Heading into the 2009-10 free-agent market, the conventional wisdom was that the three big stars in their prime would get big bucks, and that the vast majority of players in the middle and lower ranks would mostly struggle to land a decent contract. And while it has been as rough as predicted for many players -- several good ones are still looking for work (see below) -- the market also yielded some surprising success stories.
In fact, even in an environment with a tight economy and many owners seemingly determined not to repeat the rich mistakes of the past, it wasn't just the vaunted trio of Matt Holliday, John Lackey and Jason Bay who cashed in. Beyond those three stars, who took in a combined $268.5 million, there were oddly unforeseen tales of free-agent glory.
This was far from the best and richest free-agent market ever, but it just may have been the weirdest. Several serviceable or better players had to settle (and many others haven't even been that lucky), and it has been especially good to utilitymen, defensive specialists, talented players returning from injury and even so-so catchers (at least the ones who had the foresight to sign quickly).
Every year there is a re-thinking of player value. But never was it more stark than this winter, when teams seemed to be short on cash and in many cases decided to spend what little they had in some unpredictable ways. It was a weird winter indeed.
1. Utility players.Alex Cora, who fielded adequately but barely hit and has two bad thumbs, set the trend by re-signing with the Mets for $2 million, an outrageously high sum for a player whose main attribute seems to be that he's a leader, not to mention a good guy. But he wasn't alone in earning utlityman riches. Craig Counsell, a Milwaukee native who lives on the same block of one of the Brewers' partners, somehow finagled $2 million to re-sign with his hometown team. And Jamey Carroll did Cora and Counsell one better by getting a two-year deal at almost that per-year price from the Dodgers, who outbid the A's. Oddly, Adam Everett, a starting shortstop who should be valued much higher than the backups, got only $1.5 million to re-sign with the Tigers.
2. Defensive specialists. The Tampa Bay Rays introduced the idea that defense was undervalued a couple years ago when they reached the World Series with a team that was defensively proficient everywhere, and maybe it is undervalued. Some of the smarter teams seem to think so. The Red Sox gave $15.5 million for two years to Mike Cameron, who's still superb in centerfield but is an all-or-nothing hitter on the downside, and $9 million plus a second-year player option to Adrian Beltre, who put up underwhelming numbers in Seattle's hitter-unfriendly Safeco Park. The A's gave $4.5 million to Coco Crisp, another defensive whiz in center.
3. Talents making comebacks. The A's rolled the dice with a $10 million bid on Ben Sheets, paying exactly $10 million more than the Rangers or Mets offered (both declined to bid when they heard how high the bidding had gone). Scouts loved the way Sheets threw in his showcase ("that was the old Ben Sheets,'' one said), and the A's will have quite a valuable commodity come trade time assuming he approximates his previous performances when healthy. But $10 million was still a shocking figure to many. Xavier Nady got from $3.3 million from the Cubs (plus $2 million in games-played incentives) after missing almost the entire 2009 season following his second Tommy John surgery. Brett Myers received a $5 million deal from the Astros after returning late in an injury-diminished 2009 season. Rick Ankiel got $3.25 million from the Royals after his 2009 season was spoiled when he ran into an outfield wall. J.J. Putz got $2 million plus incentives from the White Sox after an injury-wracked year with the injury-wracked Mets.
4. So-so catchers. No one would describe Pudge Rodriguez's career as anything close to so-so. But at this point he's pretty close to average. Yet the rebuilding Nationals saw a value in having a veteran backstop working with their young staff and awarded him a $6 million, two-year contract. Jason Kendall, such an offensive liability that he sometimes batted ninth for the Brewers, also got a two-year, $6 million deal from the Royals. And even Brian Schneider, who was equally bad offensively and defensively in 2009 (Mets bosses marveled at how he would close his eyes while catching pitches), even managed a two-year deal, for $3 million. The catching market was very quirky, and timing meant a lot, as Yorvit Torrealba signed for just $1.25 million with the Padres two months after rejecting $5 million-plus over two years from his old Rockies team, and Rod Barajas is still looking for work.
5. The stars. No surprise, Holliday, a necessity as protection for Albert Pujols, cashed in for $120 million, a number that was predicted here in September (though admittedly, the team was a surprise to me as neither New York or Los Angeles teams participated in the bidding). With Boston, Lackey replicated the $82.5 million, five-year deal that was given a year ago to A.J. Burnett. Bay got $66 million over four years from the Mets, a seemingly reasonable price, though there's no evidence that any other teams were bidding as many as four years by the end, long after the Red Sox withdrew a four-year offer in summertime due to health concerns. Chone Figgins did OK, pulling in $36 million over four years from the Mariners (though it seems he should have done better than Brian Roberts, who got $40 million as a non-free-agent from the Orioles).
