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October 31, 2012

The Lineup Card

9 Predictions of Free Agent Bargains and Busts

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. Kyle Lohse: Bust
A few days after the 2008 season ended, the Cardinals re-signed Kyle Lohse to a four-year, $40-million contract before he could become a free agent a month later. In his first season with the Cardinals, Lohse had posted a 3.78 ERA and 3.87 FIP while accounting for 1.7 WARP, the second-best mark of his then-nine-year career. This time, the Cardinals won't sign Lohse before he goes on the market Saturday. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has to know where Lohse's market is going and cannot like it.

A Scott Boras client, Lohse will be looking for huge money following a season in which he had 2.86 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 1.9 WARP. Combine those numbers with his gaudy 16-3 record and it's the recipe for a big payday, especially with Boras doing the deal. However, it says here that whoever winds up buying on Lohse had better beware. He is a 34-year-old with a track record of being a mid-rotation starter at best; 2012 is as good as he will ever get. Lohse's WARP was above the 90th percentile of his PECOTA projection this year, and the system does not like his future. It projects Lohse's next four seasons at 0.1, -0.2, -0.4 and -0.9. I'm repeating here: Buyer beware. —John Perrotto

2. Melky Cabrera: Bargain
Melky Cabrera headed into the 2012 season with a new organization, following a trade from the Royals to the Giants, hoping to prove his breakout 2011 season wasn't a fluke. He got off to a great start, earning an All-Star appearance, winning MVP honors in the game, and exceeding even the most optimistic pre-season prognostications. Cabrera was putting to rest most questions about the legitimacy of his breakout. However, a funny thing happened (perhaps “funny” isn't the optimal word): He was suspended on August 15 for using a banned substance. The suspension all but assures he won't receive a lucrative long-term deal.

At the time of his suspension, Cabrera was the major-league leader in batting average amongst qualified hitters with a .346 average. His overall slash was .346/.390/.516, and his 2012 season was even better than his 2011 campaign. Cabrera was reinstated from his suspension on October 12, but the Giants chose not to add him to their National League Championship Series roster or their World Series roster. He'll likely have to settle for an incentive-laden one-year offer in which he proves his performance surge isn't completely PED-fueled before testing the free-agent waters again in 2014. From a strictly contract cost perspective, Cabrera is a rare low-risk, high-reward player. Of course, bringing in a player coming off a PED suspension will come with much media scrutiny and could serve as a distraction to the team that gambles on him. I believe the team that signs Cabrera will be rewarded with a hungry player that plays with a chip on his shoulder, which I think will result in above-average on-field production. —Josh Shepardson

3. B.J. Upton: Bust
B.J. Upton is a chantreusse. In the last two seasons, he's hit 23 and 28 home runs and stolen 36 and 31 bases. While playing center field. He's put up four-win seasons before, and theoretically with his skill set, he should be putting up more. And he's 28. The problem with B.J. Upton is that he might just be the player with the most volatile value in the game. The speed could disappear at any moment. The growth in power could be legit. The .298 OBP this year might be a fluke. Maybe not. The attitude... oh the attitude.

The thing about B.J. Upton is that if he were priced in line with his recent performance, you could make the case that he's risky, but for a team that needs to catch lightning in a bottle, may be worth the risk. If you don't expect much and everything goes right, he could turn into a nice bargain. The problem is this: Someone is going to convince themselves that the only thing holding Upton back is his attitude, and that they know the perfect person to get through to him. And they will bid based on this hope. The free-agent market is driven by the person who falls in love the hardest, and falling in love for the person who... just... needs... someone to believe in them is a tale as old as my fifth-grade teacher. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Stephen Drew: Bargain
Stephen Drew had a $10 million option with the A's, which the A's bought out (for $1.35 million) this week. If we assume the A's reflect industry opinion of Drew's value right now, and that Drew is going to sign a short deal worth less than $9 million per year, he's in line to be the bargain of the offseason. It was just two years ago that Stephen Drew produced 4.6 WARP for the Diamondbacks. It takes us more than two years to give up on a top prospect; it should certainly take us more than two years to give up on a top shortstop with established success in the big leagues. Are Drew's injuries troubling? Of course. Is his .601 OPS with the Diamondbacks this year troubling? Sure. But Drew was nearly a league-average hitter after going to Oakland, and over the past two years of his career—the two worst of his career, seasons disrupted and diminished by injuries—he had 52 extra-base hits in what amounts to a full season of plate appearances. There's every reason to think he could be a bust; but, still short of his 30th birthday and with both pedigree and success in his past, he might still have the upside of a potential four- or five-win player. —Sam Miller

