With just two and a half weeks until pitchers and catchers report, the Hot Stove is cooling off significantly. The only major free agents still looking for new teams are starting pitcher Roy Oswalt and Cuban centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who only recently received permission to sign by Major League Baseball. There are 25 arbitration cases that remain unsettled, including those of Clayton Kershaw, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli among others that could yet yield a multi-year extension.
However, barring a surprise trade, nearly all of baseball's 30 teams have taken their shape for the first half of the coming season. As a result, the largest contract agreed to this past week was the $2 million for two years the Reds gave to arbitration-eligible reliever Jose Arredondo.
When I listed the top remaining free-agent pitchers in mid-December, I named Wheeler the top right-handed reliever available (with the caveat that Kerry Wood was a lock to return to the Cubs, which he has since done, and thus wasn't properly "available"). It's surprising, then, to see him settling for a minor league deal in the same week that Lidge, Qualls and especially Clay Hensley and Micah Owings (see below) landed major league contracts. As I wrote in December, Wheeler posted a 2.54 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 4.43 K/BB after returning from a calf strain in late May. Over the last four seasons, he has posted 3.49 ERA (122 ERA+), 1.01 WHIP and 3.33 K/BB despite being a homer-prone pitcher working in the AL East. It's possible that the forearm tightness that ended his season after the first week of September scared most teams away from the 34-year-old veteran, but if he's healthy, he should break camp with Cleveland, which would earn him a $900,000 salary plus appearance-based incentives.
Lidge takes a $10.5 million pay cut to join the Nationals, where he'll help set up Drew Storen and provide insurance against a luck or workload-related collapse from Tyler Clippard, who made 150 appearances over the last two seasons and whose opponents hit .201 on balls in play last year. The 35-year-old Lidge arrives in D.C. coming off a season in which he missed 97 games due to a shoulder injury then walked 13 men in 19 1/3 innings while failing to crack 90 miles per hour with his average fastball upon his return in late July.
Veteran groundballer Qualls, 33, takes Lidge's spot in the Phillies' bullpen as part of the set-up crew for new $50 million closer Jonathan Papelbon. Qualls's awful 2010 season was largely the result of dreadful luck on balls in play (.394 BABIP), which corrected itself last year. The result was solid league-average set-up work for the Padres, though the sharp dip in his strikeout rate, from 8.2 K/9 the previous four seasons to 5.2, was a bit of a red flag.
A true utility pitcher, Owings can relieve, start or pinch-hit (he has hit .286/.313/.507 in 217 career plate appearances), which makes the 29-year-old a clever use of a roster spot for a second-division team. The catch is that last year was just the second of his five major league seasons in which he had an ERA+ above 80 (100 is league average), and at the plate he's gone just 7-for-33 (.212) with no walks and one extra-base hit over the last two seasons.
The right-handed Theriot is a career .301/.373/.401 hitter against lefties, which would make him a good platoon partner for former Cubs double-play partner Mike Fontenot at shortstop and an astute pickup for the Giants following a season in which their shortstops hit .210/.264/.299 were it not for the fact that Theriot's fielding at the position has been brutal over the past two years. Still, looking at those two batting lines again, it's worth the gamble that Theriot can rediscover the solid defensive form he showed in Chicago, particularly given the fact that his play on the other side of the bag has remained strong and the incentive-laden contract the Giants just gave him tops out at $2 million.
Hensley, a right-handed junkballer who was originally drafted by the Giants back in 2002 only to be flipped for reliever Matt Herges the following July, has a 2.96 ERA in 162 career relief appearances (compared to a 4.64 mark in 49 starts, including a 6.21 ERA in nine starts last year). He also has a history of shoulder problems, including nearly two months lost to a sprained pitching shoulder last year. He projects as the last man in the Giants' bullpen.
The righty Keppinger, who finished 2011 with the Giants, is a career .324/.371/.481 hitter against lefties but a poor defender on either side of second base, which limits his value as a platoon partner for slick-fielding shortstop Reid Brignac, who has hit .160/.231/.189 in 118 major league plate appearances against lefties. Given that righty-swinging Sean Rodriguez acquitted himself well at the position last season, Keppinger looks more like a depth signing than any part of the Rays' starting middle-infield picture.
Valdez, who will be 34 in May, is a slick-fielding shortstop but a career .243/.290/.330 hitter who doesn't play the other infield positions particularly well. That means he's not necessarily an upgrade on good-field/no-hit second-string shortstop Paul Janish nor utility man Miguel Cairo, who has played five positions and hit .276/.340/.411 in his two years with the Reds. Valdez adds depth behind rookie shortstop Zach Cozart, but it's hard to envision 25-man a roster with Valdez
Horst is a soft-tossing, 26-year-old lefty reliever who made his major league debut in fits and starts last year. He'll come to Phillies camp as a non-roster player. Arredondo returned from Tommy John surgery last year without the mid-90s fastball he showed as a rookie in 2008, and with plenty of control issues (5.3 BB/9 on the season), but did strikeout close to a man per inning (8.2 K/9) while posting an above-average ERA and being only slightly hit-lucky. The righty will be 28 by Opening Day, but clearly the Reds saw something they thought was worth locking down for an extra year.
One of 47 players taken with the first pick in the amateur draft since its creation in 1965, Burrell, who was picked first by the Phillies in 1998, finishes his career roughly middle-of-the-pack in terms of on-field value, raking 18th with 18.7 career Wins Above Replacement (per Baseball-Reference) with Justin Upton (11.5 bWAR), David Price (10.4 bWAR), and the Nationals dynamic duo of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper projected to ultimately knock him further down the list, to say nothing of 2011's No. 1 choice, Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole.
Burrell's never did become the superstar many projected. He was never an All-Star, only received MVP votes in two seasons (ranking no higher than seventh in the balloting), was a brutal fielder, a whipping boy for bitter Phillies fans in the years prior to their current run of success, awful in his brief time as an American League designated hitter (.218/.311/.361 in 572 plate appearances for the Rays in 2009 and 2010), picked up just one hit in 27 World Series at-bats and played his last game at 34, retiring now due to chronic soreness in his right foot.
Despite all that, Burrell actually had a fine career and was underappreciated because of his draft position and because so much of his value was contained in his ability to get on base. Pat the Bat hit .257/.367/.485 in his nine years with the Phillies, including a career-best .282/.376/.544 (146 OPS+) with 37 homers and 116 RBIs in 2002 and an aggregate .262/.386/.504 over his final four years with the team, during which he averaged 31 homers, 99 RBIs and 103 walks per season. Though he didn't hit in the World Series, he won a championship both with Philadelphia in 2008, his final year there, and with his hometown Giants in 2010, helping those teams break championship droughts of 27 and 45 years, respectively. Burrell out-hit his career marks over 341 plate appearances with the Giants in 2010, and got off to a good start in 2011, but after April 25 of last year managed a mere .208/.347/.333 line over the remainder of the season.