Posted: Tuesday November 16, 2010 11:25AM ; Updated: Tuesday November 16, 2010 2:26PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Cust, Loney lead secondary market that will test skills of GMs

Story Highlights

All teams want to find hidden gems like Andres Torres, Matt Capps or Colby Lewis

Jack Cust brings power and patience at the plate to any team that he plays for

James Loney might be about to experience a long-awaited power breakthrough

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Jack Cust
Jack Cust had hit at least 25 homers for three straight years before slumping to 13 in 2010 but he still posted a .395 on-base percentage.
AP

This is the time of year when general managers earn their money. They do it not so much by writing huge checks to free agents, but by making moves on the margins that are more about evaluations than expenditures. Everybody wants to find the next Matt Capps, John Buck or Kelly Johnson, all of whom were non-tendered by their previous club last winter, or Andres Torres, signed as a 31-year-old minor league free agent in 2009, or Colby Lewis, who was signed out of Japan, or Rafael Soriano, who was obtained in a trade for Jesse Chavez.

Oakland manager Billy Beane got a jump on the secondary market by acquiring three players already: outfielder David DeJesus, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (though Iwakuma still needs to sign a contract with the Athletics.)

In the next two weeks, the secondary trade market will simmer because teams will look to acquire something for players they otherwise would non-tender. (The non-tender deadline is Dec. 2, 10 days earlier than it was last year.) This was not an especially robust market last year, as such proactive trades included Mark Teahen, J.J. Hardy, Jeremy Hermida and Akinori Iwamura. Ho-hum. And the "big names" who were non-tendered didn't amount to much: Garrett Atkins, Chien Ming Wang, Ryan Garko and Scott Olsen.

Free agents such as Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth will dominate the offseason coverage, but those involve huge deals and protracted negotiations. The secondary market already has begun to take shape. Whether through trades, non-tenders or international signings, here are players on the secondary market who could bring the biggest impact for 2011, listed alphabetically:

1. Jack Cust. This may come as a surprise, given his lack of security with Oakland, but Cust ranks among the best hitters in the AL over the past four seasons: first in walks (377), fifth in OBP (.381) and ninth in adjusted OPS (125) -- all while playing in a park that depresses offense.

There should be a strong market for such a hitter, assuming the Athletics make him available. In the past 11 months, Oakland has non-tendered him, designated him for assignment just before Opening Day, kept him in the minors for more than a month, traded for DeJesus and talked about needing to add power. Athletics outfielders Cust, Conor Jackson, Rajai Davis and Travis Buck are all arbitration eligible -- and none of them are listed ahead of Ryan Sweeney, Coco Crisp and DeJesus (combined 2010 home runs: 14) as the Athletics' starting outfielders. So not all will be back, which makes a trade or non-tender possible.

Cust is a rare impact bat because he provides on-base percentage and power cheaply -- two commodities that have grown to be expensive in the industry.

Back in 1999, Cust and Werth were drafted eight picks apart in the first round. While Werth is clearly the superior defender and baserunner, his edge at the plate is not as great as you might think. Looking at the past four seasons, check out the similarities between Cust and Werth, as well as other established well-paid outfielders Jason Bay, Nick Swisher and DeJesus (age is as of 2011 Opening Day):

2007-10
Player Age PA HRs RBIs BA/OBP/SLG OPS OPS+
Werth 31 2114 95 300 .282/.380/.506 .885 131
Cust 32 2142 97 281 .247/.381/.457 .839 125
Bay 32 2323 94 351 .266/.359/.477 .836 118
Swisher 30 2489 104 318 .256/.362/.470 .831 118
DeJesus 31 2301 37 239 .288/.359/.422 .781 108

Sure, defense is important, and you wouldn't want Cust roaming rightfield at Petco Park in San Diego. But look at the leftfielders for the NL playoff teams: Pat Burrell, Raul Ibanez, Jonny Gomes and Matt Diaz -- nothing close to a Gold Glover in the bunch. Cust would seem to be a good pickup for the Cardinals, Rays, Braves, Nationals or Tigers.

2. James Loney. The Dodgers' ownership situation has so complicated the team's planning that there is some talk Loney might be non-tendered. I doubt it. Loney has enough value that either he will go to arbitration and command about $6 million, or the Dodgers will trade him.

