Harden, Delgado and Hudson headline 10 riskiest free agents
Harden's talent is undeniable, but he's never pitched 200 innings in a season
Joe Crede may be the game's best defensive 3B, but he has a long injury history
Ben Sheets may be the most high-risk/high-reward player available
When Joe Girardi got up to speak on the steps of City Hall during the Yankees' championship celebration last Friday, he supposedly carried with him a message from team owner George Steinbrenner to the newly crowned kings of baseball: pitchers and catchers report in 96 days, so be ready to defend your title.
If that feels like an incredibly short turnaround from the end of one season to the start of another, imagine how quick it must seem for the players who don't yet know what team they'll be on when spring training begins. With few exceptions (Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon and Andy Pettitte) all the key people on that stage can expect to be in pinstripes again next season, especially the three frontline stars -- pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira -- who had joined the Yankees in free agency the previous winter and had delivered on the many millions paid to them by turning in quality seasons and helping deliver a championship to their new club.
But they were just three of many players available a year ago who could be reasonably counted on to significantly aid a team's fortunes. This year's free-agent market is nowhere near as deep, and a still-struggling economy means teams may be even more cautious in their approach than they were a year ago, when several star players had to wait until just before the start of spring training to get new contacts, and some who did (such as Bobby Abreu) wound up having to settle for deals far below what they were worth. In fact, beyond left fielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay and pitcher John Lackey, there is substantial risk involved in much of the free-agent market. Here's a quick look at 10 of the riskiest players available:
Position: Starting pitcher
On the surface, Harden would seem to be everything a team could want in a pitcher. He's young (he'll be 28 at the end of this month), talented (lifetime 3.39 ERA) and he shouldn't be overly expensive. But he is perhaps the riskiest free agent available this year because of the following number: 200. As in, Harden has never pitched 200 innings in a season. He's only made 30 starts in a year once, and in 2009 he was shut down with two weeks remaining in the season, an ominous sign for a pitcher with an injury history like he's had.
Harden's talent is undeniable. With the Cubs last season, his 10.9 K/9 were the most in baseball for any pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched. His .633 lifetime winning percentage is higher than CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Chris Carpenter. But there is always going to be the question of his durability. Not only did he only make 26 starts, he averaged 18 pitches per inning, which would have tied him for the most in baseball if he had enough innings to qualify. He should still get a multiyear contract based on his talent alone, but it might not be as long or as rich as he would like.
Position: First base
Delgado got off to a fine start in 2009 before a torn labrum landed him on the disabled list in May for what proved to be the remainder of the season. Now 37 years old and coming off a major injury, it's doubtful he'll have teams tripping themselves to get in line to sign him. On the other hand, when a .448 slugging percentage, 24 home runs and 87 RBIs (his numbers from 2007) represent the worst full season of your career, and you had 38 HRs and 115 RBIs in '08, someone is going to come calling. If he's healthy, there is little doubt that Delgado can be a slugger worth paying for. But if he is slow to recover from injury, or needs ample time to readjust to major league pitching, this might not be an investment worth making.
The presence of Victor Martinez, acquired in a late-July trade with the Indians, means there isn't quite as much risk in bringing Varitek back to Boston as there was the year before, when he signed a $5 million, one-year contract before the 2009 season. But after he batted a career low .209 and threw out a career-low 13 percent of base stealers, Varitek doesn't make much sense as a full-time DH or an everyday catcher. His power numbers weren't awful -- in fact, they improved from 13 HR, 43 RBI and a .359 slugging percentage in 423 at-bats in 2008 to 14, 51 and .390 in 364 ABs in '09 -- but he's still a long way from the offensive force he was in his prime. Even if the Red Sox turn down his option for next year, Varitek has a $3 million player option he can exercise. The risk would then be his own: does he want to relegate himself to a part-time role on a team where he was such an integral part of two World Series winners and remains a beloved figure, or would he rather go to another team for the first time in his big league career in an effort to get more playing time?
Position: Second base
Hudson was one of the prime examples of last winter's unsettled market, when he had to wait until late February to secure a one-year, $3.8 million deal with the Dodgers. When Hudson made the All-Star team and helped spur L.A.'s fast rise to the top of the NL West it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would be back in Los Angeles. But he was supplanted at year's end by Ronnie Belliard (also a free agent) and is not expected to return. Many of the same problems that kept Hudson available for so long last winter are still a factor, mostly his age (32 this December) and the fact that he may not be as valuable defensively as he used to be. His on-base percentage has dropped two straight years and he struck out a career-high 99 times in 2009. The biggest risk with Hudson will be what type of contract to give him? He should get a decent deal, but it may not be as long or for as many dollars as he'd like.
Position: Third base
Like Hudson, Crede had to wait until late February before settling for a one-year contract. Unlike Hudson, Crede remains every bit the defensive factor he's been for years. In fact, Crede might be the best defensive third baseman in the game. His .983 fielding percentage was far above the .956 league average and ranked fourth among all third baseman, and he had the best zone rating of any third baseman who played at least 75 games. The problem is that for the third straight season, he failed to play even 100 games. The culprit was a bad back that has been his bugaboo for years, and could be a driving factor in keeping teams away from him. If his defense hasn't suffered at all, his offense surely has; though in many ways his numbers were similar to '08, when he had virtually the same number of at-bats (335 then, 333 last year), his slash stats dropped dramatically: from .248/.314/.460 to .225/.289/.414. Last year, Crede got a one-year deal worth $2.5 million plus $50,000 for various incentives based on his number of plate appearances, starting at 400. He didn't reach any of them, finishing with 367 PAs. If he can be convinced to take a similar deal, it might be worth it, but the Twins did just fine reaching the postseason with Brendan Harris and Matt Tolbert, so it's hard to see how interested they would be in bringing Crede back.
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