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November 23, 2009

Prospectus Today

Outfield and Catcher Free Agents Review

by Joe Sheehan

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There are lots of free-agent catchers and outfielders, many of whom provide little or no bang for the buck. Again, these players are listed roughly in order of what I see as their chance of providing value for the contract they'll sign.

Catchers

Rod Barajas: Best known for his power, Barajas has thrown out at least a third of the runners trying to steal against him in every year since 2002. That's across four teams in both leagues, so it's not just a pitching staff thing. He can't play every day because he's an OBP sink, but the arm and the power make him a very good backup; that's worth a guaranteed deal. He's the player people think Jose Molina is.

Miguel Olivo: It is extremely hard to stay in the league with a K/BB ratio of seven to one. Olivo catches, has very good power, and throws well, giving him enough value to survive regular sub-.300 OBPs. He fits a whole bunch of teams, especially good teams with starting catchers who bat left-handed or switch-hit and don't throw well. And have high payrolls. And play in the same division. The Red Sox should eat Jason Varitek's contract and add Olivo to that Team Pretzel-mix they have.

Henry Blanco: His legitimate cannon behind the plate (40 percent career CS%) has always made him a good backup, and he's become enough of a threat against lefties to have some tactical value. He's the player people think Brad Ausmus is, and definitely one of the stealth bargains in this market.

Ramon Castro: Power is the only tool Castro possesses, and as the memory of his monster 2007 fades, so does his place in the baseball world. At best, he can back up a left-handed hitting catcher, but lots of guys can do that while bringing more to the table, on and off the field. Castro's career isn't over, but his days of guaranteed contracts probably are.

Gregg Zaun: Never a strong defensive player, Zaun has become a liability the last few seasons, diminishing the value of what continues to be above-average offensive performance for a catcher. If he's not the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher any longer, he's good enough for a guaranteed deal and even some decent money. Having Zaun means not wasting a roster spot.

Brian Schneider: Since losing his power at 29, Schneider's just been getting by thanks to an above-average walk rate and good arm. Injuries took away his chance of cashing in on his walk year, which wasn't going very well anyway. It's admittedly a Strat-o-Matic solution, but you could pair Schneider with one of the righty bats on this list and have a million-dollar catching combo that outplays some people's regulars. Schneider/Castro (OK, the Mets did that…), Schneider/Barajas, or Schneider/Blanco are all serviceable short-term platoons. Slow ones, but still… I'd happily NRI Schneider.

Jason Kendall: You have to wonder what his career would have looked like had the Pirates just managed his health better. He was a .314/.402/.456 hitter in his first five seasons, with 45 homers, 93 steals against 28 times aught on the bases; he was on an early-career path to the Hall of Fame. He played through a thumb injury in '01 and has never been the same: .278/.352/.349, 30 homers in more than twice as many ABs, 84/54 SB/CS. He hits the market off three straight batting averages in the .240s, and while he'll undoubtedly get guaranteed money and a backup job, his days of playing regularly should be over. Or the Mets could sign him.

Josh Bard: In 2006-07, Bard hit .304/.380/.450 with terrific K/BB numbers mostly while playing home games in Petco Park. In 2008-09, he hit .219/.288/.325, and he struck out twice as often as he walked last year. Maybe it was one game? Bard was hitting .292/.382/.333 at the end of the Padres' 22-inning game on April 17, 2008, a game in which he went the distance. He hit .146/.213/.220 from there until getting knocked to the DL by Albert Pujols a month later, and he has never gotten back to his old form. His career path is interesting enough, but in any case being a switch-hitter gives him a leg up on being a backup, and may even get him a guaranteed deal.

Bengie Molina: If he batted in an appropriate lineup spot, such as seventh, Molina wouldn't be quite the target he is. But when you post a .285 OBP in the middle of a lineup, you kill the offense, no matter how many RBI you accumulate. He's not the defensive catcher he once was, which is probably attributable to weight gain. His homer and RBI counts make it almost certain that he'll be one of the bad signings this winter, paid for numbers that don't accurately reflect his contributions.

Ivan Rodriguez: The skill set of a backup-good arm, some power, lousy OBP-and the playing time of a regular aren't a good combination. He's 289 hits away from 3000, a number he does not need to ensure his eventual place in the Hall of Fame, but if he's willing to take a backup role, he can almost certainly get to that number by age 42. Someone, perhaps the Rangers, will guarantee a deal.

