2007 MLB Free Agents Rumors
A week ago, I assembled a pretty decent squad of free agent position players for about $40MM in 2007. This week I'll take a crack at putting together the All-Bargain Rotation, no easy task given the market inflation. Given the nature of free agency, this is going to be a staff of veterans past their prime.
SP1 - Andy Pettitte. The 34 year-old southpaw has righted the ship since July. He's still got good command and gets his Ks. He also keeps the ball on the ground reasonably well. Would $16MM over two years do the trick? And is he interested in any team besides Houston?
SP2 - Randy Wolf. Wolf has to expect a pay cut from this year's $9 million salary. He should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery by next spring, and there's a decent chance he returns to his form from a few years ago. I'd hope to snag him for 2/$12MM, but it could take 3/$21MM.
SP3 - Greg Maddux. I've hopefully got my power lefties in tow, so now it's time to round the rotation out with some groundballing righthanded vets. I like Mad Dog for my #3. Even at 41, he can provide 200-210 innings with an ERA in the low 4s and a good groundball/flyball ratio. Perhaps not the best fit with my defensively challenged infield, but I can only do so much.
SP4 - Woody Williams. Kind of like Greg Maddux but without the grounders. I don't mind adding another 40 year-old to my ancient rotation. Woody is still better than league average. Tomo Ohka would work in this slot as well if he'd come at a better price.
SP5 - Jeff Weaver/Bruce Chen/Jason Johnson. I like the idea of taking three retreads and letting them duke it out for the fifth starter spot. The runner-up can be a long reliever and sixth starter. Though he's been consistently awful until this month, I somehow refuse to believe Weaver is toast. He threw 444 innings of very solid ball for the Dodgers from '04-05. Chen has never had much margin for error, but he was doing something right in 2005. Before this year, Johnson had proven a mid-4 ERA innings muncher with excellent groundball tendencies. Maybe he can be salvaged.
Here's the rotation, with projected salary:
Pettitte - $8MM
Wolf - $7MM
Maddux - $5MM
Williams - $4MM
Weaver/Chen/Johnson - $4MM
There's my motley crew, at around $30MM for the group. It's obviously a high-risk rotation, though that risk is spread out among everyone. For the most part the 1-4 pitchers should at least keep my team in the game.
There's been some talk in the Chicago papers that the Cubs may offer Juan Pierre three years and $24MM this offseason. Let's take a closer look at the 29 year-old speedster.
The Cubs acquired Pierre to play center field on December 7th of last year. Before then, the Cubs flirted with Milton Bradley, Brad Wilkerson, Austin Kearns, and Dave Roberts. Definitely a mixed bag there knowing what we know now. I was not a fan of the Pierre acquisition, though the price didn't seem terribly high to me. In hindsight, Cubs fans wouldn't mind having Ricky Nolasco back.
Pierre had an awful start to his Cubs career, hitting just .240/.276/.309 over the season's first two months. Something clicked in June, however, as he's hit .316/.363/.433 since. Still, Pierre is miscast as a leadoff hitter and perhaps even as a regular.
The point of a leadoff hitter is to get on base, right? Pierre ranks a woeful 24th in OBP among leadoff hitters with 300 plate appearances this season. Clunky guys like Kevin Youkilis and Jason Kendall are running circles around Pierre's OBP. Speaking of running, that's often the defense for letting a guy like Pierre lead off. But when you're getting nailed on 27% of your steal attempts, you're not adding much value there.
It's also well-known that Pierre doesn't make up for his offensive shortcomings with his center field defense. His arm is awful and his range is unimpressive. In short, Pierre would make a decent fourth outfielder. To pay him anywhere near $8MM annually is a mistake only the Cubs could make. Baseball Prospectus indicates that he should be paid about half that.
Cubs fans can only hope another, dumber team swoops in with an offer Pierre can't refuse. Matt Murton would be a better option atop the Cubs' order. Solid free agent outfielders include David Dellucci, Kenny Lofton, and Dave Roberts.
It's tough to find bargains via free agency. Players are past their peaks and are being compensated more for their past performance than their future. Still, a few deals slip through the cracks every year. Let's assemble a lineup with the best bargains at each position. I'll do the pitchers in another post.
C - Gregg Zaun. A million bucks, .360 OBP. I'll take that any time for my catcher. J.P. Ricciardi can complain about payroll, but there was no good reason to toss $5 mil at Bengie Molina this year.
1B - Craig Wilson. The first base crop is pretty thin on good players, let alone bargains. It's a tough position to fill; you need to OPS somewhere between .810-.880 just to be league average. A 30 year-old Wilson would probably fall right in the middle of that range. For four or five million bucks that's not the worst thing in the world.
