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Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Free agents who could very well be bargains

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Several front office people surveyed for this story had a difficult time mustering enthusiasm for the concept: a piece on potential free-agent bargains.

"Free-agent bargain is an oxymoron," said an American League official.

Hey, try telling that to the Tampa Bay Rays, who signed Eric Hinske to a minor league contract in February and were rewarded with 20 homers in 381 at-bats. Or the St. Louis Cardinals, who waited for pitcher Kyle Lohse to slip through the cracks and signed him for a year and $4.25 million in March. Lohse won 15 games, nearly made the All-Star team, and parlayed his success into a new four-year, $41 million contract in September.

It's a challenge to predict which free agents will suffer because of a glut at their positions, or an agent who overplays his hand and leaves them scrambling for jobs in February. But in these trying economic times, we have a few suggestions for clubs looking to conserve their resources.

The San Francisco Giants' decision to sign reliever Jeremy Affeldt to a two-year, $8 million deal has already been hailed among competitors as a prudent move. In this Thanksgiving edition of "Starting 9," we look at some other players in this winter's free-agent class who could prove to be a nice value for the money.

Randy Johnson

Johnson

Randy Johnson, pitcher

1 Johnson is five wins short of 300 for his career and 211 strikeouts away from joining Nolan Ryan as the second pitcher in history with 5,000 whiffs. Judging from his performance in 2008, the wins certainly won't be a problem to attain.

Fresh off another back surgery, Johnson exceeded expectations with 30 starts and 184 innings. If not for a lack of support from Arizona's bullpen and a woeful June (0-5, 6.82 ERA), Johnson might already be a member of the 300-win club.

After making a base salary of $10 million last season, Johnson offered to take a 50 percent pay cut to stay in Arizona. But the cost-conscious Diamondbacks couldn't make the finances work, and now Johnson is at home in Phoenix working out with trainer Brett Fischer in hopes of finding a comfortable landing spot. He wants a one-year deal, and agent Barry Meister said the list of interested teams is "approaching double figures."

Johnson would love to finish his career in his native California, and the Dodgers need help in the rotation because of the departure of Derek Lowe and Brad Penny -- not to mention Chad Billingsley's broken fibula. But the Big Unit is a back-burner item in Los Angeles at the moment.

"The way I look at it, once you get past [CC] Sabathia and Lowe, we're all guessing who's going to have the most wins next year," Meister said. "Randy is as good a guess as any."

Pudge Rodriguez

Rodriguez

Pudge Rodriguez, catcher

2 What, you were expecting Sal Fasano?

Rodriguez ranks third in baseball history behind Carlton Fisk and Bob Boone with 2,173 games caught. Throw in those 14 All-Star Game appearances and 13 Gold Gloves, and he's a Hall of Fame lock. The only question is, how much tread does he have left on those tires?

Warning signs abound. Rodriguez, 37, is still adept at throwing out base stealers, but his power numbers continue to take a nosedive. His .394 slugging percentage was his lowest since 1992.

"He's so far beyond that threshold where mere mortals hit the wall, at some point it has to start wearing him down," said an American League executive. "Even if you can get him at a good price, I'm not sure how high his upside is."

Six or seven teams could use an upgrade at catcher, and two of them, Detroit and New York, employed Rodriguez last year and aren't interested in a return engagement. Boston needs a catcher, but Jason Varitek, a fellow Scott Boras client, is first in line there.

Rodriguez's options could also be squeezed by the trade market. Texas is looking to move Gerald Laird or one of its other young catchers for pitching help, and Arizona is entertaining offers for Miguel Montero. That's not good news for job seekers.

Rodriguez, who has 2,605 career hits, wants to catch everyday to make a run at 3,000. "He likes to be 'the guy,' so he'll probably have a tough transition to not being an everyday player," said a scout. On the other hand, a motivated Pudge could make for a more productive Pudge.

If Rodriguez takes a while to sign, maybe history will repeat itself. The Marlins liked what they saw from catcher John Baker, who hit .299 in 61 games this season. But owner Jeffrey Loria remembers Rodriguez fondly from Florida's 2003 championship club, and maybe he'll try to broker a reunion if Rodriguez is still homeless in late January or early February.

