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November 13, 2013

The Lineup Card

12 Free Agents Who Are Likely to Be Bargains

by Baseball Prospectus


1. A.J. Burnett
This is cheating a bit, since Burnett forfeited his leverage by admitting he was choosing between the Pirates and retirement. Still, should he return to Pittsburgh, he should be one of the offseason's biggest bargains. Not only would Burnett likely take a one-year deal, it'll probably be worth less than his market value. There's minimal risk involved at those stakes, but the Pirates' familiarity with him further reduces the likelihood of a poor outcome. Factor in the production, and the Pirates should be rooting for their staff leader to come back for another season. —R.J. Anderson

2. Mark Ellis
The Dodgers turned down Mark Ellis's $5.8 million option for 2014, so the second baseman is now free to roam. Ellis has always had something of a strange skill set. The defensive metrics show that he's still a very good second baseman, and his OBP last year (.323) was above the league average (.318). But, there's never been much home run power and he doesn't walk, which is strange for a guy who takes so many pitches. Ellis's secret weapon has always been the double. He had a streak of seasons dating back to 2003 in which he had posted at least 20 of them. Had. In 2013, he posted only 13. For a guy who has lived on waiting for his pitch and not wasting swings, maybe it's a sign that while his bat-to-ball skills aren't suffering, his ability for making that matter is. Still, the defense really is that good, and he's been worth two-ish wins over each of the past few years. For a team that needs a one or two year placeholder at second base who will probably be paid like a one-win player, Ellis might be a nice pick up. He won't take anyone to the World Series, but he's probably a net positive, and often that's more than can be said for most free agents. —Russell A. Carleton

3. Corey Hart
Corey Hart is a first baseman who missed all of 2013 after having surgery in January. His below-average defense in right field and (albeit in only one season) first base probably won't improve into his 30s. In a market with a lot of first basemen—Paul Konerko, Justin Morneau, Mike Napoli, to name a few—and with all of that working against him, Hart is a prime candidate for a one-year, incentive laden deal. On the other hand, he's 31, has a career .276/.334/.491 slash line, and has been a pretty valuable offensive player over his career. A .270/.325/.490 season with 20-plus homers is well within his reach, and would surely provide value. There's some injury risk here, and he's not stealing 20 bases again, but I'm betting whoever signs him gets more than their money's worth. —Tim Collins

4. Josh Johnson
Josh Johnson is fresh off an injury shortened season and a relatively minor elbow surgery. Not to mention an ERA of 6.20. Sounds bad.

Of course, and therein lies the bargain. Toronto didn't make a qualifying offer, so JJ's suitors don't have to concern themselves with giving up a first- or second-round pick. Johnson may not have the velocity of his prime (93 instead of 95) but he added a curveball in 2011, and 2013 saw him throw more two-seam fastballs than before. A five-pitch guy who sits at 93 with movement looking for a reasonable one-year deal? Sounds great. —Harry Pavlidis

5. Delmon Young
Yeah, I went there. So many times Delmon has been maligned, whether it's his Semitic sidewalk scuffles or trying to throw a ball from the outfield and making us laugh in the process. But some of the derision should go to Philadelphia for signing him to a major-league contract, sticking him in right field (!), and giving him a monthly bonus if he keeps his weight down.

No, he's not a right fielder. He may not even be a left fielder. Maybe he has absolutely nothing left at age 28 and I am awful at knowing things about baseball. However, there's a reason he won the 2012 ALCS MVP, hit five home runs in the 2011 postseason, and added another dinger—the winning run—in the 2013 AL Wild Series for Tampa Bay. Every once in a while he'll have another inexplicably hot week.

And while stat connoisseurs may not write rave reviews about his batting splits, his defense, or his speed, everything I've read says that he's a great clubhouse guy. Teams will continue to shovel money toward players like that, and because of all his shortcomings, Young won't see much of it. But a contending team who needs a veteran right-handed bat will be fortunate to have him off the bench in September. If Jonny Gomes didn't exist, Boston would be a terrific locale. Cincinnati, maybe? —Matt Sussman

6. Dan Haren
Haren finished the 2013 season with a career-worst 4.67 ERA. He made a trip to the disabled list for the second consecutive year, after recording at least 33 starts in eight consecutive years. He left the Nationals with little to show for their $13 million investment, which was supposed to reinforce a budding juggernaut, but which instead became one of many reasons for the team's decline.

So, what is Haren doing on a list of offseason bargains?

Well, after returning from the aforementioned stint on the shelf, Haren—at least according to his numbers—was pretty much the same pitcher that produced a host of three-win seasons before his sudden downturn in 2012. In 16 appearances (15 starts) between July 8 and the end of the regular season, Haren tossed 87 2/3 innings of 3.29 ERA work. He struck out 84 and walked only 18. And he surrendered only nine home runs, after coughing up that many in a terrible five-start stretch that spanned May 19 through June 11.