5. Stephen Drew: Bust
Stephen Drew has a $10 million option that the Diamondbacks (reportedly) expected him to opt out of. If we assume Stephen Drew and his agent have a pretty good sense of what he will get as a free agent, and that Drew is going to sign a deal longer and more lucrative than $10 million, he's in line to be the bust of the offseason. Sure, it was just two years ago that Drew produced 4.6 WARP for the Diamondbacks, but even that looked more like a spike than a new level of performance for him. He has otherwise never topped 3 WARP in a year, and he'll be 30 by Opening Day, so the upside of a former top-10-overall prospect isn't really there. More likely, he's a two-win player who could be considerably worse (or considerably injured). His OPS+ the past two years is almost identical to that of Willie Bloomquist, Mr. Replacement Level himself. Drew's defense has been below average every year of his career but one; between that, and his decreasing speed scores, and his knee, abdomen, thigh, and ankle injuries, it's fair to expect a quick and ugly decline from him. So why would he want to test the market, and why would any team pay big money for him? Because even coming off a 79 OPS+ season, he might be the best option in a barren market. Some team will look at him, then look at the Yunis and the Izturii that provide the alternative, and convince themselves that the Stephen Drew they scouted a half-decade earlier is still in there somewhere. —Sam Miller

6. Koyie Hill: Bust
I know what you're thinking: This guy may well just be an NRI or a minor-league signing. And yet. Oh, and yet. Even at that paltry sum, Koyie Hill is an overpay. In a perfect example of the Nichols Law of catcher defense, the evaluation of his defensive ability "evolved" as it became clear that he wasn't going to hit in the majors, but he's a bat-first catcher behind the plate and a glove-first catcher while at bat. Batting him 10th would still be too high in the lineup. Clearly whichever team signs him will have made the most regrettable free-agent acquisition of the winter. —Colin Wyers

7. David Ross: Bargain
So, yes, it's sort of hard to say whether any player will be a bargain or a bust without knowing how much money he'll make. If some team decides to give David Ross a $10 million deal, he won't actually be a bargain. But Ross was a bargain when he made between between $1 million and $2 million in each of the past four seasons, and assuming he doesn't command much more than that in 2013, he should be a bargain again. Ross is too good to have been a backup catcher for almost his entire career: he's a capable framer who throws out baserunners at an above-average rate and doesn't let many balls by. Oh, and he has a career .262 TAv, which means he's been better than the average batter, period, let alone the average batter at his position. So far, this sounds a lot like a description of a starter. And while catchers tend to get old early, Ross has held up remarkably well over his age-32-35 seasons in Atlanta, posting a .283 TAv. He's never had a serious injury, and he hasn't had a DL stint since early 2009.

As he prepares for his age-36 season, Ross has probably passed his sell-by date as a starter; the Braves, blessed with an even better backstop in Brian McCann, have used him sparingly (an average of 57 games and 166 plate appearances per season), and there's no telling how he'd hold up if given more playing time. Atlanta will probably bring him back, especially in light of the uncertainty surrounding McCann, but a smart team would try to woo him away. Considering what he'd cost compared to, well, Koyie Hill, Ross could be an inexpensive asset at a position where some teams settle for a placeholder. And the benefits to having Ross around could extend beyond his playing days: Dan Evans, who had Ross with the Dodgers, says he's a smart player who'll make a good manager or coach.

We used to call Gregg Zaun the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher. In Ross' case, we can drop the "Practically" part.—Ben Lindbergh

8. Clay Hensley: Bargain
I’m a big believer in cheap relievers, largely because so many of them are so unpredictable that you might as well be optimistic about the coin-flip possibility of their success in a given season. I only had any memory of Hensley at all because he gave up Barry Bonds’ 755th home run, and was then reminded of him because he made 60 appearances for the Giants this year yet didn’t make the LCS or World Series roster. Why not? Well, walks, it seems, were a big culprit, and have been throughout his career (4.16/9). But the guy is a ground-ball specialist at his best, and he’s been good before—as recently as 2010, in fact, when he put up a 2.87 FIP in 68 games for the Marlins. If he gets a cheapie deal from a team looking to plug a hole in its bullpen, and if he can throw a few more strikes and make his sinker sit and stay, there’s no reason Hensley can’t pull a Burke Badenhop and handsomely repay another $750,000 contract. —Adam Sobsey

9. Francisco Liriano: Bust
Most players return from Tommy John surgery pitching just as they did pre-surgery, if not even better. There are some exceptions, though, and Francisco Liriano is one of them. The southpaw displayed a world of promise in his 2006 campaign, the first time he pitched more than 100 innings in the majors: Liriano allowed just 89 hits in 121 innings and whiffed 144 batters, good for a 2.59 FIP and 2.6 WARP. He could be a little wild, but he looked like a promising young star ready to take the wheel as the head of the Twins' rotation should Johan Santana be dealt. But then came the dreaded popping elbow, and Liriano missed the entire 2007 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Since he returned to the mound in '08, Liriano has bounced between brilliance and disaster. In 695 1/3 innings since the surgery, the lefty has seen his walk rate skyrocket to an average of 4.1 BB/9 (as opposed to 2.6 pre-surgery), his strikeout rate decline from 11.6 K/9 to 8.7, and an average ERA+ off 88. Liriano did have a strong 2010 campaign, but he hasn't been able to replicate the results or the number of innings pitched. Still, Liriano is just 29 years old, in the middle of his prime, and with clubs constantly craving starting pitching—left-handers in particular—a team might consider overpaying for the type of potential Liriano once showed. I don't think teams will get wild about the number of years they're willing to sign Liriano for, but the price to sign him could be significantly inflated. —Stephani Bee

13 comments have been left for this article.

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