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November 25, 2009

So You Need

To Hit the Jackpot

by Ken Funck

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With a dearth of healthy, productive players on the market, a market loaded with lots of injury risks, and with the persistent pressure on GMs to do something to propel their clubs forward, this season's free-agent signing season is likely to be a crap-shoot-loud, fun, and highly dependent on luck, and in the end more players are certain to walk away losers than winners. That's why BP's own Joe Sheehan has repeated his warning of two seasons past, channeling the disembodied digital voice of the WOPR to remind us that "the only way to win is not to play."

Joe's right, of course, in the aggregate-and that warning would be just as true in Las Vegas, the town Penn Jillette famously described as subsisting on a harvest of bad math skills. But of course millions of people continue to gamble, many knowing that the house will likely get them in the end, but believing in their chance to make a killing and walk away. Similarly, while general managers may be wise to just give the whole free-agent thing a pass this year, we know that's not going to happen-most of them are jumping out of the cab and heading straight for the craps table. So Joe and the rest of the BP crew have been providing terrific analyses of which bets are the best-which players are the most likely to be undervalued, and which can you take a chance on without exposing your bankroll.

But today, I'm taking a slightly different tack. I'm going to recommend a few players that are more like progressive slot machines: the cost to play will be low, and the odds of winning may in fact fall squarely in the "sucker bet" category, but the payoff could put you on easy street. All of these players come with high risk, and to bet on them you may have to deny logic and apply faith - but as anyone that's taken home a prize with a raffle ticket can attest, winning in defiance of reason is half the fun.

Tossing Dice on the Corner: Once considered a genuine slugging third baseman, Chad Tracy has ended his career in the Snakepit as a backup corner infielder with little power and even less utility, and should be available for less than the buy-in at your local floating craps game (assuming such things still exist in a world short on noir dialog and long on Native American casinos). Tracy's last solid season was in 2006, before microfracture knee surgery and other injuries sidetracked his career, and an execrable .237/.306/.389 line last year looks especially bad at first base, where he's been spending most of his time. But our task here is to look for silver linings, and a little digging can unearth a few. Tracy's walk rate and isolated power have returned to their 2006 levels, he's striking out less, and his 2009 numbers were undermined by a career-low .251 BABIP. There's a non-trivial chance that Tracy could bounce back to his 2006 levels, or even better if he scores a randomly high HR/FB rate. At first base that would still be sub-par, but the defensive numbers hint he might not yet be a true liability at the hot corner. Sign him for a song, platoon him at third, and if luck's a lady you might have a top-flight contributor. And don't forget to break out that aw-shucks grin when the media starts calling you a genius.

Hulking third-baseman Troy Glaus is a posterchild for the "productive or hurt" set, a four-win player as recently as 2008 coming off a season lost to shoulder problems. Now that he's 33, you can safely add age to his long list of known risk factors. Glaus can still play a reasonable third base-his bulk has always made him look less nimble with the leather than he actually is-and nothing in his 2008 numbers point toward an impending decline at the plate. His isn't the cheapest ticket you can buy, but he can probably be had on a one-year deal-and the payoff if he's healthy is the highest of anyone on this list.

Papa Needs a New Pair of Middle Infielders: Signing an old infielder coming off a career year, like Craig Counsell, usually leads to regret and self-loathing, but there are mitigating circumstances here. Counsell's patient lefty-batting ways and good glove make him a valuable infield reserve, but with his 40th birthday on the horizon he's unlikely to fool potential suitors into a Scutaro-esque payday, keeping him available at cut-out bin prices. The wild-card here is the evolution of his batting stance, as he's finally mothballed his freakish CB antenna imitation in favor of a more conventional approach. Suddenly Counsell is hitting fewer ground balls and more gappers, greatly increasing his traditionally low BABIP, leading to a career-best .280 EqA (all-time flavor) last season. Some regression is nearly certain, and most analysts expect a lot. But it would cost little to stick him in the long half of a second-base platoon and find out if he can do it again. At worst, you have a solid backup infielder at a reasonable price, with a shot at much more.