Jason LaRue: He has an above-average arm, which is how he stayed in the league after hitting .194, .148, and .213 from 2006 through 2008. An underrated regular in his twenties, LaRue is just a guy now, living off that good arm and some interesting facial hair. I wouldn't guarantee him money, especially with better players of this type available.

Yorvit Torrealba: The Venezuelan hits the market off of a huge September and October in which he won back a starting job thanks to an empty batting average and perceived good defense. Torrealba has backup catcher skills, including an exploitable arm (14% CS rate in 2009). Some team with a hole at catcher-and there are many-is going to make a significant mistake in signing Torrealba to start.

Paul Bako: There's usually value in being a left-handed-hitting catcher, as most starters are right-handed and you can gain the platoon advantage by spotting the backup against tough righties. Bako, however, stopped hitting years ago: .220/.299/.307 in this decade. He's not special behind the plate, flashing a passable arm but turning his back to the mound too often (90 PB/WP allowed since 2006). He's NRI bait.

Jose Molina: This Molina doesn't hit as well as either brother, throw or run as well as Yadier, or hit for power the way Bengie does. Jose doesn't throw quite as well as he did earlier in his career, but his arm is still his best trait. That and the name will get him some guaranteed money as a backup.

Mike Redmond: A good match as a backup for Joe Mauer, Redmond slaps singles and usually performs well behind the plate, although at 39 it's possible that his .237 batting average and 13 percent CS% last year was less a small-sample fluke and more the last breaths of his career. He's now NRI material at best.

Brad Ausmus: Jazayerli's Law of Backup Catchers states that in any given 100 at-bat season, any backup catcher might hit .300. Ausmus just missed, hitting .295 in 95 AB, and if a three-year stretch in which he hit .229 didn't chase him out of the league, he's not going anywhere now. He's not an asset, and at best should be a non-roster invite.

Chad Moeller: From 2004-2008, Moeller hit .204/.258/.314 in 830 PA for five teams. If he could still get a job after that, he can probably still get one now. He'll be a NRI at best, and he's not someone you want your team employing.

Outfielders

Coco Crisp: Look past the .228 batting average, because Crisp was playing out of his mind when he tore his right labrum, ending his season in June, with more walks than strikeouts, 13-for-15 on the bases, and 16 extra-base hits. The condition of his shoulder, on which he underwent significant surgery, has to drive any decision on him. However Crisp is one of the top buy-low guys in this market and a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year in '10.

Jason Bay: Bay's last three healthy seasons have established his level-a .275 hitter with walks and power. His fractured season established his problem, a bum knee that took away much of his range in left field. His defensive numbers are skewed due to the Monster, but any team signing him from ages 31-34 will nevertheless be advised to keep the DH slot open. The Sox can do that after 2010, and their four-year, $60 million offer may be the best one Bay will get to reject. The Mets may well roll the dice on Bay's knees, not quite making up for their trading him away as a prospect.

Hideki Matsui: Listed with the outfielders, Matsui's knees will limit his time in the pasture going forward. He may be able to spell a team's starters now and again, maybe play the outfield in interleague play or the World Series, but he's a DH now, which limits his options. His longstanding ability to hit lefties makes him attractive as a full-time solution in that spot, and while he's less popular than Ichiro Suzuki is, he does offer a new employer entrée into a new market for the team. His lines will look a bit like Jim Thome's at similar ages, and he'll be well worth a two-year deal for the Tigers, White Sox, or even the Orioles.

Mike Cameron: The only difference between Cameron at 24 and Cameron at 36 is stealing bases. He's managed to retain his defensive skill even at an age when most center fielders are either below average or in a corner, and he remains a contributor at the plate despite a high strikeout rate that cripples his batting average. With that said, he's lost some raw speed, which should eventually hurt his range, and his offense is marginal enough that any loss in power or uptick in strikeouts will damage his value. He looks best on a very short-term deal, because the risk of collapse is so high, and he fits in a lot of contenders' outfields.

Matt Holliday: The nominal prize of this winter is a very-good-but-not-great player, the kind whose best-of-breed contract ends up looking silly three years out. Worrisome is that much of Holliday's actual value is tied up in his defense, and it's hard to count on that continuing as he works through his thirties. He has a strong offensive profile, but at that he's a 20-25 homer guy, a .310 hitter, and his power outside of Coors Field hasn't been terrific, and when he spent four months in the AL this year he didn't do anything special. It's far from clear that Holliday is one of the game's best players right now, and paying him like he is from ages 30-35 could be a huge mistake. As a caveat, I would offer that I thought all of these things about Carlos Lee and his six-year contract, and that deal hasn't worked out that badly. Holliday looks better today than Lee did three years ago. I would not pursue him unless it looked like he would sign for four years and maybe $16-$18 million per. He won't be a disaster, but I'm not sure he's the guy who can be the best player on a championship team.

