Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Prominent hitters who may swing it in '09 or call it a career
By Jerry Crasnick
The Hot Stove season is off to a fine start for Ryan Dempster, Jeremy Affeldt and Eri Yoshida, the 16-year-old female knuckleballer who was drafted by a Japanese League club this week. And life is good if your name happens to be CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramirez or A.J. Burnett.
For lots of other job seekers, it could be a long, stressful winter ahead.
No species is more endangered than the fading star nearing the end of his career. Just flash back to last winter -- when Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza, Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders were among the players who went unsigned -- and certain conclusions are inevitable.
For starters, it's clear that big league teams are no longer willing to overpay for name recognition or past achievements. That's not about to change with the U.S. in a recession and season-ticket renewals and sponsorship dollars in potential decline.
The success of the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins, among others, has also reinforced the notion that baseball is a young man's game these days. The 162-game haul is more challenging than ever for older players now that steroids and amphetamines are on the banned list.
If an aging star is willing to wait until February, swallow his pride, cut his asking price and accept a minor league invite to spring training, he has a leg up on the competition. Otherwise, the employment outlook is dicey.
"The biggest issue with a lot of these guys is their pedigree and, to some extent, their ego," said an American League executive. "If you're willing to sign a non-roster deal, someone will take a chance on you. But the majority of these guys won't do that, so they may be left to retire."
In September, we assessed the outlook for nine star pitchers in their twilight years. In this Hot Stove edition of "Starting 9," we gauge the job prospects for nine prominent position players in their late 30s and early 40s.
The players mentioned below have combined for four MVP awards, 22 Silver Sluggers and 47 All-Star appearances. Will they find a landing spot between now and spring training? We rate their chances on a 0 to 100 scale.
Two reasons there should be no shortage of interest in Jimmy Ballgame:
• He put up a .568 slugging percentage with the Cubs, with 19 homers in 250 at-bats. Once Edmonds recovered from a calf injury that dogged him in spring training -- and regained his enthusiasm after being shipped from a lost cause in San Diego to a contender in Chicago -- he looked awfully spry for a 38-year-old.
It's worth noting that Edmonds had also been slowed by concussion-related issues late in his tenure with St. Louis, and those are now in the past.
• Edmonds is looking for only a one-year deal. For cost-conscious clubs -- and who isn't these days? -- that short-term horizon should enhance his appeal.
"I think it's going to be a win-win for somebody," said Paul Cohen, Edmonds' agent. "When you look at what some of the other guys will go for and you stack up their slugging percentage and home runs per at-bat against Jim's, it's going to be interesting."
Edmonds is also chasing a niche in history: He needs 18 home runs to join Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Schmidt and Andre Dawson as the sixth player in history to hit 400 homers and win eight Gold Gloves.
It's hard to say where Edmonds fits, but Atlanta, Seattle and the White Sox are among the teams that might be in the mix for an outfielder. And Walt Jocketty, Edmonds' former general manager in St. Louis, is now running the show in Cincinnati, where the outfield alignment currently consists of Jay Bruce, Chris Dickerson and Norris Hopper. But the Reds appear more interested in acquiring a right-handed bat than a lefty hitter.
The Angels declined a $14 million club option on Anderson after the season, but haven't ruled out bringing him back in 2009 at a more reasonable price.
At the moment, Anderson is well down the pecking order of priorities. Francisco Rodriguez, Jon Garland and Juan Rivera might all be leaving through free agency, and Mark Teixeira wants huge money to stay, so GM Tony Reagins has more pressing items than Anderson on his agenda.
Even if Anderson is still available when the Angels are ready to make a move, the team might decide to commit to prospect Brandon Wood at third base and shift Chone Figgins to left field. (As an aside, Wood was just released by his winter league team after hitting .167 in 13 games in the Dominican Republic.)
Anderson's .433 slugging percentage this year was 15th-best among the 17 left fielders with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title (only Skip Schumaker and Delmon Young were worse). And get this: In 14 years as an Angel, he has yet to draw 40 walks in a season.
But Anderson is only 36, and he has enough life left in his bat to stick around a while. He'll just have to wait to see where Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez, Bobby Abreu et al surface before his 2009 destination becomes clear.
"He still probably has two or three years left," said a National League front office man.
It's hard to believe, but this is the first time in Griffey's two decades in the major leagues that he has filed for free agency. He has always valued security and comfort over chasing the biggest megadeal.
Junior isn't going to inspire any bidding wars this time. He turns 39 on Friday, and his best days as an outfielder are behind him. He'll probably have to accept a role as a combination outfielder-first baseman-DH, and a $5 million contract might be generous given the current economic climate.
But Griffey showed enough skill in 2009 that someone should take a shot at him. Although he hit only three homers in 131 at-bats after joining the White Sox in late July, he was playing on a tender left knee that had to be drained three times and required arthroscopic surgery in October.
Seattle, as always, tops the Griffey speculation list. The White Sox had nice things to say about Griffey when they declined to pick up his option in October. And while Tampa Bay has other priorities, the Rays might consider Junior as a right field-DH option if Cliff Floyd doesn't return.
When we last saw Floyd, he was being replaced by Eric Hinske on Tampa Bay's World Series roster because of a torn labrum in his shoulder. Shortly after the Rays fell to the Phillies in Game 5, Floyd vowed to retire rather than undergo surgery on the shoulder.
