Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 70-51

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This is part three in a series of columns looking at this winter’s free agent class. I’m listing each player along with his age, as of next April 1, and his place in the previous edition of these rankings from May.
Nos. 111-91
Nos. 90-71
70. Jason Varitek* (37) – Prev. #66 – He’s struggled mightily as a part-timer, but before the Victor Martinez acquisition resulted in a reduced role, Varitek was hitting .236/.345/.453 through four months, making him one of the game’s top 10 catchers. The bigger issue than his offense is his poor arm. Still, there’s so much respect for his game-calling abilities that he’ll likely be pursued as a starter if he opts to depart. The Red Sox figure to decline their $5 million, leaving Varitek with a $3 million player option to return as a part-timer.
69. LaTroy Hawkins (37) – Prev. #67 – There doesn’t figure to be any demand from AL teams, but several NL teams will see about bringing in Hawkins as a setup man. He has a 2.31 ERA in 58 1/3 innings for Houston, and while he’s failed miserably as a closer before, he was surprisingly effective while filling in for Jose Valverde earlier this season.
68. Pedro Feliz* (34) – Prev. #68 – By month, Feliz has posted OPSs of 872, 745, 712, 663, 631 and now 549. His $5 million option looked rather reasonable at the All-Star break, but the Phillies may want to look elsewhere if he turns in another poor postseason.
67. Andruw Jones (32) – Prev. #84 – It’s anyone’s guess what kind of season Jones would have had if he found a team willing to play him regularly. He had a 1304 OPS in 32 at-bats during April and he slammed eight homers in 67 at-bats during July, but he was never an everyday player at any point and, possibly as a result, he’s been terribly inconsistent. Of course, with the way his body has let him down, he might not have managed more than one or two good months as a regular anyway. If Jones can still play an adequate center field or an above average left or right, then he might have another two or three years left as a solid regular. He figures to come rather cheap, so it should be worth finding out.
66. Justin Duchscherer (32) – Prev. #37 – Working as a starter for the first time, Duchscherer went 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA in two-thirds of a season in 2008. This year, he got shut down with elbow woes in spring training, underwent surgery and then halted his comeback in August because of depression. He’s likely in line for an incentive-laden one-year deal.
65. Orlando Cabrera (35) – Prev. #39 – Cabrera’s stock seemed to be on the way back up thanks to his performance in his last weeks with Oakland, but he’s hit just .244/.277/.369 in 45 games for the Twins, leaving him at .269/.306/.366 for the year. His defensive numbers are also well off this year. He’ll get a modest one-year deal and a starting job initially, but he can’t expect his new team to be as patient with him as a the A’s were this year.
64. John Smoltz (42) – Prev. #74 – Too many weren’t willing to overlook the numbers, but it should have been clear that Smoltz had something left even while stinking up the joint for the Red Sox. He’s posted a 3.21 ERA and a 32/4 K/BB ratio in five starts since joining the Cardinals, though it is worth noting that he did miss a turn because of his troublesome shoulder. The current guess is that Smoltz will return for another year in 2010, and if that happens, it will almost certainly be with an NL team. The Cards figure to invite him back.
63. Octavio Dotel (36) – Prev. #59 – Dotel hasn’t been a dominant setup man in Chicago, but he has been a healthy one while striking out 165 batters in 126 2/3 innings over the last two years. That will make him a candidate for another multiyear deal this winter.
62. Braden Looper* (35) – Prev. #57 – Looper has given the Brewers their money’s worth while going 13-6 this year, but he does have a 4.89 ERA that makes him quite a question mark at $6.5 million for 2010. Then again, he was never likely to play under the option anyway. If the Brewers exercise it, he’d sill be able to void the deal and become a free agent.
61. Jim Thome (39) – Prev. #46 – Thome hit .249/.372/.493 with 23 homers in 345 at-bats as a DH for the White Sox to match his 2008 production nearly exactly. Now he’s serving as a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers, but that’s strictly a short-term role. If Thome wants to play in 2010, he should be able to land another DH gig.
60. Kevin Gregg (31) – Prev. #53 – Gregg’s WHIP is right at his career norm and his strikeout rate is a bit better than usual this year, but yielding 13 homers has pushed his ERA up to 4.72 and cost him his job as the Cubs’ closer. He always made more sense as a setup man anyway, and since he’s proven quite durable, he might be a nice investment after the off year.
59. Xavier Nady (31) – Prev. #41 – Could the elbow injury have been best for both the team and the player? If Nady didn’t get hurt, it might have taken a couple of months for Joe Girardi to see that Nick Swisher was clearly the Yankees’ best option in right field. And because Nady did get hurt, he’ll head into free agency still largely being judged on his career-best 2008 season, rather than as a player who almost surely would have lost his job to Swisher. Nady should be ready to go in 2010 after Tommy John surgery. He’s in line for a one-year deal, but he’ll be looked at as a starter.
58. Akinori Iwamura* (31) – Prev. NR – Iwamura wasn’t included in this list the first time around because his $4.25 million option seemed like a lock to be picked up. Of course, that was before he blew out his knee and watched as Ben Zobrist excelled in his place. Iwamura went on to pull off a surprisingly quick return, and he’s back playing frequently now with Zobrist patrolling the outfield. He’s hitting .295/.358/.391, putting him right at his career line. The Rays, though, are pinching pennies, so they still might trade or release him this winter.
57. John Grabow (32) – Prev. #62 – Besides Billy Wagner and Mike Gonzalez — both of whom could be pursued as closers — Grabow will be the top lefty reliever available. He’s gone most of his career without much of a platoon split, but he’s limited left-handed hitters to a .216 average and one homer this season. His ERA stands at 2.29 since the Cubs picked him up and 3.09 overall. The Cubs figure to make a strong bid to retain him.
56. Aubrey Huff (33) – Prev. #18 – Huff’s usual pattern is to start slow and heat up — April and May are easily his worst months — but the opposite has happened this year. He hit .189 in July and .191 in August, collecting just three homers between the two months, and he’s currently sitting at .245/.309/.393 for the year. Another three-year contract worth in excess of $20 million seemed reasonable when these rankings were originally compiled in May. Now he seems like a lock for a one-year deal.
55. Randy Winn (35) – Prev. #33 – Winn is going to regret not working out a contract extension with the Giants last winter. He’s an elite defender in an outfield corner and an excellent baserunner, but he’s hitting just .263/.320/.358 line in 509 at-bats and now that he’s squarely in his mid-30s, he can’t be counted on to bounce back. Ideally, he’d settle into a role as one of the game’s best fourth outfielders for a couple of years. However, it’s likely that someone out there will see him as a starter.
54. Pedro Martinez (38) – Prev. NR – There are a lot of teams looking foolish for not giving Martinez the $5 million or so that he demanded last winter. If he wants to come back in 2010, there should be much greater demand for his services. He could always choose to exit on a high note if the Phillies win another World Series.
53. Russell Branyan (34) – Prev. #86 – Branyan finally found a team that believed him, and he rewarded the Mariners in a big way by hitting .303/.400/.606 for three months. Unfortunately, he’s come in at .193/.274/.414 since the All-Star break and back problems forced him to the DL at the end of August. In a way, he might have done the Mariners another favor. Now, he should be re-signable for something like $5 million-$6 million for a year. If he had carried on, Seattle still would have finished out of contention and probably would have had to offer up a multiyear deal to bring him back.
52. Freddy Sanchez* (32) – Prev. #40 – When the Giants picked him up from the Pirates at the trade deadline, expectations were that Sanchez’s $8.5 million option for 2010 would vest based on plate appearances. However, he’ll come up well short now after missing three weeks. The Giants figure to use the opportunity to negotiate to bring him back at a lesser price. Sanchez is a fine second baseman when healthy, but given his injury history and skill set, he probably doesn’t have many quality years left.
51. Vicente Padilla (32) – Prev. #55 – Padilla’s $12 million option is no longer in play since the Rangers released him. Now back in the NL, he’s gone 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in five starts for the Dodgers. Given his performance and age, Padilla deserves to be ranked at least 10 spots higher here. However, teams will be wary of offering him a multiyear deal because of his attitude and his, well, let’s just call them conditioning issues.

