|Friday, November 16
Countdown to free agency
By Joe Sheehan
Special to ESPN.com
More than 150 players with at least six years of service have applied for free agency. Starting next week, the feeding frenzy of negotiations can begin, against the backdrop of contraction, negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and a fading economy. This winter's class isn't as star-studded as the last one, but there are a couple of impact players at the top of it, and a bit more depth than 12 months ago.
Now, with the many factors that go into just one free-agent signing, it's hard to predict how all of the dominos will fall between now and February. With that caveat in mind, here's a brief countdown to the free-agent season:
Six guys who shouldn't be going anywhere
Chan Ho Park, Dodgers. The Dodgers' acquisition of Omar Daal makes this less likely, but Park and his old team still look like a good match. He's always been more effective in Dodger Stadium than anywhere else, and he's extremely popular with L.A.'s thriving Korean community. As with Ismael Valdes before him, the Dodgers have seemingly gone out of their way to paint him as difficult; that and his lousy last month could keep his price south of $15 million per, making it even more likely he'll stay with the Dodgers.
Johnny Damon, Athletics. Coming off his worst season since 1996, Damon hits the free-agent market a year too late. This will keep his price reasonable, and perhaps even make him affordable for an A's team coming off of back-to-back playoff visits.
Even though the A's signed Terrence Long to a four-year deal, and could move him back to center field, doing so would give back what was one of Oakland's key improvements this year: the defense. Having Damon in center between Long and, eventually, Jermaine Dye, was a key factor in the development of Mark Mulder and Cory Lidle, and the good seasons of Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. Even having an off year at the plate, Damon helped the A's considerably.
One possibility that might be best for both sides is for Damon to sign a one-year deal, a la Juan Gonzalez, and go back on the market after 2002. Damon would get the chance to raise his value, while the A's would get a year to see how their outfield prospects develop.
John Smoltz, Braves. It's hard to imagine Smoltz, one of the few remaining links to the Rafael Ramirez era, pitching for anyone else. His conversion to closer appears to be complete, and with the Braves set for a lot of defections in the bullpen (Steve Karsay, Steve Reed, Rudy Seanez), locking up Smoltz for a couple of years seems like a natural decision. His strong October makes him more expensive than a guy who's thrown just 40-odd innings in two years probably should be.
Javy Lopez, Braves. Like Smoltz, Lopez is a career Brave. Unlike Smoltz, he goes on the market at a bad time, coming off successive poor, injury-laden seasons. With the Braves' total lack of depth at catcher, and in no position to sacrifice offense at any position, look for them to reach an agreement with Lopez.
Jason Schmidt, Giants. Barry Bonds is almost certainly gone, a departure that will leave the Giants with a lot of money to spend. Schmidt appears to finally be healthy, and he pitched well for the Giants after the trade deadline. Signing him will free the team to trade Shawn Estes for the outfield bat they're desperately going to need.
Ricky Gutierrez, Cubs. He's not a marquee free agent by any means, but the guys behind him for the Cubs include Augie Ojeda and Mark Bellhorn, so he's pretty important to the team. Both halves of the Cubs' double-play combination are free agents; Gutierrez is the one with more value, and the one they should make the effort to keep.
Five guys who are bad ideas
Juan Gonzalez, Indians. Gonzalez gambled that he would have a good year in 2001, and the gamble paid off. He hit well, and thanks to the performance of Roberto Alomar in front of him, piled up the RBIs that have always been his calling card.
The downside is everything else. Gonzalez is 32 and he missed about 20 games last year with an assortment of nagging leg injuries. His bad back held up in 2001, but there's no guarantee that it will hold up for the duration of a long-term contract, and insuring it is going to be difficult. Back injuries can destroy a hitter, especially one who relies on power to put runs on the board.
Everything went right for Gonzalez last year: he stayed healthy, hit well, and played good defense. The chances of all of those things going right in even three of the next five years don't seem very good. He's unlikely to be a disaster, but there's very little upside to signing him, and the investment is going to be steep.
Bret Boone, Mariners. His 2001 season screams "fluke," and not the moderate, great-player-having-his best-year kind. His rate stats were excellent, in part because he had a ridiculous year against lefties -- .444/.497/.715 -- but he still didn't walk much, and there's no way he's a good bet to hit .331 again.
Boone falls into the problem category of free agents. There's a good chance he will be a quality player for a couple of seasons going forward, say, a .280/.330/.450 hitter with good defense at second base. He's 33, though, and his big 2001 -- and the 141 RBI -- mean he'll be expecting many years and many dollars. Bret Boone at ages 33 and 34 at $6 million per might be worth it. Committing $11 million to him at age 35 or even age 36 is just folly.
Reggie Sanders, Diamondbacks. Another thirtysomething who was a free agent a year ago and didn't attract much interest, Sanders had perhaps his best season. Like the two guys above, he's past the age where you'd expect him to continue to play at this level (he's 34), and Sanders has always had problems staying healthy. Similar to, though better than, Jeffrey Hammonds, and likely to be the same kind of free-agent signing: three years and too much money from a team that doesn't know what it's doing.