Now it appears that Floyd's stance is softening. Last week, he told the St. Petersburg Times that he might have the shoulder surgically repaired in an effort to make a run at one more season. Floyd's agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, could not be reached for comment.
The Rays declined to exercise Floyd's $2.75 million option for next season, but they're leaving the door open for a return. Floyd is a tremendous influence in the clubhouse, and that .804 OPS in 246 at-bats was his best in three years. On the downside, it's harder than ever to find a body part that he hasn't pulled, strained, torn or rehabilitated.
Floyd's .356 career batting average at Tropicana Field is second-best in the ballpark's history behind Bernie Williams, so maybe the Rays can re-sign him for half-price and just ask him to suit up for home games.
Kent is one of the biggest puzzles on this list. He had a big August (.343 batting average, .380 OBP) to help the Dodgers climb back into the NL West race, and lots of people think he has enough bat speed left to contribute somewhere. But age and all those leg injuries have killed his mobility in the field, and he might be best-suited to an American League club, where he could play some DH, first base and a little second.
"I really think he'll hit a fastball until he's 50," said a scout. "The question is, does he want to [keep playing]? If he can't do it all-out every day, I don't think he has any interest. The way he was going about his business towards the end, I just sensed that it was over."
Needless to say, Kent does not have a reputation as a guy who'll smile and embrace a role as a 350-400 at-bat mentor to the kids. No offense, but is there a player in baseball with more of a reputation for casting a pall over a clubhouse?
Agent Jeff Klein said that Kent is "torn" at the moment over whether to keep playing or retire. Kent has four children ranging in age from 5 to 12, and those 10-day road trips aren't getting any easier.
"He's going to make the decision the right way," Klein said. "He's going to look in his heart and talk to his family. His kids are growing up, and he has an enormous pull for his family."
Klein disagreed with the notion that Kent is ill-suited for a part-time role on a club.
"I don't think that's the issue at all," Klein said. "When was the last time anybody's role was defined in February and turned out to be the same in September?"
Agent Arn Tellem said Garciaparra is "considering his options" for 2009. Even if there's a market for Garciaparra's services, he has yet to determine if he wants to play.
Garciaparra can still hit left-handed pitching (.339 in 56 at-bats), and he was versatile enough to appear at third base, shortstop and first base last season in Los Angeles. But it's the same old story with the injuries. He missed 90 games with a fractured right hand, a strained left calf and an irritation in his left knee.
"Where can he play in the field and stay healthy for a whole season?" said a scout. "Nowhere, other than first base. And he doesn't carry enough thunder to be a first baseman or a DH."
Garciaparra enjoys being home in his native Southern California, where his parents and sisters can watch him play regularly at Dodger Stadium. If he's willing to accept a bench job for a low base salary, maybe he'll squeeze out another season in L.A. Or maybe he'll decide it's been a nice ride and call it a day.
Gonzalez's image as a veteran mentor took a hit with the Dodgers in 2007, but he rehabilitated it last season in Florida. He accepted a bench role, helped teach the young Marlins something about professionalism and accountability, and won the team Good Guy Award from the media.
But Gonzalez isn't in the Marlins' plans for 2009, and as he told the Miami Herald in September, it will take a "good fit" for him to play next year.
"I'm not going to go somewhere just to play a 19th season," he said.
There was some brief speculation about Gonzalez's returning to Arizona for a final go-round, but it had no basis in reality. Gonzalez's departure two years ago was a PR nightmare for Arizona management, and the Diamondbacks privately say they have no interest in revisiting the arrangement.
Gonzalez is good for only a day or two a week in the outfield, and that .413 slugging percentage in 2008 (with eight homers in 341 at-bats) doesn't bode well for a designated hitter role. He's also one of a slew of lefty-hitting outfielders on the market this winter. The list includes Dunn, Ibanez and Abreu, along with the first three players on this "Starting 9" list.
If Gonzalez does pack it in, he'll finish with 596 doubles -- 15th in the all-time rankings. That's even more impressive than his four career "Good Guy" awards.
Unlike some players in this group, Thomas is determined to come back and play another season. With 521 career homers, he's tied with Ted Williams and Willie McCovey for 18th place on the all-time list. But the market for 40-year-old designated hitters with leg and foot problems isn't exactly thriving.
Thomas is only two years removed from a 39-homer, 114-RBI season in Oakland, but he's not in the A's plans for 2009. After using the disabled list 47 times the past two seasons, the A's have sworn off aging veterans in the Thomas-Piazza-Mike Sweeney mold and decided to go young in the field.
Which team might give Thomas a shot? The six clubs with the worst production from the DH slot last year were Kansas City, Toronto, Oakland, Cleveland (with an injured Travis Hafner), Detroit and Seattle. If you can find a natural fit among that group, feel free to give us a call.
Alou can still turn on a fastball. The big challenge is making it up the dugout steps.
Over the past five seasons, Alou's at-bat total has gradually declined from 610 with the Chicago Cubs to 49 last season in New York. He made his 16th and 17th trips to the disabled list in 2008 and played one game after May 21.
Barring another comeback attempt, Alou will finish with an .885 on base-slugging percentage (better than Harmon Killebrew and Sammy Sosa), 1,287 RBIs (more than Hank Greenberg, Gil Hodges and Edgar Martinez) and one very memorable encounter with a guy named Steve Bartman.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.