One of the most important concepts for an organization to grasp in this day and age is that of replacement level, or the knowledge that baseball’s talent is distributed as a pyramid with a large base at the bottom. Teams that understand that they can get real performance from guys who aren’t necessarily “established veterans” or “proven winners” can exercise this advantage to create a strong cost advantage when compiling their roster, thus saving more money to be spent on guys with talent levels near the top of the pyramid. Teams that fail to grasp the concept of replacement level often have large amounts of dead money sitting on their payroll, as they pay players for their reputation rather than their future performance.
So, today, I’m beginning a four part series on guys that I’ll refer to as the Free Talent All-Stars – those players who were recently acquired for essentially nothing and have become valuable contributors to their franchises after being picked up on the cheap. The rules for inclusion are simple; a player must have been acquired by one of the following methods within the last three years.
Selected via the Rule 5 draft
Placed on waivers
Included in an inconsequential trade
Signed to a free agent contract of no longer than one year and worth no more than $1 million
The Free Talent Infield
Catcher: Jesus Flores
Teams covet talent behind the plate and rarely let it get away, so it’s not a surprise that the pickings at catcher were a little slim. However, Flores was obtained by the Nationals in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, and he’s posted a .262/.340/.400 line in the majors since. As a 24-year-old with a decent bit of power, Washington has to be happy with the fact that they acquired a useful big league backstop for essentially nothing.
First Base: Carlos Pena
The Rays gave Pena a one year, $800,000 contract before the 2007 season after the Red Sox decided that they didn’t have room for him on their roster anymore. 46 home runs later, Tampa was buying out the rest of Pena’s arbitration years by signing him to a three year contract extension to keep him in the middle of their order for the foreseeable future. Free talent signings don’t work out much better than this one did.
Second Base: Dan Uggla
Our second Rule 5 guy, the Marlins grabbed him from Arizona’s farm system in the 2005 version of that draft. Since then, he’s hit .269/.339/.501 while doing his best Jeff Kent impersonation. He’s not much to write home about defensively, but there aren’t many middle infielders who have as much power as he does. Uggla’s pop from a non-traditional offensive position is one reason the Marlins are surprising everyone so far in 2008.
Shortstop: Jeff Keppinger
I profiled Keppinger a few weeks ago, but Keppinger has been overlooked by several organizations, passing him around as a replaceable 25th guy, while in reality, he’s an above average major league shortstop.
Third Base: Jack Hannahan
The Tigers decided that Hannahan didn’t fit in their plans and gave him to the A’s last summer, and all Hannahan has done since then is fill the void left by Eric Chavez‘s numerous injuries. He doesn’t have a ton of power, but he works the count, gets on base, and plays a decent third base. Billy Beane has made a living off picking up guys like this and getting useful production out of them to fill holes, and Hannahan certainly won’t be the last Free Talent All-Star hailing from Oakland.
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