Thursday, January 28, 2010

Attention Wal-Mart Shoppers...

The clock is ticking ever closer to the 2010 season, with pitchers and catchers set to report to Florida and Arizona in about three weeks. But like last winter, there are plenty of bargains for teams yet to fill out their big league rosters. In fact, you could probably field a halfway decent club using the cream of the remaining crop.

Take, for instance, Jim Thome. The Twins signed the lefty DH for a song, committing just $1.5 million plus incentives for 2010. Thome can't play the field anymore but his .881 OPS against RH pitching in '09 will surely come in handy in the close AL Central. Adding Thome's pop could wind up being the difference at minimal cost to Minnesota.

The difference makers are still out there. Let's take a look at a few of them:

Hank Blalock: The lefty-hitting corner infielder will play somewhere other than Arlington for the first time in his career this year. At 29, Blalock may no longer be serviceable in the field but can still hit, knocking 25 homers in 462 plate appearances in '09. The problem: Blalock struck out 108 times compared to 26 walks with a career-low .277 OBP. The Orioles had been linked to Blalock throughout the winter before they signed Miguel Tejada last week. Some team willing to take a chance on his power can probably get Blalock for a Thome-like contract.

Ryan Garko: After trading for Garko for the stretch run last summer, it seemed odd for the Giants to non-tender him, considering he's only 29 and hit 21 homers in '07. But then I looked at his splits: his '09 OPS against lefties (.870) was over 150 points higher than against righties (.713). Garko offers some versatility with the ability to play corner outfield in addition to first base (although his catching days are far behind him). The Rangers have emerged as a possible suitor, but it's hard to imagine them blocking Justin Smoak in any fashion. Garko might make sense for an NL team in need of a righty power bench bat.

Orlando Hudson: Why can't the O-Dog get any love? Last winter he was forced to wait until February 22 to sign a one-year deal with the Dodgers, and it's looking like he might have to wait nearly as long this time. It's especially inexplicable this time around because Hudson's coming off an All-Star, Gold Glove season during which he played 149 games. Rest assured that if the Mets weren't tied down to Luis Castillo's contract he'd be gearing up for a season in Queens right now. Unfortunately, it looks like his last best option is Washington. Poor O-Dog!

Felipe Lopez: A solid pickup for the Brewers in July, Lopez made the transition to full-time second baseman in '09 with strong results (7.6 UZR/150). In addition, he was fifth in the NL in hits (187) and ninth in average (.310). His .810 OPS was the second-highest of his career (.838 in '05, his best season). Yet as February nears, he doesn't have a job. If Hudson doesn't sign with the Nats, a return engagement there for Lopez appears likely. Or he could go back to the Cardinals, where he spent half the '08 season. Whichever team gets him will likely be tickled pink to have him at a discount.

Orlando Cabrera: Perhaps Cabrera is best suited for the bench at this point in his career. Sure, he's undeniably durable, playing in under 153 games just once since '01, but Cabrera's .705 OPS the last two years isn't exactly spectacular and he took a huge step back in the field in '09 with a -13.7 UZR/150. Regardless, your team is likely to be better for having Cabrera than not because of his ebullient personality and tremendous leadership qualities. Since joining the Red Sox in '04, his teams have only missed the playoffs once, and that was an 89-win '06 Angels crew. The Reds really like Cabrera, so for a couple million he might have a new home there.

Joe Crede: If not for three back surgeries the last three years, Crede would likely be one of the top-paid third basemen in baseball. He's long been one of the most defensively under-appreciated players at his position, and still hit 32 homers between two half-seasons in '09-'10. The experiment didn't really work out last year in Minnesota, and with the Orioles plugging their corner infield holes, the options are limited for Crede. The Cardinals might need a third baseman, but money is an issue for them. If he's willing to play for less than his '09 $2.5 million salary, something might get done there.

Johnny Damon: The most perplexing of all the names on this list. Damon put up stellar '09 numbers, albeit ones aided by playing his home games in a park tailor-made for lefty hitters. Still, 24 homers, 107 runs and an .854 OPS are nothing to scoff at. His defense dropped off in '09, but he's by no means a liability out there yet. So is it really possible Damon, who hoped to continue earning $13 million per year, might have to settle for as little as $2 million for '10? The A's appear to have the upper hand right now. If you ask me, the team that really screwed the pooch when it comes to Damon is Kansas City. If they hadn't stupidly thrown money at Scott Podsednik and Rick Ankiel, Damon, a Kansas native, would have been a perfect fit. You mean to tell me the fans wouldn't have loved to see Damon back? Who cares if he sucks in the outfield; are the Royals going anywhere? A real missed opportunity.

Jermaine Dye: It's hard to find a worse defensive player in baseball than Dye, at least if advanced metrics tell us anything. His UZR/150 each of the last four years: -21.5, -21.5, -21.4 and -24.5. This winter of heightened emphasis on defense was a horrible time for Dye to hit the free agent market, and that's why he finds himself jobless. It also doesn't help that his offense has fluctuated significantly over the last few seasons. The number of teams interested in Dye continues to dwindle. He can still hit, so at the very least a team will be happy securing his power for their bench.

The pitching crop is more thin at this point, with Erik Bedard the only remaining potential top-tier starter. If healthy, Noah Lowry, Mark Mulder and Jarrod Washburn could also pay significant dividends for frugal teams.

It will be interesting to see if any of these players I've highlighted wind up pushing a team over the threshold into the playoffs, or even contribute to a World Champion.

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