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November 6, 2012

Overthinking It

This Offseason's Generic-Brand Bargains

by Ben Lindbergh

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The free agency period, which got underway over the weekend, is a time when smart teams tread carefully, aware that the market contains as many potential pitfalls as it does opportunities. Land a high-profile free agent and you’re likely to improve your team, but you’ll also run the risk of succumbing to the Winner’s Curse, the tendency of a team to have to overpay for a player in order to outbid all his other suitors.

However, some less prominent players with lower contract demands stand a chance to approximate a more expensive player’s production, so a team can always try to cut costs and minimize risk by looking for comparable players with a little less buzz. Just as a smart shopper saves on over-the-counter medications by buying generic instead of paying a premium for a patent and nice packaging, a smart GM ignores name recognition in favor of production and price.

Last winter, the Yankees passed up the top domestic starter available, C.J. Wilson, in favor of the older Hiroki Kuroda, the Royals opted for elbow surgery survivor Jonathan Broxton instead of making a run at Heath Bell, and the Twins let Michael Cuddyer walk and signed Josh Willingham for more than $10 million less than Cuddyer went on to get from Colorado. After watching their targets outperform pricier options, all three teams have to be happy that they decided to spend smarter. So who are the off-brand alternatives to some of this winter’s most attractive free agents?

RHP Jeremy Guthrie
Compare to: RHP Kyle Lohse

This winter, Lohse is reportedly in line for a contract the size of the one Wilson got last winter. The right-hander is coming off a season in which he led the National League in starts and winning percentage, posting a 2.86 ERA in 211 innings. However, his success over the past two seasons has depended in part on uncharacteristically low BABIPs, and despite the 3.11 ERA he’s recorded over that span, his career ERA remains higher than league average. Even if Lohse takes the lessons he’s learned in St. Louis to his new team, it’s unlikely that the 34-year-old can sustain the same performance.

Guthrie is Lohse light: he’s never had a season as good as Lohse’s 2012, but he’s been just as good, if not better, over the course of his career, despite spending almost all of it in the American League. Before 2012, Guthrie had pitched at least 200 innings in three consecutive seasons—the same number Lohse has pitched in a longer career. He struggled in Colorado to start last season, but following his July trade to the Royals, Guthrie recovered to strike out nearly three batters for every one he walked. He’s six months younger than Lohse and could be about as good to bet on going forward. More importantly, he won’t make Wilson money (or cost his new club a draft pick).

RHP Shaun Marcum
Compare to: RHP Edwin Jackson

Jackson didn’t come close to getting the five-year, $60 million deal he and agent Scott Boras were reportedly seeking last winter (perhaps not surprisingly, the right-hander reportedly found new representation in July). Instead, he settled for a one-year deal. As usual, he missed bats and showed signs of fulfilling his lofty potential, but he finished the season right around league average. Jackson’s occasional inefficiency prevents him from being a true workhorse, but he hasn’t been disabled since 2004, so he can be counted on to rack up innings. He’s expected to command a contract that will look a little more like the one he wanted last time around, though, so he won’t come cheap.

The concern with Marcum is durability: he’s reached 200 innings only once, and he missed over two months with a sore elbow in 2012. However, he’s been effective when healthy for the last several seasons. His injury history and soft-tossing style will conspire to keep his cost down, and while he comes with more risk than Jackson, he could prove to be a better deal.

RHP Joel Peralta (re-signed with Rays on Monday), Koji Uehara
Compare to: RHP Rafael Soriano
Soriano and Boras are reportedly seeking a four-year contract in the neighborhood of $60 million. Granted, that’s just a starting point, and the duo might be forced to lower their demands, as Boras and Jackson were last winter. While Soriano might be the most attractive closer candidate on the market, he won’t be worth that much money, especially in addition to the draft pick a team would have to surrender to sign him (since the Yankees made him a qualifying offer).

If a team is determined to sign someone with closer experience, Broxton and Ryan Madson might make better financial sense than Soriano. But a team that decides it doesn’t need to pay for past saves could have given Peralta a look. Over the past three seasons, Peralta has pitched more innings with a higher strikeout rate and a lower walk rate than Soriano. He’s a few years older than Soriano and more prone to home runs, but a pitcher’s park would help hide his one weakness. The Rays agreed; they reportedly signed him for two years and $6 million on Monday. Koji Uehara is another right-handed relief option with the same potential payoff and problems.

CF Melky Cabrera
Compare to: CF Michael Bourn

Calling Cabrera a center fielder is a stretch, but he hit well enough there to carry his glove in 2011. He’ll be willing to take a one-year deal to reestablish his value after his positive testosterone test in 2012, and even if his offensive gains last season prove to be a PED- and/or BABIP-related mirage, a return to his 2011 performance would still make him a valuable player.

As Dave Cameron pointed out, Bourn’s high-strikeout, low-walk skill-set has not aged well historically, and he’s about to hit 30; a team that commits to him for several seasons would be left with a very light bat if his speed slips and his defense and baserunning decline from their current high levels. Bourn is the better player now, but Cabrera on a one-year contract could be one of the best deals of the winter, provided the team that signs him is prepared for a possible PR hit.

IF Maicer Izturis
Compare to: IF Marco Scutaro

After his second-half and postseason heroics, the 37-year-old Scutaro—while a quality player—may be in line for an overpay. Izturis, in contrast, is coming off an injury-plagued down year. He’s five years younger, considerably cheaper, and from 2009-2011 was an above-average hitter who could fill in capably all over the infield. Buying low instead of high here might make a team happy. 

Already off the market
LHP Oliver Perez
Compare to: LHP Jeremy Affeldt/LHP Sean Burnett/LHP Randy Choate

Seattle re-signed Perez on Sunday night, so it’s too late for any other team to snap him up. But compared to the deals that the other attractive left-handed relief options might land—Affeldt just completed a three-year, $14 million contract and could be in line for a raise—Perez at one year and $1.5 million might have been a steal. He’s not quite as dominant against same-handed hitters as Choate, but he’s not nearly as vulnerable to opposite-handed hitters, either. In his 2012 comeback, he threw hard and showed every sign of being something more than a specialist, and if he can keep that up for another season, he’ll be worth much more than the Mariners paid.

‚ÄčA version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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