Lance Berkman

2012 Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 40-21

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Honorable mentions
Nos. 111-81
Nos. 80-61
Nos. 60-41

Here’s the second twenty, free agents Nos. 40-21. The closer run begins here, and I’m also including the one potential Japanese import I felt comfortable enough ranking. I’ll be wrapping up the series Friday morning.

(All ages as of April 1, 2012)

* denotes players with contract options

40. Aaron Hill (30 – Blue Jays)*: With Hill coming off a .205/.271/.394 campaign last year, the Blue Jays declined their chance to keep him at $26 million for 2012-14. They still control his rights with $8 million club options for both 2012 and ’13, but as things stand now, he’s simply not worth the money. He’s hit .239/.283/.338 with just three homers in 222 at-bats this season. He finished with 36 homers in 2009 and 26 last year, plus he plays a pretty good second base, so there will be bidders. Still, the Jays have to be running out of patience.

39. David DeJesus (32 – Athletics): DeJesus has really fallen out of favor since Bob Melvin replaced Bob Geren in the manager’s seat for Oakland, but that should be a temporary situation. And if it’s not, then a trade will come this summer. DeJesus is just 31, and he’s about as good of a player as someone who has never hit 15 homers or stolen 15 bases can be. With any sort of rebound in the second half, he should be in line for $15 million over two years or $21 million for three.

38. Francisco Cordero (36 – Reds)*: After blowing eight saves last year, Cordero had to deal with speculation that Aroldis Chapman might replace him as Cincinnati’s closer. He’s been terrific so far, though, amassing a 1.62 ERA and converting 15 of his 17 save chances. There’s not much chance of the Reds picking up his $12 million option no matter how well he pitches, but they might have some interest in bringing him back at lesser price tag. Something like $15 million for two years would be reasonable.

37. Josh Willingham (33 – Athletics): Willingham has plenty working against him now: he turns 33 in February, he has a history of back problems and he possesses an old player’s skill set. What he also has is a fine .262/.362/.469 career line despite never having played in a good environment for hitters. As tough as it can be to find right-handed power, he figures to catch the eyes of a lot of clubs. However, he’d be a poor bet on anything more than a two-year deal.

36. Michael Cuddyer (33 – Twins): I think Cuddyer is a weaker option than Willingham, but my guess is that he’ll land the bigger contract. He’s shaken off a terrible start to hit .283/.346/.453 with 10 homers in 254 at-bats. Unfortunately, he’s already a liability in the outfield and his bat doesn’t make him a particularly attractive option at first base. The Twins might re-sign him for a couple of years anyway, but they should really be looking to get more athletic in the outfield.

35. Matt Capps (28 – Twins): Having allowed some key homers and blown five saves in 16 opportunities, Capps hasn’t helped his stock any this year. Still, he’d be a safer play on a three-year deal than most of the other relievers in this section. With so many other closing options available, he might find his best bet is to go the Rafael Soriano route and sign to serve as a setup man on the contender.

34. Jose Valverde (34 – Tigers)*: Valverde was counting on a much bigger payday when he was a free agent two years ago, but he settled for a two-year, $14 million guarantee from the Tigers. That deal included a $9 million option for 2012 that will probably get picked up if Valverde maintains his current pace: he’s a perfect 17-for-17 converting save chances so far. The Tigers had hoped to replace him with Ryan Perry or Joel Zumaya down the line, but Perry isn’t ready and Zumaya can’t be counted on.

33. Rafael Furcal (34 – Dodgers)*: Furcal’s abysmal season has had him bring up the possibility of retirement. In between injuries, he’s hit just .212/.246/.273 in 66 at-bats. Furcal was productive when healthy last season, but it was just 97 games. He hasn’t truly been both good and healthy since 2006, his first year with the Dodgers. It’s a must that he come back with a strong second half if he’s going to land another multiyear deal. Right now, something like the Lance Berkman-Vladimir Guerrero special (one year, $8 million) seems more appropriate. The Dodgers’ option for 2012 is for $12 million.

32. Joel Pineiro (33 – Angels): Pineiro has gone 13-10 with a 3.92 ERA in 34 starts since signing a two-year, $16 million contract with the Angels prior to last season. Except for the missed time due to an oblique strain last year and a sore shoulder early this season, he’s been exactly the pitcher the team thought he’d be. The Angels, though, probably won’t come up with the money to bring him back for another go in 2012. Another two-year deal for roughly the same amount would be fitting.

31. Kelly Johnson (30 – Diamondbacks): Johnson has maintained last year’s homer pace, having hit 12 in 269 at-bats this season, but his OPS is all of the way down from .865 to .701. Most of that is batting average, but his walk rate has also dropped, while his strikeout rate has increased. I like Johnson’s bat, even though he hasn’t been nearly so productive outside of Chase Field since joining the Diamondbacks. Because he’s young and he has rare power for a middle infielder, he may land a three-year deal this winter. It could hinge on him getting his average up from .212 to .250-.260.

30. Paul Maholm (29 – Pirates)*: With a 3.29 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, Maholm might be on his way to a career season at a perfect time. Well, not completely perfect, because instead of setting himself up for a nice three-year deal, what will likely happen is that he’ll get his $9.75 million option for 2011 picked up. But that’s nothing to scoff at. Maholm is one of those durable, average-to-somewhat-above-average starters that teams are a lot smarter about not overpaying these days. It’d make more sense to pay him $10 million next year than it would $30 million for four years.

29. Jonathan Broxton (27 – Dodgers): Broxton had a 0.89 ERA on this day a year ago, and he stood as the clear No. 1 in the exceptional class of closers set to become free agents after 2011. The last 12 months have been disastrous, though, with Broxton losing velocity, confidence and his closing gig twice. Now he’s on the DL with a bone spur in his elbow that might yet require surgery. He could salvage things in the second half and still earn a big multiyear deal as a free agent. However, barring an exceptional finish, he might be better off taking a one-year contract in an attempt to rebuild his value. He’s just 27, after all.

28. Hisashi Iwakuma (30 – Japan): The A’s won the bid for Iwakuma through the posting system last year, anteing up $19.1 million for his rights, and they were willing to pay him another $16 million for four years in salary. That wasn’t enough for Iwakuma, though, and he opted to return to Japan for the one year he had left before free agency. Iwakuma’s stock is down now, as he’s been sidelined with a shoulder injury since opening the season 3-2 with a 1.72 ERA for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. If he gets healthy, he’ll make his way into the top 20 here by season’s end. After all, the A’s thought he was worth about $35 million for four years.

27. Jason Kubel (29 – Twins): Kubel was at his absolute best in 2009, when he hit .300 with 28 homers in 514 at-bats for the Twins. In 2010, his power mostly stuck around, even though Target Field proved to be a terrible home run park, but his average dropped to .249. This year, he’s back hitting for average, but his power has slipped, as he’s at .310 with five homers in 200 at-bats. Kubel will be an interesting call as a free agent, since he’s younger than all of the guys like him. If he strikes early, I think he’ll have a decent shot of landing a three-year contract. If he waits, teams may start wondering why he’s worth a $20 million commitment when an older player could do the same job for $5 million next year.

26. Erik Bedard (33 – Mariners): Bedard, who missed all of 2010 and much of the previous two seasons with shoulder problems, is looking about as good as ever lately; his ERA stands at 1.54 for his last 10 starts and 2.93 overall. He’s going to be a huge risk on a multiyear deal, but some team will go three or four years on him if he stays healthy throughout the season. The Yankees are one of the teams that could afford to take the chance.

25. Francisco Rodriguez (30 – Mets)*: As you may have heard, K-Rod’s much-discussed, three-year, $37 million deal with the Mets includes a $17.5 million option for 2012 that vests with an additional 27 games finished this season. He’s already finished 27, so he’s on pace to get there, though many in the Mets organization would surely prefer he didn’t. After a fantastic first two months, Rodriguez has slipped lately, having given up eight runs and blown two saves in June. For the year, he has a 3.34 ERA and 19 saves in 22 chances. Even though he’s been around for 10 years and is in position to land a second healthy contract as a free agent, Rodriguez is just 29. He doesn’t even turn 30 until January. His fastball isn’t what it was, but he should have several more 30-save seasons in his future.

24. Hiroki Kuroda (37 – Dodgers): If he wanted to, Kuroda could have gone out and gotten a three-year deal as a free agent last winter. However, he liked L.A. and he wasn’t sure how much longer he wanted to pitch in the U.S. anyway. In exchange for agreeing to a one-year, $12 million contract, Kuroda did get a full no-trade clause, yet I can’t help but wonder if he feels so strongly about remaining with the Dodgers given the messy state of the franchise. Should he put himself back on the open market, he may well command $24 million for two years.

