January 13, 2005
Quick note: The repeated "Lowe-Down" headlines this week were the first signs of old age on my part, kind of a nasty little sign held in front of me saying: "This is your brain. And this is your brain on its way down."
While watching Sophia work her way through a stack of pamphlets on how to care for an idiot, I got thinking about what's left on the market. According to ESPN.com's Free Agent Tracker, there are 102 players available for the taking. This number is a bit inflated; it includes players who have retired, such as Edgar Martinez and Todd Zeile.
This is not a happy list. The vast majority of the 90 or so players on this list who are actively looking for work were pretty bad last year, many are in their mid-30s or beyond, and almost none can be considered candidates for more than a non-roster invite. I'd guess that there won't be more than 10 more guys signed to major-league contracts between now and the end of spring training.
The most desirable remaining free agent is Carlos Delgado, which isn't surprising in that Delgado never wanted to leave Toronto in the first place. There's a perception that he's in decline, but if you look at his second-half numbers, compiled after a rib-cage injury ruined his first half, you see that he hit .305/.408/.625. There's very little difference between Delgado and Jim Thome, and Delgado is likely to come in well below Thome's $14 million salary and six-year commitment.
The Mets, who have done the best work signing free agents this winter, are supposedly in on Delgado. The Marlins identified their needs beautifully and made an offer as well. He would be an excellent fit for either squad; picking him up would mean more to the Fish, who have absolutely no left-handed hitters likely to hit even five home runs. The Orioles, also bidding, seem to combine the worst of both worlds for Delgado, being less likely to contend than the Mets and further from his Puerto Rico home than the Marlins. Look for Delgado to end up in the NL East, with the Mets' money and better chance of competing holding an edge.
Magglio Ordonez was supposed to be one of the big prizes this winter. That was before a knee injury wiped out the last three months of his season, and created concern about his ability to play. Ordonez has not worked out for anyone, and his medical reports are more closely guarded than a Fabergé egg. Until he lets teams in on the secret and shows his knee to be sound, it seems unlikely that he'll be able to sign the kind of deal he and his agent--Scott Boras--are seeking. Ordonez seems like a good candidate to end up, like Ivan Rodriguez last year, with a bad team that's willing to assume more risk because it can't get top-tier free agents to sign with them.
There's a big drop-off after those two. Jeromy Burnitz exists on a bit of an island as the only remaining free agent of a certain quality between the stars and the scrubs. Because his big 2004 numbers--.283/.356/.559--were compiled at altitude, he's not drawing the kind of interest you might expect. What's strange is that some teams, notably the Astros, are coming at him as a center fielder. Burnitz isn't one; he played 69 games there last year because the Rockies lost Preston Wilson and their other choices were worse. Burnitz hit .244/.327/.448 on the road last year; that's the guy who's a free agent. Burnitz is a near-lock to be an overpaid disappointment for someone.
After Burnitz, there's another huge drop-off. The loser on Delgado may settle for Travis Lee. Coming off of a career year in '03, Lee missed all of 2004 with a torn left labrum. He's a very good defensive first baseman who can hit .280 with doubles power. You don't want to overpay for that package, but when you can get it for $2 million or less, you're helping your team.
There are a number of right-handed relievers who might be able to help teams. Of these, I like Scott Williamson the best, a high-risk, high-upside guy who's just a year removed from lighting up the Yankees in the ALCS and who was one of the best relievers in the AL in '04 before his bum elbow effectively ended his year. I love the idea of signing him to a Jon Lieber-style two-year deal, paying for the rehab and hoping you can get a stud in '06. Steve Reed is on the market, and he's virtually never a bad pitcher. If you can afford to carry a righty specialist, he's the best one out there.
Let's see…Ben Grieve is available, and while it's hard to drum up much enthusiasm, he's just 29 years old and still puts up a decent OBP. There's not a team in baseball that couldn't use him on the bench, and a dozen for whom he'd start on a corner or at DH. Two of my favorite players from the 1990s, Ray Lankford and Barry Larkin, are looking for work. Both have retained enough of their offense to be contributors in bench roles, although neither can play the field well enough to be a regular.
Every other remaining free agent, save perhaps a few, is going to be scrambling to stay in the majors this year, hoping to find work with a team that values experience over upside. It's not a fun place to be, I'd imagine, and it's hard to not feel a bit for someone like, say, Ricky Bottalico, who is coming off his best season in ages and can't find a suitor. Alex Cora finally got established in '04, only to watch the Dodgers sign Jeff Kent and non-tender him.
There's one name that really jumps out at me, though. Esteban Loaiza was a Cy Young candidate in 2003, a disaster in '04, and now is looking for work. If he'd had his last two seasons in reverse order, he'd have signed a three-year deal this winter for $27 million. Now, he'll be lucky to make a million bucks next year, and will probably never have the chance to leverage his best season.
It's a strange game that way, where two guys with a similar small number of good seasons and comparable career records can find themselves $20 million apart in the market just because one had his big season at the end of a contract, while the other had his one year too soon.
Don't believe me? Ask Jaret Wright.