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February 12, 2014

Overthinking It

Where the Remaining Free Agents Would Matter the Most

by Ben Lindbergh

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It was new and exciting in November, mundane in December, and comforting and familiar in January. But by mid-February, speculating about likely landing spots for attractive free agents is as tired as publicly celebrating the Beatles.*

Granted, the alternative would be talking about the sort of stuff that otherwise occupies us early in spring training: what players look like; what players look like from afar; what players might look like from afar, if we could see them; what players look like upside-down; meaningless quotes about team chemistry. There’s only so much we can do to combat the boring until real baseball begins.

Still, we’ve reached the part of the baseball calendar at which we’re not accustomed to seeing impact players unsigned. On the morning of February 12, 2013, we were down to two fairly high-profile free agents, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse. News of Bourn’s signing broke later that day, leaving only Lohse, who lingered into late March. This year, six top-20 free agents from R.J. Anderson’s Top 50 remain on the market.

That increase probably has no larger significance; it’s a combination of the Pax Tanaka that preceded the Japanese starter’s signing, the volatile performance history of the other available arms, and the positional limitations of Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales. Nonetheless, the hot stove has outstayed its welcome, so it’s time for someone to step in, slap some wrists, and tell teams and free agents to make up their minds and stop fretting about inconsequential things like many millions of dollars, or where they’d “prefer” to play.

Today, I’m playing the part of that person, which means that I’m forgetting about budgets, draft picks, and whether teams have expressed interest in so-and-so or said they’re almsot certainly finished spending. If you want to know where the latest rumor says these players will sign, look elsewhere. This is about where they would sign if they had to go to the team where A) they’d be the biggest upgrade, and B) their presence might make the difference between a playoff team and a team that’s not playing. We'll take it from the top:

Ervin Santana (no. 5 on the top 50 FA list): Washington Nationals
Sure, the Nationals have a strong first four starters and could cobble together a perfectly passable fifth out of Ross Detwiler, Taylor Jordan, and Tanner Roark. But why not assemble a super-rotation? As Adam Kilgore observed late last month, the precedent is there:

Late in the winter the past two seasons, when it appeared their team was already set, the Nationals made one final significant, surprising addition. In February 2012, the Nationals added Edwin Jackson to a full rotation. Last January, the Nationals dropped Rafael Soriano into the stuffed back of their bullpen.

Jon Heyman recently reported that the Nats could make a move for a starter if a “’value’ materialized,” and Santana’s asking price is much closer to “value” than it once was. The solution is as simple as it is extravagant: slot him in behind Doug Fister, move Detwiler to the bullpen and Jordan and Roark to Triple-A, and watch the Nationals steamroll their opponents en route to the season many thought they’d have last year. It’s more likely that Santana will end up with the Orioles, of course, but this article isn’t about plausibility, it’s about impact. Even if he’d be a bigger upgrade for the O’s, Santana would be more likely to make the difference in a divisional race between the Braves and Nats than that he would to make Baltimore the best team in the AL East.

A.J. Burnett (no. 6): Pittsburgh Pirates
The obvious answer, but also the most sensible. Like any team that improves by close to 20 wins in the span of a single season, the Pirates are about to run into the regression monster. In 2013, they outplayed their Pythagorean record by six games (though they topped their third-order record by just two), benefited from the league’s-best-behind-the-Braves bullpen (which Sam Miller once called “the most fleeting way to win”), and salvaged successful seasons from a few players who’d been all but consigned to the scrap heap. Perhaps they’ve found a playoff formula, but history suggests that it will be tough to repeat the feat.

Bringing back Burnett is an obvious way to offset the slide. Even given a full season from Gerrit Cole and the impending arrival of Jameson Taillon, the Pirates are asking a lot of their starters: Francisco Liriano, to have second consecutive successful season for the first time; Wandy Rodriguez, to be healthy; Charlie Morton, to be above average; Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez, not to be terrible. Burnett’s presence would make it much less vital for all of those pitchers to hit their happy percentiles. As an added bonus for Burnett, if he doesn’t switch teams, he won’t have to be recertified as a clubhouse leader.

Kendrys Morales (no. 10): Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles have been in on almost every arm this offseason, and thus far they have almost no new blood to show for it beyond the sample they took from Grant Balfour before he failed his physical. Despite their obvious interest, they're not necessarily the biggest-impact landing spot for any of the no. 2/3-type starters still out there (maybe they can call Chris Capuano or Suk-Min Yoon). But there is another antidote to a hot stove season headlined by Ryan Webb: Kendrys Morales.

Orioles DHs hit .234/.289/.415 last season, with most of that slugging coming from the since-departed Danny Valencia and a few cameos from Chris Davis. The current plan for the position looks a lot like last year’s—it rhymes with Swollen Thigh Mold—but relying on an injury-prone player to stay healthy for the first time since 2011 would be a dangerous decision for a team PECOTA projects to have the AL’s worst offense outside of the White Sox, Twins, and Astros. Adding Morales—voted the 2013 Qualifying Offer Class’s Most Likely to Lohse—would upgrade the offense and give the switch-hitter his first taste of a power-friendly park.

Nelson Cruz (no. 11): Seattle Mariners
Since Ichiro’s last productive season, right field in Seattle has been a storied spot with a legacy not unlike that of center field for the Yankees, if Bubba Crosby had been the only person ever to play that position. Last season, Jack Zduriencik’s quest for a “power bat” led him to Mike Morse, which didn’t work out well. Cruz is a better version of the same sort of player, and incumbent corner men Michael Saunders and Logan Morrison lack the pop to make Jack Z’s pulse pick up. Having acquired Robinson Cano over the same offseason in which he sank to the bottom of every GM job security ranking, Zduriencik has some incentive to play for 2014 on Nintendo’s dime. If PECOTA is to be believed, Cruz could actually move the needle for the Mariners, something that can’t be said about Cruz and many (any?) other clubs. Seattle could also use a starter, but we’ll spread the pitching wealth around.

Ubaldo Jimenez (no. 13): Toronto Blue Jays
Even if Marcus Stroman makes the majors soon, Toronto will still have a fifth starter slot to fill. The internal options—J.A. Happ, Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond—would be tempting only if you could curate and combine their best starts, so the Blue Jays would benefit from adding an arm. I’ve assigned them Ubaldo, instead of Santana, because his higher strikeout and groundball rates play better in the AL East and a homer-multiplying park.

Stephen Drew (no. 19): New York Yankees
The Red Sox would improve if they added Drew, but by less so than his other suitors. We know how good Xander Bogaerts can be, and PECOTA projects Will Middlebrooks (who despite his struggles has hit 32 homers over a full season’s worth of plate appearances) to sustain the improvement he showed after returning to the minors at midseason and adjusting his approach. Drew would make the Mets better, but not by enough to push them into the playoffs. He’d also make the Blue Jays better, but only at second base; they’re set at the other infield positions.

That makes the Yankees the best possible fit for Drew from a performance standpoint. Not only is New York’s offense so old that he’d be one of its junior members, but with Kelly Johnson, Derek Jeter, and Brian Roberts all slated to start, the Yankees, at any given point in the season, figure to have a hole at any position that Drew could conceivably play. If he’s willing to pitch in wherever he’s needed, he’d be worth a couple of wins, which the Yankees could use as much as any other potential contender. Drew’s contract would cost the Yankees a 50 percent financial premium and the 56th-overall pick, but the alternative—starting the season with the 2013 Mets outfield of infields—could cost them even more.

*Celebrating the Beatles in private is always okay.

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

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