As free agents make their filings, General Managers across the game are starting the process of figuring out how they will put together their teams. An important part of that process is figuring out which free agents they should pursue. Part of the equation is expectations of health. Signing a Jeffrey Hammonds and expecting 160 games a year is pure folly and likely to cause a team to drastically overpay. On the flip side, the team that correctly assesses the risks, and prices accordingly, is much more likely to find the next Esteban Loaiza. While the factors that must be considered go far beyond health, it is one major component–one we’ll look at here with the Free Agent Health Report. Remember, this is not an exhaustive list–players not on this list are neither completely healthy nor completely screwed. They just didn’t make my cut.

Powered by a renewed sense of fiscal responsibility and Pom 100% Pomegranate Juice, here’s your 2003-2004 NL Free Agents…

  • Arranging this alphabetically seemed like such an even-handed decision until Terry Adams popped up as the first name. Hardly the most attractive name on the list, Adams is a middle reliever coming off elbow surgery and a poor season. Adams was once a closer-in-waiting for both the Cubs and Phillies, but failed more often that he succeeded. His best role at this point in his career might be as the long-relief, emergency-starter type on a team in a pronounced pitcher’s park. At 31, he’s worth a gamble for the right team, but he’s not the type of signing that will incite a frenzy of ticket buying.
  • Funny how this works: Pedro Astacio goes from being considered a very good pitcher, one the Mets overpaid for just a few years ago, to being the baseball equivalent of “Hookers At The Point.” For the GM with a bit of risk tolerance and a desire to party, Astacio could pay off in a manner like Esteban Loaiza or Jose Lima, but there are far more Divine Browns than Julia Roberts available in this seedy part of town. While labrum surgery isn’t quite the death sentence for a pitcher that it once was, syphilis is curable too; it doesn’t mean you want it. Astacio will be lucky to be an NRI this offseason, and could end up with a fine team like the Newark Bears.
  • Both of the last two seasons for Rich Aurilia have been seriously affected by injury. In 2002, he had elbow surgery, but came back in the minimum 15 days after having chips removed. A long-simmering appendectomy affected much of his 2003, and as a result, his 2001 is looking more and more like a fluke as the days go by. Pay commensurate with the last two seasons and Aurilia could surprise many. He’s likely to re-sign with the Giants.
  • It was a surprise to many that John Franco decided to have Tommy John surgery in 2002 instead of walking away from the game, but Franco has become something of a popular figure in New York, mostly due to his off-field charity work. Franco wanted to go out on his terms, and frankly, left-handed relievers can stick around forever if they want. Few pitchers will have problems in the same elbow after TJS, so the risk is minimally greater than that for any of the few pitchers his age. Franco would fit well with either New York team and could close for a number of others.
  • When there are open questions about the premier free agent’s health, it makes my job a little easier. In the case of Vladimir Guerrero, there’s really no reason to be concerned unless a team thinks it can leverage the past injury into a cost reduction. Don’t count on it. As with Ivan Rodriguez, Guerrero took a minor back injury and the resultant scare, and used it to renew his commitment to baseball. As long as Guerrero remains committed to his rehab protocols, he should have limited further problems. Removing himself from the Montreal turf sure wouldn’t hurt either. If the back is the only question keeping a team from signing Guerrero, the team that understands there’s not much risk should win out. The Yankees might understand risk better than any other team.
  • According to my pal Rob Miller, Jeffrey Hammonds‘ health is like dysentery–it too shall pass. In fact, in the right place and at the right price, Hammonds could be a good acquisition. In the role he was in for the Giants–first bat off the bench and occasional replacement for Barry Bonds–Hammonds was more than adequate. Expecting big numbers in games played is only tempting fate. Hammonds would be best served by a return engagement in San Francisco.
  • Does a mercenary streak help or hurt Kenny Lofton as he tries to find another team for the first half of 2004? Honestly, there are few teams that can afford to have Lofton in center field for a full season, but Lofton doesn’t sound ready to accept a bench role. While his speed is his best skill, it’s not what it once was, and his defensive reputation is finally catching up to the declining reality of age.
  • At risk of sounding inconsistent, there’s not much that can be learned from generalities. Common sense and history tell us that catchers in their 30s are poor risks. Catchers that have career years at 32, have caught over 1000 games, and become free agents, are among the poorest of risks. Someone, however, is going to look at Javy Lopez and think that they’ll get 2003’s numbers in 2004–and maybe they will. Like Jim Thome and Jason Giambi, it’s not the front end of these deals that’s problematic, it’s the end where they’re old and untradable. If someone insists on bidding Lopez up–and several teams are on his trail–they’d be better served to pay more over a shorter period of time. Lopez has chronic groin problems, and that fact–more than 42 homers and a .378 OBP–should impact his contract.
  • Greg Maddux had a normal level of success last season at age 37. He continues to make the transition towards being a right-handed Jamie Moyer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t exactly what most teams would want from a major free agent signing. While Maddux has never had a serious injury, and has never been someone with overpowering stuff, he’s had his share of nagging injuries that often come with advancing age, such as knee problems and muscle strains. He’s also developing a reputation as a pitcher who’s not willing to go much past 90 pitches. If he can find an organization that understands basic rotation management and has a decent bullpen, Maddux will be fine and could continue his streak of 15-win seasons without much difficulty. We can expect John Schuerholz won’t make the mistake of offering arbitration this offseason, and the most likely destinations for Maddux are San Diego or Arizona.
