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November 7, 2003

Free Agent Health Report

American League

by Will Carroll

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We continue our look at some of the most important free agents hitting the market this off-season by heading to the American League. (For the NL free agents, please see Tuesday's FAHR.) In any player movement, it is important not only to know the performance and expectations of each player, but to know the reasonable expectation of that player being on the field. The potential for greatness is always beguiling to any team, but both performance and attendance matter in getting a team to its ultimate goal. Eight million dollars paid to a guy with a bad back is worse than not having had the payroll space to begin with.

Despite the risks highlighted below, those don't mean a team should not pursue or sign one of these players, merely that the risks involved should be known. If you sign Jeffrey Hammonds--and someone probably will--your team had better have a better quality backup outfielder than most.

  • After starting the NL with the relatively unexciting Terry Adams, we're flipping things around to get to the good stuff first. David Wells is someone who pretty much every GM can understand. He's not going to be first in any of the sprint drills, but he is going to do roughly the things you expect, which are pitch effectively, not put a lot of guys on base, and win more than he loses. Pitching for the Yankees helped his win totals, but he was hurt by the defense slightly. Expected to sign with San Diego, Wells is not possessed of a "rubber arm" as Tim McCarver told us about 300 times during the World Series. Unless the doctors rubberized it at the same time that he had Tommy John or shoulder surgery. That said, Wells is an effective pitcher when used properly, especially if you don't mind the occasional distractions.

  • Ismael Valdes gets something of a bum rap. Ask about Valdes and you'll either hear that he never lived up to his early hype or that he's fragile. While the first is incontestable, the latter is slightly overblown. He's never had a serious injury, just a series of small ones. Granted, that can be nearly as tough to overcome, but it's more the price that three AL West teams paid for his services that hurt rather than his actual performance. A team looking to find the next Esteban Loaiza could uncover something nice from Valdes, still only 30 years old.

  • John Thomson is one of those guys that can help the right team, but he's never going to be the type that excites the media or fans. Sure, you don't mind seeing him as an innings-eater (which Frank Robinson says is like getting set up with a girl with a nice personality), but you don't want him as an ace, as he was, by default, with Texas. Two years removed from major shoulder surgery, Thomson is back to his inning-eating ways, while remaining as flammable as a thatch-roofed cottage in the path of Trogdor.

  • Once the age question is broached--and does anyone really think a team isn't going to do its due diligence on this question--the talent and durability shine. Miguel Tejada remains tantalizingly close in profile to the anointed Trinity of Shortstops and can sometimes outplay all but one. Unlike the Chosen Three, however, Tejada is available. With the market looking nothing like the times when A-Rod, Nomar, and Jeter were signed, Tejada's deal might be one-third of the going rate in 2001. His bad luck is another team's gain.

  • Shannon Stewart comes off his MVP campaign and will surely...wait, wait...I just woke up, I think, from a bad dream where Shannon Stewart was touted as the AL MVP and then, he actually won it. This dream likely won't come true, but Stewart does have the gift of 'buzz' as he heads out into the cruel, cruel world. He'll probably get top dollar and someone will regret it. His hamstring problems and noodle arm make his positional flexibility almost nil, and he'll likely never be an impact base stealer again. In fact, the best comp for him might be Darin Erstad, without all the annoying grass-stains.

  • Arthur Rhodes battled injury about as much as he battled opposing hitters this season. Hiding an ankle injury made him brutally ineffective over the last half of 2003. Ankle injuries shouldn't be recurrent and being left-handed, he'll get more shots than if he were, say Jeff Nelson. All of Rhodes' dip in K rate can't be blamed on the ankle, so he's probably not as good as he was in 2001.

  • Andy Pettitte is probably the most sought-after free agent pitcher this off-season, but he has some rather serious health questions. His elbow has come up tender several times, including this season, and his high-effort motion has always made pitching gurus a bit nervous. Pettitte seems to recover well with some down time and some renewed attention to his mechanics, but without knowing what the MRIs have shown, we can only guess that there's some damage inside the arm. While Houston will certainly bid, New York wants to keep Pettitte in pinstripes. Given the risk of injury down the road, the shorter the deal the better. Seeing the 1974 version of Tommy John at #3 in his PECOTA comparables is enough to send me screaming like Jessica Biel in Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

  • What's with the subliminal big black bat in the Viagra commercials? (Thanks, Scott) Seriously, Rafael Palmeiro needs some of those little blue pills that can raise his slugging percentage or give him some bat speed back. It might not keep Mrs. Palmeiro as happy, but it would sure help whatever team goes out and gets him. By refusing a trade, Palmeiro kept himself from returning to Texas, and the market for the aging, fading first baseman won't be what he may have thought.

  • Like his teammate we'll discuss in a bit, LaTroy Hawkins has become an excellent late-inning reliever. After stints as a failed starter and failed closer, Hawkins became one of Ron Gardenhire's go-to guys. The change in managers seemed to really free him up, but that could be coincidence. Hawkins has always had a loose delivery and solid mechanics, and he's older than many realize--31 heading into next season--so a shorter deal would make sense.

