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February 18, 2008

Prospectus Today

Free Agent Leftovers

by Joe Sheehan

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This is the wrong list to be on. It consists of 57 players who remain unsigned as of today, February 18, with pitchers and catchers already in every camp, and position players on their way.

The list is not entirely accurate. Sean Barker is on there, and I'm pretty sure he's going to Tucson as a non-roster invitee of the Rockies, who dropped him from their 40-man over the winter. Ditto with Andy Gonzalez, who's in the Indians' camp after getting dropped by the White Sox. Some of these guys are retired or semi-retired, such as Mike Matheny, Corey Koskie, and Roger Clemens. The available players range from among the best in the game's history (Barry Bonds) to fringe guys who were non-tendered, such as Mike O'Connor.

Mixed in there, though, are legitimate free agents who simply haven't agreed to terms with anyone yet. Kyle Lohse tops the list. It seems we've come full circle on Lohse, who was regarded, four months ago, as the pitcher most likely to be the Willie Blair/Carl Pavano of this class. Now, with March approaching, Lohse is unemployed and apparently without much demand for his services. There seems little chance that he'll garner a Vicente Padilla-level contract, which after his stint as a league-average starter in 2007 seemed the minimum expectation.

What happened here? I'm inclined to see the lack of demand for Lohse as a sign that the industry is growing smarter. One of the clearest mistakes repeatedly made on the free agent market is overpaying, in money and time, for middling talent. Overpaying at the top of the market-assuming you've correctly identified it-makes sense. Even overpaying at the bottom, by locking up your young players before they're even arbitration-eligible, makes some sense. It's the middle level, stocked with free agents of less than star status who hit the market coming off of their best seasons, where all the biggest mistakes are made. Deciding that Pavano, with two good years in his life, is worth a four-year contract is terrible call.

A year after lavishing Padilla, and Ted Lilly, and Gil Meche, with eight-figure annual salaries, the industry has collectively turned up its nose at a pitcher with a comparable if slightly inferior track record. That's learning. That's development. That's maturation.

Of course, now that's it's February 18, the equation changes a bit. Instead of an expensive mistake to be avoided, Lohse looks more like a potential bargain need-filler for teams lacking good options at the back of the rotation. A fringe contender like the Reds, otherwise considering someone like Matt Belisle behind its front three starters, could gain by spending $10 million on Lohse for his 30 starts of 4.60 ERA-level ball. The Devil Rays, working in young starters behind "veterans" Scott Kazmir and James Shields, might see some value from bringing in Lohse if the price were a bit less than that. Even though they have no long-term need for him, if having a reliable innings guy makes it easier for them to take their time with Jacob McGee, Wade Davis, and David Price, it might be worth the cash, of which they have plenty.

Looking around both leagues, there would seem to be spots for Lohse on the Braves and Astros to be sure, and arguably the Phillies, Cardinals, Tigers, and Nationals as well. It would have been a mistake to sign Lohse to an expensive, long-term contract; it's almost as big a one to not reconsider him in light of what has been a light demand for his services.

Lohse is the best and most durable of the remaining starting pitchers. Looking past him, we can divide the other guys into two categories: fifth starters who take the ball, and third starters who might not. In that first group, you have Josh Fogg, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Jeff Weaver. All were lousy last year; in fact, they all were in 2006 as well. In their favor is that they have generally been healthy, and if signed, can be counted on for 30 starts. They fit teams desperate for innings-like the Nationals-more than they do teams actually concerned with the quality of those innings. If Livan Hernandez, the patron saint of this group, can find work, there should be room for the remaining three.

Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia are also available, both coming off of injury-riddled campaigns and with questions about their ability to perform. Colon's conditioning is always a concern, and as Derek Jacques reported, his velocity was down and he looked out of shape in winter ball. Shoulder surgery in August knocked Garcia out of the 2007 season and may leave him unable to pitch at all in '08. Colon and Garcia are the converse of the pitchers above; they're more likely to be unavailable than they are terrible, and can be considered as gambles for teams who are trying to contend and looking for above-average performance, if perhaps in just 15-20 starts.

The best remaining outfielders are both center fielders, if as disparate a pair as you could find. Corey Patterson, a low-walks, high-strikeouts 28-year-old with good range in center field and excellent base-stealing skills, has not found a home yet. Hey, I'll be the first to repeat the "OBP is Life, Life is OBP" mantra. However, Patterson, with a career .298 OBP and marks of .314 and .304 the last two years, is about as good a player as you can be with that kind of OBP. He's stolen 82 bases at an 82 percent clip the last two seasons, he's a .270 hitter with some pop, and he's an average to average-plus center fielder. The Braves traded for Mark Kotsay, for crying out loud, and Kotsay hasn't outplayed Patterson since 2005. The A's don't have any center fielder at the moment, nor do the Marlins. The Padres could use a flycatcher (although adding him to Khalil Greene makes it hard to build a lineup). The Twins just threw $5 million at Livan Hernandez, and Patterson has more value than the workhorse.

At the other end of his career is Kenny Lofton, who has lost more than a step in center, never could throw, and should never, ever be allowed to face a lefty any longer. With all that said, here are Lofton's OBPs against righties the last three years: .386, .379, .394. At ages 38 through 40, he's gone 77-for-92 (84 percent) stealing bases. That guy can play a part-time role for any team. The problem is that most teams will be tempted to play him more than that, and in center field. (I'm looking at you, Dusty.) The line between Lofton hurting you and Lofton helping you is pretty thin, and not crossing it is important.

Another outfielder of interest is Shannon Stewart, who had a .345 OBP in McAfee Coliseum last year while appearing in 146 games, his most since 2001. Stewart can't play anywhere but left field, but he's a legitimate .285 hitter with some pop and some speed, and he gets on base, and he's coming off of a healthy season. He'd arguably be the best non-Colby Rasmus outfielder in St. Louis, to nominate one team. Like Patterson, Stewart represents an opportunity for a team to make a three- or four-win upgrade for a bargain price.

Just because a player looked like he would be a mistake signing four months ago doesn't make him poison. Remember, it's rare that free agents are bad players; they're just too often bad players for the price. As we near March, the price drops, and it becomes time to reconsider players who never looked like viable options in November. Making that kind of adjustment on the fly is the mark of a good front office. At least three or four of these guys will be signed by teams that go on to contend this year.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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