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November 22, 2009

Prospectus Today

Infield Free Agents Review

by Joe Sheehan

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There are currently 170 free agents. John Grabow was the 171st, but that was before signing with the Cubs right after the list became official. Over the next couple of days, I'll cover every single one of the 170, with the infielders coming first. Players are listed by position, and ranked within their position subjectively by how good a value I think each can be as a free agent.

First Basemen

Nick Johnson: His lack of power and frequent injuries hide the fact that Johnson is probably the fourth-best position player on the market, with a career .402 OBP and three straight seasons above .410. His power didn't come back after his injury, and he's one of the slowest players in baseball-a trait that has bled into his defense-so he's something of a one-trick pony, but it's the best trick. He fits something like half the teams in baseball, with the Mets, Braves and Giants being among the best spots for him. It's like signing a starting pitcher: give him a three-year deal and hope he gives you two back.

Adam LaRoche: Given how well he hit the year before he was dealt and his two months of channeling Mark Teixeira last summer, Braves fans could be forgiven for thinking LaRoche is a star. He's actually a mid-level first baseman, someone whose 2009 overall line or career (.274/.343/.491) accurately peg his skills. Middling first basemen tend to fall fast and hard around 31 or 32, and LaRoche has that Pete O'Brien feel to him, so any deal should be two years, max. He's likely return to Atlanta.

Carlos Delgado: He was on his way to another strong season when a torn labrum in his hip effectively ended his season in May. Surgery gave way to rehab, during which he suffered a strained oblique. He's a mystery at this point, because while he clearly possessed the skills of a middle-of-the-order hitter when he went down, his rehab was slow and triggered a second injury. This may be a spot for a team like the Orioles to roll the dice, getting a short-term upgrade and potentially a high-caliber trade chip if it works out, and not damaging any playoff hopes if it doesn't.

Jason Giambi: The month in Colorado was a fun story. Giambi can't play the field any longer, leaving him a pinch-hitter or part-time DH. He's basically Matt Stairs at this point, but Stairs was worth a roster spot for a long time, and Giambi can be, too. It's just hard to carry a guy like this in an age of four-man benches. Someone will guarantee a year, and it won't be a mistake.

Jim Thome: Thome last wore a glove on June 13, 2007, so we can eliminate one league right there. In the other, he's an above-average batter who'd be an upgrade at DH for a bunch of teams, and a threat off the bench for the others. It's not entirely clear whether he's looking to continue his career. Ironically, one team he'd improve is the Cleveland Indians.

Doug Mientkiewicz: Since his stint with the Red Sox in 2004, Mientkiewicz has played for five teams in five seasons. He's still capable of roping some line drives and drawing walks, and his hands are still good around the bag. That's a useful bench player in a lot of situations. Not sure he's worth a 40-man spot, but he's deserving of a non-roster invite.

Mike Sweeney: He was surprisingly productive after coming off the DL on July 23, inheriting at-bats from Ken Griffey and Russell Branyan and batting .311/.372/.500 in 137 second-half PA. With just 164 defensive innings in the last four years, he's basically a DH. There was enough there to warrant a NRI, clearly, but given his limitations I'm not sure guaranteeing money and using a roster spot is warranted.

Ross Gload: There isn't much room for backup first basemen in a 12-pitcher world, but Gload's rep as a pinch-hitter-enhanced by his hitting .318/.418/.455 last year-is going to get him guaranteed money from a team for that alone. He's a fit for a team with a right-handed regular first baseman who isn't a star or a glove man, like the White Sox. There are a lot of bad teams looking for first basemen this offseason, and Gload may fall into one of those gaps.

Russell Branyan: Branyan's chance of getting paid following the best season of his career was reduced when a herniated disk ended that performance in August. His .383/.792 performance on contact isn't likely to be repeated, and his strikeout rate crept up towards 40 percent in the second half, so there are reasons to be wary. At best, he'll get a one-year deal, and it's unlikely that he'll ever get the payoff that seemed inevitable at midseason. Power hitters with back problems are a nightmare; I wouldn't sign him.

Kevin Millar: Here's a good example of a veteran who starts working deeper counts to mask an inability to get the bat around any longer. His productivity has been going straight downhill for four years, and there's no platoon split or speed or defense to exploit. He's done.

Greg Norton: Being reduced to a true pinch-hitter-he got just two starts-didn't work for Norton, who did nothing but take pitches and hit weak fly balls all year. With no defensive skills or speed, he brings little that you can't find in a younger package possessing more upside and roster value. He'll be a non-roster invite.

Dmitri Young: Assorted injuries kept Young from even taking the field in 2009, so the final score for the two-year extension that Jim Bowden gave him is 50 games played, $10 million earned. If he ever gets healthy, he'd be worth a look as a pinch-hitter, because he does hit for average and rope some doubles.

