Playing matchmaker for five valuable free-agents still available
It's getting to be late at the Hot Stove Bar, and the crowd has thinned out a bit, as players and GMs pair off and walk out together, happy -- at least for the moment -- to have found a connection. As you look around the room, you can be sure that some of the remaining beautiful people won't be going home alone -- Prince Fielder and Edwin Jackson are still getting drinks bought for them and being invited to dance. Others, though, are starting to fidget a bit, unsure of whether they should stick around or just head home to see what's on TV. Let's see if we can play matchmaker before last call.
Hiroki Kuroda has been one of the pickier belles of the bar, looking for a specific type and seemingly willing to pass on all options if he can't get what he's looking for. Kuroda was reluctant to be traded to the East Coast at 2011's trade deadline and has been focused on finding a West Coast team to play for in 2012, preferably on a one-year contract. The seven teams in the Pacific Time Zone, though, are either not shopping for pitching, maxed out on their budgets or unwilling to spring for an eight-figure salary.
Kuroda, who has never had an ERA above 3.76 in four MLB seasons and has a career K/UIBB of 523/135, would be attractive to any number of teams on a one-year contract, but most of them reside on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. The Red Sox, whose lack of rotation depth killed them in 2011, could use Kuroda in their No. 3 slot, even if it meant triggering the luxury tax. Kuroda might be the No. 2 starter for the Yankees, who care less about the tax and have been one of the teams most interested in the right-hander. With Kuroda apparently willing to not pitch at all if he doesn't get what he wants, matching him up is difficult, but the best fit is for him to take $13 million of the Steinbrenners' money and spend a year in the Bronx.
Carlos Peña has to be disappointed, having come off a one-year contract with the Cubs in which he performed well -- .225/.357/.462 with 28 homers in 153 games -- only to find a market so saturated with first basemen that he may not even be able to match the $10 million salary he earned in 2011. Peña's low batting average (.216 from 2009 through 2011) scares off many suitors, but he does everything else well enough to be an asset. Sabermetrically-savvy teams that could use help at the slow corner include the A's, the Brewers and the new-look Astros. Peña may fit best, though, with his old friends in Tampa. The Rays have a hole at first base and need to get more power there than Casey Kotchman provided a year ago, and they are well-versed in looking past Peña's strikeouts and low batting average to see the value he brings. Peña to the Rays on a one-year deal for about $7 million makes sense for both sides.
The lack of a market for Roy Oswalt is one of the most surprising stories of this winter, as teams seem to be shying away from a big investment in a pitcher who missed time last year with back problems. There's certainly concern about his availability, but not his performance: In 11 seasons Oswalt has never once been below average, and even last year, working around the injury, he had a 3.69 ERA and an excellent 93/31 K/UIBB. Oswalt has made it easier for suitors by limiting himself to a one-year deal, perhaps with an eye toward hitting a friendlier market after proving his health.
With that in mind, any number of teams become fits, even ones you normally wouldn't associate with high-dollar free agents. A team such as the Royals, with revenue-sharing money to burn, weakness in the rotation and playing in a winnable division, could get a lot of return from a deal with Oswalt that guarantees a certain amount of money but also provides substantial incentives based upon starts. In a surprise, the nerdy guy who spent most of the night playing Golden Tee and drinking Cokes walks off with the standoffish sorority girl -- the Royals sign Oswalt for $9 million guaranteed with $7 million in incentives.
It's been a mixed winter for relievers. Heath Bell and Jonathan Papelbon got big-money deals even as Francisco Rodriguez went back to the Brewers by accepting arbitration and Ryan Madson settled for a one-year deal with the Reds for just $8.5 million. The Red Sox, Blue Jays and Padres all traded for closers rather than get into the free-agent market.
This has left Francisco Cordero out in the cold, coming off a four-year, $45 million contract and status as a closer, neither of which may be available to him any longer. Despite a 2.45 ERA last year, Cordero comes with plenty of warning signs -- he struck out 25.6 percent of the batters he faced in 2008, but was down to a poor 15 percent in 2011, far below acceptable for a one-inning reliever.
With the Reds having chosen Madson over him, there are no teams left actively seeking closers, and few looking to spend money on the bullpen. Cordero's best bet is to find a good situation for one year, perhaps with a team that may look to trade him into a closer role at the deadline. It's hard to see him getting even the money Madson got, and he may have to settle for the $3.5-$6 million paid to third-tier closers like Matt Capps, Jon Rauch and Frank Francisco. At that price, Cordero becomes a reasonable depth signing for the Orioles: $5 million for one year.
Johnny Damon has watched his batting average and OBP fall for three straight years, which is why he finds himself struggling for employment. It's a critical offseason for the 38-year-old Damon, who is one full season from making a run at 3,000 hits, but needs playing time to build on the 2,723 career knocks he has through last season. He lacks the OBP and power that most teams want from a DH and has played just 350 innings in the outfield over the past two seasons. Damon's awful throwing arm has turned him into a DH despite his still having the legs to play left field, making him a strange kind of tweener. He gets points for being a popular, highly-recognizable player and by all accounts, a good teammate, but the on-field issues make signing him a challenge.
The best fits for Damon are teams with very right-handed lineups that need the balance he brings. That's the Brewers (who may not have Ryan Braun for two months, pending a decision on Braun's appeal of a failed test for PEDs), the Tigers and the Nationals, to pick three. The Brewers have the smallest left field in their home park, the most need for a lefty bat, the open question about Braun and the possibility that Damon could even cover first base -- currently an open position in Milwaukee -- when Braun returns. He fits there for the low, low price of $3 million.