected to carry the load, as he was with the light-hitting Cubs and Braves.
With the likely departure of Paul Konerko, the White Sox could use a veteran to anchor their maddeningly inconsistent lineup. They came on strong after starting 22-28, and Lee could be the missing piece to surpass the resourceful Twins in 2011. Plus, Ozzie Guillen's managerial style is often best received by established players, such as Konerko, Mark Buerhle and Jermaine Dye.
After showing glimpses of brilliance during his stints with the A's and Cubs, Harden joined a Rangers rotation with a reputation for durable starters in 2010. The results were pedestrian at best -- he went 5-5 with a 5.58 ERA and landed on the DL with a strained left gluteus by June.
Webb was arguably the most dominant pitcher in baseball from 2006 through '08, going 56-25 with an ERA under 3.30 for Arizona. His devastating sinker earned him the Cy Young Award in 2006, and at 31, he still has the potential to be a 15-game winner. After starting just one game in the past two seasons, he's a risky investment, but if he stays healthy he will provide front-of-the-rotation value for a fraction of the cost.
Desperate for pitching in the perennially loaded AL East, John Farrell's club would be wise to take a one-year gamble on Webb. He could bolster their sorely-lacking 4.22 team ERA, which ranked 23rd in the majors in 2010. Coupled with rebound efforts from Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, a healthy Webb could help make Toronto a wild-card contender.
At 40 years old, Oliver was signed by the Rangers to shore up a suspect bullpen with a quality left-hander. He turned out to be even better, maintaining a 2.48 ERA over 61 2/3 innings for Ron Washington's club. He was also key in the postseason, delivering important outs in victories over the Rays and the Yankees.
Widely known as a pesky hitter, Eckstein is looking for a new home after brief stints in Toronto, Arizona and San Diego. The 35-year-old hasn't fared well since leaving the confines of Busch Stadium, hitting just .260, .267 and .265 in his three years since parting with the Cardinals. The former World Series MVP can still grind out long at-bats, though, and can provide a spark coming off the bench or platooning for a contender.
As Brooks Conrad made all too apparent in the NLDS, the Braves could use a trusted backup middle infielder. Eckstein would fill that void, bringing with him a resume that includes a history of playoff success. On a team looking to string together another postseason run with blossoming stars Jason Heyward, Martin Prado and Tommy Hanson, Eckstein could have the opportunity play a Renteria-like role with a repeat trip to October.
Acquired for his defensive prowess, Beltre channeled his 2004 self last year for the Red Sox. He hit a stunning .321, belting 28 homers and 102 RBIs for banged-up Boston. Though Theo Epstein and Co. hoped to bring him back with a $10 option, Beltre declined and will look to capitalize off another strong contract year.
Hawpe was a model of consistency entering 2010, hitting at least .283 with 22 home runs and 84 RBIs every year from 2006 through '09 with the Rockies. He picked a bad season to lose his stroke, compiling a measly .245 average in time split between Colorado and Tampa Bay during his contract year. Only 31, Hawpe could provide All-Star statistics for a bargain salary with a return to form in 2011.
In dire need of offense, the Padres could use Hawpe's power-hitting potential, especially with Adrian Gonzalez likely entering his final season in San Diego. The Padres managed just 4.1 runs per game in 2010, and if Hawpe can hit 15 home runs -- a total that would've finished second on last year's San Diego team -- it could be enough to put a club with a terrific starting rotation into the playoffs.
The gritty shortstop broke back onto the scene in Toronto last year, hitting an impressive .296 with an uncharacteristic 17 home runs before being traded to Atlanta in July. The numbers were a drastic upgrade from Gonzalez's 2009 season, when he hit just .238 during time with both Boston and Cincinnati.
Not starting material, Cairo's versatility is valuable as a backup: He has played everywhere except pitcher and catcher throughout his 14-year career. He has also carved out a niche eating up key innings for winning teams, and has playoff experience for four franchises. And Cairo showed he can still hit, batting .290 in 200 at-bats with the Reds last season.
Cincinnati would be smart to re-sign Cairo, as his role as a utility man is valuable for a young team with many potential stars -- including Drew Stubbs, Jay Bruce and Jonny Gomes -- still developing. His professional demeanor and fielding experience in October could also prove crucial for a defense that was exposed in last year's NLDS.