Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Updated: July 2, 10:38 AM ET
Free agents who've thrived on the cheap
By Jerry Crasnick
At the height of the free-agent shopping season, the average baseball fan was paralyzed with fear about the credit crunch, the housing meltdown, rising unemployment numbers and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The average MLB executive was, too. So it was understandable that once Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and a few other players received their big-ticket deals, general managers throughout the game spent a lot of time trolling for bargains.
Which teams did the best job? In this week's edition of Starting 9, we take a look at nine players who've given their clubs valuable contributions at very affordable prices.
The Mariners announced the Branyan signing in early December on the same day they named Rick Adair pitching coach and John Wetteland bullpen coach. Suffice it to say that the M's did not have to bring in emergency phone operators to handle the barrage of ticket requests.
But first impressions can be meaningless. Branyan is tied for third in the American League with 19 homers, and he has a better slugging percentage (.606) than Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Carlos Pena, Justin Morneau and Miguel Cabrera. Even if those numbers don't get him to the All-Star Game, his professional renaissance is heartening.
"For whatever reason, I've always been enamored of the guy," a veteran scout said of Branyan. "The strikeouts have always been the biggest knock against him. But sometimes with guys like that, you just have to keep putting them out there."
For years, Branyan was viewed as more a Rob Deer-like curiosity than a threat to play every day, but Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik believed that he had more to offer.
Seattle's 2008 first-base contingent of Richie Sexson, Miguel Cairo and Bryan LaHair ranked last in the American League with a .680 on-base plus slugging percentage. The Mariners were willing to live with the strikeouts in exchange for some pop. Branyan, having a career year at age 33, has given the team power and a whole lot more.
Orlando Hudson, Dodgers ($3.38 million plus incentives)
Scouts spend a lot of time talking about bat speed, range and arm slots, but the lingo is different with Hudson, whose energy is palpable from the dugout, press box or loge.
"He's a joy to watch," a National League scout said.
Hudson landed in the Dodgers' laps for three reasons: (1) Potential suitors were concerned about his ability to come back from wrist surgery; (2) as a Type A free agent, he required the signing team to surrender a first-round draft pick; and (3) he overpriced himself. The word on the streets was that Hudson wanted $50 million for five years.
Even if the Dodgers have to pay all of Hudson's incentives and he makes $8 million-plus, it's still a fine deal. Lots of people who watch the Dodgers on a daily basis think Hudson and Casey Blake have been the team's co-MVPs through the first three months.
Hudson's average has dipped below .300 after a rough June, but he still ranks sixth in the National League in hits and seventh in doubles. He also has been a stabilizing influence for a defense that's made only 33 errors -- fourth-fewest in the majors.
The "intangibles" part can't be ignored. Hudson is a take-charge guy in the field, a one-man greeting committee in the clubhouse and a perennially upbeat, talkative presence on a club. His teammates love him.
Agent Peter Greenberg's group assembled a 28-page statistical profile to sell Abreu to clubs this past winter. If teams were impressed by the numbers, they had a strange way of showing it.
Three days before Valentine's Day, Abreu took an $11 million pay cut to sign with Los Angeles. The financial squeeze put on him was amazing when you consider Abreu was one of only five major leaguers to produce 100 runs and 100 RBIs in both 2007 and 2008. The other four: Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez and David Wright.
Although the Angels would prefer more than four home runs in three months, Abreu remains a tough out: He's hitting .329 with runners in scoring position and ranks 13th in the American League with 4.11 pitches per plate appearance.
He also has been a nice fit for manager Mike Scioscia's go-go, first-to-third-obsessed Angels. With 17 stolen bases in 20 attempts, Abreu is looking quite spry for a 35-year-old. As Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long used to say, "He's always going to put something in the basket."
Livan Hernandez, Mets ($1 million plus incentives)
If we told you in spring training that Hernandez would rank second on the team behind Johan Santana with 93 2/3 innings pitched on July 1, you would have predicted the Mets were in trouble.
They are -- but not because of Hernandez.
The Mets signed Hernandez, a longtime favorite of general manager Omar Minaya, to a minor league deal in February. After 15 starts, he's 5-3 with a 4.04 ERA and a reliable performer in a rotation that has lost starters John Maine and Oliver Perez to injuries for an extended period.
Hernandez consistently has pitched deep into games, and he's suffered from a lack of run support, so his won-loss record could be better. He lost 3-0 to St. Louis and 4-2 to the Yankees, and picked up a no-decision in a 2-1 defeat to the Dodgers.
Hernandez pitched relatively well in Minnesota early last season before AL lineups began clobbering him with regularity. He got in better shape this year to take some strain off his right knee, so the Mets have reason to hope he shows more staying power. No one has ever questioned his ability to navigate big league lineups.
"He doesn't give in -- ever -- to a hitter," Mets catcher Brian Schneider told Adam Rubin of the New York Daily News. "It doesn't matter if guys are on base or not. Even with guys on base, he doesn't pump a lot of fastballs. He still pitches. The biggest thing I've noticed about him is he's always so relaxed out there."
Podsednik was looking for work in spring training after being released by Colorado when he asked former Chicago teammate Mark Buehrle to pass along his phone number to White Sox general manager Kenny Williams.
