10 under-the-radar free agents worth keeping an eye on
Baseball's general managers used to say that there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal, but in an era in which increases in the game's revenues have significantly outpaced those in its payrolls, that concept has had to be updated. These days, many GM's believe, there is no such thing as a bad two-year deal. If they don't work out, they will be over quickly; they usually don't cost that much -- if a player is in enough demand to command a stratospheric annual salary, he generally can also command a far lengthier contract -- and the players signing them can have enormous upside, even in the short term, and can sometimes turn into attractive deadline trading chips.
The type of player to whom clubs float one- or two-year contracts does not generally rank in the upper tier of his free agent class, sometimes because of his skill but often because he has recently experienced injury or a period of poor performance. Still, serious value can be found. Last year, for example, several teams were rewarded for their minimal investments in players who did not merit inclusion in the 2012 Reiter 50, SI.com's annual ranking of the game's top 50 free agents. The Mets, for example, committed $700,000 to Marlon Byrd and $1 million to LaTroy Hawkins; Byrd hit 24 homers and drove in 88 runs (and was flipped to the Pirates), and Hawkins had a 2.93 ERA and saved 13 games. The Rays paid James Loney $2 million and got a first baseman who hit .299 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs. Eric Chavez, Jason Grilli, Jonny Gomes, Kevin Gregg, Scott Feldman, Nate McLouth, Ryan Raburn, David Ross, Nate Schierholtz and Jose Veras each signed a deal of two years or less, and each exceeded expectations.
Similar bargains remain in this year's crop of free agents, and a central task for general managers between now and spring training will be to identify them. Below are 10 -- five pitchers and five position players -- who did not make the Reiter 50, but who might far outperform the one- or two-year contract that will likely be theirs. While predicting where they will land is a fool's game -- every one of baseball's 30 clubs might be considering a flier on some of these guys -- I have identified one team that might make for a particularly good fit for each.
Bailey was the American League Rookie of the Year as Oakland's 25-year-old closer in 2009 and made the All-Star Game in each of his first two major league seasons, but he has recently struggled with injuries, particularly after his trade to Boston two winters ago. He had reconstructive surgery on his right thumb in 2012, and his 2013 season ended in July after he suffered labrum and capsule damage in his throwing shoulder. The Red Sox reluctantly decided to non-tender him in June.
Still, he is only 29, and there is little reason to believe that his fastball, which can touch 97, won't return. The Mets' bullpen is thin, especially with nominal closer Bobby Parnell uncertain to be fully healthy after September neck surgery, and they could take a chance on the New Jersey native.
Baker, who saw time last year at first base, second base, third base and in the outfield, simply destroys lefthanded pitching. In 123 plate appearances against lefties in 2013, the 32-year-old batted .314 with 10 homers, 18 RBIs and an OPS of 1.073 -- better than that of anyone but Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen and Jayson Werth. The Blue Jays ranked just 12th in the AL in OPS against southpaws (.676), and have a lefthanded hitter, Ryan Goins, penciled in at second. Baker would make for a natural platoon partner for him, and an otherwise useful utilityman and pinch hitter.
Buck, 33, ranked second in the majors in home runs (nine) and fifth in RBIs (25) at the end of last season's first month, and even though he predictably fell off that pace in a 2013 in which he was traded from the Mets to the Pirates, he remains, at 33, a serviceable catcher with power. He has averaged 16 homers over the past four seasons, during which time he has played for four different teams. The Nationals could become his fifth club in five years, as he would provide a much better insurance policy for Wilson Ramos -- who has played just 103 games the last two years -- than Jhonatan Solano.
After being traded from Colorado to Baltimore, Hammel, 31, broke out in the first half of 2012 -- he went 8-5 with a 3.47 ERA -- and then he broke down. His season ended in July, when he had knee surgery, and he spent a month and a half on the DL in 2013 with ulnar nerve inflammation, finishing 7-8 with an ERA of 4.97.
Still, as a sinkerballer who can get swings and misses (he struck out 8.6 batters per nine in his abbreviated 2012), and one who will likely seek to reestablish his value on a one-year deal, he is drawing a good deal of interest. With the Orioles likely to add a big-name starter to the front of their rotation, he could move on to the Royals, who could use a cheap No. 5 with upside to slot in behind James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy.
