Finding the right fits for five of the top remaining free agents
Spring training starts in three weeks but severeal useful players still need a team
Vladimir Guerrero would allow the Tigers to keep Victor Martinez at catcher
The Yankees would be wise to sign proven veteran Jeremy Bonderman
The late stages of winter can see some strange bedfellows, as teams that haven't filled needs arrange marriages with players who haven't filled bank accounts. It's an awkward dance, orchestrated in no small part by agents who can't get commissions on salaries that don't exist. Sometimes the baseball end of it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Let's try to find dance partners for a handful of the top remaining free-agents, keeping in mind that spring training is less than three weeks away.
The Rangers shoved Guerrero into the field 18 times last season, but as his statistics -- and Game 1 of the World Series -- show, he had no business wearing a glove any longer. That lops the 16 National League teams from the list immediately. The Vernon Wells trade eliminated what was perhaps the best idea, a return to Anaheim to DH for the Angels. There simply aren't very many teams looking for a full-time DH, and the ones who might be open to a platoon option -- the A's, the Mariners, the Orioles -- can't be excited about paying star money for a 250-at-bat player. As his price drops, however, the Tigers become an increasingly attractive option.
The idea that Alex Avila will catch and Victor Martinez will DH has always been a bad one. Avila has yet to hit above Double-A, with no Triple-A experience and a .237/.327/.383 line in the majors and strikeouts in 25 percent of his ABs without the power to match. Martinez is an adequate defensive catcher whose bat is very valuable in that role, as opposed to being a bit above average as a DH. The offensive gap between Avila and Guerrero is much greater than the defensive gap between the two catchers. Guerrero can be part of a solution that allows Martinez to be used properly, Avila to be brought along as his performance warrants, and the Tigers to get maximum production along the way.
The Tigers have made a huge push for 2011 and can justify the extra $7-8 million it will take to bring in Guerrero. It's not a perfect fit -- the Tigers could really use a lefthanded bat instead -- but it would help their depth, provide day-to-day flexibility and give Guerrero the best chance he'll have at returning to the posteason.
Nick Johnson/Blue Jays
A wrist injury ended Johnson's 2010 season in May, the fourth straight year in which he failed to play in 100 games. He wasn't playing that well, but the plate discipline that is his top skill was still evident, good for 24 walks and a .388 on-base percentage. After trading Mike Napoli, the Blue Jays are back down to a mishmash at first base, led by Edwin Encarnacion. Johnson's OBP would be a great fit for a team that didn't have nearly enough runners on base to take advantage of its power surge a year ago, and may have even fewer in 2011.
The image of Bush is as a swingman, but he's been a full-time starter for a while, making just 10 relief appearances in the past five years. His command has gotten steadily worse in that time, making the inevitable extra-base hits he allows as a flyball pitcher more damaging over time. Bush has been durable, with just one DL trip since reaching the majors, and even last year posted a 2:1 K/BB and an acceptable 4.54 ERA. He's be best in a cavern like Petco Park or Safeco Field, but Kauffman Stadium will also do, where he can help stabilize the back end of a very weak Royals rotation, benefit from marginally improved outfield defense and be safely discarded once the prospects hit the shores.
There aren't a lot of 26-year-old former first-round picks who find themselves 1) free agents and 2) unwanted as February approaches. Milledge, who was hardly a bad player for the Pirates the past two years, is that guy. While he's mostly washed off the non-performance concerns that dogged him dating to his Mets days, his lack of power is less easily brushed away. Milledge has a .394 slugging percentage and just 33 career homers in more than 1,600 plate appearances, terrible numbers for a corner outfielder who isn't bringing much else to the table. A bad team with absolutely nothing to lose and no outfielders should snap up Milledge, put him in rightfield and bat him sixth. It certainly beats wasting time with 32-year-old versions of a comparable player with no upside. It's tempting to send Milledge to Kansas City with Bush, given the Royals' wretched outfield, but there may be better options. The Diamondbacks are wasting time with Xavier Nady, 32, who has had three good months in his career (back in 2008 with the Pirates). Milledge would be a better use of the playing time.
Like Milledge, the 28-year-old Bonderman is on the market at a fairly young age, having reached the majors at 21 and already played through a $38 million contract with the Tigers. He's lost two years to injury, so it's not that surprising that while he stayed in the rotation all of last year, he faded after a strong start. Bonderman had a 4.20 ERA and a a 62/21 K/BB through his first 14 appearances, 13 starts, eight of them quality outings and one shy by an inning. The missed time caught up to him after that: a 6.72 ERA and 50/39 K/BB the rest of the season, with just four quality starts in 16 tries. There's still a good pitcher here, and the Yankees would do themselves well to stop messing around with Bartolo Colon and snatch up Bonderman to help bolster their back end as they wait for Andy Pettitte to decide what he's going to do.
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