Unconventional Wisdom: Best bargains in free-agent class
Mike Mussina could pitch veru effectively well into his 40s
Only one free-agent pitcher has a higher short-term upside than Randy Johnson
Carl Pavano or Bartolo Colon could bounce back from injury to have a solid '09
Extensive lists that rank most or all of the players on the free-agent market are all the rage, as is predicting where each player will go and for how much and how long. I love reading these pieces myself, but I have a hard time writing them. After the top 10-15 names or so, the rankings become very context-sensitive. What did the comps above him go for? Who's left below him? What teams have holes to fill? Where's the depth in the free-talent markets?
Similarly, I don't think you can make good predictions for the end homes and contracts of more than a few of these guys, other than to say that most of them are going to make more than you thought they would.
What I do like to do is go bargain-hunting, noting that it's a relative term here. As has been noted in my inbox and on message boards, I rarely like any free-agent signing at the top of the market, because you're almost always walking into the winner's curse. However, as you work your way down the list, you can find players who may be undervalued for one reason or another, players who have some chance to return more than what they'll sign for, or at least have a greater impact on their new team than is anticipated. Some are at or near the top of the rankings, others are buried deep, but I'll take this pool of players, collectively, over the free-agent field.
His languorous approach and his decline from a star peak have fed the perception that Abreu is less valuable than he actually is. What I see is a player who has established a new level of performance below his personal peak, but still well above that of an MLB right fielder. He's retained much of his speed (nine triples, 47 steals the last two years) and his plate discipline, while losing range in right field and some power. I look at his last two years, basically .290/.370/.460, and wonder what that might look like in any other competitive context other than the AL East. You may remember that Manny Ramirez appreciated his move to the NL. Likely signable for a three-year commitment in the low eight figures per year, Abreu is the free-agent outfielder most likely to return good performances in each year of his new deal. If he should change leagues, he'll look like a star again.
One of the great lessons of the sabermetric era is that strikeout rate predicts longevity for pitchers, so you might look at Lowe, whose rate is right around the average for major league pitchers despite his context, and question his inclusion here. When signing a free agent though, risk avoidance has its place as well, and Lowe's durability and pitch efficiency make him a fairly safe bet for the four-year deal he'll command. Lowe has posted the best two Stuff scores -- which factor in walk, strikeout, home-run rates and context -- of his career the last two seasons, and he never misses starts. He'll be 36 next June, but there are a lot of similarities between Lowe now and Greg Maddux when Maddux was at the same age, both statistically and stylistically. Maddux averaged 214 innings from age 36 through 39, and I'd bet that Lowe could do much the same.
Wood's injury history is by and large a product of his usage as an amateur and as a young professional; you're signing a 32-year-old with a career 3.16 RA, 5/1 K/BB and 125 strikeouts in 102 2/3 innings as a reliever, someone whose relatively high ERA last year belied his dominance. I think he's a better bet both from a performance and a health standpoint than Francisco Rodriguez is.
A couple of readers asked whether Wood's HBP rate -- he hit seven batters last year, and dings one every 14 innings or so over his career -- should be counted against him in his evaluation. It's a fair point, although HBP rates are jumpy enough that you don't want to overstate the case; Wood, after all, hit three batters in 110 innings from 2004 through '07, seemingly getting the problem under control. I would say, though, that if you called all his HBPs "walks," you'd have a pitcher with an 84/21 K/BB ratio in 66 2/3 innings last year, which is still someone I want to sign, and quickly.
Johnson's Stuff scores in his two-year return to the Diamondbacks: 48 and 27. He struck out 245 men and walked 48 (and nine intentionally) in 240 1/3 innings. His home-run rate was high (31 allowed, about one every eight innings), but not disastrously so. Although it seemed like he was on the DL a lot, Johnson actually made 30 starts in 2008 and averaged six innings per outing with a better than 4-to-1 K/BB. Because he's 45, you can get away with a one- or two-year deal for a reasonable average annual value. The risk isn't that he'll be ineffective -- his one bad season in this decade came as a result of an absurd BABIP year with the Yankees in 2006 -- but that he'll be unavailable, though on a two-year deal that's a risk worth taking. Johnson has more short-term upside than any pitcher on the market other than CC Sabathia.
But for three disastrous starts in August of 2007, Mussina would be perceived much differently. The three outings, in which he allowed 25 hits and 20 runs in 9 2/3 innings, destroyed his 2007 pitching line and gave rise to the idea that he was done. Prior to those starts he was having a reasonable season for a 38-year-old: a 4.50 ERA, 3/1 K/BB, 5 2/3 IP/start. After them he made five appearances with a 3.49 ERA, and of course, followed that with his strong 2008 season. Those starts happened, and you can't just ignore them, but it's clear that the hysteria that accompanied them was disproportionate, and that they signaled not the end of Mussina's career, but a trough in an extended stretch of effective pitching. Hitting the market at 40, he's a six-inning starter who doesn't walk batters and would he helped by a big park and a good defense. Forget 300 wins; in the right situation, Mussina could have Jamie Moyer's forties and win 320. A move to the NL would help.
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