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November 14, 2007

Prospectus Today

Low-End Free Agents

by Joe Sheehan

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I have pretty much the same opinion of the 2007-08 class of free agents as I did about the last two classes, with the exception that this class includes one of the greatest players in baseball history. If you can sign Alex Rodriguez, you do so; he's worth somewhere around the $30 million a year he's supposedly asking for to a team that's on the brink of contention right now. His decline phase may well be worth that kind of money as well, given where the marginal value of a win is headed, and the additional revenues that Rodriguez can generate as he chases down some of the game's most hallowed records.

Beyond Rodriguez, though, I fail to see any good places to put tens of millions of dollars over three or more years. If you can make the kinds of deals that the Red Sox and Padres have made so far, signing league-average starters to one-year contracts, that's fantastic. The same goes for teams thinking of getting Tom Glavine, Andy Pettitte, or Roger Clemens to sign that kind of contract; if you can pull it off, great, because there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal anymore.

The highest-profile guys in this market, though, are past-prime players for whom defense, which declines with age, is a key component of value. The center fielders look attractive now, but do you want to commit $15 million to the notion that a 35-year-old Torii Hunter will have the legs to play center field or the bat to play right? The same question applies to Aaron Rowand. The pitchers provide even less reason to be confident: Kyle Lohse? Carlos Silva? Yecch. As excited as I might be by Kosuke Fukudome's skill set, the man missed half of last season with an elbow injury, and hasn't been seen playing baseball since. We know that power hasn't translated well for Japanese players, and that elbow injuries can affect power themselves, so how much can you pay for a player carrying multiple unknowns as he crosses the Pacific?

No, if I'm dipping into this market with my team's money-owners looking to hire, I can be reached through the link at the bottom of the page-I'm looking to the bottom of the list, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to…wait, that sounds familiar. I'm looking for upside rather than certainty, and to get that upside with a minimal investment. That approach won't make the beat writers or a team's marketing staff happy, but it should be good for the win total and the bottom line when all is said and done.

The following low-profile free agents fit my criteria of not being ranked A or B, and having enough upside to warrant a one-year or one-year-plus-option deal. I don't expect all of these players to break through and have great 2008 seasons, but on the whole, this pool will outperform the contracts they receive in the market.

  • Tony Armas Jr.: I know, I really never learn. Armas has been on lists like this or my spring "my guys" list since, seemingly, the Carter Administration. His strikeout and walk rates continue to be serviceable (73/38 K/BB in 97 innings), but he's a flyball pitcher who doesn't put the ball past enough guys, and gives up the long ball (18 last year). However, I like the way he pitches, pounding right-handed batters inside with his fastball. Armas hit eight batters last year, all of them right-handed, and in the last three years has hit RHBs at a 3 ˝ times the rate he hits lefties. He wasn't great out of the pen this year-a 5.06 ERA in 26 2/3 innings, but a 22/6 K/BB-but I think he's the type of pitcher who could make the transition and go on to make a lot of money. If Kevin Towers decides to make him the next Scott Linebrink, look out.
  • Bartolo Colon: Colon hasn't been healthy since "winning" Johan Santana's Cy Young Award in 2005, fighting shoulder problems in 2006, and then a bum elbow in 2007. The throwaway line here is "well, karma," but it's not Colon's fault that the voters made an egregious mistake. There's a fairly thin line between having a great lower body for pitching and being too fat to do your job, and Colon lives right on it. I'm inclined to believe that the three late-season appearances-25 ground balls, 11 fly balls, no home runs allowed-are a sign that Colon can be a mid-rotation workhorse, especially since his HR/FB rate was a bit out of whack this year. The only catch is that I suspect he's more in line for an Adam Eaton contract than the Randy Wolf one.
  • Jeff DaVanon: Injuries ripped up his 2007, and he's certainly not going to be a star. If you think about the value Reggie Willits provided to the 2007 Angels, though, you see how DaVanon can help a team that needs OBP atop its lineup. DaVanon brings a little more pop than Willits or Scott Podsednik (another comparable player) does, he can play all three outfield spots, and he'll come very cheaply coming off of his split season. His OBPs from 2003-06: .360, .372, .347, .371, and he's the kind of player who should age fairly well. If you give me a choice between Andruw Jones or $70 million and Jeff DaVanon, I choose DaVanon and the cash.
  • Cliff Floyd: He remains a good source of left-handed OBP, and if the power has gone south over the past two seasons, he still has enough of it to be a threat as a late-inning pinch-hitter. His defense is shaky enough that he'd fit better as a DH and part-time outfielder in the AL, rather than as a part-time cornerman only in the NL. In the AL, I think he could have the late-career run that Matt Stairs has had, putting up .270/.360/.480 over the next five years. If you need runs and don't want to sign Barry Bonds, Floyd is a fairly good default option.
  • Geoff Jenkins: Because he was only worth his contract once in the last four years-in 2005, when he hit .292/.375/.513-Jenkins is perceived to be a much worse player than he actually is. The Brewers may have made a mistake declining his $9 million option, because as a platoon corner outfielder who plays good defense on a team that lists very heavily to the right, Jenkins would have been worth four or five wins if he just kept hitting righties. That's the rub about Jenkins: he's an absolute platoon player who has never really been restricted to that role. He hit .262/.326/.482 against righties last year, and .306/.381/.490 in 2006. He's a championship-caliber platoon outfielder. If he can accept that role, and find a team willing to limit him to it, he'll be very valuable in 2008.
  • Jason Jennings: I hated the Astros' trade for Jennings for what they gave up; the team undervalued Willy Taveras and didn't see that Jason Hirsh was essentially a Jason Jennings starter kit. The deal still might have worked out for the Astros in the short term, but Jennings never overcame a sore elbow and watched his GB/FB ratio shoot through the roof (0.81 in 2007, after a career mark of 1.52) in the wrong park for that kind of change. The entire stat line screams "fluke" to me, and as long as your team doctor signs off on Jennings' elbow, go get him. He's the guy on this list most likely to post a 3.50 ERA in 2008.