Reed Johnson: Johnson is a valuable fourth outfielder with a little speed, enough range to play center, and the ability to slap lefties around. It's when he's been asked to play every day that his performance and body have broken down. As a dance partner for someone like Curtis Granderson or Jason Kubel, he's worth a guaranteed deal in the $4 million range.

Johnny Damon: The single worst skill in baseball is either his arm or Bengie Molina's speed, and yet Damon is one of the 10 most valuable free agent properties because of his ability to hit and run the bases. Damon isn't as complete a player as he once was-his power is something of a home-park illusion and he's started to struggle against southpaws-but that's not my biggest concern. No, the uptick in his strikeout rate, coupled with some more walks and fewer steals, all look like what you see in a veteran hitter who may be closing in on the cliff. Damon has aged well so far, and the speed and broad skill set mean that may continue, but the warning signs were there in 2009, and given the kind of contract he's seeking-three or four years at eight figures a year-there's too much risk of collapse. Damon is worth offering arbitration to or bringing back for two years, but I would not commit to him for longer than that.

Eric Hinske: He's a valuable lefty bat off the bench who doesn't hurt you when he needs to play a bit more than that role implies. He's a pretty weak defender everywhere, so making him a regular isn't something you plan to do. Hey, Orioles! Hinske has been on the last three AL East champs.

Randy Winn: Despite Winn's having a number of good seasons as a regular, I could never shake the idea that he was a very good fourth outfielder who had stumbled into starting jobs for mediocre teams. Lots of guys as good as or worse start for MLB teams, of course, but the description means more than where someone ranks on an EqA list; it's about skills and upside and whether a player is actually pushing you towards a championship or just better than the alternatives. Whether you should be trying to do better than him or not, Winn never hurt his teams, but it always seemed like you could do better. He hits the market coming off of his worst season, but he should get a guaranteed deal and-finally-be slotted as a good fourth outfielder.

Rick Ankiel: The idea that he would be a late bloomer took a hit last year, and it wasn't all because he ran into a wall. Ankiel wasn't doing anything at that point, hitting .247 without power or walks. The power and arm he's displayed mean that he can be a good fourth outfielder in a lot of situations, but he's 30 now, and he's just not likely to control the strike zone effectively enough to be an everyday outfielder. I'd guarantee him money and a roster spot, just not playing time. The Reds could take a shot here, as they did with Wladimir Balentien. Maybe the White Sox will land him.

Vladimir Guerrero: Not to abandon the idea that performance analysis is the core approach here, but anyone watching Guerrero over the last two seasons would have to see the same deterioration that is evident in the stat lines. He's incapable of running well enough to do anything but DH, and it's not clear if he brings enough offense to fill that role. It is strange to think of Vlad as done, but at best you're looking at a part-time DH; will he play for a salary commensurate with that role? If he will, the Indians and Blue Jays might have roster space for a guy like him.

Jerry Hairston Jr.: Through 2003, Hairston Jr. had never played anywhere but second base in his six-year career. Since then, he's played at least four positions in every season, and in the last four he's played six positions-all but first base and catcher-in every year. He's useful as what Will Carroll calls a "roster extender," pinch-hitting, pinch-running, and providing rest days for anyone who needs one. He's worth a guaranteed deal.

Fernando Tatis: Maybe Omar Minaya's best transaction is signing Tatis and getting two years of above-average offense from him. He's a credible four-corners reserve who should be on a roster somewhere next season, and might be worth a guaranteed deal for a team who had a weak 40-man roster. Forty-man spots are often more valuable than the gap between the player you have to sign in December and the one you can invite to spring training on a minor league deal.

Endy Chavez: His ridiculous range in left field was a big part of the Mariners' improved defense and run prevention, right up until a torn ACL ended his year in June. It's hard to imagine that not taking a huge toll on his primary skill, speed, and eviscerating his value as a player. How the knee looks will determine how his offseason goes, but there's little chance he gets guaranteed money.

Jermaine Dye: As with Damon, the change in his walk and strikeout data is a huge red flag, the kind of change-more of both-you often see when a player is about to collapse. Added to his decreased mobility, the change at the plate makes him a first-class "avoid" this winter, likely to fall apart and be out of the league in 18 months. The 27 homers are going to fool someone, and I'll put the Giants, Reds, and Braves on the short list of candidates.