Jason Giambi

Giambi

Jason Giambi, first baseman-designated hitter

3 There's not much middle ground in the first-base market this winter. Mark Teixeira's deal is going to run nine figures, and the other options (Sean Casey, Rich Aurilia, Tony Clark, Aaron Boone, Kevin Millar, Doug Mientkiewicz and Richie Sexson) are more complementary or end-of-the-road types.

An American League scout refers to Giambi's defense as "horrible," and the consensus is that Giambi should pick up a glove only in case of emergency. But just check out those 2008 offensive stats: 32 homers, 96 RBIs and a .502 slugging percentage. Giambi had a better OPS (.876) than Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau, Adrian Gonzalez and Carlos Delgado, among others.

Oakland and Toronto have been mentioned as possible destinations for Giambi, but they're in no rush to do anything. The Athletics have a cheaper version of Giambi in Jack Cust, and the Blue Jays would be content to go with youngsters Adam Lind and Travis Snider as part of their outfield-DH arrangement. General manager J.P. Ricciardi recently shot down rumors of the team's interest in both Giambi and Milton Bradley.

Giambi's biggest obstacle is the presence of so many veteran lefty bats -- Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez and Bobby Abreu, to name three -- with more of an all-around game to offer. That spells a possible one-year deal, or maybe a year and an option, and a nice pickup for a club with a void in the middle of its order.

Felipe Lopez

Lopez

Felipe Lopez, second baseman

4 Orlando Hudson is this winter's second-base headliner, followed by a bunch of veteran, professional, "handy" guys with assorted pluses and minuses. The list includes Ray Durham, David Eckstein, Ramon Vazquez, Mark Loretta, Mark Grudzielanek, Juan Uribe and -- if he decides to play another season -- Jeff Kent.

Lopez is the biggest upside play. His late-season numbers with St. Louis were terrific (.385 batting average, .426 on-base, .538 slugging percentage in 169 at-bats). But his .418 batting average on balls in play after the All-Star break makes some teams wonder if there wasn't an inordinate amount of luck involved.

Lopez has already run through four organizations at age 28. Teams have questions about his makeup and maturity, and no one is going to rush to give a long-term deal to a player who was released by the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline.

But Lopez's ability to play several positions helps his cause, and he might warrant a look for a team such as the Phillies, who have a second baseman and third baseman coming off surgery and a need for a right-handed bat in the outfield.

"He's athletic, he's young and he's got tools," said an American League assistant GM. "Maybe getting released [by the Nationals] and having to bounce around was a bit of a wake-up call for him."

Joe Crede

Crede

Joe Crede, third baseman

5 Crede will turn 31 in April. He has above-average power, Gold Glove-caliber skills at third base, a World Series ring and Scott Boras for an agent. That smorgasbord of attributes doesn't exactly scream "value play."

Boras is trying to fashion a creative deal for Crede along the lines of the contract that Magglio Ordonez signed with Detroit in 2005. Ordonez's injury history scared off several clubs, but the Tigers signed him to a five-year, $75 million deal that protected the team in the event Ordonez suffered a recurrence of his knee problems. Ordonez has since won a batting title, averaged 152 games played since 2006 and been a middle-of-the-order force in Detroit.

The potential red flag with Crede comes in the form of back problems, but Boras is convinced that teams will be open-minded now that they have access to Crede's medical records.

"He's an All-Star player at a premium position," Boras said. "Now it's up to the medical staffs, and this is how teams get ahead. When Detroit came in and properly diagnosed Magglio, that was a huge step. They gave him the long-term incentive to come, and it worked out great for Detroit and for Magglio."

Nevertheless, Crede has appeared in only 144 games over the past two seasons. And if no one is willing to take the long-term plunge, it might make sense for Crede to sign a one-year deal, prove he can stay healthy and use it as a springboard to a big payout next winter.

San Francisco, Cleveland, Minnesota and the Dodgers are among the teams in the third base market. But Casey Blake is at the top of Minnesota's wish list, and Cleveland and L.A. both have other internal options. The Indians, for example, can shift Jhonny Peralta to third base, move Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop and focus on acquiring a second baseman instead. Texas is another club that might take a look at Crede for the right price.

Omar Vizquel

Vizquel

Omar Vizquel, shortstop

6 With Rafael Furcal, Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria monopolizing the headlines, it's tough for a 41-year-old glove wiz to get much attention. But Vizquel wants to keep playing, and there's evidence to suggest he has another productive year or two left in him.

