Free agents classified as power hitters can be very alluring in the offseason, since power production is one of those things that every team wishes it could have more of. They can also be considered one of the more dangerous investments, due to the age and diminishing skill levels of many free agents in today’s market-you run the risk of overpaying for past performance on players whose best days and fastest swings may already be behind them. Recognizing who is still a relevant and productive member of baseball society is half the battle-if you don’t figure that out, you may end up paying more for someone capable of delivering less based on reputation and name value alone.
The 2008-09 offseason was more bountiful in terms of power, with Mark Teixeira signing in New York and Manny Ramirez electing to stay in Los Angeles (both for big money) and then everyone else-save maybe Raul Ibañez-signing at some kind of discount. Milton Bradley, regardless of his current situation with the Cubs, was signed for a pretty solid rate given his ceiling and recent performances. Adam Dunn was inked at a worthy rate of compensation, despite his defensive shortcomings. Pat Burrell, before anyone knew he was actually Paul Sorrento in disguise, signed what looked like an under-market deal with the Rays. Juan Rivera re-upped with the Angels at a low price, Jason Giambi tried to keep his career going with the Athletics on the kind of deal Oakland is capable of offering, and Bobby Abreu signed for even less than all of them just so he could get a job.
It was that kind of winter, as even someone with Abreu’s skills was desperate for work, just because there was plenty available for those with a shopping list to browse through. This offseason is going to be a bit more reminiscent of the first official day of the holiday shopping season, Black Friday: teams will be pushing and shoving to get the last Tickle-Me Jason Bay off of the shelf before their unruly neighbor can shove them aside to get it for themselves. There is not a whole lot to choose from, but there’s value if you know how and where to look. Pay attention Mr. Minaya, this one’s on the house.
1. Matt Holliday: The perception was that Holliday was struggling in his transition to the American League in 2008, but he hit .286/.378/.454 in Oakland, a tough hitter’s park in a more difficult league. That must have made the NL seem even easier upon his return there, because he hit .353/.419/.604 the rest of the way with St. Louis. The real Matt Holliday lies somewhere in between those two figures, which would not be a bad haul for say, any of the 30 teams in baseball. Holliday and Jason Bay are actually going in opposite directions with their power production, with Bay on the rise and Holliday trending downward, but Holliday makes a lot of contact and is an above-average defender, making him the more valuable player for power shoppers by a landslide.
2. Mike Cameron: There’s an argument to be made that Cameron is more valuable than Jason Bay, and I intend to make it. Cameron is five years older than Bay, which is probably the biggest knock against him, but if someone does the smart thing and signs him to a two- or three-year deal, they should be able to wring the last of his value out of him without suffering for their decision. Bay is the superior slugger, but Cameron more than makes up for it by adding power at an up-the-middle position. He’s two or three wins better than Bay defensively in a given year, and about one or two wins worse at the plate, though he’s no slouch in center with a three-year ISO of .208. So, at worst, you break even production wise, but in marketplace reality Bay’s looking at $15-17 million a year in a long-term deal (he just turned down four years and $60 million from the Red Sox, who also have the added incentive of contending), whereas Cameron made $10 million in 2009, the most he’s made in a single year and a number that is not likely to be topped. Dollar for dollar, Cameron is the better acquisition, and also the one that leaves you with money to spend on other issues.
3. Jason Bay: Were I putting this list together using offensive stats alone, Bay would have a good chance of sticking as the first choice. Outside of that one season where his knee caused him trouble, he’s been close to or exceeded a .300 EqA in every year of his career. Even when he doesn’t hit for average, he knows how to draw a walk, hit the ball a long way, and even steal an occasional base. The problem is that you’re signing a terrible defender-Bay’s range and speed in the outfield are not what they once were, as he has quickly dropped from an average defender to future DH, which makes him less attractive to 16 teams, and leaves him a valuable addition just to those teams with DH opening up in the near future. He cost the Red Sox at least a win last year with his glove, and he has been that bad or worse for three years running. He’s not Adam Dunn-level awful, but it does keep him from being in the same class as Holliday, no matter what their likely similar paychecks in 2010 will try to tell you.
