During the off-season, free agents get most of the attention. They’re the ones that we know are available, and if they’ve made it this far into the winter without re-signing with their old teams, they’re the ones probably looking for a change of address. However, free agents aren’t the only players that teams can acquire without giving up talent in order to get them.
Every year, there are a group of players who change teams because their prior organization didn’t want to give them the raise they were due in arbitration. They’re usually coming off poor seasons but are due significant raises anyway, as arbitration rewards players heavily for amount of playing time, even if they didn’t earn that playing time on the field. Last year, the poster boy for this situation was Angel Pagan, whom the Mets sent to San Francisco in exchange for Andres Torres in a change-of-scenery trade. Pagan was brutal in 2011 and was set to earn nearly $5 million in arbitration, so the Mets shipped him west rather than pay for the hope he would bounce back. He did bounce back, of course, and the Giants found themselves quality center fielder at a marginal cost.
Which players have the chance of being 2013’s Angel Pagan? Here are three candidates.
Rick Porcello, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Because the Tigers broke Porcello into the big leagues before he was legally allowed to drink, it’s easy to forget that this four year veteran doesn’t turn 24 until two days after Christmas. He’s never lived up to the notoriety he got as a prospect, but slowly but surely, Porcello’s markers have been trending in the right direction. He set career highs in both strikeout rate and ground ball rate in 2012, but even more encouragingly, his velocity jumped nearly two miles-per-hour, and he was regularly topping out at 95 for the first time as a Major Leaguer. The improvement was masked by mediocre results, but those were primarily caused by a .344 batting average on balls in play, and considering how dreadful the Tigers defense was, that’s a number that is unlikely to be repeated with any other set of teammates.
Because he qualified for “Super Two” status, he’s already on his second trip through arbitration, and he’ll get a raise from the $3.1 million he made last year, probably landing somewhere close to $5 million for the upcoming season. The Tigers have already publicly stated that they’re trying to re-sign Anibal Sanchez, and they’d have Drew Smyly to fill the #5 spot in the rotation if they retain Sanchez or replace him with another veteran hurler. By moving Porcello and his $5 million pricetag, they could free up some money to throw at Sanchez, and give Porcello a second chance in front of a defense that is a little more supportive of pitch-to-contact strike-throwers. Without a legitimate out-pitch, he’s unlikely to develop into an ace, but Porcello’s got a chance to settle in as a quality mid-rotation starter, especially if his velocity keeps trending upwards.
Drew Stubbs, CF, Cincinnati Reds
As a first time arbitration eligible player, Stubbs isn’t likely to be available because the Reds can’t afford to give him the $3 million or so he’ll likely be awarded. Instead, he’s likely to be available because the Reds simply want a better center fielder. He still strikes out far too often for a guy without big time power, and his .277 on base percentage last year has the Reds looking for a new leadoff hitter. However, Stubbs is a quality defensive center fielder and his core stats — walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power — were all basically identical to his 2011 marks, when Stubbs was a productive player for the Reds.
If he bounces back even a little bit offensively, he could be a league average player, and at 28-years-old, he still has a bit of upside left. While there are a lot of free agent center fielders available, a team looking for a lower cost option could do a lot worse than Stubbs, who offers enough power, speed, and defense to be useful for any team that can get past his problems making contact. The strikeouts aren’t going away, but a flawed player is not a useless player, and getting Stubbs out of Cincinnati might just be the second chance he needs.
Ryan Roberts, 3B, Tampa Bay
Roberts fell out of favor in Arizona quickly after a breakthrough 2011 season, and with Evan Longoria hobbled, the Rays picked Roberts up to help provide infield depth for the stretch run. For most teams, keeping a $3 million utility infielder around wouldn’t be a problem, but the Rays are on a notoriously tight budget and already have a similar, younger player on the roster in Sean Rodriguez. Paying two reserves arbitration salaries is a luxury that Tampa Bay might not be able to afford, and parting with Roberts would free up more cash to pursue offensive upgrades than dealing Rodriguez.
While a comparison to Pagan likely overstates his potential, he’s a similar style of player in that he gets value from being decent at a wide range of things rather than having any one standout skill. He makes decent contact, has some power, draws a few walks, plays a good third base, and has enough versatility to also cover second base or the outfield. Even if he doesn’t have another 2011 season in him, he’s got enough skills to be a decent stopgap third baseman, and given the slim pickings available on the free agent market, picking up Roberts and putting off a long term solution for another year isn’t a terrible option.