  • It’s been such a bygone conclusion that Kevin Millwood would return to Atlanta that it’s barely worth noticing that he’s a free agent at all. Atlanta remains the favorite to retain his services, but Millwood might not be worthy of the money he was thought to command. Atlanta will certainly not use all of the money freed up by Maddux on Millwood, but paying Millwood the market rate and pocketing the rest would be in line with the current thinking of the faceless AOL guy. Millwood had a good year with Joe Kerrigan, and is one of few pitchers who didn’t seem to mesh with Leo Mazzone. Like Jason Schmidt, he might be more of a late-bloomer than many expected. Millwood has never had a serious health issue and will be the best bet amongst available pitchers.
  • The risks of pitching with a torn labrum aren’t much greater than having the surgery. Comparing Astacio to Sidney Ponson should be apples and oranges–one missed the better part of a season for a non-contender, the other brought three prospects in return for a stretch drive. Ponson’s poor performance don’t help him heading into his free agency, but he remains colored by the beatific light of potential. He often looks so unhittable that scouts and GM’s alike can be dazzled enough to believe their eyes. Hand those men a copy of Moneyball and ask them to step away from the checkbook. Whoever signs Ponson hasn’t read it … and doesn’t get it. Ponson will break down before completing the next contract he signs.
  • Remember what I said about Javy Lopez and old catchers with injury histories? Never mind. If you think this is based on Pudge’s channeling of Barry Bonds in the NLCS, you’re wrong. Pudge proved over the last season and a half that his back is not a problem, and what stands out is his lack of leg problems. Watching Ivan Rodriguez pounce out of his crouch this season was simply a clinic on how to catch. Of course, no one since a young Benito Santiago has had the cannon Rodriguez possesses. In fact, Puerto Rico may be invaded soon due to the weapons of baserunning destruction that have come from that island. Rodriguez will command a princely sum, but much less than he would have in previous eras, and possibly lower on a per-year basis than last year’s deal.
  • Despite numbers that many wish could be blamed on an injury, Glendon Rusch is healthy and available. Rusch’s problem–as detailed in a classic interview on BPR–was completely mental. When he was confident–almost never in 2003–he could be an adequate low-rotation starter. His stuff gone, Rusch didn’t have the resources to fall back on, and no team wanted to pick him up. Released by the Brewers, Rusch is the type of pitcher that could latch on with a team willing to risk an NRI and an option, perhaps in Kansas City or Detroit. Given the right coaching and a bit of luck, Rusch is as likely to come back to being a positive contributor.
  • My grandfather used to sit me on his knee and tell me stories about the days when Benito Santiago was young, and his arm made the Padres one of the more feared teams in the league. He’d snap throws to second from his knees, throw the ball to first in a no-look worthy of Magic Johnson, and… wait, it really wasn’t that long ago that Santiago was everything Ivan Rodriguez became. A long career is overshadowed by both Rodriguez and the bat of Mike Piazza, but his late-career renaissance reminds many that Santiago has always been a good guy to have behind the plate, if seldom a difference maker. Asking him to continue to take the load of being the lead catcher is probably unrealistic, but there’s really no reason–besides age–to base that statement on. Like Jesse Orosco or Rickey Henderson, Santiago appears able to play as long as he wishes. He could be a good fit for a team with a young catcher or a quick fix for a team like Atlanta.
  • He demanded a trade from Los Angeles so he could settle in with his family. Two years later, I haven’t heard much about the family angle from Gary Sheffield. He’s off the workout program that made him an MVP candidate for 2003, and while he’s aged much like his former workout partner, Barry Bonds, he’s never seemed as willing to keep up the pace. Sheffield is often distracted by minor injuries and with age comes an increased likelihood of just those types of injurie–the pulls, the strains, the spasms. And with those pulls, strains, and spasms, Sheffield is likely to decline from his current levels. On the right team and paid according to 2004 economics and not the bygone gilded era, Sheffield will be a nice acquisition next year, and a headache shortly thereafter.
  • Proof positive that talent doesn’t always equal success, Brett Tomko makes Tom House have nightmares. His delivery is so tweaked by any number of pitching coaches that it probably only resembles his original delivery–the one that got him to the majors–in that he still uses his right arm. Tomko has had some minor spinal problems, but there’s probably a pitching coach somewhere whispering “But I can fix him” loudly enough and often enough to get him a new contract. Only a breakdown will end this cycle.
  • With Fernando Vina seemingly replaced (snicker) with Bo Hart in St. Louis, there’s a perfect fit for Vina just up the Interstate in Chicago. His combination of speed and defense would be tailor made for the Cubs–assuming they don’t quickly resign Mark Grudzielanek as rumored. Vina’s chronic hamstrings are a major concern, but as with any risk, the right price and situation make these risks tolerable. With Ramon Martinez in place, a DL stint wouldn’t be fatal, especially if Vina is willing to take a contract about half of what he expected to make in St. Louis. He’s never likely to remain perfectly healthy, but Dusty Baker’s rest patterns would certainly help someone of this type.
  • Eric Young, in this market, becomes a poor man’s Vina without the starting potential. Old enough to have a son in the minor leagues, Young still has enough to be a decent bench player with some versatility and speed. Widely regarded as a good influence, pairing him with a younger middle infielder like Rickie Weeks or Jose Reyes would be an ideal situation for both players and team. Young has no chronic injury problems, but age alone should keep a team from expecting too much from him.

Back later this week with the AL version…

(P.S. Would my Splinter Cell friend please email me?)

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