Marlon Byrd: There's some Gary Matthews Jr. here, in that Byrd is a good fourth outfielder who is looking to get paid like the regular he was in 2009. His counting stats may fool people into thinking he's that guy, but he's mostly a good backup who is past his peak and played more in '09 because he stayed healthy and everyone else didn't. Byrd's power is a park effect: he's slugged .522 at Arlington the last three seasons, .414 elsewhere. Buyer beware. Be-very-ware.

Matt Stairs: He might be done after posting the highest strikeout rate of his career. I think he's worth a NRI and a look in spring training, because as Jonathan Broxton showed, pitchers are still a bit scared of the Wonder Hamster.

Rocco Baldelli: It's very hard to roster a bench player whose availability is always day-to-day, especially when he's not hitting his way into a spot. At .237/.303/.414 since 2007, Baldelli has to prove he can play well in addition to just playing at all. Baldelli is young enough and popular enough that some team will bring him to camp, and he may even get guaranteed money.

Garret Anderson: The one thing you can say about Anderson is that he's had a very long, slow decline. Last year was basically the same as 2008 but for some missing singles on balls in play. Even if those come back, he's not productive enough to be an everyday left fielder given his poor defense. He's barely a reasonable sign as a pinch-hitter and occasional starter for a team with a right-handed-hitting left fielder. The Cubs and Astros come to mind.

Brian Giles: He was in the middle of a career-ending collapse-more strikeouts than walks for the first time since 1998-when a knee injury put him down for the year. He looked done, although his strong 2008 and long track record will get him at least a NRI.

Frank Catalanotto: His skills decline is evident in his strikeout rate, which spiked the last two seasons, and his inability to drive the ball. Without any range to speak of, he's reduced to being a pinch-hitter and rare starter in left field, making him a NRI more than someone who gets a guarantee.

Austin Kearns: Maybe he was just never that good. After all, following his .300 (with walks and power) debut in '02, he hit just .246 over the next three years, fighting his body the whole way. Whether it was the injuries or just an early peak, Kearns has looked done for a while, and he doesn't seem to be worth even a non-roster invite.

Darin Erstad: Overtly sucking in 2003, 2006, and 2007 didn't end his career, so there's no reason why overtly sucking in 2009 should. He was a punter, you know. He'll get one of the sillier guaranteed deals this winter.

Xavier Nady: His perceived value was running way ahead of his actual value, thanks to two fluky months in '08. Blowing out his elbow may have helped him, preventing him from reverting to the .280/.330/.450 level that is his ability. He'll be seen as a bargain, but really, he's a league-average outfielder with the bat who doesn't range well and now has a bad arm. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…

Gary Sheffield: Anyone who thought Barry Bonds' defense kept him out of the league in 2008 really should watch some clips of Sheffield from '09. He played some of the most indifferent, sluggardly, run-costing left field you'll ever see. At least Adam Dunn tries. As Sheff reminded us in the season's waning days, he's also something of a difficult person to manage. You can be that guy at .330/.419/.604, not so much at .276/.372/.451. His skyrocketing strikeout rate makes him a collapse candidate, the cherry on this to "avoid me" sundae.

Scott Podsednik: His performance was surprising, and helpful to a White Sox team lacking outfielders and OBP. With that said, it doesn't seem repeatable-poor strike-zone judgment and a lousy line-drive rate will tear down his average and OBP. He's a poor percentage player on both sides of the ball as well. He's not the worst fifth outfielder, or sixth if that position ever comes back, but he'd make an awful, awful regular and shouldn't be tendered more than a non-roster invite.

Andruw Jones: An early-season surge led into a second-half fade. Jones didn't hit a homer after July 29 and batted .160/.274/.210 in that time, striking out in nearly a third of his at-bats. Jones has now batted .207/.304/.393 over three seasons and more than 1200 PAs. I'm utterly astounded to say this about a player who at 29 looked like he might hit 700 home runs, but I think Jones is done, and I would not sign him.

Jason Michaels: His skills are pretty much gone, reflected in his decreasing contact and speed, and he's not even enough of a lefty-masher to have tactical value. He's NRI bait who may spend a chunk of 2010 in the minors.

Corey Patterson: Even the idea that he can be a good fourth outfielder seems dated. In an earlier era, he'd have been a sixth outfielder. That position is now held by a seventh reliever. He's NRI bait, but his career might be over.

Next up, the pitchers, all of them.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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