It is generally accepted that Matt Holliday will command the largest contract of any player on this year’s free-agent market. Holliday is coming off a fantastic finish to the 2009 season. He hit .353/.419/.604 in 270 plate appearances with the Cardinals to help them win the National League Central championship after he was acquired from the Athletics in a late-July trade. The left fielder is also represented by Scott Boras, and no agent does a better job of consistently getting top dollar for his clients, even at a time when clubs insist they are going to spend less because of declining attendance and a soft economy.
But is Holliday really the most valuable player on the market? If you use WARP1, a BP metric that measures the overall value of a player, and look at only at this past season, then the answer he is not quite the best. The honor goes to Chone Figgins. He contributed a 6.3 WARP1 to the American League West champion Angels this year as their third baseman and leadoff hitter. That was one-tenth of a percentage point better than Holliday’s total tally 6.2, as he managed just 2.8 WARP1 with the Athletics in 400 plate appearances before being traded back to the NL.
While Holliday held a .311-.292 edge in EqA, Figgins had a substantial 36-13 margin in Fielding Runs Above Replacement (FRAP). Figgins also held a 3.9 point advantage over Holliday’s -0.6 in Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR), though that doesn’t even work out to half of a win’s worth of difference.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the top 20 free agents as ranked by their 2009 WARP1. I’ll also take a stab at predicting where they will end up, which is almost always an exercise in futility because of all the factors that can influence the market. Keep in mind that teams can begin making offers Friday.
Chone Figgins (6.3): The speculation is that Figgins’ asking price is $50 million for five years, which is a lot during a time when every franchise, including the Yankees, profess to be watching the bottom line. The Angels already signed Bobby Abreu to a two-year, $19 million deal before he could reach the market. They will end up re-signing Figgins, too, though not at five years and $50 million.
Matt Holliday (6.2): The two New York teams seem to be the logical destinations, as they have a need for a power-hitting outfielder. Whether the Yankees or Mets are going to make a play for Holliday, though, seems to depend on who you talk to. If owner Fred Wilpon really didn’t lose $700 million in the Bernie Madoff scandal, then I believe the Mets blow everyone out of the water in an attempt to stay relevant on the New York baseball scene.
Orlando Hudson (6.0): Well, we can safely assume Dodgers manager Joe Torre doesn’t know what WARP1 is, since he benched the O-Dog in the postseason in favor of Ronnie Belliard. Hudson stayed on the market for a long time last winter, and he will probably suffer the same fate this time, as the big-money clubs don’t have vacancies at second base. The Reds would be a great fit if they would be willing to be creative and move Brandon Phillips back to his original position of shortstop. That won’t happen, though, so Hudson will wind up back with the Diamondbacks for less than what he is worth.
Marco Scutaro (5.9): This guy has to feel like he’s holding the winning Powerball ticket. after being a fringe player for so many years, Scutaro had a career year as the Blue Jays‘ shortstop in 2009. The Red Sox got burned by signing Julio Lugo to a four-year, $32 million contract as a free agent and won’t make that mistake with Scutaro. However, they will sign him for the short term in a market when contracts longer than two years will be rare.
Miguel Tejada (5.7): This ranking surprises me, because Tejada’s career has seemed to be teetering on the edge of a cliff for the last few years. However, moving to third base might enable Tejada to squeeze out a few more years. The Phillies need a third baseman, and it worked out well last winter when they signed an older free agent in Raul Ibañez, even though they were criticized by many analysts for the move.
Jason Marquis (4.9): You can certainly quibble with Marquis being the best free-agent starting pitcher available, but that’s what the numbers say under the criteria we’re using here (with a counting stat). Marquis grew up on Long Island, and he would be attractive to both New York teams. A flip of the coin says he winds up with the Yankees.
Mike Cameron (4.8): Let’s make another homecoming prediction. Cameron is from Georgia, and the Braves need an outfielder. They could easily make room for Cameron by shifting center fielder Nate McLouth to one of the corner spots.
