Tuesday November 10th, 2009

Free agency once was a yellow brick road to riches. Free agents could count on being wined and dined and enriched. Does anyone remember a recruiting tour of the country by Carl Pavano -- yes, Carl Pavano -- unofficially named Carlpalooza?

Now, because of the economic climate in the game and the trend of contract extensions that forestall free agency for the stars until their post-prime years, free agency is only rarely about bidding wars for impact players. You won't find a single impact free agent this winter who will be in his 20's next season. Among the current crop of free agents, the only 20-something big league regulars as of Opening Day 2010 are Felipe Lopez, Hank Blalock and Rich Harden.

Worse, free agency can become a euphemism for forced retirement. Free agency last year meant the end for players such as Paul Lo Duca, Richie Sexson, Ray Durham, Luis Gonzalez, Shannon Stewart, Jim Edmonds, Frank Thomas, Jose Vidro, Jay Payton, Trot Nixon and Eric Gagne. There is no doubt that given the age and limitations of many free agents this year, more players will not be able to find work.

The irony might seem to be that free agency last year helped the Yankees win a world championship. Free-agent pitchers CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte started 64 percent of the club's games, including all 15 games in the postseason. Free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira led the league in home runs, RBIs and total bases. But Sabathia was 29 and Teixeira was 28. The Yankees seized on anomalous opportunities. Moreover, the Yankees can play by their own set of rules because of the advantage of their resources. They don't mind adding extra years and dollars for players into their 30s.

So what you have this year is a market in which John Lackey, 31; Matt Holliday, who turns 30 in January; and Jason Bay, 31, should do well, but otherwise teams will fish for bargains by keeping the length of contracts as short as possible. Some of the best deals last year turned out to be those for David Aardsma, Bobby Abreu, Russell Branyan, Jonny Gomes and Trevor Hoffman. Among the worst: multi-year deals for Pat Burrell, Milton Bradley, Oliver Perez, Edgar Renteria and Kyle Farnsworth.

Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, 21, has the potential to be the biggest game-changer on the market, but the rigors of pitching big league baseball and his youth could delay that impact for another year or two.

Free agency is more about value shopping than collecting star players. Here is a position-by-position look at where to find those values, and the many potential busts.

CATCHER: Five catchers posted OBPs worse than .300 last season (minimum: 100 games). As luck would have it, four of them are free agents: Rod Barajas, Ivan Rodriguez, Bengie Molina and Miguel Olivo. Molina is the only Type A available catcher. He also turns 36 next July and is coming off a season with a .285 OBP, even worse than his low career rate of .308. Barajas is Molina Lite and Rodriguez turns 38 and has played poorly for four teams over the past 18 months. Jason Kendall is 36 and has no power whatsoever. If you're looking for value, don't look here. Look for a trade for someone's backup catcher, as Toronto is doing with Arizona's Chris Snyder.

FIRST BASE: On-base machine Nick Johnson is worth an incentive-laden contract, not a large guarantee, because unathletic, aging (31) and injury-prone players don't add up to good long-term risks, which is the same that you could say about Carlos Delgado. Blalock has reached a crossroads after three straight injury-marred seasons, though there is no indication that he can give a team anything better than average production even when healthy. Adam LaRoche consistently crushes right-handed pitching and could be a good buy.

SECOND BASE: Lopez, who turns 30 in May, is the most intriguing player here, though after 1,024 big league games he still needs to get beyond his lapses in concentration. Orlando Hudson has never quite made it all the way back, offensively or defensively, from his awful wrist injury.

SHORTSTOP: Once upon a time, Bobby Crosby and Khalil Greene were among the bright young shortstops in the game. Now they have to prove themselves all over again. Orlando Cabrera, 35, needs a seventh team in seven years. He is so smart he could manage someday, but his skills at the plate and afield have been eroding. Under the right contract, Marco Scutaro could be a good value; he's 34 and coming off a career year.

THIRD BASE: The position is loaded with pitfalls, because it is full of name players past their prime: Adrian Beltre, Miguel Tejada, Joe Crede, Troy Glaus, Melvin Mora and Pedro Feliz. Chone Figgins represents good value because of his versatility, but only if teams stay away from a bidding war. He is coming off a career season in which, like Scutaro, he finally learned some plate discipline, but he otherwise has been an average offensive player. Mark DeRosa is the same player as Casey Blake, class of '08, and is a risk at anything more than the same contract (three years, $17.5 million).

OUTFIELD: Holliday and Bay are safe picks, even if they wind up slightly overpaid, because they are legitimate middle-of-the-order hitters. The Red Sox are under some pressure to wind up with one of them, otherwise they need to use some of their dwindling trade chips to find a platoon partner for Jeremy Hermida. They could sign Marlon Byrd, but he comes with a warning: His numbers are inflated by his hitting at The Ballpark in Arlington.

Bay is virtually the same hitter that J.D. Drew was when the Red Sox gave Drew $70 million over five years three years ago. Look at the comparison:

Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, while aging, remain good options on Abreu-style short-term deals.

DESIGNATED HITTER: This is a catchall category for aging hitters, some of whom are going to find themselves forced into retirement. There are just too many of them best suited for American League teams and not enough openings: Delgado, Jim Thome, Nomar Garciaparra, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Vladimir Guerrero, Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield, Garret Anderson, Aubrey Huff, Andruw Jones, Brian Giles and Mike Sweeney. Sounds like a good All-Star roster, but from 10 years ago.

STARTING PITCHER: Lackey is the same age (31) and has the same ERA (3.81) as Burnett when Burnett went on the free-agent market last year, when he received $82.5 million over five years from the Yankees. Lackey has been slightly more durable than Burnett (234 games to 215 games), so he's looking at something in the range of $90 million. Randy Wolf is the next-best option, but he's 33 and has won more than 12 games in a season once.

Otherwise, this is a landmine of potential problems. There is grab bag of injury risks (Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Kelvim Escobar, Jose Contreras, Erik Bedard, Ben Sheets, Mark Mulder, Mark Prior and Mike Hampton) and rotation fillers (Jason Marquis, Jon Garland, Livan Hernandez, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, Jarrod Washburn, Joel Piniero and Doug Davis). Beware: The Red Sox dipped into this grab bag last year to put more than a quarter of their season in the hands of Penny, John Smoltz and Paul Byrd. Boston went 20-24 in those starts.

RELIEF PITCHER: The Royals wasted $15.25 million last year on Kyle Farnsworth and Juan Cruz, but the market for left-handed relief pitching turned out to be fairly cost-effective (Denys Reyes, Trever Miller, Arthur Rhodes, postseason version of Damaso Marte, Jeremy Affeldt, etc.). John Grabow would be a good pickup, but as Cruz discovered last year, teams are reluctant to sign Type A pitchers who neither start nor finish games. Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, Fernando Rodney and Jose Valverde should remind all clubs of Brian Fuentes: Be careful about spending too much money on any closer not named Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria or Jonathan Broxton. Cases in point: Fuentes, Kerry Wood, Francisco Rodriguez and Kevin Gregg.

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