Free agency is, by far, the most inefficient way to build a team. It’s also a necessary evil. No club develops enough players internally to fill out an entire roster — or trade for players to help fill out the roster — so every year, every team goes outside its organization to grab some players out of the free-agent pool. Some teams are big spenders, and some scrape the bottom of the barrel. But they’re all looking for the same thing: value and minimal risk.
Pretty much the only way to achieve the minimal-risk part is with a one-year contract, but that isn’t always a realistic option. For the most part, the guys you can sign to a one-year deal have some kind of flaw. Maybe they’re old or injured or just not productive anymore. Every once in a while a team uncovers a gem on a one-year contract, though, leaving everyone else to wonder how they missed out on that guy. With free agency just a few days old, here is a quartet of players likely available on one-year contracts who could provide a surprisingly strong return.
Infield: Eric Chavez
He’s old (35 in December) and he’s brittle, but Chavez was also productive (1.8 WAR) this past season. He put up a 126 wRC+ with 16 homers (his most since 2006) in 313 plate appearances for the Yankees as a part-time third baseman, part-time first baseman and part-time DH. Basically, all of damage came against righties (144 wRC+) and he was platooned heavily (only 39 PA vs. LHP). But he also wasn’t just a product of hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium: Nine of those 16 homers came away from the Bronx, and his road 132 wRC+ was better than his home mark (120).
Chavez is still a surprisingly excellent defender at the hot corner (I say surprisingly only because I figured all the injuries would have sapped his mobility and athleticism), so he is a two-way asset. That is, assuming he stays on the field. That last part is not a given, obviously. The corner-infield market is a wasteland this offseason, and teams looking for a platoon bat or a quality bench piece won’t be able to find much better than Chavez through free agency. He makes sense for teams like the Angels, Braves, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers, Rays and Yankees.
Outfield: Nyjer Morgan
Morgan, 32, is just a year removed from a four-win season. That success is is easy to forget since his disastrous 2012 (0.4 WAR). His 69 wRC+ came with a career-high 19.6 K% and a career-low nine stolen bases. Morgan lost out to Carlos Gomez, who wrestled the starting center field job away shortly after the all-star break. Morgan can still play a great center field, and his drop in BABIP (career-low .296 after .341 from 2009 to 2011) doesn’t really jibe with the changes in his batted-ball profile:
Morgan was an equal opportunity out-maker this season (70 wRC+ vs. LHP and 69 vs. RHP), but his career split is much more pronounced (101 vs. 55). He’s on the heavy side of the platoon as a left-handed hitter, a strong defensive center fielder, and a 20-plus stolen base candidate. As an added bonus, he would remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2014. Everyone is dreaming about Melky Cabrera on a one-year deal, but a properly-platooned Morgan could be a two-win player in large part because of his defensive abilities. Outfield-needy teams like the Astros, Cubs, Rays, Reds and pretty much the entire National League East could be a fit.
Starting Pitcher: Jeff Francis
You can make a strong case that the 31-year-old Francis had the best combination of strikeout (6.05 K/9 and 15.1 K%), walk (1.75 BB/9 and 4.4 BB%) and ground-ball (50.3%) rates of his career this past season. But all he got out of it was a 5.58 ERA (4.27 FIP). You can blame Coors Field for that: 6.96 ERA (4.17 FIP) in 53 innings at home, versus a 4.35 ERA (4.36 FIP) in 60 innings on the road. Francis has always been homer-prone (career 1.09 HR/9 and 10.3 HR/FB%) as a soft-tossing lefty, and that doesn’t figure to change going forward. But it is something that can be managed in a bigger ballpark.
Francis is now four years removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum — and since then, he’s pitched to a 5.06 ERA in 398.1 innings that undersells his solid peripherals (4.10 FIP). These extreme finesse guys — Francis had the fourth slowest non-R.A. Dickey fastball (85.1 mph) in baseball this year (min. 100 IP) — also tend to have a bit of a disconnect between their ERA and FIP. Perhaps his 0.6 RA9 is a better indicator of his true-talent level. The Rockies were a nightmare defensively this year, though, so keep that in mind (-41.6 UZR and -88 DRS). Every team needs pitching, but National League clubs with big-ish ballparks like the Marlins, Mets, and Padres — even with the fencing coming in — make the most sense as potential landing spots for Francis.
The 33-year-old right-hander was terrible this past season (11.48 ERA and 7.15 FIP in 13.1 innings), but then he had shoulder surgery and rebounded with a 3.10 ERA (3.23 FIP) in 61 mostly medium-leverage innings (1.01 gmLI) this year. His velocity didn’t come all the way back, so he turned into a cutter machine and wound up posting a career-high strikeout rate (9.30 K/9 and 24.4 K%). I wouldn’t count on that happening again, but Lyon has value as a right-handed matchup guy in the middle innings and he comes on the cheap. Those guys tend to get massively overpaid as it is.
On the left-handed-reliever front, I’d probably go with George Sherrill. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery (expected to return in May) but has held same-side hitters to a .289 wOBA with a 30.0 K% and 2.39 FIP since 2010. That’s a nice piece to have stashed in Triple-A for a few weeks, especially when you consider that he’ll likely have to settle for a minor league contract.