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January 15, 2010

Baseball Therapy

Free Agency Personals, Part Two

by Russell A. Carleton

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Dashing, athletic guy looking for a team to stick with. Two years ago, I got out of a long-term relationship after it went sour and have moved around some since. I want to settle back down. I guess you could say I like different positions, if that's your thing. I'm a little more mature than most of the guys out there. But I still think I can still steal your heartů and second base. Do I sound like your guy? Call my agent.

Our hot stove lonely hearts club continues with Ryan Freel, whose personal ad appears above. Last week's featured contestant, Aubrey Huff, apparently caught the eye of the San Francisco Giants. (Aubrey, I'm expecting my cut in the mail.) Could there be someone out there for Ryan as well?

Freel comes off a 2009 season in which he spent time in six different uniforms, including the Orioles, Cubs, Royals, and a couple of Triple-A teams. (Oh go ahead, say itů) He spent some time in the Rangers organization as well. That means that last year, Ryan Freel had a whirlwind romance with four different teams. Given that a baseball season lasts from April to September, it means Freel, who was 33 last year, averaged a month and a half to go through the entire relationship cycle of "you're interesting, you might be the one; you're trash, I'll rebound with someone else." Why do teams keep falling for this guy? It's certainly not that sparkling .193/.290/.216 line he put up last year.

Even worse, Freel showed some warning signs of a collapsing skill set. In 2008, he made contact on 84.6 percent of his swings, itself part of a slow drop off in this area. In 2009, his rate dropped sharply to 80.3 percent, and he struck out a quarter of the time he came to the plate. He also saw his ground-ball rate drop to 45 percent, a little odd for a guy who was usually around the 50-percent mark. As Freel has never had much power (22 career home runs and an ISO of .101) and whose value has always been in his legs, he's not the sort of guy who can get away with starting to hit balls into the air.

Oh for those halcyon days of 2004-06 when Freel reeled off three seasons with an on-base percentage above .360, and stole 37, 36, and 37 bases for the Reds. He did this while playing second base, third base, and all three outfield positions. In other words, he did a decent impersonation of Chone Figgins. Still, there's that little issue that in two of the past three years, he's posted an on-base percentage under .310, and his hitting skills appear to be eroding.

So why does Freel still have the allure to get teams all hot and bothered? He's the type of guy who is often referred to as "athletic," which is usually just a fancy way to say "fast." He can probably still steal a base, although at 34, he's not a very good long-term investment in that department. He's also "versatile," which as we discovered last week with Aubrey Huff, is the willingness to stand in several places on the diamond. It's actually rather hard to get a reading on Freel's defensive capabilities. Because he's played in so many places, his sample sizes in each are too low from which to draw much in the way of conclusions. What evidence is there suggests a slightly above-average fielder.

Freel's wheels and the fact that he's not tied down to one defensive position make him sound like a good 11th or 12th man on the bench who can provide cover to several positions. After all, what if we need a pinch-runner late in the game? In that sense, Freel can do a lot of things. The question is whether those things are important enough to counter balance the fact that you probably don't want him batting very often. Freel has the advantage, though, that for a short period of time, he can live off the glory of years gone by. A team might be willing to put up with his hitting troubles in the hope that he'll regain his old form.

I think the reason Freel keeps getting a job is this: even if he doesn't revert to a .360 OBP guy, he does check off several items on a team's "things we need to worry about" checklist. The problem with that sort of thinking is that not all things on that checklist are equally important. It's a natural human tendency to spread resources out to prepare for multiple eventualities, even if some of them are rare, rather than to focus resources on the ones that are more likely to come up. (Want proof? It's in your "kitchen gadgets" drawer.) It's also faulty thinking. The idea that there might be a circumstance for which they have no cover makes people nervous, no matter how rare. But ask yourself which would happen more often: a good pinch-runner being the difference in a game or another good pinch-hitter?

I could imagine Freel going to any number of teams on a minor-league deal. His recent record shows that he's the type of guy whom teams perceive as "worth a whirl," although not in a contract structure that requires much risk. He does have a couple of useful skills. Maybe if someone goes down with an injury, he's a good insurance policy to have sitting in Triple-A, more as a backup to the utility infielder who must now handle everyday duty. He's also the sort of guy who gets designated for assignment when the team needs to bring in an extra pitcher. My guess is that Freel again hooks up with and gets dumped by two or more MLB teams.

It's tempting to say that Freel's versatility makes him better suited to the National League, with the idea that he can be used in a double switch for several players. The problem, of course, is that in a double switch, Freel would then have to bat. (That's the point!) He might actually be better suited to an American League team, where the bench isn't called on as often to bat and where a designated runner-type can be better hidden on the bench.

Russell A. Carleton, the writer formerly known as 'Pizza Cutter,' is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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

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