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January 7, 2013

Rumor Roundup

Monday, January 7

by Daniel Rathman

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With just over a month left before pitchers and catchers report for spring training, the free agents who are still looking for work are beginning to quiver about their off-season fates. Today’s Roundup features two such players, who have distinctly different credentials but have been united in the unemployment line.

Aubrey Huff ‘keeping fingers crossed’ for a job
From 2008-2011, the aging Huff developed a reputation for excellence in even-numbered years and ineptitude in odd-numbered years. The Giants took a one-year, $3 million flier on Huff on Jan. 10, 2010, and watched him thrive as the unexpected hero of their championship team, to the tune of a career-high 5.8 WARP and 26 home runs, his second-highest total since 2004. Unfortunately, general manager Brian Sabean’s desire to keep the Band of Misfits together resulted in an ill-fated two-year, $22 million extension. Huff was one of the league’s worst regulars in 2011 (-0.2 WARP), and his bid for an even-numbered-year rebound was derailed by injuries and a late-April panic attack.

According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, who spoke with Huff’s attorney, Ed Hayes, a few days ago, the 36-year-old is determined not to end his career on such a sour note. As San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Henry Schulman recounted in the afore-linked feature, Huff went into a tailspin after starting the year in a 6-for-33 slump and committing a fateful blunder during an emergency appearance at second base. Later in the year, even the Giants’ highest regular-season high became a low point for Huff, when he sprained his right knee jumping over the railing to celebrate Matt Cain’s perfect game.

Huff would reinjure that knee in late July, and he ultimately spent 68 days nursing it on the disabled list, in addition to the two weeks that he needed to recover from the anxiety disorder that triggered the panic attack. Apart from taking home his second World Series ring—despite going 1-for-9 as a pinch-hitter in the playoffs—Huff’s 2012 had few bright spots, and his eagerness to leave it in the rearview mirror could benefit a team willing to gamble on him the way the Giants did two years ago.

The key to a renaissance, as evidenced by the charts below from Huff’s Hitter Profile, will be his ability to drive pitches up in the zone:

During Huff’s outstanding 2010, pitchers who left mistakes up and on the inner half often paid the price. In 2011, he was utterly unable to drive those elevated offerings, failing to notch a single extra-base hit in what just a year earlier had been his power alley.

The spray charts above, from TexasLeaguers.com, illustrate the effects of Huff’s decline. Many of his right-field long balls in 2010 became cans of corn in 2011, and his minimal opposite-field thump eroded entirely, with only a couple of fly balls reaching the AT&T Park warning track. Given Huff’s injuries and mental woes, his 78 at-bat sample from 2012 is not instructive, so teams mulling an offer will be asked to take a leap of faith on the return of at least some of the pop that he displayed in 2010.

Heyman mentioned in his blog post that among injury-plagued, declining first basemen/designated hitters, Lance Berkman sat atop the free-agent depth chart. But, on Saturday, Berkman agreed to a one-year, $11 million deal with the Rangers, and if he passes his physical in Arlington, needy GMs may instead turn their attention to Huff. Heyman speculated that two of Huff’s past employers, the Rays and Orioles, could phone his representatives in the near future, and he also tossed the Indians and Red Sox into the mix. With several possible destinations, a minor-league tender including a spring-training invitation should be easily attainable, and if Huff keeps his fingers crossed long enough, an incentivized major-league gig just might come along.

Braves still open to bringing back Michael Bourn
While Huff’s quiet offseason is unsurprising, Bourn’s 3.7 WARP output in 2012 was expected to deliver a long line of suitors for his agent, Scott Boras, to pinch for every last penny. But the 30-year-old’s status as a compensated free agent, who would cost most interested teams their first-round pick, pushed him down the totem pole, as Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino, and B.J. Upton were putting pen to paper on new contracts.

When the Braves set the market with a five-year, $75.25 million hitch for Upton, it seemed that the former Ray would simply fill Bourn’s shoes. But, with the ex-Brave lingering and long-term offers proving hard to come by, general manager Frank Wren told ESPN’s Jim Bowden that the door remains open for Bourn to stay in Atlanta.

Bourn’s troubles began when he declined the Braves’ qualifying offer, which would have given him a $13.3 million salary for the 2013 season. A better overall player than Upton, but with more defensive value and considerably less power, Bourn could reasonably have expected a comparable average annual value ($15 million), perhaps in the form of a four-year pact worth $60 million. Such a proposal might yet be forthcoming, with the Mariners and Rangers representing feasible sources, but the Braves—who coughed up their top pick for Upton, but would not need to surrender their second-rounder for Bourn—make for a useful safety net.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez is currently slated to play Upton in center field, Martin Prado in left field, and Juan Francisco at third base, with Prado seeing occasional starts at the hot corner when Reed Johnson and Jose Constanza work their way into the lineup. Bringing back Bourn would shift Upton to left, freeing up Prado to serve as the primary third baseman—a combination of moves that would vastly improve Atlanta’s defense. The Braves also now lack a prototypical leadoff man, and Bourn would slide right into the spot he vacated atop the order.

With Atlanta’s interest virtually guaranteeing a soft landing—even if it doesn’t bring the long-term certainty or annual paychecks that Bourn had hoped for in his first free-agent experience—Boras won’t be in any rush to take what he believes is a substandard offer. And that means, barring a multi-year cave-in, the Bourn saga is likely to extend for at least the rest of this month. 

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

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