A savvy GM's guide to free-agency
Free-agent class is older and riskier than any we've seen in a while
Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth are stars, but risky because of age and health concerns
Jorge De La Rosa, Adam Dunn aren't flashy, but they produce, and they're cheap
This is a fascinating free-agent market, skewing older and riskier than any we've seen in some time, while still featuring talented players who may very well be worth the contracts they will sign. There isn't much in the way of potential bargains, but a savvy GM can certainly do well for himself. Here's my assessment of the value of 10 top free agents.
Beltre has been a remarkably consistent player since 1999, having just two seasons that fall outside a narrow range of performance: 2004 and 2010, both of which were walk years. His "comeback" last year was built on a small improvement in strikeout rate and putting more balls in the air, and a big bounce in his batting and slugging averages on balls in play. Still just 32 come April, Beltre is likely to revert to the .270/.330/.440 player he's been for most of his career, with defensive skills that add a lot of value to that line. That defense and relative lack of downside make him a safe bet in this market, and worth a three- to four-year deal for $12 million per. Placido Polanco, an older, lesser player, got three years at $6 million per a year ago, which may limit Beltre's financial upside -- only in his two outlier seasons was Beltre ever twice as good as Polanco. His most likely landing spots are with teams that have shown a willingness to sign older players, who have money to burn and have a hole at third base. That includes the Angels, Giants and his 2010 team, the Red Sox.
This was supposed to be Crawford's market before Cliff Lee horned in on his action. Like Beltre, Crawford has been a very consistent player whose value is enhanced by excellent defense. (Crawford received his first Gold Glove Award on Tuesday, and has deserved up to a half-dozen others.) Unlike Beltre, Crawford has never had that breakout season elevating him to superstar status. He has received two points in MVP voting in his entire career, those back in 2006, and he's never posted a .320 BA, .370 OBP or .500 SLG. He's never hit 20 homers, and despite putting himself on second base a ton with stolen bases, he's scored 100 runs just three times. Crawford could keep having the same seasons for the next six years; it's just not at all clear that he can be the best player on a championship team. He's a year younger than Matt Holliday was when Holliday got his seven-year, $119-million deal, and that feels like a ceiling for Crawford. Holliday was a better player leading up to free agency than Crawford has been. Crawford will end up with one of the big-money, high-profile teams, with the Angels the favorite, and the Red Sox and Yankees in behind them.
There aren't many bargains in this year's market; De La Rosa could be the best. The 29-year-old hits the market off a disappointing season by traditional metrics: 8-7, 4.22 ERA, just 121 2/3 innings in 20 starts after missing two months with a finger injury. Look deeper and you see a lefty who strikes out eight men per game, whose arm hasn't been damaged by overuse and who has been coming into his own since the Rockies picked him up in 2008. De La Rosa has become a groundball/strikeout pitcher in his late twenties, peaking last year as more than half the balls in play off him were put on the ground. His ERA was higher than it should have been due to a fluky-high 15.8 percent HR/FB rate, against a career mark of around 11 percent De La Rosa is 2 1/2 years younger than Cliff Lee, doesn't have Lee's back problems and will provide at least 80 percent of the value for maybe 20 percent of the cost. You could blow out the field by offering three years at $8 million each and get the best deal of the offseason, something teams such as the Twins, Tigers and Brewers should be eager to do.
That Adam Dunn wasted the last two years playing for the Nationals while so many contending teams missed the postseason for want of a big bat is ridiculous. Dunn simply plays every day (averaging 159 games a season since 2004), hits 40 homers, draws a bunch of walks and even shows off some hands now that he's a full-time first baseman. He seemed to make a conscious effort to change his approach in '10, swinging at more pitches, a practice that produced more or less the same performance level. There is virtually no team he couldn't help, and since he's not likely to require a long commitment, he's a sensible pickup for about half the league. Note: Dunn is a 1B/DH, not an outfielder. Best fits are AL teams trying to upgrade their offense, especially their OBP, by any means necessary: Blue Jays, Indians, White Sox, A's, Mariners.
In case you hadn't heard, the Yankees shortstop is a free agent, having played out the last year of a 10-year deal signed way back in February 2001. Jeter's case will be the story of the offseason, more than Lee or Crawford or terrible postseason-expansion ideas or players versus umpires or anything else that might come down the pike. Strip away the posturing, though, and you get this: Jeter is more valuable to the Yankees than to any other team, and the Yankees can pay Jeter more than any other team can.
