Clip and save this fact the next time you get wrapped up in the millions of dollars getting thrown around in the free agent shopping season: major league teams spent $1.2 billion on the 19 biggest free agents last winter and only two of those players were named to the All-Star Game: Robinson Cano and Masahiro Tanaka.
By contrast, three All-Stars -- Nelson Cruz, Francisco Rodriguez and Kurt Suzuki -- signed deals of no more than one year for $8 million or less, and another (Pat Neshek) signed a minor league contract. Two more veritable bargains (Justin Morneau and Casey McGehee) could join that quartet depending on the outcome of the Final Vote.
Let’s also give a nod to Scott Kazmir, who took a two-year deal from Oakland for $22 million while the Twins were spending crazy money on Ricky Nolasco ($49 million) and the Orioles were doing likewise on Ubaldo Jimenez ($50 million).
Nolasco, Jimenez, Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Brian McCann and Jhonny Peralta were among the big-name free agents who created buzz over the winter, and all can enjoy a quiet All-Star break at home next week. Checkbook baseball doesn’t always pay quick dividends, while a premium on finding bargains never goes out of style – just ask the 2013 Red Sox, who hit on one-year deals last year with Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli and Koji Uehara and won the World Series.
Sure, we still have a bit less than half the season to play, but it’s time to recognize the smartest signings of the winter: the biggest All-Star bargains of 2014.
1. Nelson Cruz, Orioles (1 year, $8 million)
Nobody wanted to give up a draft pick and pay the kind of money Peralta got from the Cardinals (four years, $53 million) for a fellow Biogenesis grad. The question about whether Cruz would still hit with power post-Biogenesis was a silly one. The Miami-based PED clinic was out of business last year, when Cruz, under stricter testing protocols, slugged .506 in 109 games before his 50-game suspension.
Baltimore finally took advantage of Cruz’s lack of a market and grabbed him for a relative song. But who saw this kind of power coming? Not even the Orioles. Cruz simply has been one of the most devastating sluggers in the game, leading the majors in home runs and RBIs while slugging .582. (And can we stop the “It must be Camden Yards” explanation? Cruz is slugging .709 with 18 homers on the road compared to .460 and 10, respectively, at home.)
The fans voted in Cruz, but all is not forgiven, as Boston pitcher John Lackey suggested last Saturday when he mentioned that the news media seems to have forgotten Cruz’s transgressions. Said another AL veteran, “What people forget is that the guys who used [steroids] accrue those benefits for years, even if they stopped. You changed your body and your strength.”
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2. Scott Kazmir, Athletics (2 years, $22 million)
Kazmir still hasn’t thrown enough innings in a season to qualify for an ERA title since 2007, when he was 23 years old. His durability remains in question, which is one reason why Oakland general manager Billy Beane made the shrewd ahead-of-the-market Fourth of July trade with the Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Smardjiza and Jason Hammel. But after essentially re-learning how to pitch while out of the majors for almost two full seasons in 2011 and '12, Kazmir returned with Cleveland last year and posted what then was a career-best strikeout-to-walk rate (it’s even better this year) and also rediscovered his velocity. The guy who was throwing 86 mph when he was released by the Angels in 2011 was throwing 94 last year – and getting back the feel on his changeup. Beane’s signing of Kazmir raised some eyebrows, but $11 million per year gets you a mid-level starter, and with only a two-year exposure, Oakland is well on its way to winning this bet.
3. Pat Neshek, St. Louis (1 year, $1 million)
You won’t hear a better story at the All-Star Game than the comeback story of Pat Neshek. Neshek and his wife, Stephanee, lost their first-born child, Gehrig John, only 23 hours after his birth in 2012; they still don’t know the exact cause of death. This past March 13 they were blessed with the arrival of another son, Hoyt Robert. Two weeks later, Neshek found out he made the Cardinals’ roster – after going to camp on a minor league deal with his fifth team in the previous 36 months (Minnesota, San Diego, Baltimore, Oakland, St. Louis). And last Sunday, Neshek, 33, found out he was named to the All-Star team – with the game being held in his home state of Minnesota and at Target Field, where his brother, Paul, works on the grounds crew. You can bet NL and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will get him in the game and that the ovation for Neshek just might be the loudest of the night, even with Derek Jeter
playing his final All-Star Game.
4. Kurt Suzuki, Minnesota (1 year, $2.75 million)
Let’s see: franchise icon moves from catcher to first base, opening up a can full of pressure for his replacement – and then the club whiffs on its first two choices and spends only $2.75 million on its third choice to succeed six-time All-Star Joe Mauer. Expectations were low. With Oakland and Washington last year, Suzuki hit only .232 and threw out just 8 of 64 base stealers (12 percent). But after Minnesota talked about signing A.J. Pierzynski or Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Suzuki has proved more than a worthy choice. In 72 games, he has hit .306/.363/.400 and improved on throwing out runners (9 of 42, or 21 percent).
5. Francisco Rodriguez, Milwaukee (1 year, $3.25 million)
Spring training camps were one week away from opening and still nobody wanted Rodriguez – not after he pitched poorly (4.50 ERA) in 22 innings with Baltimore after a midseason trade from the Brewers. Milwaukee finally stepped in on Feb. 7 and signed him for $13.25 million less than what Colorado paid Boone Logan – one of 17 free agent relievers who signed for more money. Rodriguez, 32, originally signed to set up Jim Henderson, has rewarded Milwaukee with league-best totals in saves (27) and games finished (40) while defining clutch pitching: He has yielded only three hits all year with runners in scoring position – none with two outs.
Honorable mention, the best bargains for players who have not been named All-Stars: Casey McGehee, Marlins (1 year, $1.1 million), Chris Young, Mariners (1 year, $1.125 million), Jason Hammel, Cubs (1 year, $6 million), Michael Morse, Giants (1 year, $6 million), Fernando Rodney, Mariners (2 years, $14 million), Tim Hudson, Giants (2 years, $23 million).