Rich Aurilia: He's been living off two big years in Great American Ballpark for a while, and at 38, coming off two bad seasons in three, it's hard to see him contributing any longer. Garret Atkins does basically what Aurilia does and has a little upside. NRI bait, if that.

Robb Quinlan: He hasn't hit since 2006 (2007-09: .252/.305/.333) and he brings nothing else to the table but assorted gloves and a minimal ability using them to attack baseballs. If you really need flexibility, you can get it in a package that includes speed or range or on-base or power, all things Quinlan lacks. I wouldn't be surprised to see him stay in the Angels' organization.

Second Basemen

Felipe Lopez: He's played for two teams in three of the last four seasons, and he spent the other one as a National, so it's fair to call him a low-profile player. The poor defense that crippled his value at shortstop has given way to an average, maybe a bit better, glove at second base, and since getting out of Washington he's been a .400 OBP guy. Last year may have been a peak, but he's had such an odd career that it's not out of the question he could hit .300, rather than .275, for a few years. He could bat second for a whole lot of teams-Rockies, Cubs, Tigers-and push them into October.

Orlando Hudson: He had yet another Orlando Hudson year, his fourth straight in the same range, and managed to avoid a traumatic season-ending injury in the process. Back on the market, Hudson is a Type-A free agent again, and may once again run into demand problems should the Dodgers offer him arbitration. Another year in LA wouldn't be the worst outcome here, but a team in the top half of the draft should recognize the value he brings and be willing to cough up a second-round pick along with a two-year contract for Hudson, who is a terrific percentage player with good skills. The Gold Glove and fully healthy campaign will help his market value.

Craig Counsell: Rickie Weeks' injury gave Counsell an opening, and he responded with one of his best seasons. He's 39 and has lost most of his speed, and the .280 batting average will almost certainly go away in '10, so he looks better as a utility infielder for a righty-heavy team than a regular. Clearly worth guaranteed money, Counsell would look good on most contending teams.

Adam Kennedy: The secondary skills Kennedy showed at 33, stealing bases, drawing walks, and hitting for power, were rarely present in his game the previous two seasons. Betting on him to repeat that at 34 seems optimistic, and he's a marginal regular without those skills. He'd make a strong fifth infielder, however, especially for a team that rarely takes its shortstop out of the game. The Phillies come immediately to mind, especially since Kennedy could also spend some time at third base. He's worth a guaranteed deal.

Placido Polanco: Winning two Gold Gloves in three years will make him a desirable commodity. The stats back up the hardware; if he hasn't necessarily been the best second baseman, he's been a good one. His offense is slipping slightly, as he gets more balls in the air to his detriment. His decline will likely be slow, but with so much of his value in his glove and so many second basemen available, there are safer ways to spend money. He's kind of the prototypical Twin, and the Cubs could also spend for him.

Ronnie Belliard: His deteriorating contact rate is starting to chip away at his value, and he doesn't have a strong glove to fall back upon. Belliard's ability to smack down southpaws and willingness to play all around the infield make him a good bench piece, it's just not clear if his big September and installation as the Dodgers' postseason starter makes him a regular in the eyes of the player or the market. If he's paid and played like a starting second baseman, he'll disappoint. In a 350-AB role, he's worth guaranteed money, perhaps even a two-year deal. The best fit for him is in a lefty-heavy infield… Twins, maybe? Orioles?

Jamey Carroll: Utility infielders who can't play shortstop usually have short shelf lives. Carroll survives by being a better offensive player than the field, and he has the scrappy sheen that gets you two-year deals where one is more appropriate. The steady rise in his strikeout rate will likely chew up his OBP during his next deal, making it his last. He'll be pursued by a bunch of teams looking for "stability" at second base.

Third Basemen

Chone Figgins: He gets flagged as a utility guy, but Figgins has gotten 355 of his last 381 starts at third base, and he's become a strong defender there. He's likely past his days at second base, and his bat wouldn't be special in left field, so third base fits. With a broad skill set and good speed, Figgins can be expected to age gracefully, making a four-year deal less a stretch than you might think. The concern is that the deep counts he worked this year-with career highs in walks and strikeouts-were more about a loss of bat speed than a new approach. He's a little young for that concern, which usually comes up with players older than 33. Figgins is a better bet to be worth his price than Matt Holliday is to be worth his.

Adrian Beltre: Take out the fluke 2004 that made him rich and the injury-plagued 2009, and Beltre has been a remarkably consistent player. He was a better Mariner than he was given credit for, as his offense was better than it looked, and his defense consistently strong. The concern is his left shoulder, on which he had mid-season surgery. He hit .259/.291/.374 before going on the DL, and was crushing the ball when he returned only to be forced back to the DL after taking a ground ball to the groin. He wasn't the same when he returned. A healthy Beltre is a very good player, and if he won't be signing another $65 million deal, he is worth a three-year investment for something in the range of $11 million per season. He's an excellent fit for the Phillies and Cardinals.

