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November 6, 2012
This Offseason's Generic-Brand Bargains
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
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
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
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
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
Already off the market
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .