Every year, as camps open and teams’ roster situations start to shake out, a few bargain basement talents remain on the free agent market, passed over by teams for the majority of the offseason and now faced with waiting for a team with the need and budget to show interest. This year, an inordinate amount of the remaining free agents appear to be experienced veterans with household names and, in some cases, Hall of Fame-worthy resumes. It’s true that these players have deteriorated from the peaks of their respective careers, and increased focus on aging rates for both offense and defense has revealed how much of a risk older players can be. However, several of these players still do have some production left in the tank. I’ll try to determine what a team might be able to expect in bringing in one of these veterans and which teams might have interest in doing so.
Guerrero’s one of a group of hitters that are essentially limited to DH at this point, and it’s a tough position to be in, considering that pretty much all the AL teams have their DH spots in order at this point. Guerrero could only manage a .290/.317/.416 line last season, for a wRC+ of 95 that marks the first season he’s been a below league average hitter since joining the league in 1996. At one point in his career, Vlad was basically a lock for 30 home runs and an OBP approaching .400 each year. Now, most projection systems predict a 2012 OBP in the .320 range for the slugger, and a home run total in the mid-teens. Before they signed Raul Ibanez, rumor had it that Guerrero was interested in joining the Yankees and taking over their DH slot, but now that they’re squared away Guerrero will have a tough time finding a contending team that will give him consistent playing time. The Marlins were also rumored to have interest in Guerrero as a bench bat but those rumors have been shot down by the team’s front office. Guerrero is likely to land with a contending team that identifies a need at DH or on the bench or has a need at those positions open up through injury early in the season, but at this point it’s very difficult to tell where that will be.
Damon, similarly, is in the difficult position of looking for a Designated Hitter job in a league where one isn’t readily available. Damon signed for $5.25M with the Rays last year to be their DH, and put up a wRC+ of 109 that basically matches his career total. Just 277 hits short of 3000, Damon’s probably on the way to becoming the worst member of that club, which isn’t such an insult when you consider that of the 28 players currently above the 3000 hit plateau, 24 are currently Hall of Famers, two more (Jeter and Biggio) are currently on the way, and the final two (Rose and Palmeiro) are being held out more for extenuating circumstances than for their play on the field. Projection systems see Damon as a roughly .260/.330/.410 hitter for 2012, which is basically what he put up last year. While he never added much value on defense, Damon’s now reached the point where if he does play in the field he’ll only do so very sparingly. Some executives seem to believe Damon’s altered his approach at the plate to become a little more aggressive and accelerate the pace at which he hopes to reach 3000, which could reduce some of his offensive value because he relies largely on his patience to get on base consistently. Right now, the Orioles are rumored to be Damon’s likely destination, but he’d also be an option for any other team looking for a lefty bat at DH or off the bench.
Lee is the last free agent with compensation attached to him, although he’s unlikely to bring a draft pick back to Pittsburgh because at this point it’s hard to see him getting a Major League deal. Lee continues to play a plus defensive first base, and projects for a .265/.340/.440 line that’s a little better than what Damon and Guerrero are likely to offer. However, he played in only 113 games last year after missing games to an abdominal strain and a wrist fracture, while Damon and Guerrero each played more than 145 games last year. Lee could be a fit for the Blue Jays, depending on how comfortable they are with their current first base and DH candidates, but it’s something of a longshot that he’ll get a big league deal unless a major injury creates an opening for a club.
Matsui’s another lefty bat looking to fill a DH vacancy that currently doesn’t really exist. Over the course of the offseason, Matsui’s been connected to a few teams, including the Tigers and Yankees, but other acquisitions have filled those holes and now Matsui’s left in a market full of players with skills sets similar to his and with very little interest from teams in that type of player. Godzilla’s 93 wRC+ made 2011 the worst year of his US career, and projection systems see him hitting roughly .260/.330/.400 in 2012, which puts him slightly behind the other free agent DH candidates. Matsui isn’t close to signing anywhere, and it’s tough to see an obvious fit in the near future.
The last two years have been tough for Ordoñez. In 2010, his rate stats of .303/.378/.474 matched up pretty well to his career totals, albeit with a bit less power, but he played only half of the season before losing the rest of his season to ankle surgery in late July. Then, in 2011, Ordoñez played only 94 games, and looked ugly doing it, posting a .255/.303/.331 that graded out to a wRC+ of 72. Ordoñez is yet another would-be DH without any obvious suitors. Some team could take a chance on a bounce-back, but his 2011 will likely scare off the few teams who could have a slot for him and put him at the end of the line among the available DH candidates.
Now past his 40th birthday, most of Pudge’s value comes from his abilities behind the plate and in mentoring younger catchers and pitchers. In 2011, Pudge caught only 34 games, and he hasn’t been an above-average hitter since 2004. However, as long as he can slot in as a team’s backup catcher, some team is likely to find an opportunity for him. Over the past few weeks he’s been connected to the Rays, Mets, and Diamondbacks, though those teams have denied those reports to various extents. Earlier in the offseason, Rodriguez told an AP reporter that the free agent market this year was particularly tough for veterans, saying, “There are a lot of guys who have won championships and have playoff experience to offer teams with no jobs. It’s hard to believe.” Rodriguez is a victim of that current market climate, although he’s probably the most likely hitter on this list to sign a major league deal before the season begins. He’ll find a job as a second catcher on some team’s roster, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be content with reduced playing time on the back end of a Hall of Fame-caliber career.
Finally, Oswalt’s the one pitcher who fits on this list, and he’s definitely the best free agent that’s still available. Oswalt’s 2011 didn’t match the lofty standard he’s set over the rest of his career, but he still started 23 games and put up a 4.04 SIERA and 2.5 WAR. Oswalt drew interest from a number of teams this offseason, but couldn’t match up because of his insistence on playing near his home in Weir, Mississippi. Oswalt targeted the Cardinals and Rangers, but neither had room for him in their rotations, and other options dried up quickly as the rest of the free agent pitchers signed and filled other teams’ openings. Now, however, Oswalt says he’s open to playing anywhere and likely to sign midseason, a la Roger Clemens in 2006 and 2007. The Red Sox seem like a likely landing spot, especially because they haven’t reallocated the $6M they saved from trading Marco Scutaro. Half a season of Oswalt would certainly be a reasonable investment, especially with the uncertainty in the Red Sox rotation and the dogfight for the AL East title they’re likely to be involved in over the course of the season.
I’ve left off players who have indicated they’re likely to retire, such as Javier Vazquez and JD Drew, although I think those players also have something to offer a big league team in 2012 if they decide to continue their careers for one more year. For now, however, there does appear to be value in some of the veterans on the free agent market because of lukewarm interest from teams across the board. Most teams filled their vacancies earlier in the season, leaving some big-name talent out to dry. Any of these players could prove a huge midseason acquisition for a contender looking for one last piece to put them over the top, but for now, they’ll have to wait patiently for the phone to ring.
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.