1. Starting pitchers. Starters not named Lackey, Randy Wolf (who got $29.5 million over three years from the Brewers) or Brad Penny (who somehow managed $7.5 million, a 50 percent raise, from the Cardinals), were mostly disappointed. Joel Pineiro was originally shooting for $40 million over four, but did OK under these conditions to get $16 million over two years from the Angels. JasonMarquis took $15 million for two years from the Nationals, a pay cut after 16 wins. Jon Garland and Doug Davis got one-year deals just north of $5 million, while Braden Looper and Jarrod Washburn are still looking around.
2. Hitters, designated or otherwise. Except in the cases of Holliday and Bay, hitters generally settled. Adam LaRoche was the rare player for whom team preference cost him millions, as he turned down $17 million for two years from the Giants to take $6 million for one from the Diamondbacks. LaRoche's desert preference prompted the Giants to sign Aubrey Huff instead, for $3 million. Even former MVPs were left with less than they hoped for. Miguel Tejada got $6 million from the Orioles, and Vladimir Guerrero $5 million from the Rangers. Hideki Matsui got $6.5 million from the Angels, which seemed like a bargain at the time but looks better today. Jim Thome took a $1.5 million deal from the Twins while Carlos Delgado (who may be headed back to the Jays) and Gary Sheffield are still available.
3. Older Players. Hardly anybody over 35 did especially well, as Tom Verducciexplained on Tuesday.
4. Second basemen. Orlando Hudson had a terrific year with the Dodgers but somehow was benched for Ronnie Belliard at year's end and wound up as a late sign for a second straight off-season, at $5 million. He's worth every penny. Belliard got only $800,000 from the Dodgers. And in the non-free agent category, nobody showed a bit of interest in the Mets' Luis Castillo.
• There's no word of progress in the arbitration case of Tim Lincecum, but some execs are predicting a late settlement before the upcoming hearing. One competing NL executive said, "(The Giants) have to settle this case. They can't go forward with this.'' The guess from that exec is that they settle at around $11 million, just above the $10.5-million midpoint (between the $13 million he seeks and the $8 million the Giants are offering). The Giants could also try to offer a reasonable two-year deal. Earlier, the Giants are believed to have floated something in the neighborhood of $20 million. But the exec said that $24 million is the fair compromise. The $20 million figure is a number that represents little more than he'd get if he had two straight arbitration defeats.
• There are still a lot of good players available. MLBtraderumors.com made up a virtual All-Star team of unsigned players. Here are some of the better ones: Johnny Damon, Russell Branyan, Jermaine Dye, Jarrod Washburn, Pedro Martinez, Chien-Ming Wang, Carlos Delgado, John Smoltz, Felipe Lopez, Hank Blalock, Joe Crede, Rod Barajas, Kiko Calero, Chan Ho Park, Will Ohman.
• The Tigers would seem most likely to sign Damon at this point, perhaps followed by the Braves, who are known to have made a one-year offer. The Rays are called by someone familiar with their situation to be a "long shot'' in the Damon derby, while the Reds and Jays are two more teams to have shown some interest.
• The Twins have quietly done a nice job this winter. Some suggested that Orlando Hudson had a bit of trouble with the fastball late last year, but the numbers don't tell that story at all, and he is definitely an upgrade for them.
• The Twins are also doing the right thing by trying to lock up superstar Joe Mauer. And the guess here remains that they will.
• The Padres have done well with some of their cost-efficient pickups lately, including Jon Garland ($5.3 million) and Torrealba. But they should treat their hometown star Adrian Gonzalez the same way the Twins are treating Mauer by locking him up. They have two years to do so in Gonzalez's case, but unless something changes, it seems more likely they will trade him before his current contract is up in two years.
• The Mets, Giants, Dodgers, Red Sox, Pirates and Padres are among the teams looking at former Yomiuri Giants left-hander Hisanori Takahashi. The Mets, who need starting pitching candidates, are also considering Todd Wellemeyer.
• Mike Jacobs should have a shot at decent playing time now that he's signed a minor league deal with the Mets, as he joins the first-base mix with Daniel Murphy and Omar Minaya favorite Fernando Tatis. Mets great Keith Hernandez is tutoring Murphy this week, but some Mets people believe that another year of seasoning may be in order.
• The Mets did at one point offer Bengie Molina a contract that included a second-year player option. But it was said to be with a "sliding scale'' and believed to be for a low base. It's a little surprising that he went back to the Giants for less, but they look like a contender again in the NL West.
• The Nationals appear to be the favorites to land Chien-Ming Wang. Dodgers executives Ned Colletti, Logan White and Bill Mueller watched Wang throw on Wednesday at a workout in Phoenix, but according to a source, the Dodgers are out, leaving the Nationals as the most likely destination for Wang. Sources indicate it's between the Nationals and one other team and a decision is expected within 10 days.