Tino Martinez, Yankees. He jacked a few more balls into the seats this year, reversing a power decline that had made him one of the worst first basemen in baseball in 2000. Even at that, it wasn't a great season: an American League first baseman with a .329 OBP is part of the problem, not part of the solution. He's 34, and not likely to have a year even as good as his 2001 again.
Jeff Shaw, Dodgers. The Dodgers declined his option, setting him loose. Closers are overrated, and Shaw has never been near the front of that class. If the save statistic didn't exist, no one would be clamoring to give a 36-year-old pitcher with his performance record a ton of money and important innings. Shaw appears to be more concerned with location than price; he lives in Ohio and considering the needs of the closest teams, he seems likely to end up a Tiger.
Four guys who will be house-hunting in nice new neighborhoods
This might not be the worst thing in the world for the A's. Giambi is important to their offense, but he's also a 31-year-old player with no speed and no glove. He's the type of player -- hitter, left end of the defensive spectrum -- that the A's have proven they can come up with almost at will. If Giambi leaving means that the A's can keep Johnny Damon (although some reports said Damon won't re-sign if Giambi leaves), I'm not sure that they're much worse off, assuming that the commitment to Damon would be for considerably less time and money than a commitment to Giambi.
As far as Jason goes, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Yankees will come out on top in the bidding. Giambi fits their need, they can compete on price, and like David Wells, Giambi seems like the kind of guy who would be embrace and be embraced by New York.
Barry Bonds, Giants. For the second time in his career, Barry Bonds will change addresses after giving his team ample opportunity to sign him. The Pirates could have had him prior to 1992 for much less than he received after that season from the Giants, while the Giants could have locked up Bonds seven months ago for a mere four years and $60 million.
There are a limited number of teams who will be in the bidding for Bonds, and you can probably figure out which ones without my help. Since about June, I've been saying that he would end up with the Mets, based on their need for an outfielder who can hit and their ability to pay. I'll stand by that theory.
Moises Alou, Astros. It's been pretty well known for a while that Alou would not be back in Houston in 2002, much to the delight of Daryle Ward. Where he ends up is a bit of a mystery; he's an obvious target for anyone who makes a play for Bonds and loses, and until all the managerial vacancies are filled, there's always the chance he could sign with whatever team hires his dad to manage. Failing that, he seems like a good play for the Red Sox, who could use his bat and have a left field that would hide Alou's defensive deficiencies.
Aaron Sele, Mariners. Stealth free agent, but the second-best starter on the market after Chan Ho Park. He has ties to the Northwest, but the Mariners have a truckload of pitching coming and other places to spend their money, so unless he's willing to be the winter's biggest bargain, he'll have to go elsewhere. He's a safe pitching play, and as such could help about 28 or 29 teams.
Three guys who look like great bargains
Valdes's career from here on out may resemble the waning days of John Tudor: effective when available, but available half the time. That's worth something, especially to a contender struggling to get anything from the back of the rotation.
Dave Burba, Indians. Burba's 2001 season wasn't as bad as it looked. His peripheral numbers were in the same range as previous seasons, when he was throwing 200 innings and winning 15 games. The big difference was in his hits allowed, a change that is in no small part due to the injuries and age that afflicted the Indians' defense.
Burba is probably going to sit around for a while while Park and Sele and others get jobs. Then, in January, some team is going to give him a one- or two-year deal for perfectly reasonable money, and be rewarded with a quality No. 3 starter.
Jose Canseco, White Sox. He can still hit, certainly enough to be a platoon DH, maybe enough to be a full-time DH. If Jason Giambi does leave Oakland, Canseco could find his way back home as part of a cheap DH solution, while Jeremy Giambi takes over first base.
Two guys who switch-hit and will be good signings
Of more concern is his plate discipline, which he left behind in Houston. Cedeno had the worst walk rate of his life in 2001, leading to a .337 OBP.
Given the state of leadoff hitting in baseball, Cedeno could be a valuable commodity. He can run, but more importantly, he has a track record of getting on base, the most important skill in the game. That's going to make him a good signing, no matter how many times you have to read about his lack of instincts.
Gregg Zaun, Royals. Zaun missed most of 2001 with an injury, and lost his spot with the Royals to Brent Mayne. He had one of his better years when he played, batting .320 with his usual walks and a little extra power.
Zaun is what he's always been: The Practically Perfect Backup Catcher. In a market lousy with right-handed hitters who have defensive reputations and make outs more than 70 percent of the time -- Benito Santiago, Carlos Hernandez, Tony Eusebio -- Zaun is the best value, and deserves a chance to push a team towards a championship.
One guy who really needs a coaching job
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus (tm) at their web site at baseballprospectus.com. Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.