When you think about a particular year’s free-agent crop, you think of the big tickets.
At some point in the future, we’ll look back at this winter and judge how well the expected massive contracts for Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo worked out — or, quite possibly, didn’t. But focusing on the ever-increasing prices at the top of the market tends to overlook where the true value is found.
For teams that know where to look, there’s a class of free agents primed to provide production at a fraction of the cost. We saw this last year with guys like Russell Martin,James Loney and Scott Kazmir. Each was coming off a subpar season but had a history of success, and each contributed substantially this year to a playoff team.
Can we find players who fit a similar profile on this year’s market? The Cleveland Indiansmay have already, reportedly signing useful outfielder David Murphy to a reasonably priced two-year deal Tuesday night, hoping they’ll get something more like his excellent 2012 than his down 2013.
Murphy isn’t alone, however — there are others like him.
Dan Haren, RHP
For years, Haren has been one of baseball’s top pitchers with the Athletics, Diamondbacks, and Angels. He received big money on a one-year deal to fill out the Nationals’ rotation in 2013. But it didn’t work, mostly; after 15 starts, Haren had a 6.15 ERA and had allowed opposing batters an ugly line of .306 AVG/.340 OBP/.548 SLG.
After his 15th start, he ended up on the disabled list with what was officially termed “shoulder soreness” but what was widely believed to be more of a simple breather to get him some time off the mound.
When he returned, he was a new man. In his final 16 games (15 starts), his ERA was 3.29, his line against was a solid .228/.271/.355, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an excellent 84/18. Just as importantly, he allowed only nine homers in his second half, as opposed to 19 before that.
Haren isn’t the ace he once was, not with 11 years in the bigs on his arm and downward-trending velocity. But he showed in the second half that his excellent control and a commitment to keeping the ball down can still allow him to be a productive pitcher, and his poor first half ensures he won’t get anything like $12 million again, making him a nice buy-low candidate.
Chris Young, CF
Young appears on this list for all the same reasons Murphy would have — they’re both eight-year veterans from the Houston area who suffered through arguably the worst years of otherwise productive careers in 2013.
Young might be an even better bet to buy low on, because he’s two years younger and was more productive at his peak than Murphy, providing Arizona with about 11 WAR from 2010 to ’12. Traded to Oakland last year, Young fell apart, hitting only .200/.280/.379, and the A’s predictably declined his $11 million option. Still, he’s only 30 and has three 20/20 seasons under his belt.
Young never did become the star that his 32-homer debut (at 22 years old in 2007) suggested he might be, but searching in the value bin isn’t about finding stars, it’s about identifying players who may be able to fit a role. If Young isn’t exactly the plus-plus center fielder he used to be, he’s still an above-average defender in a corner, and with a career .364 wOBA against lefties (only .310 against righties), he is an intriguing platoon option who can handle all three spots.
Even at his best, Young never had a high batting average — he has topped .250 just once — so he’d be best-served to land with a team that wisely doesn’t put much stock in that number. He’d do even better to end up somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of foul ground; of the 226 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances since the start of 2011, only five have popped up more than Young.
Ike Davis, 1B | New York Mets
Davis doesn’t fit the mold perfectly, because he’s not a free agent, but the Mets have made it clear he’s available, and he has the biggest boom/bust potential of anyone around. In just four years in the bigs, Davis has had a dizzying array of ups and downs, from a .302/.383/.543 line in a shortened 2011 season and 32 homers in 2012, to bouts with a severe ankle injury, Valley fever and finally a Triple-A demotion in 2013.
It’s not surprising that the Mets sent him down in June, because he was hitting just .161/.242/ .258, the second consecutive year he’d been beyond awful for the first half. In 2012, he turned it around and was fantastic down the stretch; in 2013, he again showed improvement after being recalled, hitting .267/.429/.443 in July and August until an oblique strain shut him down in September.
While he’s often infuriating to watch, he will be only 27 years old next year, and he has been an above-average hitter overall in a world where power keeps getting harder to find. He’s perhaps the biggest “change of scenery needed” player on the market, with Mets fans seemingly finished with him. A team that would keep him away from lefty pitching (career .269 wOBA) and let him hit righties (.357 wOBA) may enjoy their purchase.
The 2014 Steamer projections, it should be noted, are optimistic, projecting a .238/.341/.439 line with 18 homers in part-time play.
Corey Hart, 1B/OF
Hart missed all of 2013 with knee injuries, and that makes him an enormous risk as he heads into his age-32 season. Yet Hart will get an opportunity for the same reason that Davis will, and that’s because offense continues to trend down — 2013′s MLB wOBA of .314 is the lowest the sport has seen since 1989.
Hart has proclaimed himself healthy, and he hit .279/.343/.514 with 87 homers from 2010 to ’12. If not for the missed year, that’s the kind of performance that would have earned him a sizable multiyear contract in this market. The health concerns mean he’ll likely get only a single-year, make-good offer — and we saw how well that worked out for the Red Sox andMike Napoli last winter.
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