The drop in production from this point forward is steep, as these players have their problems-injuries, age, price tags, splits, etc.-but they are still more useful than most.
4. Carlos Delgado: This ranking assumes two things-first, that Delgado will be healthy, and second, that 2008 was not a mirage, and is in fact something Delgado can still do. His brief stint in 2009 makes number two look at least plausible, but since he injured his hip last year, it’s hard to know just how much of that will translate into production in 2010. On the one hand, you have Chase Utley-level goodness. On the other hand, you have Mike Lowell-like failure, as Lowell played like a one-legged man in 2009, and also hit poorly in every park that didn’t have a Green Monster in it for him to take advantage of. So far, the thought is that Delgado’s hip shouldn’t pose a problem for him in 2010, so buyer need not beware-just don’t overdo it with a long-term deal, just in case things go south.
5. Hideki Matsui: Maybe he shouldn’t play the outfield if you want him to be productive in the lineup every day, but Matsui can still hit. Despite a power outage in 2008, his three-year ISO average is .190, and he’s posted an EqA of at least .285 in five of the last six years. Even as a full-time DH, over a full season Matsui can be a three-win player. For the right price, that has value, especially when just five of the AL’s regular DHs (including Matsui last year) were worth even two wins. He’s an attractive option for contending teams that need to fill that slot, but could also work for some of the also-rans that are just trying to field a productive team-a short-term deal to any of those places would work out for both parties.
6. Mark DeRosa: Don’t get me wrong, DeRosa is a fine player, but he was not what I had in mind when I thought of who may be in the middle of this list of available sluggers. While he lacks some of the outright power of the others on this list, relative to his position(s), he’s a useful addition to a lineup who can fill a variety of positional needs. He’s approached an ISO of .200 in three of the last five seasons, and has gone deep 21 and 23 times the past two years. Assuming he’s got another 2008 in him, he deserves this ranking, though if he’s more like 2009 from here on out, then we’re going to have a problem, given that’s a two-win difference we’re talking about.
7. Jim Thome: Another DH capable of producing in a league seemingly bereft of just that thing, Thome can still go yard. His ISO marks for the last three years are .287, .258, and .232, and while that’s a downward trend, his worst is still top five among the available free agents. He’s been a better hitter at home than on the road, which shouldn’t be a surprise given he played in the homer-friendly Cell, but he can still hit well on the road. Thome won’t make a lot of money in 2010, and he’s chasing 600 homers and could still realistically get there, assuming his bat doesn’t all of a sudden slow down completely. He wouldn’t be my first pick for a DH among the available options, but he’s going to end up as a cost-effective one that will earn his team a win or two extra, especially relative to the rabble populating other teams’ DH spots.
8. Adam LaRoche: He’s about as average as they come. He’s an average defender and an average hitter, though he’s prone to bouts of streakiness and apparently can only fulfill his potential while in a Braves‘ uni (.326 EqA with the Braves last year, his best since his .299 mark in his last season with Atlanta in 2006). He’s not exciting, but you know what you’re getting, and as evidenced by some club’s choices at first base, average isn’t so bad.
9. Jermaine Dye: Dye would rank higher on the list, if not for one little item of bother-he hit .302/.375/.567 in the first half, with 20 homers and 16 other extra-base hits, but then put together a .179/.293/.297 second half with just seven more homers. There’s a reason that the White Sox picked up Alex Rios from the Blue Jays in 2009, and it’s the same reason that they declined Dye’s option once the offseason got going. He’ll be 36 years old in 2010, which is a negative, but he also had a low BABIP and fewer liners than he normally does in ’09, meaning he could rebound-somewhat similarly to how he did in 2008 after a disappointing 2007. Like many on this list, he’s worked his way towards DH, whether he plays that spot or not, so whichever team takes a flyer on him should consider using him that way.
