Spring training is barely more than a week away, and the free agent market has all but been picked over.
How slim are the pickings on the open market? Just five players who contributed as much as 1.0 WARP last season remain free agents, and the best of them, right-hander Javier Vazquez (2.2 for the Marlins), has decided to retire, though he hasn't yet filed the paperwork with Major League Baseball.
That leaves just four players who made much of a positive impact in 2011. Here is a look at that foursome, why those players are still on the market, and a scout's view of each player:
Johnny Damon, DH/OF (2.1 WARP, Rays)—The Rays surprised many in baseball when they opted to sign Luke Scott to a one-year, $6-million contract to replace Damon as their designated hitter. Scott hit .220/.301/.402 with nine home runs and .a 256 TAv in 236 plate appearances last season before undergoing shoulder surgery. Damon had a .261/.326/.418 slash line with 16 homers and a .284 TAv in 647 trips to the plate.
Scout's take: "He can still play, and he can still help someone. I'm really surprised the Rays didn't bring him back, because he seemed like a good fit there. He's getting older. He's 38 and doesn't have the home run power he used to, but he can still help and be a productive player. It's just hard for me to believe he's going to wind up as either a platoon player, a bench guy—or even out of baseball."
Roy Oswalt, RHP (1.7 WARP, Phillies)—Oswalt was limited to 23 starts and 139 innings because of back problems last season but still pitched to a 3.41 FIP. He reportedly wants to stay close to his Mississippi home, but the teams he would like to play for don't have a need for a starting pitcher. Thus, Oswalt remains in limbo with pitchers and catchers reporting in 10 days.
Scout's take: "He can still win you some ballgames, but his better days are behind him. If he gets $10 million this year, I'll be shocked. It's too much of a risk. His back has given him trouble on and off for five years. I couldn't take on that risk at $10 million."
Hideki Matsui, DH/OF (1.2 WARP, Athletics) —Matsui has played for three teams in the last three years, bouncing from the Yankees to the Angels to the Athletics.
Full-time designated hitters are on the verge of becoming obsolete for two reasons. One is that teams value defense more than they have in the past. Secondly, American League managers have found they get more out of the DH spot by using it to rotate their regulars and give them an occasional day off from playing in the field.
Scout's take: "Playing in that big ballpark in Oakland didn't help, but his power is just about gone. He'll still occasionally catch a mistake pitch and give it a ride but there a lot of times when he is overmatched. I think his retirement decision is being made for him this winter."
Kosuke Fukudome, OF (1.1 WARP, Cubs/Indians)—Fukudome is part of the reason why Jim Hendry is no longer the Cubs' general manager, as he didn't come close to living up to the four-year, $48-million contract he received as a free agent after leaving Japan following the 2007 season. Fukudome wants to continue playing in the major leagues but might be forced to return to Japan.
Scout's take: "What power he did show in the big leagues is pretty much gone, and he doesn't run as well as he did when he came over to the States. The only way I'd take him is if he came to camp on a minor-league deal worth no more than $1 million if he made the club and was willing to be a fourth or fifth outfielder. "
Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus: "I think the Rangers were smart to lock him up with a three-year contract. He's still a little shaky in the field, but he's really young, and the tools are there. He'll be a Gold Glove winner once he gains more consistency. He's really growing as a hitter. He's willing to work the count more and understands he doesn’t have to hack at every pitch. If he starts getting on base more with that great speed of his, well, look out."
Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw: "By the time that two-year contract (worth $19 million) he just signed is finished, he'll be the premier pitcher in the game. He's almost there now, and he gets better seemingly with every start he makes. I hate saying the sky is the limit for anyone, but it really is for this kid. Good God, you wonder what he's going to accomplish before it's all said and done."
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks right-hander Brad Penny: "This is not going to end well. You've got a guy who doesn't exactly believe in hard work or having the best of attitudes going to a culture in Japan where those traits are expected of every player. If he ends up making it through the year there and succeeding, it will be one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 baseball season."
Billy Beane is one of most polarizing figures inside the game of baseball, and the release of the movie version of Moneyball last September only widened the gulf. Some people feel the Athletics general manager is the preeminent visionary in the game. Others feel his baseball acumen is vastly overrated.
Not surprisingly, front-office types surveyed about the recent news of Beane's contract being extended through the 2019 season offered a mixed bag of reactions.
From the pro-Beane camp: "He's in the worst situation in baseball, working for a team with no money, no ballpark, and no fans. It'd be a 100-loss team under most general managers. I don't think people appreciate how good Billy and (assistant GM) David Forst are at their jobs just to keep the A's from becoming a total joke."
From the anti-Beane camp: "They haven't had a winning season in five years, and they're dismantling their team again. Everyone else caught on to the Moneyball way of finding market inefficiencies, and now the A's are forced back into having to win with scouting and player development, and they do a piss poor job of both. That falls on Billy. The A's aren't the smartest people in the room anymore. They've been replaced by the Rays."
- I wish Josh Hamilton all the best in his continuing battle against drug and alcohol abuse. I don't approve of the things he has done to his body over the years, but I have no doubt he is totally sincere in his efforts to stay clean and is greatly bothered when he gives in to his alcohol demon.
- I applaud the Hall of Fame for starting a drug education program to illuminate the dangers of PEDs. I'd applaud the Hall again if it would give those of us privileged to vote on who winds up being immortalized in Cooperstown some direction on how it wants to acknowledge players from the Steroid Era.
- I haven't bought a necklace from George Brett, and I'm not bidding on the baseball autographed by Kim Kardashian being auctioned for charity by the Twins, in case you were wondering.
- I'm glad I'm not Brian Cashman right now.
- Pitchers and catchers report in 10 days, and I can't wait to be on the scene on the Gulf Coast of Florida, and in the Yankees' camp in Tampa in particular, when it starts.
This week's Must Read is a little old but still compelling, as the Palm Beach Post's Dave George describes the scene as Hall of Famer Gary Carter, who is battling brain cancer, attends the season opener of the college team he coaches, Palm Beach Atlantic.
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- One scout doesn't seem to have noticed that teams don't carry 5 outfielders anymore - and usually the 4th (at least in the A.L.) is a speedy type who can cover centerfield if needed.
- By all evidence, the anti-Beane scout is way off when it comes to developing pitchers. In fact, Oakland seems to be the best team in the A.L. at turning mid level pitching prospects into highly effective pitchers: Moscoso, Gio G., Braden, Bailey, Ziegler, Breslow, Wuertz - and that's just recently. They didn't fail with better pitching prospects Anderson and Cahill and they turned Brandon McCarthy into the solid starter that other teams failed to do.