Sifting Through the Discount Bin
by Jonah Keri
We constantly hear teams bellyache about their inability to sign free agents.
To a certain extent, they have a point. A team like, say, the Expos, probably couldn't afford to pay, say, Darren Dreifort $55 million over five years. And boy, could they use a right-handed rehab partner for Scott Downs.
Every year the shrewdest teams reach into the dollar store bargain bin, hoping to find the mint-condition Boba Fett Blaster (still in its original packaging!). Modest success means finding a warm body who will ensure you don't have to sign the next Kevin Young to a mega-contract. All it takes is finding a player a hair above replacement level and you've done your job while potentially saving a few million bucks in the process.
If you're really smart—and let's face it, lucky—you find that rare gem who offers a major improvement over your incumbent. Better still, finding a bargain lets a team use its resources for other needs.
The 10 players below all make $4 million or less this year. They were all acquired via free agency signing or a trade for a player of limited value. None fared well at Plinko though, proving the price was not entirely right.
Hitters(ranked by VORP, all stats through June 2)
Ruben Sierra, $1.9 million, free agent, Mariners (from Rangers), 17.3 VORP
Most shrugged off Sierra's rebirth in Texas last year. The Mariners gave him a chance, and he's responded with a .319/.366/.481 performance. He's proven particularly valuable filling in for the injured Edgar Martinez; Martinez's strike-zone mastery may have rubbed off, too. A little, anyway. OK, maybe not, but try the guy's recipe for shortbread cookies some time.
Kenny Lofton, $1.025 million, free agent, White Sox (from Indians), 15.0 VORP
Though Lofton came cheap, some wondered if Aaron Rowand could have done the job himself. Lofton has helped energize the White Sox lineup, hitting .299/.379/.433 and stealing 20 bases in 25 tries. With only a one-year deal in hand, he shouldn't block the path of Chicago's stud-in-waiting, Joe Borchard.
Herbert Perry, $900,000, acquired by the Rangers from the White Sox for Corey Lee, 14.7 VORP
Whether or not you like the Rangers' decision to send down Hank Blalock, Perry (along with Mike Lamb) now stands to play a lot at third base. Perry's career line of .280/.344/.435 suggests that his current .330/.387/.563 is not that far over his head. Health problems tend to dog Perry, so he'll have to stay nick-free while Blalock works out whatever it is John Hart thinks is plaguing him.
Tom Wilson, $220,000, free agent, Blue Jays (from A's), 9.9 VORP
The Jays grabbed Wilson to back up Darrin Fletcher. Fletch's recent DL stint opened the door for Wilson to get more playing time and he responded by whacking the ball over Lake Ontario: .297/.407/.443. With Fletcher back, Wilson looks to split time more evenly. He'll make a nice backup for Josh Phelps when the kid arrives later this year.
Dave Roberts, $217,500, free agent, Dodgers (from Indians), 9.8 VORP
The dangers of small sample size creep in here. A few weeks ago, Roberts looked terrible. But draw a few walks, slap a few singles, steal a few bases and suddenly you're a useful leadoff man with an OBP above .400. Hitting .310/.404/.395, Roberts has actually formed a solid platoon with Marquis Grissom (10.4 VORP) in center field. Two months ago you couldn't have gotten longer odds on a John Candelaria comeback.
Bobby Estalella, N/A, minor-league free agent, Rockies (from Yankees), (8.5 VORP):
It's a little soon to tell, but the Rox may end up with a steal here. Estalella has ripped the ball in his first few games as Colorado's de facto starting catcher. He's 27, has slugged 442 for his career coming into this season and no one wanted him. You'd like to see Ben Petrick get another shot, but Estalella, hitting .276/.386/.690, is better than at least half the starting big-league catchers.
Paul Byrd, $850,000, was a Royal, non-tendered after figuring to double $650,000 salary, 22.1 VORP (4th in MLB)
Anyone could have had Byrd after the Royals non-tendered the former candidate for the Most Dubious All-Star team. His unreal control thus far has kept him going strong: 81 2/3 innings of 3.53 ERA ball. You wonder if Byrd could be a sell-high candidate for a team that could desperately use, say, a young masher to patrol third base for the next half a decade.
Pedro Astacio, $4 million, free agent (Mets from Astros), 21.3 VORP
Last year's shoulder injury cost Astacio some serious bucks. The Mets handed out a one-year deal, hoping they'd see more of Astacio's knee-buckling curve and high strikeout rates and less of Dr. James Andrews. They have: 76 1/3 innings, 2.71 ERA. In Baseball Prospectus 2002, Chris Kahrl predicted Astacio would be a bargain, but I'm still clinging to that one-armed Vance Law bobblehead. Sorry Chris, I won it fair and square in that BP Boggle showdown and you're not getting it back.
Darren Holmes/Chris Hammond, $775,000 combined, Lured from Denny's? Returned by aliens? 17.1 combined VORP
Wouldn't it be great to follow a pitching staff consisting entirely of Don Gullett retread starters and Leo Mazzone scrap heap relievers? Largely by necessity, the Braves have had to make due with a cheap collection of arms in the pen for years. With the exception of closer-signed-for-starter-money John Smoltz, this bullpen may be Mazzone's crowning achievement. Holmes had been out of baseball for a year following neck surgery; Hammond, gone for three years. They've combined for 51 2/3 innings and a 1.92 ERA.
Ismael Valdes, $2.5 million, free agent (Rangers from Angels), 12.9 VORP
Plenty of experience, decent peripherals over a long stretch of time and a relatively healthy arm. Valdes used to put ketchup on his Dodger Dogs, but nobody's perfect. His 60 2/3 innings and 3.86 ERA stand out on this staff.
Jonah Keri has covered sports business for Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal and other publications. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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