23. Ryan Madson (31 – Phillies): After a few false starts, Madson is proving he’s just as good in the ninth inning as he’s been in the eighth. He’s 15-for-16 saving games this year, and he has a 2.03 ERA in 31 innings. Unfortunately for potential suitors, now that he has that closer sheen, he no longer figures to be undervalued in free agency. Given his relative youth and durability, he’ll be in line for a three-year deal worth at least $7 million per year. Actually, he’s the one reliever in the entire group that would be a reasonable option for four years.

22. Lance Berkman (36 – Cardinals): The Cardinals are wishing they could have tacked an option year on to Berkman’s one-year, $8 million contract. The longtime Astro has turned back the clock and hit .307/.418/.595 with 17 homers and 51 RBI in 215 at-bats this season, and since he’s gotten himself into better shape, he looks like a pretty good bet for the next couple of years. He does belong at first base, and given his likely price tag, he’s probably not going to remain teammates with Albert Pujols next year. However, he would be the obvious choice to take over at first if Pujols leaves.

21. Adam Wainwright (30 – Cardinals)*: Wainwright options for 2012 and ’13 vested at $22 million when he finished second in the NL Cy Young voting last season, but there’s a clause in his contract that allows the Cardinals to void them if he finishes 2011 on the DL with an arm problem, which is just what will happen after he underwent Tommy John surgery in February. They’re probably going to keep him anyway. Given the success veteran hurlers typically have overcoming Tommy John and the fact that Wainwright pitched like a $20 million-per-year guy each of the last two seasons, it’d be even riskier to let him go than it would be to commit the cash to him.

Free agent reliever Eric O’Flaherty weighing interest from four teams

New York Mets pitcher Eric O'Flaherty throws against the Miami Marlins during the ninth inning of a baseball game in Miami, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. The Mets defeated the Miami Marlins 8-6. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
AP Photo/Joe Skipper
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Veteran reliever Eric O'Flaherty is coming off the worst season of his career, but there’s still plenty of interest in a bounceback, as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports that he’s deciding between four teams and “should sign a deal by the weekend.”

You really can’t sugarcoat O’Flaherty’s 2015. The 31-year-old was flat-out bad, posting an 8.41 ERA and 21/18 K/BB ratio over 30 innings of work between the Athletics and Mets. Opposing batters hit .343/.427/.482 against him. I keep going back to check if that’s a misprint, but nope, it’s real. He also missed some time with shoulder inflammation. On the bright side, Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports reported last month that O’Flaherty feels healthy and believes that he has fixed his mechanics.

O’Flaherty’s career has veered off track since Tommy John surgery in 2013, but he has enjoyed plenty of success in the past and throws from the left side. He’s the kind of guy who will continue to get chances.

Mets sign outfielder Roger Bernadina

Cincinnati Reds v Arizona Diamondbacks
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Veteran outfielder Roger Bernadina has agreed to a minor-league contract with the Mets that includes an invitation to spring training.

Bernadina was a semi-regular for the Nationals from 2010-2012, but never developed as much as hoped offensively and didn’t play in the majors at all last season.

At age 32 he’s a career .236 hitter with a .661 OPS in 548 games as a big leaguer and given the Mets’ outfield depth–they already have Alejandro De Aza and Juan Lagares in bench/part-time roles–Bernadina seems likely to begin the season in the minors.

J.R. Graham is in The Best Shape of his Life

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher J.R. Graham celebrates after the final out as the Twins beat the Chicago White Sox 12-2 in  a baseball game, Thursday, April 30, 2015, in Minneapolis. The Twins won 12-2. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
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Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com reports that Twins reliever J.R. Graham has lost “roughly 30-40 pounds this offseason.” It’s not a result of workouts, though. Just a change in diet. Bollinger says that Graham cut out sugar, alcohol and foods heavy in carbs and focused on a high-protein diet with lots of salads, meats and vegetables.

That’s an awful lot of weight to lose in four months, but the dude is only 26 and guys in their 20s lose weight just by thinking about it. Which is so very annoying to those of us who aren’t guys in their 20s.