Felipe Lopez (4.8): He gets knocked a lot for his fielding, but he totaled 19 FRAP at second base this past season, split between the Diamondbacks and Brewers. He would be much more valuable if he could still play shortstop; instead, he will suffer the same fate as Hudson on the free-agent market and wind up signing late with the Marlins on a cut-rate contract to replace Dan Uggla, who will be traded.
Randy Wolf (4.5): He wants to re-sign with his hometown Dodgers and is willing to take a discount. Thus, the two sides will work out a deal, as reports of GM Ned Colletti having his hands tied financially because of the McCourt divorce situation are exaggerated.
Jason Bay (4.4): Well, so much for agent Joe Urbon’s claim that his client is a better all-round player than Holliday. If the Red Sox did indeed offer Bay four years and $60 million and he turned it down, as has been reported, then it is a clear sign that he does not want to stay in Boston. If he wants out from under the microscope, then the perfect destination choice would be the Mariners, as he makes Seattle his off-season home.
Johnny Damon (4.4): Boras is dead set on Damon getting another contract similar to the four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees that just expired. It would be shocking if Boras can pull that one off. Damon will wind up back with the Yankees, but on a two-year deal at most.
Adam LaRoche (4.0): LaRoche returned to his comfort zone when the Braves acquired him from the Red Sox at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. Third baseman Chipper Jones and LaRoche are hunting buddies. Chipper is pushing hard for LaRoche’s return. Braves management usually listens to Chipper.
Doug Davis (3.6): He isn’t the type of pitcher who excites anyone, but Davis is a lefty and dependable to start every fifth day. The Mets could certainly use someone like him, especially since they probably won’t have the money to spend too big on a starter if they blow the budget on Holliday.
Jon Garland (3.5): Another solid, if unspectacular, starting pitcher who can help someone at the back end of the rotation. A Southern California guy, he would be a good fit for the Angels, especially since it is doubtful they will be able to retain their staff ace…
John Lackey (3.5): Speaking of Lackey, there has been plenty of speculation that he will command a contract in excess of $100 million. However, his recent WARP1 trend says someone is going to be very sorry if they make that kind of investment in a pitcher who is 31 and becoming injury prone. Since posting a career-best 7.1 WARP1 in 2007, he has had a combined 6.4 in the past two seasons. All the talk surrounding the Dodgers after losing to the Phillies in the National League Championship Series for the second season in a row is that they needed an ace in their starting rotation. Frank McCourt is as sensitive to public perception as any owner, and he will throw plenty big money at Lackey to entice him to stay in SoCal.
Rafael Soriano (3.5): He had a good year for the Braves while sharing the closing duties with Mike Gonzalez, but the Braves have decided to move on. Soriano would be a really good fit for the Tigers as an upgrade over closer Fernando Rodney, who is also a free agent, but the Tigers aren’t in spending mode. Thus, in a bit of a surprise, I believe Soriano will wind up with the Rays, who need a good back-end reliever.
Joel Pineiro (3.4): The Astros are supposed to be getting younger, but owner Drayton McLane famously likes to say he never uses the word “rebuilding.” They need a starting pitcher to slot behind Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, and Pineiro would fit nicely.
Nick Johnson (3.3): The Giants need power and on-base percentage. Johnson provides both and would be an upgrade at first base over Ryan Garko. Furthermore, Johnson is a Northern California guy who grew up in Sacramento. It all makes too much sense not to happen.
Placido Polanco (3.3): Like Hudson and Lopez, Polanco will be the victim of a weak market for second basemen. Thus, he will wind up re-signing with the Tigers on a one-year contract, right before the start of spring training.
Jarrod Washburn (3.3): His value plummeted after the Tigers acquired him from the Mariners in a trade at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. He will still have his suitors, and the Brewers and the NL would be a nice match for a left-hander who has spent his entire career in the AL and was born, raised, and still lives in Wisconsin.
Boras doesn’t give hometown discounts to teams, and he made it clear this past week that he will not change his policy when it comes to Holliday and the Cardinals. Boras dismissed the idea that the Cardinals are a mid-market franchise that might have a hard time competing with their large-market brethren in the bidding.