  • It's an interesting dilemma. In a season where there are several closers available and one already traded, there are some solid late-inning relievers available too. While both Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Brendan Donnelly put up huge numbers, Hasegawa is the one who is able to cash in while Donnelly is likely to be renewed by the Angels at a low, low price. Hasegawa showed the ability to close, but he's always been more successful when used more often. His K rates are low, but his health outside of a 2001 stint on the DL with shoulder tendinitis is clear and he's expected to be back in Seattle.

  • Coming off a career season is one point on the "good" side and a broken wrist that required surgery must go on the "bad," right? Not necessarily. Jose Guillen remains someone that some teams should consider. Of all the injuries one can have, a fracture might be the most predictable in all but the most severe, Jermaine Dye-type instances. Wrist fractures in particular are easily fixed with relatively minor surgery. There's a long list of players that have come back--and quickly--from these types of injuries with little or no effect, even in-season. The question is more whether Guillen just experienced a career year or a career turnaround.

  • They call him "Everyday Eddie", and looking at Eddie Guardado's career line, he looks like the rubber-armed reliever that everyone wants. After two years in the closer's role with great results, he's ready to head out into the world with a couple other good closers and see if he can shake loose some silver from a GM who can be distracted by that shiniest of baseball objects, the closer. Past elbow problems are past enough that they shouldn't be a serious concern, but Guardado's work habits have never been a selling point. Guardado's next team will get what they get--an effective reliever who can finish games--but paying the closer price isn't necessary.

  • Carpe diem. No, wait, that's not right. Caveat emptor. That's what I would say to anyone thinking of bringing in Juan Gonzalez. On the heels--so to speak--of a calf injury that might or might not have been enough to keep him out for the last section of the season, Gonzalez leaves Texas for a second time, and that sound he heard was the door slamming behind him. Gonzalez is an injury-prone and moody slugger with a documented inability to stay healthy. A team might take a one-year flyer on him, similar to the Ivan Rodriguez 2003 deal, but Gonzalez's attrition and drop rates make anything beyond this simply too risky.

  • Keith Foulke heads into the free agent market with almost no concerns. He's never been overused or even had his limits tested. He's never failed, unless you have the same outlook on pitchers that Jerry Manuel had, and only Foulke's minor back problems put any blemish on his record. Foulke loses some leverage with the Billy Wagner deal, but he's the best late-inning pitcher on the market and won't be free for long.

  • After dealing with severe leg problems for most of 2002, Carl Everett was able to put together a productive 2003 with a minimum of problems. Sure, he had some small nagging injuries, but it was still a solid season. Expecting Everett to play CF on a regular basis would reduce his value, but used intelligently, he can help most teams.

  • Kelvim Escobar has been shuttled back and forth from pen to rotation more times than I care to count, but he's never suffered for it. In the past few seasons, several short relievers have made the move to the rotation with varying success, but Escobar has actually shifted between roles without serious problem or loss of effectiveness. It speaks both to the value of his arm and to the inflated value that modern baseball puts on roles. Escobar is probably better suited to starting, especially if Toronto tries to bring the four-man back in 2004. He'll probably be back, wearing the cool new uniforms of the Jays.

  • Here's where it gets interesting. Bartolo Colon seems to be a health problem waiting to happen, but like C.C. Sabathia and Livan Hernandez, it's a time bomb that doesn't have the convenient countdown that we see in the movies. Colon is fat and some want to see him as David Wells, minus the left-handedness and bad autobiography. Instead, Colon is durable and not overused, has no history of arm trouble, and only a slightly cranky back in his jacket. His PECOTA (2003) isn't a horrible negative indicator, so as much as I want to think he's a bad risk, none of the data makes it look that way. It's just another example of not trusting your eyes, even when they're trained.

  • The only concern anyone can have about Mike Cameron--besides that dopey off-kilter hat look he's sporting--is that his game relies so much on his legs. His swing, his defense, and his running are all predicated on the health of his legs. Cameron had some slight groin problems mid-season, but they blew over and he came back. His PECOTA is about as clear as they come and Cameron remains one of the jewels of this free agent class, if not quite in the Guerrero-Pettitte-Tejada stratosphere.

  • Armando Benitez has gone from stud closer to reclamation project in just a few seasons. He could either be a high-priced bust or the type of acquisition that would make a team look good. Given the reluctance most teams will have giving him the ball to close games, the price could be right for a team with the right pitching coach. No one's ever questioned Benitez's stuff and he's as durable as they come, but he'll need a manager who's willing to wear asbestos undies and a pitching coach like Dave Duncan or Leo Mazzone who has the ability to rebuild him.

  • It's not often that being one step late, having one inch less jump, or having a reaction a split-second slower was so apparent. For all the talk of Roberto Alomar being rejuvenated in Chicago, there was little statistical evidence and less tangible results. Another year might lead to another step lost and the best comparables stop being all-time greats, but all-time greats that hung around too long and were left as ghosts chasing memories of greatness. His next team will pay him for who he was while getting who he is. Alomar and Barry Larkin have long been compared to some of the greatest at their positions, but their career paths are coming together.

UTK--and all of Baseball Prospectus--send our best wishes to good friend and occasional contributor Steven Goldman. We always hate to see the good ones head to the DL, but Steven should be back soon. He's a four-tool writer and we expect him back in the lineup well before Spring Training. Drop him a get-well line at oldprofessor@wholesomereading.com.

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