2B - Mark Loretta. The power's all gone, but at least he still gets on base. Shouldn't cost more than $4MM.
SS - Craig Counsell. He's not the most exciting choice, but Julio Lugo's not going to be a bargain. Counsell can play good defense and get on base a little bit. It'd make for a powerless middle infield, but they'd be affordable and won't embarrass you.
3B - Aubrey Huff. Another lousy market. Huff will be league average for a third baseman if he picks it up to career levels next year. He'll turn 30 in December. If Huff makes $7MM next year, he definitely won't be a bargain. But this is the best I can do, and I'm not picking Pedro Feliz.
LF - David Dellucci/Eric Byrnes. This platoon assumes Byrnes isn't offered or doesn't accept arbitration, so I'm cheating a little bit. But the point is to combine the righty-mashing Dellucci with a lefty-masher. There are plenty of other possibilities to reach the same goal: swap Dellucci out for Frank Catalanotto, swap Byrnes out for Jose Cruz Jr. It would require a manager that understands and respects the platoon; I'll take Larry Dierker. If done right I think you could get a .900 OPS and a short-term commitment for less than $7MM. Sure beats breaking the bank on Carlos Lee.
CF - Jim Edmonds. If he'll take around $7MM annually for a year or two, that could be a decent bargain. Even on the decline Edmonds is a great hitter for his position. And remember, I'm using some versatile fourth outfielder types in left who can help fill in for thirty games in center.
RF - Jose Guillen. He had an ugly half-season, dealing with all sorts of injuries and culminating in elbow surgery. He adds solid defense to this group and can hold his own with the bat. I'm going to offer one year, $6MM and a chance to re-establish himself.
So here's the Opening Day lineup, with projected salary:
Dellucci - $4MM
Loretta - $4MM
Edmonds - $8MM
Guillen - $6MM
Wilson - $5MM
Huff - $5MM
Zaun - $1.5MM
Counsell - $2MM
My 1-8 hitters make less than $36MM. Throw in Byrnes and we're probably around $40MM for the starting lineup. There are problems. The lineup lacks any monster hitters. It's quite old. Defense at first and third base will be lacking. It may have health issues with Guillen and Edmonds. A few things would have to go right, but this would still be a lineup without an easy out.
There's been some chatter about Dave Roberts lately - he'll be a coveted free agent this winter. Back in July, I discussed Roberts in my center fielder free agent market review:
"Roberts, 34, is best known for his stolen base in the 2004 ALCS. He's solidly above average at hitting but is ranked just 30th on defense. He's got a weak arm but was a solid defender prior to 2005. According to the Fielding Bible, Roberts still has his speed and range so he should bounce back defensively if healthy. He's been moved to left field to make an excellent pair with Mike Cameron. If someone can snag him for $3-4 mil and get him 500 ABs, he's a fine option. It's just that he has a lengthy injury history."
It just so happens that in his contract year, Roberts looks to set career highs in at-bats, batting average, and on-base percentage. The Padres have enjoyed his .382 OBP mark (18th in the league) at the top of their order. He's also stolen bases at better than a 90% clip. His $2.25MM salary is a bargain, and he'll have plenty of suitors.
Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune recently mentioned that the White Sox and Cardinals are already showing some interest. Rockies beat writer Troy E. Renck throws Colorado's hat into the ring.
A few other possibilities: the Blue Jays could go after Roberts if they decide to trade Vernon Wells. The Rangers could get involved if Gary Matthews Jr. departs. Ditto for the Cubs if they don't retain Juan Pierre.
There's nothing left on the closer market.
Seems time to revisit the situation of St. Louis center field stalwart Jim Edmonds. You may recall a month ago, when I remarked:
"Edmonds has a $10MM option for '07 with a $3MM buyout, so the Cards really just need to decide if Edmonds is worth $7MM in his age 37 season. Baseball Prospectus says he is, even if he only gets 515 plate appearances as projected. Even on the decline Edmonds is a powerful force in the lineup. However, the Fielding Bible ranks him just 32nd out of 35 center fielders over the last three years. They say that despite the excellent arm, he's "lost a step" and did not deserve his last two Gold Gloves. Still seems wise for the Cards to keep him around if they can limit the years on the deal."
If Torii Hunter hits the market, he'd be the top free agent CF. Otherwise, plenty of decent second tier options like Kenny Lofton, Dave Roberts, and Gary Matthews Jr. should be floating around. Edmonds may be the best out there other than Hunter. It would be silly for the Cardinals not to choose Edmonds's $3MM buyout over his $10MM option. How many teams would turn down a chance to have Edmonds on a one-year, $7MM deal? That's what Walt Jocketty faces.
