Baseball Winter Breakdown

December 13, 2004

Tom Verducci's Free-Agent Bargain Hunt

The early returns on the free-agent market are promising for the players. Four years for shortstop Cristian Guzman, an awful offensive player whom the savvy Twins didn't want for one year at $5 million? The freshly minted Nationals are giving him nearly $17 million. You've got to be kidding. The key to the shopping season remains the same: Spend smart, don't just spend. With that in mind, here is a list of the best values on the free-agent market.

1. David Dellucci, OF He's a perfect piece to a winning team: unselfish, able to accept a secondary role and still produce when called upon. Dellucci (right), 31, is coming off career highs in home runs (17 in 331 at bats), RBIs (61) and walks (47). He's got a grinder's mentality that's tailor-made for the Red Sox and what the Yankees have been lacking.

2. Odalis Perez, SP He's lefthanded, 27 years old, throws well into the 90s, is a former 15-game winner and posted a 3.25-ERA year with a nearly 3-to-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks. He's a better buy than Eric Milton.

3. Matt Clement, SP His stuff can be electric, but Clement has lacked the pitching smarts and poise to get the most out of it. He's at the stage now (30 years old) where he should show some polish. He's the same age as Kris Benson but with a better track record and more durability.

4. Steve Kline, RP Looking for a reliever who gets out lefties? Kline, 32, is your man. Lefties hit .143 against him last year, with only two extra-base hits in 84 at bats. Overall he allowed just three home runs.

5. Placido Polanco, IF One of Tony La Russa's favorite players, Polanco, 29, is solid but not spectacular in every phase of the game, especially fundamentals. He hit a career-high 17 home runs last year for Philadelphia and struck out just 39 times.

• Tom Verducci files a Baseball Insider and opens his Mailbag every week at SI.com/baseball.

Albert Chen Fires Up the Hot Stove

•Mets G.M. Omar Minaya is making the mistake his predecessors did: chasing free agents as if the Mets are one or two AllStars from being a playoff team. Sammy Sosa or Pedro Martinez won't guarantee October games.

•My suspicion is that the team that ends up with free agent Carl Pavano will overpay for a righthander whose strikeout rates--5.63 per nine in '04--are unspectacular.

•The Mariners' courtship of Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson reminds me of the Orioles last winter: Baltimore bought sluggers Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez and barely improved. Seattle should add a starter and upgrade its dreadful bullpen.

• Albert Chen weighs in on baseball and other topics in the Daily Blog every Tuesday at SI.com/scorecard.

COLOR PHOTOJED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (DELLUCCI)

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