The 31-year-old Maholm had a 3.66 ERA in 57 starts for the Pirates and the Braves in 2011 and 2012, but severely hurt his free agent prospects with a 2013 in which his ERA ballooned to 4.41. He particularly struggled during the second half (1-3, 5.73 ERA), when rival scouts would have been closely monitoring him. Even so, he is quite clearly the best lefthanded starter remaining on the market, now that Jason Vargas and Scott Kazmir have signed. Any team in need of some rotational balance will consider him. The Brewers -- who appear to have a completely righthanded rotation (Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg) and who have yet to acquire a single free agent -- make a lot of sense.
Reynolds, 30, carried the Indians' offense in April, when he hit eight homers and drove in 22 runs. He was looking for work by early August, after his average had dipped to .215, leading Cleveland to cut him. Though he had his moments in his brief stint as a Yankee -- six homers and 19 RBIs in 36 games -- his flaws are well known: his streakiness; his extreme strikeout rate; his defensive deficiencies.
Still, he is a player who can slug eight bombs in a single month, and that is a singular skill that will be sought after in a power-hungry league. The Astros are in need of some pop (they ranked 13th in the AL in homers last year) and don't seem to mind strikeouts, as they just set the all-time record with 1,535 whiffs.
The Orioles didn't benefit all that much from their late July acquisition of Rodriguez from the Brewers, as he had a 4.50 ERA in 23 mostly low-leverage appearances. However, K-Rod was very good on the whole: his 10.4 strikeouts per nine ratio was his best since 2010, and he was 10-for-10 in the save opportunities he received in Milwaukee.
The single-season saves record holder will only turn 32 next week, can still hit 94 mph with his fastball and is seeking at least an opportunity to return to being a full-time closer. He might find it with the White Sox, who traded their young closer, Addison Reed, to the Diamondbacks in mid-December and who now have an opening.
Grady Sizemore, OF
Old club: N/A
Best fit: Mets
In some ways, Sizemore is reminiscent of another five-tool talent whose career once seemed as if it might be prematurely derailed by injuries: Carlos Beltran. There are differences, to be sure. Even during his three straight All-Star seasons for the Indians, between 2006 and 2008, Sizemore was never quite the player that Beltran was in his prime, and his health problems have been more severe. Beltran never missed a full season, whereas Sizemore -- who has had microfracture surgery on both knees -- has not played an inning since 2011, and did not even sign with a team last season.
Sizemore is, however, only 31 years old, and clubs will hope that his two years off might lead to some version of Beltran's renaissance. The Mets have added Chris Young and Curtis Granderson this winter, but they could use still more outfield power -- and, should Sizemore return to form, they could trade him at the deadline to hasten their rebuilding process. After all, in July of 2011 they turned Beltran into Zack Wheeler.
The Cardinals have nearly two rotations worth of top-shelf starting pitching options -- including Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Jamie Garcia, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez -- so that means that the 36-year-old sinkerballer, who was limited to just 19 starts in 2013 by elbow inflammation and a strained back, will be moving on. He remains an excellent producer of grounders, as his groundball rate of 56.3% last year ranked him seventh among the 145 pitchers who pitched more than 100 innings. That could make him attractive to the Rockies, who will take as many grounders as they can get in Coors Field and who might want to add a sagacious veteran to a rotation that currently has an average age of 26.
Delmon Young, OF
Old club: Rays
Best fit: Orioles
It seems clear that the 28-year-old Young will never fully live up to the promise he displayed when he was the first overall pick of the 2003 draft, but he has done so at times. He has nine home runs and an .859 OPS in 33 career playoff games, and he had a .780 OPS for the Rays after they picked him up off the street last August. The Orioles could give him a shot, as they could throw him into an underwhelming leftfield/DH mix that currently includes Nolan Reimold and David Lough, and even put him at first base when Chris Davis takes a rare game off.
Others to consider: Chris Capuano, SP; Alexi Casilla, 2B; Bruce Chen, SP; Kevin Gregg, RP; Joel Hanrahan, RP; Tommy Hanson, SP; Ryan Madson, RP; Roy Oswalt, SP; Lyle Overbay, 1B; Carlos Pena, 1B; Oliver Perez, RP; Johan Santana, SP; Joe Saunders, SP; Michael Young, 3B; Barry Zito, SP.