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November 20, 2006
At These Prices, Who Can Say No?
At this rate, there'll be nothing to talk about next month in Orlando.
Free agents have been reaching agreement on contracts at a pace that far surpasses anything we've seen in recent years. Alfonso Soriano is just the biggest and most recent one, the slugger apparently agreeing to terms on an eight-year, $136-million contract to play for the Cubs until Twiki and Dr. Theopolous are running around New Chicago. Smaller deals were reached over the weekend for Mike Stanton, Justin Speier, Orlando Hernandez and Alex Gonzalez, among others.
That last contract caught my eye, because Gonzalez was one of the top names on my list of "stealth" free agents. Carlos Lee, Barry Zito, Jason Schmidt and their ilk will be chased furiously, and compensated wildly when finally caught. In many years, however, the best deals come at the lower end of the market, low-profile contracts signed with low-profile players who return more than they make.
Now, the amount of money floating around will mean that even these deals have a tinge of overpaying to them. The Gonzalez deal is among them; when I added him to my stealth list, I figured he'd come in on a one-year deal, maybe a two-year deal for $3 million or $4 million per. Gonzalez actually agreed to a three-year, $14-million deal with the Reds, per ESPN.com. The length and the money reflect the current market, which has more money available than players.
So what makes Gonzalez a good stealth signing? After all, he has been above a .300 OBP as many times as he's below that mark, and he's coming off his third straight year with a sub-700 OPS. That anemic bat wouldn't seem to make him a good choice as any kind of free agent, much less one to praise.
Gonzalez, however, is one of the top defensive shortstops in the game. While his numbers in Clay Davenport's system don't look good, Gonzalez consistently ranks among the top glove men in play-by-play systems or zone-based ones, such as the work of Mitchel Lichtman or Chris Dial. With the PBP systems largely in agreement on his value, I take those numbers more seriously than the Davenport ones. Gonzalez's defensive prowess elevates him from a replacement-level player to a slightly-below-average one, more than worth just shy of $5 million per season. He's one of the few players in the game whose defense really does make up for his offense.
Gonzalez may have a greater opportunity to help the Reds than he would on a normal team, too. The Reds don't have a strikeout staff (11th in the NL last year), and in particular, their bullpen is loaded with groundball guys. Gonzalez should help shore up a defense that has been among the worst in the game the past few years. The Reds still look to have major problems with outfield defense-and this signing is another reminder that the Reds no longer have Felipe Lopez at shortstop-but Gonzalez is a better player than his raw numbers indicate and should make them better in '07.
What other free agents, like Gonzalez, may look better in June than they do right now? I'm largely looking for players who have some kind of skill, like Gonzalez, that may be overlooked. Other players, pitchers in particular, may not have performed as well as they might due to injury, but have markers that point to future success. In all cases, these players are ones I'd like to take a chance on, at the right price, in 2007:
Tony Armas Jr.: Still battling back from shoulder surgery that cost him big chunks of the 2002 and 2004 seasons, Armas managed to make 30 starts for the Nationals in his walk year, with his best peripheral statistics since his abbreviated '03 campaign. He's been around since the dawn of time, but won't turn 29 until the first month of 2007. He still a big guy with stuff that can be dominant at times, but the injuries have prevented him from putting up results. I think he's close to it, though. He's getting more ground balls these days and before a late-season fade-remember, he hadn't made more than 19 starts since 2002-he'd had nearly a 2:1 K/BB and a low home-run rate. I'm not arguing for an Eric Milton deal, but I think Armas is a better risk for the money he'll get than a lot of higher-priced guys will be.
Miguel Batista: Batista got a three-year deal the last time he came this way, so maybe he's not that stealth. His starter-to-closer-and-back path the last three years may clutter the perception of him and help him come cheaply. Like Armas, he had his best Stuff score in a while; we don't talk about that number much, but I like it as a quick indication of how well a pitcher is going the things he needs to do, especially since its adjusted for league context. Batista's was positive for the first time since 2003 despite an unimpressive 110/86 K/BB. He doesn't give up homers because, back in the rotation, he went back to being a strong groundball pitcher. He's usually one of the best right-handers in the game when it comes to controlling the running game, although he was just OK (15 SB, 7 CS) this year. Low homers, groundballs, doesn't allow steals…if he was left-handed, we'd talk about him as a Tommy John class pitcher. As it is, he's a good addition for a team with a strong infield defense, perhaps the Mariners.
David Dellucci: If you'd told me, in 1997, that David Dellucci would go on to have Luis Gonzalez's stats from that point forward, and Gonzalez Dellucci's, I would have believed you without hesitation. That's how much I liked him back then. A mysterious injury killed his chance at stardom, but he's bounced back in his early thirties to become a very useful left-handed bat, popping 29 homers in Texas a year ago and hitting .292/.369/.530 for the Phillies in '06. It's too late for him to become a star, but right now he looks like a more nimble Matt Stairs, capable of carrying the big half of a platoon. Frank Catalanotto, who nearly made this list on his own, just got a three-year deal for $13 million, and Dellucci is almost certainly the better player.
Tomo Ohka: He's hitting the market at the wrong time, which is a great time to buy low on a guy. Ohka had his highest ERA since 2001 and his worst peripherals ever while missing time with a shoulder problem and pitching poorly down the stretch. I list Ohka here with this caveat: he's likely to either be so bad, due to the shoulder problem, that he doesn't stay around for long, or he'll be back to being Tomo Ohka, a #4 starter. I'd pay for a couple of MRIs and make the decision based on what my doctors saw.
Randy Wolf: Another injury case, Wolf missed about a year to Tommy John surgery and rehab, returning for 13 forgettable starts down the stretch. He did not pitch well at all, allowing 13 homers and 33 walks in 56 2/3 innings. With the success rate for pitcher post-Tommy John surgery as high as it is, though, I think he's a good bet to return to at least a league-average starter, with some upside from there. In the right park-he's a flyball pitcher who could use a big outfield and some flychasers behind him-he could look very, very good. The Mariners are paying Jarrod Washburn $9.5 million a season through 2009, and I'm not convinced he'll be any better than Wolf will over that timeframe.
Gregg Zaun: The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher has been more than that for the Blue Jays since 2004, playing as a semi-regular and posting a .363 OBP across the three years. A switch-hitter who can get on base and not kill you behind the plate should sell himself, but between Zaun's poor arm-he's allowed 187 stolen bases in his non-regular role in three years, a huge number-and lack of the kind of reputation for being a mensch that gets backup catchers their jobs, he's not in high demand. As with Bengie Molina this past year, he'd be a good match for a team with a defense-first, right-handed-hitting catcher. The Astros come to mind, as do the Tigers and the Cardinals. Zaun would help most any team, but because he doesn't fit the mold of a backup catcher, he should be something of a bargain.
Who am I missing? What free agents aren't getting much attention now but will be in eight months? Drop me a line with your candidates, and I'll be back tomorrow with some of the best names and a look at all the free-agent activity over the last few days.