Fire Up the Hot Stove

With the fistfuls of cash that are likely to be thrown at free agents this winter, here are some potential money pits--and bargains
November 06, 2006

BUYER BEWARE

BARRY ZITO, LHP,A's The soon-to-be-ex--Oakland ace has made at least 34 starts in each of hissix full big league seasons, but he has become reluctant to throw anything buthis curveball for strikes, a fact that was blatantly obvious during hisdisastrous start against the Tigers in the ALCS. Zito had the second-highestwalk total in the AL last season (99), and his strikeout-to-walk ratio, whichwas over 2.0 as recently as 2004, declined to a pedestrian 1.4 after the 2006All-Star break, which suggests that his ERA is likely to rise into the mid-4swithout a change in approach.

ALFONSO SORIANO,LF, Nationals Hitting 46 homers while playing half his games in RFK Stadium, asSoriano did in '06, was a remarkable accomplishment. And his defense and platediscipline, long his greatest faults, were vastly improved--he had 67 walks,almost doubling his career high. Still, the bidding for Soriano, who'll be 31in January, could run as high as $17 million to $20 million per season, and hedoesn't have the track record to justify that kind of expenditure. And BaseballProspectus's research indicates that the contract year phenomenon is very real.(Adrian Beltre, anyone?)

JEFF SUPPAN, RHP,Cardinals Even with his fine postseason performance, when his ERA was 2.49,Suppan amassed just 13 strikeouts against 11 walks in 25 1/3 innings,continuing a pattern he exhibited during the regular season. His QERA, ameasure designed by BP to predict a pitcher's performance on the basis of hiswalk rate, strikeout rate and ground ball--to--fly ball ratio, was 4.75--morethan half a run higher than his ERA. Take Suppan away from the Cardinals' finedefense and you have a No. 4 starter, not a No. 2.

BUYERS BEAWARE

AUBREY HUFF, 3B,Astros Detractors will point to Huff's disappointing performance after he wasobtained from the Devil Rays in July. Huff hit .250 with Houston, includingjust .213 at supposedly hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. The catch is thatwhile Houston is an excellent home field for righthanded hitters, it's one ofthe toughest environments in the league for lefties like Huff, reducing theiroverall offensive production by 14%. Huff will never be a star, but his battingaverage should return to the .290 range, with plenty of power to supportit.

CARLOS LEE, LF,Rangers It's not as if Lee will be had at Filene's Basement prices, but he's byfar a better-rounded offensive performer than he's given credit for. In '06 Leehit 37 homers and struck out just 65 times; the only major leaguer who had morehome runs and fewer strikeouts was Albert Pujols. Lee also stole 19 bases in 21attempts; among major leaguers with at least 30 home runs, only Soriano swipedmore bags (41). Players with well-rounded skill sets are good bets to age well(Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield, for example), and Lee, 30, could provideproduction comparable to that of Soriano at 70% of his price.

SCOTT WILLIAMSON,RHP, Padres His ERA over the past two years is 5.70, but Williamson--who hadTommy John surgery on his right elbow after the '04 season--has struck out morethan a batter per inning during that period. Bargain hunters should rememberthat it can take pitchers as long as 24 months to fully recover from a TommyJohn operation. So while Williamson would certainly be a high-risk signing, therewards for getting a pitcher who has closer-worthy stuff at a contract thatshould be barely above the league minimum could be considerable, too.

SIX PHOTOSBARRY TAYLOR/WIREIMAGE.COM (ZITO); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (SORIANO); DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (SUPPAN); DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES (HUFF); DARREN CARROLL (LEE); RICH PILLING/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMSON)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)