Free Agent Faceoff Rumors

Free Agent Faceoff: Grant Balfour vs. Joaquin Benoit

MLBTradeRumors is firing up this year's vesion of the Free Agent Faceoff series, in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.

The free agent market for relievers with closing experience isn't exactly stacked this year, nor is it a particularly youthful crop. However, if you're looking for a solid arm with ninth inning experience that's still plenty successful in spite of his age, Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour are two of the better guys to turn to.

Balfour, a native of Australia, has served as Oakland's closer for the past two seasons and was their setup man in 2011. He's thrived in both roles, posting a combined 2.57 ERA with 9.0 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and a 37 percent ground-ball rate in 196 1/3 innings. His FIP (3.43) and xFIP (3.63) both suggest that his ERA could come up a good deal. He's averaged 93 mph on his heater in that time but is averaging an even more impressive 93.4 mph in 2013. Balfour has also shown an ability to suppress home runs throughout his career — just 7.9 percent of fly-balls against him have gone for homers. He will turn 36 years old in late December.

Benoit turned 36 in July and has similar stats to Balfour. He's posted a 2.89 ERA with 9.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9 and a 38.9 percent ground-ball rate in 193 1/3 innings since 2011. He throws noticably harder — averaging 93.9 mph on his fastball and sitting at 94.1 mph in 2013 — and generates more swinging strikes than Balfour (14.9 percent compared to 9.1 percent). However, Benoit has proven more susceptible to the long ball, yielding more homers in 2012 alone than Balfour has in 2012-13 combined.  For his career, 9.9 percent of the fly-balls hit against Benoit have gone for homers. Like Balfour, Benoit has outperformed both FIP (3.39) and xFIP (3.27) over the past three seasons.

Both Balfour and Benoit will pitch most of next season at 36 (Benoit will turn 37 just prior to the trade deadline). Both average a strikeout per inning or better with solid command and a fly-ball profile, and both have done well when handed a closer's job late in their careers. It can be argued that Benoit's advantage in strikeouts and walks can be offset by Balfour's stingier ways with home runs, lower ERA and slight age advantage, begging the question…



Free Agent Faceoff: Liriano vs. McCarthy

Two of the biggest (yet most intriguing) question marks available on this year's free agent pitching market are Francisco Liriano and Brandon McCarthy.  Both are 29 and were once seen as top prospects, and while both have dealt with injuries and inconsistency through their careers, it's Liriano who is struggling to regain his form while McCarthy is simply trying to get healthy enough to get back on the field.

Few pitchers are as electric as Liriano when he's on his game, though he's only really harnessed that ability over a full season in 2006 and 2010.  It seemed as if that 2010 year signalled that Liriano was all the way back from Tommy John surgery and would now become an anchor in the Twins rotation, except things went south from there.  Liriano posted a 5.23 ERA over 60 games (52 starts) in 2010-11, still striking out close to a batter per inning but also posting a 5.0 BB/9 rate.  Perhaps there was no better summation of Liriano's potential than his May 3, 2011 start against the White Sox, when he walked six batters and only struck out two — yet still managed to no-hit Chicago. 

The raw material is there for Liriano to become an ace and that's why, despite posting ERAs north of 5.00 in three of the last four seasons, it's possible that he could find a two-year contract on the open market (or at least a one-year contract with a generous option for 2014).  Being left-handed helps, but the belief still exists that the right situation or right pitching coach could flip the switch on Liriano and make him a top-of-the-rotation starter. 

McCarthy's life, let alone his baseball career, was threatened on September 5 when a line drive from Erick Aybar struck the right-hander in the head.  After undergoing surgery to relieve cranial pressure on his damaged skull and brain areas, the great news is that McCarthy is recovered (and tweeting) and has been cleared to do his regular offseason training work.  While a freak incident, the head injury was just the latest in a series of maladies that has plagued McCarthy throughout his career, such as elbow problems and a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder.

While McCarthy is not yet free of the injury bug, he at least has delivered strong results when he's been on the mound.  The righty has a 3.29 ERA and a 4:1 K:BB ratio in 43 starters in Oakland, finally delivering on the potential he showed as a prospect in the White Sox system.  McCarthy overhauled his pitching mechanics before the 2011 season and turned himself into a pitcher who relies on grounders (a 46.7% groundball rate in 2011) and command — he has a 1.6 BB/9 in 2011-12, less than half of the 3.4 BB/9 he posted over his first five seasons.  While his ERA was a run lower at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum than it was on the road, McCarthy's skillset should translate well to most ballparks.

