The "it" trend for 2010 was embracing defense. With improved ways of measuring defensive performance, and a greater understanding of the relationship between fielding and pitching when it comes to run prevention, a number of teams emphasized finding and playing the best defensive players they could get their hands on. Some -- not all, but some -- of the falloff in run-scoring in 2010 was self-induced, as teams chose to play poor hitters for their perceived defensive value.
It didn't work all that well. The Mariners, the most famous case, put together one of the worst offenses since the 1960s. Four other teams failed to average four runs per game. More damaging were the offensive black holes, often at hitters' positions, that mucked up the lineups of contending teams. The Rangers got terrible production from their first basemen (.214/.310/.345). The Padres' two-game deficit in the NL West can be attributed partly to the .219/.305/.347 line put up by their leftfielders. The Braves won the wild card in spite of theirs: .242/.302/.385. Far too many AL teams settled for air from their designated hitters: the White Sox, A's, Rays, Tigers, Blue Jays, Angels and Mariners all saw their DH slots hit for a worse OPS than the league average for all hitters regardless of position.
The Hot Stove League has been increasingly unkind to hitters. Each year, productive players with more offensive value than defensive value find themselves settling for short, inexpensive contracts, or even no offers at all. Two years ago, Adam Dunn was the last prominent free agent, landing a deal for just two years and $20 million with the Nationals. Jim Thome had an .847 OPS in 2009 and barely latched on with the Twins for a mere $1.5 million guaranteed. Jermaine Dye, Thome's teammate two years ago, couldn't even get that after hitting 27 home runs: no one was willing to sign him in part because of his poor defense and unwillingness to DH. Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero and Russell Branyan are all other examples of bat-first players who have struggled to find employment across offseasons.
It's time for the pendulum to swing back. Too many teams are costing themselves wins by not getting production from lineup spots where production is easy to find, and there is once again a flood of affordable hitters on the market who, because they don't post high UZRs or +/- scores, are finding themselves overlooked. Here are the best of the bunch, and where they could have the most impact in 2011 (listed with 2011 age and 2010 triple-slash stats):
Lance Berkman, 35, .248/.368/.413
Berkman's numbers took a big hit at the wrong time, making it an easy choice for the Astros to dump him at the trade deadline and for the Yankees to decline his option. He's a strict platoon player at this point of his career, and he can no longer even fake playing in leftfield. With those limitations, though, he can help a team. Berkman batted .267/.393/.453 from the left side this year, with nearly as many walks (67) as strikeouts (70). He's an acceptable first baseman who has enough bat to be an asset even as a DH. The list of teams that can't use him is longer than the one of those that can, but the Rays, Rangers and White Sox are the contenders who could use the OBP boost from a lefty bat the most.
Manny Ramirez, 39, .298/.409/.460
Forgot all the nonsense surrounding Ramirez and just look at the line. Even in a year mucked up by injuries and spent mostly in a pitcher's park at the age of 38, Ramirez had a .409 OBP. Vladimir Guerrero wasn't coming off nearly that kind of performance when the Rangers signed him a year ago, nor was Jim Thome when he went to the Twins. With the baggage he carries -- "Manny Being Manny" seems to have lost its charm -- Ramirez will be crossed off many teams' lists without a second thought. For the rest of the pool, this is probably the offseason's best bargain, a player who is ready to DH, posts a .380 OBP in his sleep and will come cheap because of the injury-plagued walk year. I don't know who will sign Ramirez -- a return to Cleveland, perhaps, or a run as the A's DH -- but I think that team will play into October.
Jim Thome, 40, .283/.412/.627
Admittedly, Thome's wildly productive 2010 season was a bit of fluke. He played more than expected thanks to one of the worst injuries of 2010, the season-ending concussion to Justin Morneau. One out of every three fly balls Thome hit left the yard, a staggering number. On the other hand, even without the playing time and the high HR/FB, he would have had a strong season, with his usual great walk rate, good lefthanded power and ability to square up any fastball. Thome won't hit for average, he's strictly a DH and he's slower than a Kardashian sister, but when you are this sure a thing for a .370 OBP and .500 SLG, you can forgive those things. The Twins should bring him back.
Adam Dunn, 31, .260/.356/.536
On Thursday afternoon, it was reported that the White Sox had reached a four-year, $56 million deal with Dunn. The Big Donkey had been through free agency before, finding himself shunned two years ago off a .236/.386/.513 season and forced to settle for $10 million a year from a bad team. Dunn is still the same hitter he was then, but he's no longer pretending to be an outfielder, having completed the conversion to first base with some success. There were warning signs for the White Sox and other teams who were interested in Dunn -- a big change in his walk rate and K/BB in 2010 -- but they seem to be elective, a conscious effort to swing the bat more. Dunn doesn't have the overall game of Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth; he was just the best hitter on this market, and after the experience of two years ago, was demanding to be treated as such. Dunn didn't quite get four years at $15 million per year but he is one of the safer bets to be worth what he's paid. He's not a cheap option, but White Sox had money to burn and a need for a first baseman/DH.