Loney represents a good example of the chance to buy low on a player. His batting average, slugging and OPS have dropped three straight years. Teams generally like to see more power out of first base; Loney never has hit more than 15 home runs in a season. But Loney will be just 26 on Opening Day this year and is a veteran of almost 2,500 major league plate appearances.

Here's what so encouraging about the thought of getting Loney out of Dodger Stadium and experiencing a breakout season: He hit 41 doubles last year and has been a much better hitter in his career on the road (.307 with a .854 OPS) than at home (.268 with a .711 OPS). He should interest the Rays, Jays, Nationals and Diamondbacks.

3. Shaun Marcum. All the way back from Tommy John surgery, Marcum threw 195 1/3 innings last year out of the AL East with a 3.64 ERA. Do you know how many other guys in their 20s managed to do that over the previous three seasons? Just four. Here is the complete list:

1. CC Sabathia (2009-10)

2. Jon Lester (2008-10)

3. James Shields (2008)

4. David Price (2010)

5. Shaun Marcum (2010)

I like young pitchers who have done it in the AL East, the Camp Lejeune of pitching. But Marcum remains a big part of Toronto's immediate future, and it would likely take a blockbuster deal (Zach Greinke?) to pry him loose.

4. Tsuyoshi Nishioka. The shortstop for the NPB champion Chiba Lotte Marines has been posted for MLB bidding. The upside? He's only 26 years old, is experienced in big games, can play either middle infield position, switch hits, is regarded as an above-average defender and gets on base enough to possibly hit at the top of an order (.364 career OBP, 121 runs in 144 games this year). Nishioka had 206 hits this year, joining Ichiro Suzuki as the only Pacific League players to exceed 200.

The down side? He must make the transition from turf to grass (remember Kaz Matsui with the Mets?) and how his numbers translate to MLB, especially without a power quotient, involves some guesswork. Potential fits include the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Angels, Cardinals and Orioles.

5. James Shields. The Rays love his work ethic, leadership and reliability. Shields is one of only three pitchers to throw 200 innings in each of the past four seasons in the AL; the others are Justin Verlander and Mark Buehrle. But as Oakland did, the Rays have an inventory of starting pitchers that allows them to trade him. Shields is coming off a tough year (5.18 ERA) in which he gave up too many home runs and struggled with fastball command in the rough and tumble AL East. The guy is a breakout waiting to happen in the NL under a reasonable contract ($4.25 million in 2011, plus three option years).

The Rays made early exits with Scott Kazmir and Edwin Jackson, turning them into young (and cheaper) hitters Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce, and they could follow the same formula here. Possible suitors include the Rockies, Nationals, Pirates and Mets.

6. Dan Uggla. Good luck trying to find reliable righthanded power. Here is a rare such commodity. Over the past five seasons, Albert Pujols is the only NL righthanded hitter to hit more home runs than Uggla. And in those five seasons Uggla has hit between 27 and 33 homers, driven in between 88 and 105 runs and played between 146 and 159 games every year.

Here are the major league home run leaders from 2006-10 among righthanded hitters:

Rank Player HRs
1 Albert Pujols 207
2 Alex Rodriguez 184
3 Miguel Cabrera 169
4 Paul Konerko 155
5 Dan Uggla 154

Uggla can bolt as a free agent after next season and already rejected a four-year, $48 million extension, thus the trade talk. I believe the Marlins are close enough to contending that they should keep Uggla at least through July to see where they stand. But they will take offers now on a guy who could remain at second base or, as some clubs project, slide to third or the outfield -- which is why he is a fit for many clubs.

7. Chris Young. The righthanded pitcher already is a free agent, with the Padres choosing not to pick up his $8.5 million option. The Padres would like to have him back, and why not? Young is the perfect pitcher for Petco Park: an extreme flyball pitcher. The problem is that the Padres don't like incentive-based deals, but that's exactly what Young should command after making only 36 starts over the past three seasons.

Young did make it back from shoulder trouble to pitch well for the Padres in pennant-race games down the stretch: 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in four starts. He is a savvy veteran who has such a unique style -- throwing "uphill" from a 6-foot-10 frame -- that he is the perfect complement for the middle or back of a rotation. Young needs the right team and ballpark for his style, and among the fits are the Padres, Mets, Mariners and Dodgers.

 
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