If we were judging these two pitchers based purely on recent results, McCarthy is easily the better choice; had Aybar not hit that liner, this wouldn't even be a valid comparison, as McCarthy would've been in line for a three- or four-year contract.  That being said, McCarthy's injury history can't be ignored, which is part of the reason why MLBTR's Tim Dierkes ranked Liriano higher than McCarthy (#28 to #32) on his list of the top 50 free agents of the offseason.  A power arm will always carry that extra bit of allure, especially an arm like Liriano's that has shown occasional greatness.

Both pitchers are being courted by several teams, from big-market clubs looking for back-end rotation help to smaller-market teams hoping to find an ace at a relative bargain price. 



Free Agent Faceoff: Angel Pagan vs. Shane Victorino

The free agent market for center fielders is strong this year, with regulars Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Josh Hamilton, Angel Pagan, and Shane Victorino currently unsigned.  MLBTR readers narrowly prefer Bourn to Upton, but both figure to receive five-year contracts in excess of $65MM.  Hamilton is in a class by himself, leaving Pagan and Victorino as more reasonably-priced options.

Pagan, 31, went from a non-tender candidate a year ago to whipping up Doritos Locos at Taco Bell for adoring fans last month (the latter is generally seen as a good thing).  Rival agents may attempt to take Pagan down a peg for a relatively short resume, but only one of his last four seasons was subpar (2011).  Pagan is above-average in all aspects of the game, from offense to defense to baserunning.  Prior to the World Series exposure he was good in kind of a sneaky way, but the sum total is a player potentially worth five wins above replacement.  There's a vibe that his superb timing may result in a contract worth $10-12MM annually over three or four years.  It's plausible that someone stretches and adds a fifth year.

Victorino, 32 later this month, is another late-blooming switch-hitter.  His success as a big league regular dates back to 2006, however.  Compared to Pagan, Victorino had the opposite walk-year effect.  His stock took a hit due to struggles against right-handed pitching and an unimpressive final two months after a trade to the Dodgers.  The term of his next contract seems likely to be shorter than Pagan's despite their similarity in age.  Pagan bounced back after an ugly 2011; there's no reason Victorino can't do the same next year.  And keep in mind that even with the down offensive year, Victorino's ability to play a credible center field still made him worth three wins above replacement in 2012.

Pagan and Victorino are overachievers, in that both were discarded by multiple teams and took a while to establish themselves as regulars.  Now both are on the free agent market, and their career trajectories might not be as different as you think.




Free Agent Faceoff: Ryan Ludwick vs. Cody Ross

Power-hitting corner outfielders are always in demand, but not every team has the pockets deep enough to make a run at Josh Hamilton or even Nick Swisher. The lower price tag on more affordable names like Ryan Ludwick and Cody Ross leads to plenty of interest from teams looking for a boost in the outfield.

Ludwick, 34, produced a robust .275/.346/.531 triple slash line with 26 homers in 2012 — his first season with the Reds. While he was better at home in his hitter-friendly ballpark and against left-handed pitching, Ludwick managed to crack an .850 OPS both on the road and against right-handed pitching. In short, he hit regardless of the situation he was in. However, he totaled his fewest plate appearances since 2008 and provided negative value on defense according to UZR. He'll also turn 35 next July.

Ross won't turn 32 until December, and he enjoyed a strong season in his own right. He hit .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs in 2012 — also his first season with a new team (the Red Sox). Ross carried a noticeable home-road split (.921 home OPS; .684 away) and a significant left-right split as well (1.010 OPS vs. lefties; .729 vs. righties). Ross, however, appeared at all three outfield positions for the Red Sox and graded out strongly in right field according to UZR/150 (+6.3 runs).

Each has likely positioned himself for a multiyear deal. And, while each is drawing interest from his former club, other teams around the league surely are considering the services of both Ludwick and Ross.



Free Agent Faceoff: Michael Bourn vs. B.J. Upton

If you’re a team looking for a center fielder this offseason, you’re in luck. Two of the game’s best center fielders are on the free agent market, as Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton rank third and fifth on Tim Dierkes’ Top 50 Free Agents List, respectively. Both players offer speed and play a premium position, but the similarities stop there.

Bourn, a 29-year-old left-handed hitter, is a true leadoff hitter who posted a .274/.348/.391 batting line in 624 plate appearances for the Braves this season. He also stole 42 bases (fifth time over 40 in the last six years) and hit a career-high nine homers. According to UZR, Bourn has been baseball’s best defensive outfielder over the last three seasons (+35.3).

Upton, a 28-year-old right-handed hitter, is more of a middle of the order bat who put up a .246/.298/.454 line in 633 plate appearances for the Rays this year. He stole 31 bases (fifth straight year of 30+) and hit a career-high 28 homers. His walk rate, however, dipped to a career-low 7.1% (10.6% career). UZR has rated him as an average defender in center over the last three seasons (+0.4).



