Best bargains in free agent class (cont.)
The Diamondbacks have a strong front office, but I'm not sure that even they're aware of what they might lose this winter: 230 innings of mid-3.00 ERA, K-per-inning baseball. Cruz has been used in every role but closer in his career, and the lack of wins or saves that he hits the market with (29 and one; four and zero last year) will likely keep his price down. However, his RA has dropped for three straight years and his strikeout rate has jumped in the last two, making him a prime candidate for a savvy team. One bit of warning: Like Rodriguez, Cruz's walk rate has been going in the wrong direction, up to 31 in 51 2/3 innings in 2008, and he's particularly prone to putting left-handed batters on. That may make him a better fit for a team not needing a four-to-six-out reliever -- i.e., not the Mets.
Given the pathetic state of the designated hitter in the AL, there are very few teams that couldn't use Giambi's still-potent bat in the lineup. Stop asking him to play defense, don't worry that he runs like a pregnant Matt Stairs and just take the .370 OBP and .520 SLG against right-handers. Given the type of hitter that he is, I'm not convinced he doesn't have better than that in him, maybe an Edgar Martinez-kind of late kick. He could be a huge bargain given how many teams will shy away from his obvious flaws; quite frankly, I'm not sure the Yankees shouldn't have picked up his one-year, $22 million option. You could eat some of that and have a pretty good trade chip.
He has never been ineffective. Since his 12-start, 5.48-ERA debut in 1988, Smoltz's single-season-high ERA is 4.14. He's missed one full season and significant parts of others, but he has never, even last year, been a pitcher who hurts you on the mound. Like Johnson he gives you the best choice: he's going to be good, or he's not going to be pitching. I would sign Smoltz to whatever kind of creative contract it took to get me an option on his services in 2010.
Some of the reason the Cardinals surprised in 2008 was Izturis' defense, who rated a +21 in the Plus/Minus System in something less than full-time play. He was a great defender with the Dodgers and is one of the few players whose glove could carry a bat like his. Izturis hits the market at a time when shortstops are in short supply, and an appreciation of what improved defense can mean to a pitching staff perhaps at a peak.
His brief appearance in Beertown was an underrated key to the Brewers' summer surge, and ignored completely when they picked up a different lefty bat not long after he arrived. A strained oblique effectively ended his season in July, but his skills -- hitting the long ball, almost playing third base -- should be attractive to the smarter front offices in MLB, the ones who don't get too hung up on strikeout rates. Like Izturis and Giambi, Branyan is a context-dependent free agent, useful to just a subset of teams, but exactly the right guy for that subset. Put Izturis on the Orioles or Indians, Giambi on the Mariners or Royals, Branyan on the Reds or Astros, and you have a high-value, relatively low-cost signing that addresses a real need.
This is a hunch play, based largely on the fact that the mistake with Pavano was his contract, and that the abject failure of his marriage to the Yankees may make him a bargain now. If healthy he's probably a league-average starter with a little more upside than that, and he's essentially available for incentives. Throw Bartolo Colon into this category as well, coming off of a disappointing stop-and-start year for the Red Sox. One of these pitchers will probably have an effective '09; I'm just not terribly sure which one.
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