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Fire Up the Hot Stove
Nate Silver, Baseball Prospectus
November 06, 2006
With the fistfuls of cash that are likely to be thrown at free agents this winter, here are some potential money pits--and bargains
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November 06, 2006

Fire Up The Hot Stove

With the fistfuls of cash that are likely to be thrown at free agents this winter, here are some potential money pits--and bargains

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BUYER BEWARE

BARRY ZITO, LHP, A's The soon-to-be-ex-- Oakland ace has made at least 34 starts in each of his six full big league seasons, but he has become reluctant to throw anything but his curveball for strikes, a fact that was blatantly obvious during his disastrous start against the Tigers in the ALCS. Zito had the second-highest walk total in the AL last season (99), and his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which was over 2.0 as recently as 2004, declined to a pedestrian 1.4 after the 2006 All-Star break, which suggests that his ERA is likely to rise into the mid-4s without a change in approach.

ALFONSO SORIANO, LF, Nationals Hitting 46 homers while playing half his games in RFK Stadium, as Soriano did in '06, was a remarkable accomplishment. And his defense and plate discipline, long his greatest faults, were vastly improved--he had 67 walks, almost doubling his career high. Still, the bidding for Soriano, who'll be 31 in January, could run as high as $17 million to $20 million per season, and he doesn't have the track record to justify that kind of expenditure. And Baseball Prospectus's research indicates that the contract year phenomenon is very real. ( Adrian Beltre, anyone?)

JEFF SUPPAN, RHP, Cardinals Even with his fine postseason performance, when his ERA was 2.49, Suppan amassed just 13 strikeouts against 11 walks in 25 1/3 innings, continuing a pattern he exhibited during the regular season. His QERA, a measure designed by BP to predict a pitcher's performance on the basis of his walk rate, strikeout rate and ground ball--to--fly ball ratio, was 4.75--more than half a run higher than his ERA. Take Suppan away from the Cardinals' fine defense and you have a No. 4 starter, not a No. 2.

BUYERS BE AWARE

AUBREY HUFF, 3B, Astros Detractors will point to Huff's disappointing performance after he was obtained from the Devil Rays in July. Huff hit .250 with Houston, including just .213 at supposedly hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. The catch is that while Houston is an excellent home field for righthanded hitters, it's one of the toughest environments in the league for lefties like Huff, reducing their overall offensive production by 14%. Huff will never be a star, but his batting average should return to the .290 range, with plenty of power to support it.

CARLOS LEE, LF, Rangers It's not as if Lee will be had at Filene's Basement prices, but he's by far a better-rounded offensive performer than he's given credit for. In '06 Lee hit 37 homers and struck out just 65 times; the only major leaguer who had more home runs and fewer strikeouts was Albert Pujols. Lee also stole 19 bases in 21 attempts; among major leaguers with at least 30 home runs, only Soriano swiped more bags (41). Players with well-rounded skill sets are good bets to age well ( Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield, for example), and Lee, 30, could provide production comparable to that of Soriano at 70% of his price.

SCOTT WILLIAMSON, RHP, Padres His ERA over the past two years is 5.70, but Williamson--who had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow after the '04 season--has struck out more than a batter per inning during that period. Bargain hunters should remember that it can take pitchers as long as 24 months to fully recover from a Tommy John operation. So while Williamson would certainly be a high-risk signing, the rewards for getting a pitcher who has closer-worthy stuff at a contract that should be barely above the league minimum could be considerable, too.

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