    (By the way, f you're thinking about writing in to comment on my apparent love of pitchers with big rear ends, don't bother. Every possible joke has already been made. Twice.)

  • Mike Lamb: Hey, remember when Mike Lamb was going to be the Yankees' third baseman? Well, it's worked out all right for him, as he's spent the last four years raking away for the Astros, and now hits the market coming off of a .289/.366/.453 season. He's generally been a part-time player in Houston, the guy they've turned to when tired of Morgan Ensberg, so his counting stats are low enough to keep him off the radar. He can play third base, his peripherals are good, and he will run around the outfield if you ask nicely. He'd look especially good on the Indians, Phillies, or Tigers, all teams that could use some lefty OBP and have or could create some room at third base.
  • Jon Lieber: His season was ended by a foot injury, not an arm one. He was having your basic Jon Lieber season up to that point, throwing just shy of six innings a start, and striking out 2.5 times the guys he was walking. He'd be a great pickup for a team that plays where fly balls go to die, but remember that Lieber was a decent innings muncher even playing in Citizens Bank Park, which appears to be 270 down the lines and 320 in the gaps. There's not that much difference between Lieber and Greg Maddux at this point, and you can get Lieber for half Maddux's price.
  • Corey Patterson: His price may end up inflated by his high stolen base total. Other than that, Patterson is a pretty good low-end solution in center field for a team that doesn't want to get into the Hunter/Jones/Rowand mess. There's no argument that Patterson is better than those three, based on the evidence we have. However, Patterson is at least two years younger than all of the others, which matters when talking about guys you're asking to play center field. He will be around $50 million cheaper in total than the least expensive of the bunch, and between $7 million and $10 million less expensive in 2008.

    If you sign one of the name-brand center fielders, you know you're getting a declining market, you know you're paying top dollar, and you have very little chance of turning a profit on the deal. If you sign Corey Patterson to a two-year deal, you're catching the end of his peak, you're almost certainly not paying top dollar, and there's enough upside here to project the deal as a winner. If just left alone and not asked to be Juan Pierre, Patterson is a .280/.320/.470 hitter, with 25 net steals and +10 defense in center field. Yes, he'll strike out 150 times, and he probably needs 30 games off a year against lefty starters. Sign him and DaVanon, though, and you've solved three problems (center field, fourth outfielder, defensive replacement on a corner) for maybe $7 million.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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