Free Agent Faceoff: Anibal Sanchez vs. Kyle Lohse

MLBTradeRumors is introducing a new series in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.

Starting pitching is always at a premium and this offseason will be no different. Two of the very best starters on the free market are Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse, who ranked fourth and tenth on Tim’s Top 50 Free Agents List, respectively. Both right-handers pitched for playoff teams this season and have shown durability in recent years, but is one more desirable than the other?

Sanchez, 28, pitched to a 3.86 ERA with 7.7 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 this season, including a 3.74 ERA in 12 starts following his trade from the Marlins to the Tigers. He’s thrown at least 190 innings in each of the last three years following major shoulder surgery in 2008. Sanchez is a true four-pitch pitcher (fastball, curveball, slider, changeup) who gets a decent amount of ground balls (45.3% from 2010-2012) and has actually been better against lefties than righties these last three years (.667 vs. .739 OPS).

Lohse, 34, posted a 2.86 ERA in 211 innings this season, including a 6.1 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9. He’s thrown at least 180 innings in the last two years and four times in the last six years. Lohse gives up a fair amount of fly balls (41.4% grounders the last three years) despite his lack of strikeouts. He’s primarily a sinker-slider-changuep pitcher who has been hit harder by lefties than righties these last three years (.737 vs. .688 OPS). That said, he’s been better than Sanchez these last two years — 3.11 ERA in 399 1/3 innings vs. 3.77 ERA in 392 innings.



Free Agent Faceoff: Ryan Madson vs. Joakim Soria

MLBTradeRumors is introducing a new series in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.

Coming into the season, Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria were two of baseball’s truly elite relievers. They combined to throw zero meaningful pitches in 2012. Both right-handers missed the season with Tommy John surgery and will hit the open market as free agents this winter. They figure to be in high demand despite their injuries, but is one preferable to the other?

Madson, 32, has just one season as a closer to his credit (2011), but from 2009-2011 he was a high-strikeout (9.6 K/9) and low-walk (2.4 BB/9) late-inning reliever for the Phillies. His best pitch is a low-to-mid-80s changeup, a pitch that generally puts less stress on the elbow than sliders or curveballs. In addition to the elbow reconstruction, Madson has missed time with a hand contusion (2011), a toe fracture (2010), and a shoulder strain (2007) in recent years.

Soria, 28, is actually recovering from his second Tommy John procedure. He’s been closing games since the middle of 2007, and owns a 9.7 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 for his career. Soria is the rare four-pitch reliever, using two breaking balls (slider and curveball) in addition to his changeup and low-90s fastball. He missed time with a shoulder strain in 2009 and an oblique strain in 2011.

The Royals intend to buy out Soria’s club option for next year and negotiate a new deal, but either way he and Madson will have little trouble landing work this offseason given their pedigrees. Almost every team will have interest in signing one or both guys to one-year, low base salary, incentive-laden contracts in the coming weeks.



Free Agent Faceoff: Saunders vs. Blanton

MLBTradeRumors is introducing a new series in which two comparable free agents are analyzed side by side. Each post will conclude with a reader vote on the value of the two players.

Joe Saunders and Joe Blanton have a lot in common. They have both evolved into steady if unspectacular starters since being selected in the first round of the 2002 draft. Both of the 6’3” 31-year-olds were traded in waiver deals this past August. They even share a first name. Let’s move past the similarities and determine which free agent should appeal to teams more in the coming offseason, when both Saunders and Blanton will be eligible for free agency.

Saunders has averaged 175 innings over the course of the past five seasons and, unlike Blanton, hasn't missed significant time due to injuries in recent years. He’s six months younger than Blanton and he’s left-handed. Saunders also has the edge in career ERA (4.15 vs. 4.37). While Saunders has consistently kept his ERA below 4.50, Blanton hasn't posted an ERA below 4.50 since 2009. Let's not forget Saunders' two strong postseason starts against the elite offenses of the Rangers and Yankees this month.

Though Blanton missed much of the 2011 season, he pitched 191 innings this past season, and has completed at least 175 innings in seven of eight full years as an MLB player. He’s been every bit as durable as Saunders. Furthermore, he strikes out more hitters and does a better job at limiting walks. Blanton also throws harder than Saunders (90.4 mph) and generates more swings and misses (9.6% swinging strike rate). The right-hander’s ERA has been a little high in recent years, but once we look a little deeper, we’ll see he has produced more wins above replacement in his career, according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference (Blanton has been worth 20.4 WAR to Saunders' 12.0, per FanGraphs). And though he didn’t pitch in the 2012 playoffs, Blanton has 40 solid postseason innings to his name.

Both pitchers have a case for a multiyear deal this offseason, when many teams will be looking for rotation help. Which begs the question…