Nonetheless, Edmonds is getting the vibe that the Cards will choose the buyout. Who's Jocketty going to bring in instead? Roberts or Lofton for a few million less? Even on the decline, Edmonds can still contribute an .825 OPS for 130 games. That's much better than the average NL CF, who has an OPS of .750 or so.
As you may know, I've been covering baseball free agents by position for several months now. Next up: right fielders.
2006 League Averages for Right Fielders:
AL: .286/.349/.468 (.817 OPS)
NL: .268/.345/.453 (.798 OPS)
I'll be using info from John Dewan's Fielding Bible to assess these free agents' defensive abilities. Aubrey Huff played right field in 2003 and 2005, but it seems likely he'll be used elsewhere.
Jeromy Burnitz - The Pirates and Burnitz have a mutual option for $6MM for 2007. When it's declined, he gets a $700,000 buyout. Burnitz slipped to an ugly .230/.289/.422 line for Pittsburgh this year at age 37. He didn't play regularly after the first two months of the season. Burnitz's defense is average at best, and you can run on him all day. He really shouldn't be starting for any team.
Trot Nixon - Nixon's name swirled about in trade rumors, but he stayed put in Boston. He turned 32 this year. While Trot is drawing a ton of walks, his slugging percentage has been declining for years. Nixon has dealt with many injuries in past seasons but seems to be healthy now. The Fielding Bible rates him as the third best defensive right fielder in the game, behind only Ichiro Suzuki and Richard Hidalgo.
For a reasonable team, Nixon is probably the best remaining option. He makes a decent short-term gamble and won't hurt you on defense. Richard Hidalgo should also be on the radar, as he's a top defender and may still have a little life in his bat.
Let's take a look at center fielders destinated to become free agents at year's end. This position typically requires a good defender, though it's nice to contribute offensively.
2006 League Averages for Center Fielders:
AL: .275/.334/.437 (.771 OPS)
NL: .264/.335/.418 (.753 OPS)
Center field defense is crucial. With that in mind, I will provide John Dewan's ranking from his excellent Fielding Bible. Dewan and company ranked 35 center fielders using data over the past three seasons. I am going to leave Preston Wilson, Bernie Williams, and Jay Payton out of the discussion as they are not viewed as regular center fielders.
Darin Erstad - Erstad returned to center field for 27 games this year, and it's hard to get a read on how far his defense has fallen since his 2002 Gold Glove season out there. He's 32 now and is earning $8.5MM. An ankle injury put him on the DL this season two separate times. Given his below average bat and shaky ankle, all the grittiness in the world wouldn't make him a good signing for '07 and beyond. The Rox are interested even after their acquisition of Willy Taveras.
Steve Finley - Finley turned 41 this season and makes $7 mil. His 2007 option for the same price will surely be bought out for a million bucks. His bat is below average for the position this year. His defense is ranked 14th out of 35 center fielders over the last three years but declined considerably last year. His arm is OK and his range is diminished at this point. A pretty poor signing but someone will probably bite for a million or so. The Cubs could work.
Let's take a look at left fielders destinated to become free agents at year's end. It goes without saying, but this position requires a slugger.
2006 League Averages for Left Fielders:
AL: .280/.347/.449 (.796 OPS)
NL: .277/.359/.478 (.837 OPS)
Cliff Floyd - The injury-prone 33 year-old hit just .244/.324/.407 this season. With Lastings Milledge, Endy Chavez, and Ben Johnson under contract for next year, the Mets won't retain Floyd. Maybe Floyd will take a Jermaine Dye type deal - two years, about $10MM plus an option. Cubs GM Jim Hendry goes way back with Floyd, so the team is a possible suitor.
Shannon Stewart - Stewart is 32 now and made $6.5MM in the last year of his deal with the Twins. Plantar fasciitis knocked him out in late May and for all of June. He returned to the DL in mid-July and missed the rest of the season. He's just a bad buy this offseason in every way, shape, and form. Stewart could have shockwave therapy on the foot.
Preston Wilson - The Astros were able to hedge their bets with Wilson last offseason, signing him to a $4.5MM contract for this year with an option for $24MM over the following three seasons. He turned 32 this year and posted a lousy .263/.307/.423 line with the Astros and Cardinals.
Here we have info on the free agent third basemen market.
2006 League Averages for Third Basemen
AL: .269/.338/.442 (.780 OPS)
NL: .282/.354/.472 (.826 OPS)
Sorry folks - there are no free agent starting third basemen on the market anymore.