DENVER -- Mike Morse is a player with readily identifiable flaws. His swing is so long that it sometimes looks like he stepped to the plate planning to do away with one of the nobler members of House Stark. He is also injury prone, playing in a total of 190 games between 2012 and 2013. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Morse has tremendous power — he slugged 31 home runs for the Nationals in 2011 — but his blemishes meant that when he reached free agency this past winter, he found few suitors. Thus, the Giants were able to sign him to a relatively paltry one-year, $6 million contract in mid-December.
That deal has so far proven to represent one of the offseason's best values. Through his first seven weeks in San Francisco, Morse leads the Giants with 10 homers and 28 RBIs. He has established himself as a key component of a club that has rebounded from 76-86 finish in 2013 and right now has the best record in the National League at 28-18. Its improvement in winning percentage, from .469 to .609, is currently the league's biggest.
As the baseball world focused on the mega-deals handed out last winter -— such as the $240 million the Mariners awarded Robinson Cano and the $155 million and $153 million the Yankees gave to, respectively, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury — the Giants sought to reshape themselves not with an axe, but with a paring knife. They had, after all, won the World Series in 2012 and would open spring training with 19 members of their 25-man championship roster still around. "We had a rough year last year, but we had to deal with some injuries, and other guys had some down years," said manager Bruce Bochy. "But we still believed in them, had faith in them. Just felt like we needed a little help in a couple areas."
One of those areas was their power hitting. The '12 Giants proved you don't necessarily need to hit homers to win — they ranked last in the league, with 103 — but San Francisco still felt it could use more than the 107 the team hit last season, especially as the Giants fell from 718 runs scored in 2012 to 629 last year. That was where the low-risk gamble on Morse came in. "He's a run producer, a threat, a presence in the lineup," Bochy said. "He has really helped lengthen our lineup. Last year, we felt like we had one little window there in the heart of our order, 'cause we lost [Angel] Pagan. If we didn't score then, we had to wait two or three innings. We feel like we have more depth now."
A bigger risk came in the form of the other key new face that general manager Brian Sabean added over the winter: starting pitcher Tim Hudson. The contract Sabean gave Hudson was not close to one of the offseason's richest — at two years and $23 million, it ranked 20th overall in total value — but it represented a different level of commitment than Morse's, and it went to a 38-year-old who hadn't pitched since July 24, when he'd had his leg snapped in two at the ankle on a play at first base.
Hudson lives in Alabama with his family, and for that and other reasons, many had assumed that he would finish his career as a member of the Atlanta Braves, for whom he had pitched since 2005. As free agency approached, though, his longtime club was uncertain about re-signing a player of his age and recent health history. "The timing wasn't to the point where the Braves had a lot of confidence to where I was going to be, I guess, physically," Hudson said.
The Giants, though, had other ideas, in part because they had seen how their star catcher, Buster Posey, had recovered from his own similarly gruesome broken leg in 2011. Posey returned the next year to win the NL MVP award. "We had that going for us," Bochy said. "It wasn't his arm that [Hudson] hurt -- plus he missed a lot of innings last year. That's always a plus."
San Francisco wasn't alone in its pursuit. Hudson said that five or six teams made serious offers to him, and that two others, the A's and the Rays, floated two years. "Once that free agency process started to happen, I realized the market for me was a lot better than probably the Braves anticipated." Atlanta made a last-ditch effort to keep him, offering two years, but it was too late. "The ball had already rolled down the road a pretty long ways with San Francisco at that time," Hudson said. He signed with the Giants on Nov. 19.
Now, the Giants' addition of Hudson ranks with that of Morse as one of the offseason's savviest. Through his first eight outings, Hudson is 4-2 with a 2.09 ERA, the NL's sixth-best mark. (While he missed his last start with a mildly strained hip, he expects to return on Thursday). Although Hudson has yet to throw a pitch in excess of 92 mph this year, he has displayed command unmatched in any of his previous 15 seasons: He didn't walk a batter in any of his first four starts, and has issued only four bases on balls through 60⅓ innings. "It's really fun for me," said Posey, his catcher. "The special thing about that is, it's not like he's throwing two pitches. He's throwing three, four, five different pitches, and throwing them all for strikes."
"Honestly, at this point in my career, I don't try to overthrow a lot like I did when I was younger," Hudson explained. "Stay a little bit more under control mechanically, worry about changing speeds and hitting my spots."
By eschewing the free agent market's big and expensive names, the Giants also stayed under control, and their success makes them the latest example of how that strategy might be the best for a club looking to regain its throne quickly. But San Francisco isn't the only club that has thrust itself into early contention thanks in part to shrewd offseason signings. Here are five more 2013 free agents whose performances have helped their teams succeed by exceeding the wages their new clubs are paying them.
Nelson Cruz, Orioles: One year, $8 million
Cruz is on this list by virtue of his own high-profile financial miscalculations (he turned down the Rangers' $14.1 million qualifying offer, after having previously rejected a multi-year deal) and because he's now second in the majors in home runs (13) and fifth in RBIs (38). Despite that gaudy start, he doesn't qualify as an outright steal for Baltimore because of some persistent holes in his game, such as a relatively low OBP (.335) and the fact that he is one of the worst defensive outfielders in the league. Still, at the price the AL East-leading Orioles paid, he looks like a wise investment.
Aaron Harang, Braves: One year, $1 million
Ervin Santana (4-1, 2.76 ERA) has capably helped the first-place Braves weather the loss of starters Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen to twin Tommy John surgeries in late March. But the 36-year-old Harang has been almost as good, and at seven percent of the cost (Santana will make $14.1 million this year). Harang had one terrible outing, when he yielded nine runs to the Marlins on April 30, but in his other eight starts, he has pitched between six and seven innings and allowed between zero and two runs. He's 4-4 with a 2.98 ERA overall.
Casey McGehee, Marlins: One year, $1.1 million
In a span of three seasons, the former Brewer went from 100-RBI man to the Far East: He spent 2013 in Japan, where he hit .292 with 28 homers as a teammate of both Andruw Jones and Masahiro Tanaka on the Rakuten Golden Eagles. McGehee took a $400,000 pay cut to return to the U.S. and has represented a bargain for an ascendant Marlins offense that surprisingly trails only the Rockies in runs scored among NL teams. McGehee is batting .295 and is second on the club with 29 RBIs.
Justin Morneau, Rockies: Two years, $12.5 million
The former Twins star has experienced a resurgence in Colorado after three years of injury and disappointment. Morneau is batting .327 with nine homers and 32 RBIs, and his OPS of .944 exceeds the .934 he put up in 2006, when he was the AL MVP. All are highly acceptable numbers for a No. 6 hitter making $5 million this year, and have helped Colorado to a second-place standing in the NL West.
Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers: One year, $3.25 million
Rodriguez had as many saves in April as he did in all of 2012 and '13 combined — 13 — and he didn't allow a run until his 20th appearance of the year. Baseball's saves leader, in other words, has already provided the NL Central-leading Brewers with returns that have surpassed the total value of his deal.