One thing led to another, and the Sox signed Podsednik to a minor league deal in April. Now Buehrle might want to ask for a finder's fee.
Podsednik, 33, moved into Chicago's starting lineup May 1, and he's looked a lot like the guy who gave the White Sox such a spark during their 2005 championship season. He leads the team with 21 multihit games, and he has a .399 on-base percentage since May 25. He also has done a nice job defensively in left field.
Manager Ozzie Guillen began the season with Chris Getz and Josh Fields in the 1-2 spots, but Podsednik and Alexei Ramirez have since taken over and given the White Sox a more stable look at the top of the order.
Several six-year free agents have made positive impacts this season. The list includes Angels pitcher Matt Palmer, Giants reliever Brandon Medders, Marlins reliever Kiko Calero, Mets catcher Omir Santos. And let's not forget about Dodgers veteran pitchers Jeff Weaver and Eric Milton, who have a combined 6-3 record and a 3.67 ERA.
Still, no one embodies the can-do spirit of the minor league free agent more than Green. He has versatility and a strong arm, but his most valuable asset is his refusal to take no for an answer.
Green broke into pro ball as a 32nd-round draft pick with Atlanta and subsequently drifted to Tampa Bay, the Yankees, Pittsburgh, Seattle and the Yankees again before hooking on with Boston in January.
Green received more than a cursory look during spring training with Dustin Pedroia away at the World Baseball Classic, and he made an impression by hitting .349 in the Grapefruit League.
He's continued to make a contribution even though the smart money said he was destined to get overexposed eventually. Injuries to Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie created an opening at shortstop in Boston, and Green took advantage. He's hitting .380 (19-for-50) with runners in scoring position, and his 320-foot shot inside the Pesky Pole gave Boston a 6-5, walk-off win over Atlanta two weeks ago.
The Red Sox are 35-15 when Green starts and 12-14 when he doesn't. If he keeps this up, an honest-to-goodness seven-figure contract might be in his future.
During an 8-3 Detroit victory over Kansas City in late May, Everett made a diving stop up the middle and turned it into a 6-4-3 double play. It was a classic Web Gem. Yet a day later, Tigers manager Jim Leyland spent more time talking about a couple of other plays made by Everett that might have looked routine to the casual observer but weren't.
Everett, long regarded as the class of shortstop defenders by hard-core analytical types, played sparingly in Minnesota last season because of shoulder tendinitis. Now he's healthy and making a huge difference in Detroit, where Tigers pitchers suffered from Edgar Renteria's lack of range at short last season.
The left-side combination of Everett and third baseman Brandon Inge has been particularly beneficial to rookie pitcher Rick Porcello, who yields a lot of ground balls and needs to make every pitch count.
"If you have a good defense, you can make a good pitching staff into a great pitching staff," Leyland said. "If you have a horse[bleep] defense, you can make a good pitching staff into a horse[bleep] pitching staff. I wouldn't say we're a great defensive team, but we're pretty good."
Everett always will have that Mark Belanger feel to him at the plate, but he's had his moments. He's batting .269 with runners in scoring position, and he hit a grand slam against Cleveland in early May.
Craig Counsell, Brewers ($1 million plus incentives)
After the Brewers declined to exercise Counsell's $3.4 million option in November, reporters asked general manager Doug Melvin who might fill the Craig Counsell utility role from 2008.
"Craig Counsell," Melvin told them.
All it took was some time for events to coalesce. Counsell, a Wisconsin guy, wanted to stay close to home, and the market for 37-year-old utilitymen wasn't exactly vigorous.
"It was a natural fit," Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash said. "But when you're a veteran player taking a reduced deal, it takes a little more time. When he satisfied himself that there wasn't anything else out there, we were fortunate enough to get him to come back."
Counsell (.297 batting average, .364 OBP) and rookie Casey McGehee helped the Brewers overcome a major jolt caused by Rickie Weeks' season-ending wrist injury. Milwaukee's second-base contingent ranks fourth in the majors behind Philadelphia, Texas and Toronto with an .849 OPS.
Eckstein has a .749 OPS in road games compared to .611 at Petco Park. One of these days, he'll fly out to the warning track, then snap and throw his helmet in anger, a la Phil Nevin.
In the meantime, he's doing all the little things the Padres expected. Eckstein is the second-toughest hitter to strike out in the National League, and he's been hit by a pitch six times, increasing his career total to 131 HBPs. He took a Roy Oswalt fastball in the ribs and a Carlos Zambrano pitch in the collarbone during a two-week span in May but got back up both times.
Eckstein also has moved baserunners, mixed in a squeeze bunt or two, run out every ball, helped put young shortstop Everth Cabrera at ease and hit .385 (25-for-65) with runners in scoring position. Despite a dreadful May, he has 31 RBIs.
"Everybody says he's short, he's scrappy, he's a gamer," Padres closer Heath Bell told the Los Angeles Times. "He's a great baseball player. You don't hear that. You just hear he's a scrappy ballplayer."
"Great" might be a stretch. But Eckstein fills his role nicely -- not to mention cost-efficiently. That attribute can make a player awfully popular these days.
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.