It's a third of the way into March and we're less than four weeks away from when the games will count, and yet, there are names you won't find in any spring training boxscore, at least not yet. It seems symbolic of the current state of the marketplace, arguably a faint echo of the Homestead Homies of '95. However, where unemployed free agents then were the straggling after-effect of the labor war of '94, the recent seasons involving underemployment and March signings seem to be more a product of front offices recognizing the virtue of waiting to see how the market plays out. Another factor in play is that execs today have a thorough understanding of the value of contractual control and working the clock in terms of getting full measure out of home-developed talent—the money invested in what Matt Swartz refers to as non-market players. Suffice to say that there's a lot less willingness to risk losing talent on early-winter waiver claims or via the Rule 5 Draft, and a better sense that, especially as camps open and players tune up, time deals all wounds, creating roster space for non-roster veterans and spring additions.
Which leaves these unhappy few, the names of note left waiting and wondering. I'd suggest there are only 10 guys left you really need to be interested in at this point, four hitters, and six pitchers: John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez, Jarrod Washburn, Braden Looper, Joe Beimel, and David Weathers among the moundsmen, and Gary Sheffield, Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, and Carlos Delgado among the batsmen.
To some extent, pride or an unwillingness to accept the indignity of what's seen as insultingly low offers are a factor, but more generally age and health have contributed to why these guys are still golfing. Some were getting substantive offers in January or February, but rejected them, anticipating that somehow, somewhere, a team would come through. But even then, as March runs out of days on the calendar, they'll be competing with other players out of options and suddenly on the trading block. Now, the $5-million offer of January seems unlikely to be anything of the sort; maybe incentive-laden deals will fly, but more generally, the men on this list are hoping either they're healthy enough or somebody else in any one of 30 camps gets hurt badly enough to upset one team's financial calculus.
That's certainly a factor in play for the pitchers with any experience closing in the wake of the grim news about Joe Nathan. Pickings are slim, but two former closers are on the market: Smoltz and… Looper. (What, you thought I was reaching for Tom Gordon? We'll get to him.) With a semi-sunny PECOTA and a storied past, Smoltz's credentials as well as his struggles in a starting role last season would seem to make him an obvious choice for any team looking for late-game relief. In the Twins' instance, if Nathan returns in the second half, there's nothing that says Smoltz couldn't be mollified by occasional saves, since Nathan could need careful handling; Smoltz could also be fobbed off with another spin in the rotation, since by then the Twins could have suffered an injury or another setback with the on/off career of Francisco Liriano.
Looper, in contrast, has far more modest credentials despite a pair of World Series rings, but potentially more modest financial expectations as the nice-personality alternative. His virtues as a closer aren't all that impressive, since even during his best years, first in Miami in 2003 and then in Flushing in 2004 he was never really all that overpowering, and he lacks a true swing-and-miss offering. Then there's the fact that his last year closing for the Mets in '05 was an unmitigated disaster (unless being a Met is considered such), with his WXRL dropping from the threes to -0.173. He redeemed that somewhat with a nice spin in the Cards' pen as a set-up man in their championship run in 2006, though. The Twins might go for the whole post-season experience thing if things look truly dire, but the Dodgers appear to be the leading suitor should he prove willing to accept a minor-league deal.
Both Smoltz and Looper have the additional worth in that they've been starting pitchers with some kind of value one way or another. Smoltz's virtues strike me as less reliable, but someone might decide that a Mike Morgan-like five-and-dive fifth man Jedi act has value to their staff. Looper's high end involved Cardinal seasons with a SNWP around .500 in both 2007 and 2008, which isn't great, but it could help some clubs if they're willing to shrug off last year's faceplant as a Brewer.
The alternatives for starting pitchers beyond the be-ringed duo boil down to Washburn and Martinez. Pedro's supposedly chatting amiably with the Phillies and pondering a return engagement there; it isn't like the outcome of the camp battle between Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick should keep him up nights, wondering if he'll ever pitch again. Even after a winner's determined, Pedro could stall until June and still end up pitching in October. A step behind them you've got Noah Lowry's dead-on impersonation of Mike Hampton's disappearing act, and Bartolo Colon's battles with his girth and charm. It's no wonder Livan Hernandez is in a camp before either.
