Wait 'til Next Year

The free-agent gold mine is in the class of 2010, but if you do insist on entering this year's market ... beware
September 27, 2009

With most of the drama rapidly leaking from the regular season, it's a good time to take a look at the postseason drama to come. No, not the playoffs, but the annual orgy of ill-spent dollars to come in the free-agent market. This year's crop is among the weakest in memory, with no true superstars and little depth. It brings to mind the advice of Joshua, the sage computer from the movie WarGames: The only winning move is not to play. For those who choose to ignore this counsel, here's what they're getting into.

THE CREAM

John Lackey, Angels By far the best arm available, Lackey has bounced back from an elbow strain, averaging more than seven innings a start since getting ejected one batter into his season debut on May 16. He has five straight seasons with an ERA below 4.00 and a career strikeout-to-walk ratio above 3 to 1, as well as a big-game rep. The drop-off from Lackey, 30, to the field is huge, so he'll have plenty of suitors.

Matt Holliday, Cardinals His big second half in a pennant race has addressed concerns about his value outside Coors Field. Holliday, 29, hits for average and power, draws walks and plays a decent leftfield. He and Jason Bay are close enough in value that they could have a standoff this winter, with each waiting for the other to sign to set a price.

Also: Bay, Red Sox OF; Chone Figgins, Angels 3B; Jose Valverde, Astros closer.

YOU AGAIN?

Last year's buyers' market led to a number of quality free agents signing one-year deals, putting them back out there this winter.

Bobby Abreu, Angels His skills remain intact, except that he's now good for about 15 homers rather than the 30 he hit at his peak. His plate discipline (. 394 OBP) has been a big part of the Angels' improved offense. Even at 35, he's a low-risk addition.

Orlando Hudson, Dodgers The consistent second baseman (below) avoided the freak injuries that curtailed his last two seasons to turn in his fourth straight above-average year. Like Abreu, he contributes across the board, bringing defensive prowess at a key position.

Also: Russell Branyan, Mariners 1B; Orlando Cabrera, Twins SS.

HOW'S THAT HEALTH-CARE LEGISLATION?

Two of the most-often-injured players of the 2000s hit the market this winter.

Rich Harden, Cubs In 2008 and '09, Harden, 27, made 20 starts in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his six-year career. Yet this will be just the second time he pitches more than 150 innings. No starter this side of Tim Lincecum is harder to hit, but should you invest big money in a guy who is always a risk to go on the DL?

Nick Johnson, Marlins After missing 2007 and most of '08, Johnson, 31, has returned to put up a .421 on-base percentage, including a .480 mark since being dealt to Florida in July. His power and range are gone, but there's not a team in baseball that couldn't use his .401 career OBP.

Also: Vlad Guerrero, Angels OF; Adrian Beltre, Mariners 3B; Erik Bedard, Mariners SP.

DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!

Jason Marquis, Rockies He made the All-Star team with great run support from his teammates, who also snapped up the grounders he induced. Marquis, 31, has a low strikeout rate, and K rate, not his 15 wins, is the best indicator of a pitcher's longevity. He's a back-end innings eater, but he may get paid as a No. 2 in this market. Not good.

Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays. Scutaro has had a blowout year, offensively and defensively. In a field with almost no shortstops, he'll stand out thanks to his 2009 stats. But here's the key number: 34, his age at the end of October.

Also: Jarrod Washburn, Tigers SP; Johnny Damon, Yankees OF.

If teams want to invest wisely, they should take this winter's free-agent budget and buy a 12-month CD. Next year's class could be a monster, with the possibility that Joe Mauer, Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee will be available.

Now on SI.com

The best playoff rotation, top to bottom? Tom Verducci says the Angels at SI.com/bonus

TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHSLIM PICKIN'S Lackey (41) will benefit from a paucity of pitchers, and Hudson (13) will attract bids, but leftovers such as Johnson are risky. PHOTOTOM DIPACE (JOHNSON)[See caption above]

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)