Vizquel started slowly in San Francisco after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in spring training. He also lost playing time because of the Giants' youth movement. But he rallied to hit .304 in 115 at-bats after the All-Star break, and he continues to measure up to the competition defensively.

Over the past three seasons, Vizquel has graded out as an impressive plus-36 on statistician John Dewan's plus-minus system (where a zero score is considered average). And David Pinto, on his Baseball Musings Web site, rated Vizquel second overall to Marco Scutaro among shortstops on his "Probabilistic Model of Range" calculations for 2008.

"Vizquel remains impressive at an advanced age," writes Pinto. "He didn't play a whole season, so he didn't get a chance to wear down, but if any team is looking for a great late inning defensive replacement, Omar is it."

Would Vizquel be receptive to adding second base to his repertoire and signing with a team in a utility role? That remains to be seen. The only certainty is that he wants to return. Vizquel underwent laser eye surgery in October, and he's looking to add to his career record total of 2,654 games at shortstop.

"He feels great and he's enthusiastic about playing," said agent Adam Katz. "We'll see where [the talks] take us, and we'll counterpunch depending on the situation."

Juan Rivera

Rivera

Juan Rivera, outfielder

7 Six years ago, Baseball America rated Rivera as the No. 5 prospect in the Yankees system. In his first week with the big club in June 2002, Rivera got lost on the subway on his way to Yankee Stadium, then fractured his kneecap when he collided with a golf cart in the outfield while shagging fly balls. Can you say "star-crossed"?

Rivera drifted to Montreal and then the Angels, and appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough with a 23-homer, 85-RBI season in 2006. But he missed almost the entire 2007 season with a broken leg, and his on base percentage this year was an unsightly .282.

Still, Rivera has exceptional raw power, and he's a capable outfielder even at 6-2 and 225 pounds. Maybe he won't emerge as the 2009 version of Ryan Ludwick, but feel free to file him under "intriguing."

Several executives said a two-year contract in the $6 million to $8 million range is reasonable for Rivera. And if he prefers a one-year deal with the intention of going back on the market in 2010, that's even better. Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Atlanta and the Mets are among the clubs looking for outfield help, and the Angels could decide to re-sign Rivera once they address their main offseason priorities.

Rocco Baldelli

Baldelli

Rocco Baldelli, outfielder

8 Baldelli wouldn't be on this list if not for a sad and unfortunate set of circumstances. He suffers from a neurological disorder called mitochondrial myopathy that requires him to be handled with care. Maybe it means leaving a game in the seventh inning because of fatigue, or being unavailable even as a pinch-hitter the day after he plays.

Still, Baldelli is only 27, and his farewell calling card from 2008 is one to remember: On a frigid night in Game 5 of the World Series, Baldelli pulled in his hands and lined a Ryan Madson fastball through a stiff wind over the left field fence at Citizens Bank Park. Baldelli's stamina is a big question mark, but he hasn't lost his competitiveness or his hand-eye coordination.

"He's still on the upside of his career," said an AL executive. "If somebody could get hold of him and find the key to unlock the [door] to his injury issues, he could take off and be an All-Star."

Although Baldelli might ultimately be best served staying in his comfort zone in Tampa Bay, the Phillies, Red Sox and Braves are among the teams that are likely to take a look and see if there's a fit.

Jim Edmonds

Edmonds

Jim Edmonds, outfielder

9 Edmonds posted a .568 slugging percentage in 85 games with the Cubs in 2008. He can still play center field, although he's two or three years removed from his classic Gold Glove form. And best of all, he wants only a one-year deal -- a stance that minimizes the downside risk to the signing club.

"The one thing with these older guys is, you're always worried that the year you get them is the year that it goes," said an American League front office man. "When it's gone, it goes fast."

The consensus is that Edmonds, at 38, needs to sign with a team that has legitimate playoff aspirations. Lots of scouts thought he was finished when he hit .178 in 90 at-bats in San Diego, but all he needed was some time for a calf injury to heal and a pennant race in Chicago to recharge his batteries.

"I don't think he's as good as he was with the Cubs or as bad as he was with the Padres," said a National League official. "The true player probably lies somewhere in the middle."

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.