Hank Blalock: Blalock's year was so out of sync with even the lowered expectations of his career that you almost want to give him a pass. His strikeout rate jumped as he swung through more pitches, and he just stopped drawing walks or squaring up on the ball. Blalock had a 39/1 K/BB against left-handers, which is the worst K/BB I've ever seen from anyone, ever, in any split. With all that, he was slugging .547 at the All-Star break before completely collapsing in the second half (.201/.237/.348). I'd sign him to a two-year deal and send him to an optometrist immediately; there's a lot of upside if you can get him squared away. Blalock is a great medium-risk pickup for a team that needs offense and has no third baseman, such as the A's, Orioles, or Blue Jays.

Troy Glaus: He had started his decline phase in 2007, and hits the market coming off an '09 season decimated by injuries. I'm not sure he would have been that attractive coming off what you could have expected in a healthy '09, but the lost campaign at least turns him into a low-cost upside play. With no speed and not much defense, "upside" may be strong. His willingness to play some DH and maybe even platoon will determine where he lands.

Pedro Feliz: His two years in Philadelphia were bizarre-he made more contact, hit fewer home runs per fly ball despite moving from San Francisco, and was almost exactly as productive as he was before. He hits way too many ground balls for a right-handed batter with no speed. His above-average glove barely makes up for his bat, and he has no value as a bench player. One of the losers in the Figgins/Beltre/DeRosa chases will sign him in early 2010, to little effect in the standings.

Aubrey Huff: Huff is an example of why you can't put too much emphasis on a player's launch year in evaluating him as a free agent. Had he reached the market off his terrific 2008, he would have gotten a multi-year deal for about $10 million a season. Coming off a considerably less spectacular '09, he'll be lucky to get guaranteed money. He fits better as a backup cornerman, getting 350 ABs, than as a regular; he's a league-average bat with a below-average glove. Teams needing some balance on the corners, such as the Marlins, could be a fit.

Mark DeRosa: We're not all too busy foaming at the mouth over his flexibility and character to notice that he hit a wall at 34, are we? He struck out more, walked less, hit fewer line drives… there are warning signs all over the place for a guy that half the league is chasing. A bad left wrist can't explain all of that. DeRosa has the best birthday on the calendar, but even that doesn't move the needle for me. He's worth a roster spot, and you may see some bounceback at the plate, but the kind of deal he's going to sign is disproportionate to what he'll produce. He's likely to be one of the winter's biggest mistake signings.

Juan Uribe: His 2008 and 2009 seasons were each flukes in their own way, with last year seeing a BABIP spike and some balls leaving the yard that didn't go out in '08. He's unchanged as a player, a hacker who was worth the playing time as a good defensive shortstop, but not as an adequate third baseman. He's a .250 hitter, and a team signing him will learn that pretty quickly. His power could make him a viable bench option, but that's about it. Uribe is likely to be a mistake signing.

Chad Tracy: Tracy hasn't been the same since undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee after the 2007 season, not hitting enough to make up for his not being a third baseman any longer. He's at best a backup corner infielder on a team that already has two right-handed bats at first and third, and low standards. If you prefer, he's the mirror image of Garrett Atkins. Tracy is NRI bait.

Melvin Mora. Mora's skills are eroding, a process that was masked in part by a fluky HR/FB rate in 2008. He lacks the speed and flexibility that made him a strong bench player when he was younger, so his only role is as a third baseman, and his bat is marginal as a regular there. He might be an option for teams that miss out on Beltre and Feliz, or who just want to go cheap. Perhaps the Twins or A's will call.

Mark Loretta: I can't read his name in anything but Nick Tortelli's voice. His .232 batting average doesn't mean much in 181 at-bats, although the complete lack of power is disturbing. He'll be somebody's NRI, but one who could make a contribution next season.

Miguel Cairo: His reputation as an effective pinch-hitter isn't unearned: .267 for his career, .333 since the Yankees picked him up off the scrap heap in 2004. That's not really enough to justify a roster spot, however, and it's certainly not enough to warrant an offseason 40-man slot. He'll get a non-roster invite and be on someone's bench in '10. His next team, if a new one, would be his ninth.

Joe Crede: Back problems have pretty much ended his career. It's OK to take a risk on an injury case, but you want to be getting some upside in the deal. Crede has no upside; if healthy, he'll be an OBP sink with some pop, no speed, and much less range than he had in his prime. He pushes you away from a championship. Find a better option, Twins.

Aaron Boone: Boone's wonderful comeback from heart surgery served to cloud the fact that the Astros never should have signed him. Boone has hit .249/.315/.380 since blowing out his knee in the 2003-04 offseason, with one good season in four. He'll get a look for his name and story; any more is hard to justify.