Washburn is the more obvious totally available "free" free agent you might want, and the man who made the perceived mistake of reportedly turning down a $5-million, one-year offer from the Twins in January. It's hard to see where he might get that kind of money now, but it's also not that implausible that he's selectively remembering the good stuff from recent seasons, because there was more than a bit of it. It's fashionable to bang on him for benefiting last year with the Mariners from their vastly improved defense, but the steep implosion with the Tigers owed something to injury. His knee's now sound, and if last year's 20-start run with the M's seemed improbable, it's worth remembering he also finished 2008 with a strong three-month run as well. If you set your expectations on the basis of his past contracts, he's overrated; if you settle for him as a mid-rotation innings eater in front of a good defense and pay him commensurate for the adequacy that seems to be the end result of his in-season turbulence, he could be an undervalued asset.
Beyond that quartet, things get ugly as far as the pitching still out there. Weathers and Beimel might be the class of the relievers available, but Beimel's already rumored to be a Met in the making, while the rubber-armed Stormy's an everyman sort of hero, another American fortysomething out of work and wondering if another gig's ever going to come his way. At least those two are healthy, however long in the tooth; a step behind them you get into Alan Embree and his coming back from a broken leg and a spin on Planet Coors, Chad Bradford's struggle to come back from a bum elbow (leading to thoughts of retirement), and Flash Gordon's flagging status as a chase-worthy target. Jason Isringhausen's been mentioned in the context of Nathan's injury, but Izzy's own recovery from TJS seems likely to keep him out until July at the least.
With the recent signings of Hank Blalock with Tampa Bay this week and Felipe Lopez's decision to return to St. Louis last week, there isn't much left in the way of position-playing talent on the market. Between age, the lack of a position, or questions about health, the leading quartet of remaining free-agent hitters may not even necessarily be good for just that.
First, there's the pair of possible plug-ins for designated hitter. Unfortunately, both come with warts. Delgado is out until June at the earliest after another surgery on his hip; by the time Delgado's either healthy enough to pass a physical or prove he can play by beating up on Atlantic League pitching, most contenders should have their problems patched up with other solutions.
Sheffield is still on the market, but between the burden of being Gary Sheffield, semi-scary person, and his desire to play everyday, he may be left out in the cold despite a fine bounce-back campaign with the Mets last year that suggests he's still a valuable bat. Would the White Sox give him some consideration, because if anyone can keep Sheff out of the headlines, it might be an Ozzie Guillen ballclub. Sheffield has been here before after a fashion, since he was discarded by the Tigers at the end of March, and was fortunate to move over to the Mets for the minimum shortly thereafter.
Speaking of the Sox, the remaining pair of useful free agent position players are leftovers from the 2005 world champs: former top slugger Dye, and third baseman Crede. Each has his handicaps: Crede, a back that's given out on him so many times that no club is sure they could rely on him as a regular, and Dye a ghastly second half (.179/.293/.297) in 2009 that a man headed into his age-36 season could ill afford. Dye was apparently low-balled by the Blue Jays—who do still need a right fielder and/or a DH—and he passed on or was unwilling to consider reserve gigs in Anaheim or Wrigleyville. Dye's opportunities have been whittled down to swallowing price to get playing time in Toronto, or zero-sum exercises that require somebody else to go down. To some extent, Dye and Sheffield might be in a race neither man knows about, as far as which one realizes Toronto's the gig that gets them at-bats and keeps this active portion of their careers going.
As for Crede, I'm biased by having enjoyed watching him play for so many years; he's one of those brilliant corner fielders whose stats back up direct observation, so while his skills have slipped with time, his combination of gloveliness and being able to pull the occasional pitch down the line makes him potentially useful, and he is apparently healthy, at least for the time being. My hope's just that he gets a last spin somewhere.
What kind of money could any of them see? If, earlier this winter, Washburn turned down $5 million and Dye reportedly $3 million, you can expect neither is going to see that kind of guaranteed cash now. I wouldn't be surprised if Smoltz got an incentive-laden deal that put him up towards $5 million if he earned out everything, and Dye might be able to get similar money to what he turned down earlier if, again, it was incentive-driven. But beyond that, if anybody gets a base of more than $2 million, I'd be surprised.