This is the time of year when general managers earn their money. They do it not so much by writing huge checks to free agents, but by making moves on the margins that are more about evaluations than expenditures. Everybody wants to find the next Matt Capps, John Buck or Kelly Johnson, all of whom were non-tendered by their previous club last winter, or Andres Torres, signed as a 31-year-old minor league free agent in 2009, or Colby Lewis, who was signed out of Japan, or Rafael Soriano, who was obtained in a trade for Jesse Chavez.
Oakland manager Billy Beane got a jump on the secondary market by acquiring three players already: outfielder David DeJesus, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (though Iwakuma still needs to sign a contract with the Athletics.)
In the next two weeks, the secondary trade market will simmer because teams will look to acquire something for players they otherwise would non-tender. (The non-tender deadline is Dec. 2, 10 days earlier than it was last year.) This was not an especially robust market last year, as such proactive trades included Mark Teahen, J.J. Hardy, Jeremy Hermida and Akinori Iwamura. Ho-hum. And the "big names" who were non-tendered didn't amount to much: Garrett Atkins, Chien Ming Wang, Ryan Garko and Scott Olsen.
Free agents such as Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth will dominate the offseason coverage, but those involve huge deals and protracted negotiations. The secondary market already has begun to take shape. Whether through trades, non-tenders or international signings, here are players on the secondary market who could bring the biggest impact for 2011, listed alphabetically:
There should be a strong market for such a hitter, assuming the Athletics make him available. In the past 11 months, Oakland has non-tendered him, designated him for assignment just before Opening Day, kept him in the minors for more than a month, traded for DeJesus and talked about needing to add power. Athletics outfielders Cust, Conor Jackson, Rajai Davis and Travis Buck are all arbitration eligible -- and none of them are listed ahead of Ryan Sweeney, Coco Crisp and DeJesus (combined 2010 home runs: 14) as the Athletics' starting outfielders. So not all will be back, which makes a trade or non-tender possible.
Cust is a rare impact bat because he provides on-base percentage and power cheaply -- two commodities that have grown to be expensive in the industry.
Back in 1999, Cust and Werth were drafted eight picks apart in the first round. While Werth is clearly the superior defender and baserunner, his edge at the plate is not as great as you might think. Looking at the past four seasons, check out the similarities between Cust and Werth, as well as other established well-paid outfielders Jason Bay, Nick Swisher and DeJesus (age is as of 2011 Opening Day):
Sure, defense is important, and you wouldn't want Cust roaming rightfield at Petco Park in San Diego. But look at the leftfielders for the NL playoff teams: Pat Burrell, Raul Ibanez, Jonny Gomes and Matt Diaz -- nothing close to a Gold Glover in the bunch. Cust would seem to be a good pickup for the Cardinals, Rays, Braves, Nationals or Tigers.
Loney represents a good example of the chance to buy low on a player. His batting average, slugging and OPS have dropped three straight years. Teams generally like to see more power out of first base; Loney never has hit more than 15 home runs in a season. But Loney will be just 26 on Opening Day this year and is a veteran of almost 2,500 major league plate appearances.
Here's what so encouraging about the thought of getting Loney out of Dodger Stadium and experiencing a breakout season: He hit 41 doubles last year and has been a much better hitter in his career on the road (.307 with a .854 OPS) than at home (.268 with a .711 OPS). He should interest the Rays, Jays, Nationals and Diamondbacks.
1. CC Sabathia (2009-10)
2. Jon Lester (2008-10)
3. James Shields (2008)
4. David Price (2010)
5. Shaun Marcum (2010)
I like young pitchers who have done it in the AL East, the Camp Lejeune of pitching. But Marcum remains a big part of Toronto's immediate future, and it would likely take a blockbuster deal (Zach Greinke?) to pry him loose.
The down side? He must make the transition from turf to grass (remember Kaz Matsui with the Mets?) and how his numbers translate to MLB, especially without a power quotient, involves some guesswork. Potential fits include the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Angels, Cardinals and Orioles.
The Rays made early exits with Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson, turning them into young (and cheaper) hitters Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce, and they could follow the same formula here. Possible suitors include the Rockies, Nationals, Pirates and Mets.
Here are the major league home run leaders from 2006-10 among righthanded hitters:
Uggla can bolt as a free agent after next season and already rejected a four-year, $48 million extension, thus the trade talk. I believe the Marlins are close enough to contending that they should keep Uggla at least through July to see where they stand. But they will take offers now on a guy who could remain at second base or, as some clubs project, slide to third or the outfield -- which is why he is a fit for many clubs.
Young did make it back from shoulder trouble to pitch well for the Padres in pennant-race games down the stretch: 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in four starts. He is a savvy veteran who has such a unique style -- throwing "uphill" from a 6-foot-10 frame -- that he is the perfect complement for the middle or back of a rotation. Young needs the right team and ballpark for his style, and among the fits are the Padres, Mets, Mariners and Dodgers.