Haren's velocity is no longer what it once was, and since he turned 33 on September 17, it is difficult to expect his peak stuff to return. But many pitchers thrive well into their 30s despite diminished fastballs, and Haren—with a deep secondary arsenal and good control—seems well-equipped to be one of them. In a player-friendly market in which Ricky Nolasco and Ervin Santana are shooting for the moon, a short-term bet on Haren's second-half rebound seems a much more prudent investment. —Daniel Rathman

7. Mark Reynolds
With 21 home runs, Reynolds was one of the 61 players in the major leagues who hit more than 20 home runs in 2013, and yet has received little interest thus far as a free agent. In fact, he was cut mid-season by Cleveland thanks to his other qualities (namely swinging and missing), which dragged down his overall value. Still, with power at a premium, Reynolds' 21 homers (in only 507 plate appearances, no less) represent one of the larger totals available on the free agent market. Thanks to his obvious warts as a player (defensive limitations, strikeouts, etc), it’s unlikely that Reynolds commands a salary that a player with his power would otherwise receive. It wouldn’t surprise me if Reynolds somehow turned into Tampa Bay’s next first base revival project. No matter where he lands, Reynolds is likely to return positive value compared to his contract. —Craig Goldstein

8. Chad Gaudin
When you look at this winter’s pitching market, Chad Gaudin isn’t the first, second, or third name on the list of top pitchers. He probably isn’t even in anyone’s top 20. But this is what makes him a potential bargain. Gaudin put up a sneaky 3.06 ERA in 30 appearances (12 starts) for the Giants in 2013 before seeing his season end early due to carpal tunnel syndrome. There’s a better chance than not that Gaudin’s 2013 was an aberration, but it won’t cost much for a risk-taking general manager to find out. In a worst-case scenario, Gaudin will be a useful middle-relief arm that can start in a pinch. However, for a modest investment, a major-league GM might be able to catch lightning in a bottle. —Mike Gianella

9. Chris Young
In looking for a potential bargain this winter, give me the one who if he were paid on the basis of his 2013 would probably be underpaid. For me, that's the outfielder Chris Young, who bottomed out (one would hope) at .200/.280/.379 last year. He's a strikeout machine, but if he gets any bounce-back in that average, he's still a guy who can reach base and hit for power. He's two years removed from a 2.5-WARP season that included negative defensive value, three years removed from a 4.1-WARP season, and he's 30 years old. Not ready to call him done despite the three-year decline. —Zachary Levine

10. Bartolo Colon
There’s nothing about Bartolo Colon that’s sexy. Colon looked like he was done after accumulating 0.5 WARP from 2006-2010, but found the fountain/elbow ligament of youth and has amassed 6.0 WARP over the past three seasons. Colon will pitch most of next season at age 41, and his strikeout rate leaves much to be desired at this point in his career. That being said, he’ll probably come fairly cheaply on a one-year deal, and given the contract demands of Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco, and Ubaldo Jimenez, Colon carries considerably less risk. He’s not a difference maker, but contenders looking for a no. 4 starter could do much worse than this “265-pound” ball of resilience. —Ben Carsley

11. Jhonny Peralta
Despite being limited to just 107 games and 448 plate appearances in 2013, Peralta was a top-10 producer at the six spot, taking into account offense, defense, and baserunning. The offense was boosted by a career high .378 batting average on balls in play (including a jaw-dropping .482 BABIP versus lefties—170-plus bips above his career average), and his days at shortstop may be coming to a close in the next year or two, but the overall package is capable of solid offensive production at one of the most difficult positions to fill on the field.

While a signing team gets the benefit of first division shortstop upside, Peralta also comes with solid fallbacks across the board. When the time comes to slide to third, he could be an above-average defender at the hot corner for a year or two, and the bat may be strong enough to play average out of the designated hitter spot in today’s offensive climate, as well. Teams looking for a true middle-of-the-order threat should probably look elsewhere, but Peralta could fill a need on the left side of an infield while likely providing enough offense to hit out of the six hole in a first division lineup. There aren’t a lot of those players available to acquire.

The PED ties raise a risk of an escalated physical decline, but those same concerns should help to keep the issued contract limited to one to three guaranteed years, each in the five to eight million dollar range with a good chance to tie a chunk of salary to games-based incentives. He isn’t the top talent available in this free agent class, but given the upside, versatility of the profile, and likely limited contractual downside, Peralta appears to be a relatively safe potential investment with a nice chance to maintain his game long enough to make a short multi-year deal a true bargain. —Nick J. Faleris

12. Jose Molina
In a March 2012 Lineup Card entry on our favorite moves of the 2011-12 offseason, I praised the Rays for signing Jose Molina. I was either really right or really wrong, depending on the metric you use. According to WARP, Molina has been worth 0.2 wins in the two seasons since. But according to Max Marchi’s framing model, Molina’s receiving skills over the same span have saved the Rays 74 runs relative to the average catcher.

Having watched way too much of Molina’s time in Tampa Bay, I think Max’s model comes much closer to the truth. The Rays are too smart and greedy for runs to start a replacement-level player at catcher in consecutive seasons, and Molina’s odd career arc—the longtime backup made a career-high 87 starts at age 38—is pretty suggestive. (Only four players in the past 50 years have had their highest PA total at age 38 or later: Molina, Jamey Carroll, Jeff Reboulet, and Tom Lampkin.) Even if you’d prefer to split the difference between what WARP and the framing stats say, Molina still looks like a bargain at a combined two-year cost of $3 million.

So at the risk of becoming typecast, I’m picking him as a potential bargain again. He’s not as intriguing an option today as he was two years ago, both because more teams have caught on to his formerly hidden value and because he’s now even less likely to hit and stay healthy. But even in his age-38 season, he was still capable of pleasing a pitching staff, leading all catchers with 33 receiving runs saved. If not for an inconvenient Tony Cruz, I’d suggest that St. Louis form the ultimate framing tag team by uniting Jose with his younger brother, who starts often enough to give the middle Molina plenty of rest. But since the Rangers just raided the Cardinals’ coaching staff for Bengie, my dreams of one team cornering the market on Molinas would have to wait anyway. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Free Agents

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