If Jeter is evaluated as just a baseball player, he's a 37-year-old shortstop coming off his worst season. He's also increasingly a defensive albatross (the collective opinion of AL managers and coaches notwithstanding) while losing skills at the plate. Older shortstops who have hit the market have generally received two-year contracts for less than $10 million per; think Edgar Renteria or Marco Scutaro in recent seasons. Jeter made $21 million last season. Even granting Jeter a bonus for everything -- the Gold Gloves, the postseason, the upcoming 3,000th hit, the marketing -- his market value to a team outside of the Bronx is perhaps half his 2010 salary. For the Yankees, though, Jeter is part of their brand, an extension of the line that dates back to Lou Gehrig. Jeter will be back with the Yankees on something like a four-year deal for $64 million.
Something of a forgotten man, Konerko seemed to arrest his decline last year, hitting .312 with 39 homers, nearly career highs at 34. The underlying skills, however, were largely unchanged from his .277 BA and 28 homers in '09, and in fact, the spike in his strikeout rate is a red flag that indicates imminent decline. He's also become increasingly immobile at first base. Of the top 15 or so free agents, Konerko is the one with the greatest likelihood of being an immediate flop. In a market filled with first basemen, he may have trouble cashing in on his walk-year stats. He seems likely to sign a three-year deal for $12 million per, perhaps even returning to the White Sox in doing so.
You wonder, a little bit, whether Cliff Lee would be commanding as much attention as he has if the Indians had never traded him, he put up the same regular seasons, but never pitched in the playoffs. How much of the rush to pay him staggering amounts of money is due to his first eight postseason starts, in which he pitched very well and his team won every game? That's not a separate skill, but rather a run of good performances by a pitcher at his peak. Set that aside, and Lee hits the market at 31, with ERAs in his last two years of 3.22 and 3.18, and back problems in the latter year that limited him to 28 starts. He's most famous for developing fantastic command in his early thirties, walking just 16 men unintentionally last season. His strikeout rates are good, actually increasing a bit the last two years, and they're the product of throwing tons of strikes rather than being overpowering. The point I'm meandering towards is this: Cliff Lee isn't CC Sabathia after 2008. He's older, he doesn't have the same track record, he isn't as dominant and he has a recent health scare. I would cap any offer at five years and $105 million, short of Sabathia length and value, and still feel like I was taking a huge risk. In reality, the Rangers will end up winning Lee with something a bit more generous than that.
It's an ugly time for MLB catchers, so a switch-hitter with on-base skills, pop from both sides of the plate and passable defense is gold. Martinez' poor throwing is as much reputation as anything else, as he's caught 24 percent of base stealers over his career and has picked off more than 30 percent a few times. He's not Yadier Molina, but what he gives up on defense he gets back at the plate, as the rare catcher who can hit in the middle of the lineup. Martinez was a huge competitive advantage for the Indians and Red Sox and will continue to be one for his next team. His skills make him a fit for all but a handful of teams, but the Rangers, White Sox and Mets would get the most from bringing him in for around four years, $48 million total. (The Rangers have the money to sign both Lee and Martinez, given their low payroll and significant revenue jumps ahead.)
It wasn't Soriano's effectiveness that came as such a surprise, but his health. His 2009-2010 season was just the fourth time he pitched over 60 innings in his nine-year career, helped in part by careful handling by Joe Maddon. Soriano modified his pitching style, throwing more strikes and getting more outs on balls in play; this was something of a fluke however, as he allowed just a 4.8 percent HR/FB rate and .212 BABIP. His strikeout rate, which dipped under one per inning, was as much an effect as a cause. Soriano's fastball didn't lose velocity and his skills all seem to be in place. With that said, he's a 31-year-old reliever with a bad health record coming off a luck-driven 1.73 ERA. He's almost certain to be overpaid by a team looking for a repeat of 2010. The Diamondbacks spring immediately to mind, as do the Astros and Orioles. Sound like a list you want to be on?
Werth and Crawford tend to be lumped together, but there are significant differences. Crawford has been durable and effective for pretty much his entire career. Werth has qualified for the batting title twice and been a star for just two seasons, mostly because he couldn't stay on the field in his 20s. Crawford is 21 months younger than Werth, a significant gap that is the difference between a guy with peak years left and a guy who's declining. Werth's power has more value than Crawford's speed does, but his strikeout rate does as much damage to his OBP as does Crawford's lack of walks. Werth is a good defender, Crawford a great one. Werth hits the market off his two best seasons, and can fairly compare himself to Jason Bay at the low end, and Matt Holliday at the high end. To me, his age and history of physical problems make him a risk more like the former than the latter. He'll get five years from someone, maybe for $18 million, but it wouldn't be from my team. The losers in the Crawford sweepstakes will flock to Werth, but they'd be better off saving their money.
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