10. Miguel Olivo: Olivo hits for power, but doesn’t do much else-his ranking on this list at all has more to do with his one tool, his position and the relative lack of options for both of those items on this year’s free agent market than anything else. He hit a career-high 23 homers this past season, along with career highs in ISO and slugging percentage, but once again his on-base percentage came in under .300. This added up to a .254 EqA, which was also the average at catcher-if he continues to hit for that kind of power, you can almost put up with the OBP. A team in desperate need of some extra thump and a catcher could make it work.
The Sleeper: Rick Ankiel had a rough 2009, as he dealt with a sore shoulder, a sore abdomen, an abdominal strain, and then a sports hernia that took him out for the rest of the year. It’s no surprise then that he hit just .231/.285/.387 as he played through his multiple maladies. In the two years prior, Ankiel posted ISO of .250 and .242, slugging over .500 both times in what amounted to a full season’s worth of plate appearances (and 36 homers over that stretch). It’s not a stretch to think that if he’s healthy, he’s going to be productive, and given his lack of experience as a hitter combined with his injuries, the price is going to be low as well.
Beware: Of the available free agents, Hank Blalock has the third-highest three-year average for Isolated Power, ahead of Holliday, Bay, Delgado, and all of the others. Blalock also had the Rangers‘ home park to hit in during all three of those years, where he slugged .513 combined. On the road, over that same stretch, things didn’t go so well: he hit .255/.303/.470. Add in his problems playing a position well and staying healthy, it may seem like overreacting to say stay away after “one bad year,” but his 2007-2008 campaigns were partial seasons, and he’s now apparently limited to first or DH, where the need for better hitting is higher. He’s the definition of a replacement player at this stage, as his glove isn’t going to help you, and his bat won’t do much to impress you over the long-term, regardless of his position.
The Dennis Green “They are what we thought they were” Award: With Russell Branyan, you get someone that can crush right-handed pitching, and probably at a low cost, but there are two major problems to discuss. Left-handed power hitters actually get a boost in Safeco, and it showed in Branyan’s splits: he slugged .548 at home and .496 on the road despite similar batting averages. He also tanked in the second half, as his power remained (.221 ISO) but his batting average fell to .193. Branyan walks plenty, but anyone short of Albert Pujols is going to have a hard time posting a productive OBP under those conditions. In a nutshell, Branyan is useful but not without some caveats-you know, being the same player he was before Seattle signed him and let him start.
“Surely we’ll be mocked for this, but they don’t know we spent the scouting budget on quantum tunneling and time travel research”: If Vladimir Guerrero struggled any more as a power hitter in 2009, sports journalists everywhere would have started talking about how feared he was back in his day. He doesn’t run like he has a piano on his back, but that’s only because at this point it looks like he’s carrying an entire jazz band and their instruments on it. He’s lost what little patience he developed over the years, and has become more hacktastic with time’s passing. Guerrero had a pretty amazing 10-year run, but if you’re looking for any of that when you go to sign him this winter, then you’re going to get what you deserve. He still has his uses-healthy and as a full-time DH, many AL clubs could use his services-but banking on that at this stage may be foolhardy.
It’s not like he can get any worse, right? Austin Kearns and Khalil Greene share this honor, as both former sluggers have seen their numbers and stock dwindle. Kearns is averaging an ISO of .118 over the past three years, which would be great if he played second base and could field. Khalil Green is at .162 over the same span, and does play shortstop and at least used to be able to play defense, but has also posted sub-.300 on-base percentages three years running. Kearns was pretty good with the Reds, but his career tanked once he joined the Nationals-a change of scenery may do him some good, or as the category’s title says, at least he won’t be any worse than he’s been. Greene is an iffier proposition, but at the same time, shortstop is in such a state of disarray that one team crazy enough to invite him to spring training might end up with a productive surprise.