“I don’t know what a mid-market franchise is,” Boras told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Joe Strauss. “That’s like a mid-size aircraft carrier. They all have the potential to have an economic bomb. If you’re drawing 3.3 million fans and you’re averaging $50 a fan coming in, I just don’t know that mid-market term. I’m trying to think if that’s part of the laissez-faire system. I don’t know. You’re always looking for an owner who is committed to winning. When you’re talking about these long-term contracts, you don’t want to get stuck in a place where you can’t win annually. I think that’s an important part for a free agent who is a franchise player. You really have to make sure the owner is not only committed today, but committed long-term.”
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak and Boras met for an hour at the general managers meetings in Chicago. Mozeliak would also welcome a face-to-face chat with Holliday. “I’d still like to have the opportunity to sit down and talk to him about where we’re coming from,” Mozeliak said.
Boras often likes to take his time during free-agent negotiations, as first baseman Mark Teixeira did not agree to his eight-year, $180 million contract with the Yankees until early January last winter. Boras also likes to put clubs in situations where they are not only bidding against each other, but against themselves.
Mozeliak, though, does not want to string out the process or make a series of counterproposals. “I think it’s fair to say when we present an offer, that’s pretty much going to be our position,” Mozeliak said. “We’re not really interested in becoming involved in a long, drawn-out back-and-forth.”
Reds GM Walt Jocketty has been told he is going to have to hold the line of payroll this winter. The Reds began last season at $73 million. However, Jocketty said reports that the Reds are preparing to hold a fire sale are exaggerated. “I mentioned to a reporter that we’d be restricted as far as payroll,” Jocketty told the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s John Fay. “We’ve been saying that all along. We won’t be active in the free-agent market. We have to be creative.”
However, Jocketty would not rule out trading one of his veterans in an effort to clear payroll space and make other moves. Among the logical candidates who could go in that scenario are Phillips, right-handers Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang, and closer Francisco Cordero. “It’s all part of the big picture,” Jocketty said. “We’re building a younger club for the long-term. If we can get players who are major league-ready, one- to three-year guys, who can help us, we’ll look at it.”
The Nationals became the last team to fill their managerial vacancy. And they wound up filling it with the guy who already held the job on an interim basis, as Jim Riggleman got the gig. The Nationals went 33-42 in the second half of last season under Riggleman, who was elevated from bench coach to replace the fired Manny Acta at the All-Star break. They had gone 26-61 in the first half.
The second half improvement made such an impression that the Nationals decided to go with Riggleman, a low-key baseball lifer, over a high-profile personality in ESPN analyst and former Rangers and Mets manager Bobby Valentine.
Riggleman won over GM Mike Rizzo with the way he handled the Nationals’ clubhouse. Riggleman makes it a point to try to talk to each player every day, and he’s the rare manager who holds a brief postgame team meeting on a nightly basis. “He has an open-door policy, but he also comes out from behind the door,” Rizzo told the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell.
Riggleman grew up in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Maryland, and was a fan of the old Senators, as he often attended games at RFK Stadium. “This has been a dream of mine, to land right here,” Riggleman said. “It’s still the Senators-Nationals to me. It’s still Washington baseball. It’s the dream of a lifetime to grow up watching a ballclub and then play for it or manage it.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: If the Tigers do trade center fielder Curtis Granderson, the Cubs are best positioned to make a deal, though the Yankees and Angels are also in the picture. … The Yankees and Red Sox are lining up as the co-favorites to land right-hander Roy Halladay, especially in light of Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos saying that he is willing to trade the ace within the AL East. … The Marlins are willing to listen to trade offers for hard-throwing reliever Matt Lindstrom. … The Cubs have interest in signing center fielder Marlon Byrd as a free agent, though the Rangers would like to retain him. … Left-handed reliever Billy Wagner is likely to re-sign with the Red Sox, particularly since another club would have to give up two draft picks to sign him as a Type A free agent. … The Mets will consider re-signing first baseman Carlos Delgado if he shows he is healthy while playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. … Infielder Edgardo Alfonzo, who last played in the major leagues with the Giants in 2006, is looking to make a comeback.