Kudos to Fox for not going crazy with the curses

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I turned on last night’s Fox broadcast fully expecting them to spend too much time on history and curses and billy goats and black cats and Steve Bartman and 1908 and 1948 and all of that jive while spending too little time on the game and the players at hand. I will admit now that I was pleasantly surprised that that was not, in fact, the case.

To be clear, the pregame show was a friggin’ train wreck in this department. There the narrative framing was basically wall-to-wall. In the first segment, Fox studio host Kevin Burkhardt used the phrase “reverse the curse” within his first thirty seconds of speaking. Then, before much if any actual game stuff was referred to, Burkhardt mentioned all of the following things in the space of a, maybe, 45 second span:

When the montage ended, Alex Rodriguez said that “every player wants to break that curse.” Then they threw it to the first commercial at 7:38 or so. In the second segment they ran a prerecorded thing about championship droughts, making liberal mention of 108 years for the Cubs and 68 years for the Indians, but then got down to some actual game breakdown.

In the third segment, Burkhardt threw it to the P.A. announcer at Progressive Field for player introductions, once again mentioning 108/68 years as he did so. After that, they ran a montage, set to Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “The Waiting,” in which centenarians and other older folks talked about how long they’ve been — wait for it — waiting for an Indians or a Cubs championship. Lots of them mentioned billy goats and curses and stuff.

When that was over Fox finally threw it to Joe Buck and John Smoltz up in the booth. Buck added a punctuative “the waiting is the hardest part,” and soon after they ran a Buck-narrated pre-produced montage about what was going on in 1908 and 1948, saying who was president, noting when Model-Ts were invented and all of that, all set to “Time has come today” by the Chambers Brothers. So, yes, that was a lot to take in in the space of a half hour.

But that’s on me, right? Who in the heck needs to watch a pregame show? No one, really. Alex Rodriguez and Pete Rose are proving to be a nice combination for Fox — getting rid of C.J. Nitkowski has cleared the congestion a bit and both A-Rod and Rose are proving to be naturals after a 2015 in which they were somewhat clunky — but a pregame show is pretty superfluous. The actual baseball breakdown those guys provide can be accomplished in less than ten minutes. The rest of it practically begs for those narrative-servicing montages, and frankly, no one needs ’em.

Most notably, though: the curse and weight of history talk basically ended once the game got going. Indeed, Buck and Smoltz were shockingly and refreshingly narrative-free for most if not all of the contest. They talked about Jon Lester and his issues holding runners. Corey Kluber‘s slider. Andrew Miller being Andrew Miller. Kyle Schwarber being there at all. They did a really nice job of handling all of the Xs and Os the way you want your broadcast booth to handle it.

Smoltz in particular was outstanding, showing that Fox’s decision to make him their number one color guy while reassigning Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci to be a fantastic one. A two-man booth is superior to a three-man booth in almost every instance, but the second man in Fox’s booth now mixes his insight and his regular conversation seamlessly. You never feel like Smoltz is talking down to you or speaking from his obviously superior place of baseball authority. His tone is as if he’s letting you in on stuff he thinks and hopes you’ll really appreciate knowing and he never plays the “I USED TO PLAY BASEBALL” card in the obnoxious ways some ex-player commentators do. And he’s right: we do appreciate what he tells us.

Beating up on Fox’s baseball broadcasts has been its own sport for many of us for several years, but there was nothing to really beat them up about last night. Sure, we could do without in-game interviews, but after the pregame show Fox showed remarkable restraint with respect to pushing history and narrative and curses and all of that baloney that has little if anything to do with the 2016 Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. They kept it focused on the baseball game that was going on before us in ways they haven’t always done in the past. It was refreshing and, dare I say, downright enjoyable.

More of this please.

Republicans accuse Hillary Clinton of being a bandwagon Cubs fan

CHICAGO - APRIL 4:  Hillary Rodham Clinton throws out the first pitch before the Chicago Cubs Opening Day game against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field on April 4, 1994 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This was inevitable: The Republican National Committee published a ridiculously detailed and self-serious opposition-research report accusing Hillary Clinton of being a “bandwagon” Cubs fan.

If you’re of a certain age you’ll recall that Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spoke about being a Cubs fan as a kid. You’ll also recall that when she was running for her senate seat in New York, she gave shoutouts to a heretofore unheard of Yankees fandom. A lot of people have had fun with this at various times — we’ve mentioned it here on multiple occasions — but I wasn’t aware that anyone considered it an actually substantive political issue as opposed to an amusing “politicians, man” kind of thing.

The Republicans think it’s serious, though. Indeed, there’s more detail to this oppo-hit than there is any of the party’s candidate’s position papers. And while someone could, theoretically, have a lot of fun with this kind of material, the opposition report is not even remotely tongue-in-cheek. It reads like a poisition paper on nuclear proliferation. If the GOP had been this serious about vetting its own candidate, I suspect they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today.

As for the substance: eh, who cares? Sports is entertainment and cultural glue. As a kid in Chicago, being a Cubs fan is both fun and makes some sense. As a senator from New York in the early 2000s, you’re gonna get to go to some Yankees games and sit in some good seats and that’s fun too. And, of course, politicians are going to say opportunistic things in order to attempt to connect with their constituents. Think of that what you will, but if you think of that as something which reveals something deep and dark within their soul about what kind of person they are, you probably need to step away from the cable news for a while and get some fresh air. Or you probably need to admit that you already believed the worse about her and that this is just an exercise in confirmation bias.

Heck, at this point I almost hope she finds a third or fourth team to root for. Indeed, I hope she makes a comic heel turn, puts on a Chief Wahoo hat for tonight’s game and claims that, deep, deep down, she had always rooted for the Indians. Then even I could get on her case about it. And we could all talk about how, in her own way, Hillary was really bringing the nation together.