Shortstops

Orlando Cabrera: Durable, consistent, and just not quite a good enough player to warrant the loss of a first-round draft pick, which limits his suitors to the bottom 15 teams in the game last year. The Twins may decline to offer him arbitration, having traded for J.J. Hardy, a decision that would put a lot more teams in play for Cabrera's services. The Red Sox seem like a natural fit, given Jed Lowrie's issues and the history there. He's losing speed, so you want to keep the commitment to a year if possible. Cabrera benefits, as you're about to see, from an extremely weak pool of free-agent shortstops.

Alex Cora: Cora played through torn ligaments in both thumbs, limiting his performance in a year when he was asked to play more than usual due to the Mets' historic run of injuries. Surgeries on both digits should have him back to full health in 2010. He's worth a guaranteed deal as one of the better utility infielders in the game, albeit one with no chance to be a regular.

Omar Vizquel: Vizquel's ability to adjust to a backup role last year, as well as the perception that he played a part in Elvis Andrus' development, will allow him to play a few more seasons should be choose. He'll get a one-year guarantee from someone, with the White Sox apparently closing in on an agreement with him. Pairing him with Alexei Ramirez isn't a bad idea at all.

Alex Gonzalez: Even good defensive shortstops need to hit better than this to stay in the league. Gonzalez was surprisingly nimble afield coming back from knee surgery that cost him a season, and not-so-surprisingly useless at the plate. His glove rep will get him a guaranteed deal with one of the many bad teams needing a shortstop. The Astros spring quickly to mind, as do the Royals and Pirates.

Marco Scutaro: One of the biggest mistakes in free agency is deciding that a player's career season at an advanced age heralds some change in his level of performance, and paying him as such. Scutaro is a good utility infielder and a marginal starter who had the best year of his life at 33 on the basis of some walks, power, and defense. It wasn't a one-category thing; he played better than he ever had before. But we have a hundred years of information that tells us that utility infielders don't become starting shortstops at 33 on one side, and Marco Scutaro on the other. He absolutely can help a good team, but if you sign him and pay him money that indicates you think that he's going to have 2009 three more times, you're making a big mistake. One big year at 33 doesn't change what a player is. Scutaro is something of a competence test for front offices this offseason, and likely to be perceived as a disappointment come next summer.

Miguel Tejada: Even when he was coming up, Tejada never walked fewer than 20 times in a season. He took to swinging at everything last season-he was one of 10 players to swing at more than 52 percent of the pitches they saw-and ending many at-bats early. With declining range and a volatile offensive skill set, he's a poor risk even coming off his second straight All-Star appearance. I wouldn't sign him with anyone's money, but enough teams are looking for shortstop help that he'll get the chance to break some hearts. Tigers, perhaps?

Khalil Greene: Getting out of San Diego didn't fix his contact rate or pitch recognition, and his defense is sliding back from a place where you can forgive a .280 OBP. He didn't play enough after his return from a DL stint for social anxiety disorder to make a case for whether he's over that or not. It's hard to see Greene, at 30 and coming off two awful seasons, being worth more than a non-roster invite.

Nomar Garciaparra: Could you have found anyone, in June of 2004, arguing against Garciaparra's getting to 2000 hits? He's at 1747 and may not get to 1800. His slashing style at the plate is theoretically suited to pinch-hitting responsibilities; his career .196 average in that role, and 4-for-28 last year, argues against the notion. He can't field enough to play up the middle (or third base, for that matter) and he can't hit enough to play first base or DH. At 36, he's not really worth a roster spot. This makes me sad for some reason.

John McDonald: McDonald's defensive peak was really something to see. His 2007 season might have warranted a Gold Glove if part-time shortstops who can't hit were ever considered for the honor. Now 35, his glove cannot carry his bat, and he doesn't belong on a roster. He'll get an NRI. In a world where teams carried 10 pitchers, he could be Mark Belanger.

Juan Castro: Like McDonald, at his peak Castro was a good enough defensive shortstop to be a credible starter despite a limp bat. Now, he has no business on a roster.

Bobby Crosby: Injury-prone, 30, and a .292 OBP from ages 26-29. Someone will give him a chance, but he certainly doesn't deserve another at-bat in the majors.

Adam Everett: There was a time when his fantastic glove carried his below-average bat. Now, both have slipped from those levels, making him a replacement-level player. He's NRI bait; with no bench value, he's not even rosterable.

Ramon Martinez: He played last year only because of the train wreck that was the Mets infield. He's not likely to even get an NRI, and his career is probably over.

Chris Woodward: He hasn't been worth a roster spot since 2005, and should probably not appear in the majors again.

---

Next up, outfielders and catchers.

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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