Shortstop Alex Gonzalez returned from a 2008 season lost to knee surgery and demonstrated that his defensive chops were undiminished, but woeful offensive numbers caused the Red Sox to decline his $6 million option and put him out on the street. But how woeful were those numbers, really? Wave away his disastrous first half in Cincinnati as extended spring training, and focus on his Fenway stay, where he slugged .453 and posted a .260 EqA. Orlando Cabrera posted virtually the same EqA in Minnesota last year (.261), and he was hailed as an offensive savior. It would be beyond ridiculous to expect Gonzalez to be anything but an OBP sink, but he's always had decent power, and if he's thrown a few more hangers next year, he could hit 15 home runs and be an above-average shortstop on the cheap. Stranger things have happened.

It Came From Out of Right Field! If you're looking for a miracle comeback, how can you not sign Rick Ankiel? With a backstory worthy of Bernard Malamud, Ankiel's career toggled back from riches to rags last year as he struggled through an injury-plagued season where his only offensive asset-light-tower power-went into hibernation. He hit fly balls at the same rate, but they just didn't carry, and when pitchers stopped tiptoeing around him, his walk rate plummeted. All bad news for the Cardinals, Ankiel, and his agent, Scott Boras, but good news for the team that decides to spin the wheel and take their chances with him. If Ankiel's power outage was of the "squirrels at the substation" variety rather than him just plain losing it (a pattern, I admit, we've seen from him before), he'll provide five-hole production at a bargain price, and enough human interest fodder to keep feature writers busy all summer.

Pitching Pennies: Jose Contreras is one of the most infuriating pitchers in baseball. He's reliably inconsistent, a nibbler and a poor fielder, indifferent to the task of holding runners, prone to the big inning, and it frequently feels like several inches of polar ice have melted between each of his carefully considered offerings. But his stuff has never really deserted him, and when he's right he can still be dominant. Last year he pitched well in a stretch of games during and after a demotion to Triple-A, but was terrible before and after for the White Sox, and winding up the season with a final, successful stretch spin in the Rockies' pen. The trick is to be impatient with him-ride him when he's hot, but yank him in a game as soon as he's given up a few runs, or from the rotation after two straight bad starts. A team with a conscious plan to limit the damage wrought by Bad Jose can reap the benefit of Good Jose, and get 140 worthwhile innings for about the cost of a veteran LOOGY.

As Eric Seidman has already described in detail, this year's list of free-agent pitchers is littered with big-name pitchers toting big-time injury risks. Rich Harden, Erik Bedard, Ben Sheets... no one doubts their talent if healthy, and while they feature more question marks than a Frank Gorshin Fan Club meeting, they will all likely sign multi-million dollar, and in some cases multi-year, contracts this winter. But if you're looking for the smallest possible investment with the highest return, this season's penny stock is clearly Kelvim Escobar. Shoulder woes have kept the former Angels ace sidelined for the better part of two seasons, and while he expects to be ready for spring training, we've been down that road before. I have no idea whether Escobar will ever be healthy enough to pitch in the major leagues-no one does, although skeptics abound. An organization would be crazy to count on him for their 2010 rotation. But the team that signs him on the cheap and sends him off to Triple-A to get in some work before bringing him back-a luxury the Angels didn't seem able to allow themselves last year-might just wind up with a valuable asset down the stretch. Remember, if you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.

The Human Horseshoe: A veteran innings-eater with middling stuff, Jason Marquis is hitting the market after an All-Star season with solid overall numbers that mask a bad second half. And if you need any other reason to think he's due to be overpaid just in time to collapse, remember that it's been three years since he left the Cardinals, and whatever high-level spell Dave Duncan cast on him must be reaching the end of its duration. However, that's all irrelevant, since it's not personal performance you're buying with Marquis, it's team performance. Marquis has toiled for a playoff team in each of his ten seasons in the bigs, and if you don't understand why that means he's going back next year too, you're probably one of those whiz kids who think they understand probability because they know the next roulette spin is a 50/50 proposition, regardless of whether the last 10 spins were red. Or should I say "irregardless"-but this ain't the same thing. Marquis is the anti-Bernie Lootz, and whatever you sign him for, your additional playoff revenue is certain to outweigh his contract. It's a lock-just be sure to keep him away from Maria Bello.

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

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