It is difficult to find a bargain on the free-agent market. While teams can often find players who fit their needs, they often have to pay through the nose to get them. For example, Torii Hunter is a perfect fit for the Angels, but at $18 million per year, they're paying a heavy premium for his services.
In his column today, Jayson Stark examines some of the most untradable contracts in baseball. But there are still values to be found on the free-agent market. Here are five guys who have turned out to be excellent free-agent bargains.
J.D. Drew, Red Sox (2007 -- five years, $70 million): The Boston faithful might not appreciate him, but after his rocky debut season with the Red Sox, Drew has been excellent. In each of the past two years, his OPS has been above .900, which placed him in the top three among AL outfielders. According to Dollars, a metric we use at FanGraphs that converts wins above replacement to what a player would receive as a free agent, Drew has been worth $47.1 million in his three years in Boston, which is more than $5 million more than he is being paid. As long as his performance doesn't completely crater over the next two years, he'll have been worth every penny.
Ryan Dempster, Cubs (2009 -- four years, $52 million) Dempster began his career as a starter, but moved to the bullpen when he signed with the Cubs in 2004. After he struggled in 2006 and 2007, they moved him back to the rotation for the 2008 season, and Dempster responded brilliantly, posting a 2.96 ERA in 206 2/3 innings. He still pitched well in 2009 after the new contract (3.65 ERA in 200 innings), and has started strong once again in 2010. According to Dollars, he was worth $16.4 million last year while being paid $8 million (his contract is back-loaded). He's not an ace, but dependable midrotation starters are extremely valuable.
Casey Blake, Dodgers (2009 -- three years, $18 million) The Dodgers liked what they saw of Blake after acquiring him from the Indians in a 2008 midseason trade, and they re-signed him before the 2009 season. In the first year of his new contract, he was incredibly valuable to Los Angeles, registering an .832 OPS while playing excellent defense at third. That performance was worth $20.7 million, so he's already paid for himself. That's some good news for Dodgers fans, considering the team gave up catcher Carlos Santana, one of the best prospects in baseball, in the trade to get him.
Juan Rivera, Angels (2009 -- three years, $12.75 million) Rivera isn't as good as Drew, but his salary is also much lower. The Angels paid him just $3.25 million last season and he produced an .810 OPS, which was worth more than $14 million. This year hasn't gone as well, but it won't take much for him to be worth his salary. Like Blake, he's already paid for himself anyway.
Brad Penny, Cardinals (2010 -- one year, $7.5 million) Penny’s return to the NL has gone very well to date, and he’s looking like Dave Duncan’s newest reclamation success, though he did pitch well down the stretch for the Giants after faltering with the Red Sox. His new splitter has produced ground balls aplenty and he has kept the ball in the park. He won’t sustain his 1.99 ERA, but he doesn’t have to justify the Cardinals' minor investment in his right arm. According to Dollars, he's already been worth $4.1 million, and it's barely May.
Joe Pawlikowski is a writer for FanGraphs.