The real test, of course, will come when he is working out far more strenuously once spring training starts and gets into the season. Normal schmos like me can keep up that kind of diet without much of a hitch as long as we have the willpower. An athlete’s energy requirements are far greater and far more specialized, so he’ll need more fuel than he’s probably been getting this offseason. Word is, however, that professional sports teams have people on staff that, you know, have made monitoring that kind of thing their life’s work.

In the meantime:

“I can just feel the change,” Graham said. “The energy. Everything. I feel great. I’m excited to see how it’ll translate into spring. I know I shouldn’t have any problems because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m faster. All that. So it’s really exciting.”

It’s very exciting indeed. Because, with that, Graham becomes the latest baseball player to be . . . In The Best Shape of His Life.

The time my family invited itself to Gaylord Perry’s house for lunch

Gaylord Perry
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I mentioned my Gaylord Perry story in the last post. I feel like I’ve written this up before, but I couldn’t find it in our archives. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I’ve just told it to friends and radio hosts and people so many times that it feels like I’ve written it before. Oh well, I’ll tell it again because I like telling this story.

In 1984 I was on vacation with my family in the big RV, driving through North Carolina. As we always did on those long family road trips, my brother and I spent all of our highway time sorting through boxes of baseball cards we brought along with us. As we passed through a little podunk town, my dad suddenly pulled over and stopped to make a call at a pay phone. He got back into the RV and said “we’re stopping for lunch.” As we pulled away from the phone booth, I saw a sign that said “Welcome to Williamston, North Carolina, Home of Gaylord and Jim Perry.” Maybe Jim got first billing since he’s older. I don’t remember. But that was the upshot.

Five minutes later we are pulling up to a house next to a large farm. A woman came out of the house and said, “You’re the fella who just called? Come on in!” She welcomed us inside. “Gaylord will be here in a minute,” she said. My brother and I freaked out as we looked around the living room. There were photos of Gaylord Perry in action. Trophies and awards. Jerseys in frames. All kinds of other stuff. The thing I remember most was a giant leather chair shaped like a baseball glove that, to this day, I wish I had (maybe the 1984 version of this?). Five minutes later Gaylord freaking Perry walked in. He was wearing dirty jeans, work boots, a dirty white t-shirt and a Kansas City Royals cap. It was his first summer not playing baseball since he was a kid and he was spending it farming. Still had the cap on, though.

Gaylord and his wife, Blanche, were warm and welcoming. They said that not too many baseball fans just up and stopped by, but that they were happy someone did. Blanche made us sandwiches. Gaylord signed autographs (we had a few Perry cards in the RV stash). Even at that age I knew Perry’s reputation as a ball-doctorer. He told us a bunch of spitball jokes and stories which he had no doubt honed on the banquet circuit over the years, but they were mostly new to me. My parents, who were not baseball fans and didn’t know much about Perry apart from the fact that he was a famous baseball player, were delighted when Perry asked me to explain to them what I thought a spitball was. You could tell Perry thought that it was absolutely adorable that I thought the best way to doctor a ball was to, you know, spit on it. He talked about Vaseline and all sorts of other stuff, adding “or so I’m told” or “some people say” every now and again with a wink.

After lunch, Gaylord took us back to his office, in a separate building. He opened a file cabinet containing autographed baseballs from his former teammates and his friends in the game. I got a George Brett ball, which Perry said he gave me because Brett was the best player whose autograph he had sitting around handy. My brother said he was a Tigers fan so Perry gave him a Lance Parrish ball Perry had gotten somewhere along the way. He had a bunch of others too, but we weren’t greedy. He gave my mom a T-shirt he had which commemorated the Pine Tar Incident, in which he played no small part. He autographed the shirt for her, apologized for it being so big and said that maybe she could use it as a night shirt. My dad took Polaroids of my brother and me with Perry which I still have around here someplace. Then off we went, with Gaylord and Blanche Perry waving from the porch.

I was saddened to hear a couple years later that Perry’s life took an unfortunate turn not long after we met him. Two years later he lost his farm to bankruptcy. A year later Blanche died in an automobile accident. Perry went on to coach college baseball for a while. I remember seeing an interview with him around that time and he seemed like a much sadder guy than the smiling fellow we met that day in 1984. It makes sense given all that had happened.

In 2012, while in Scottsdale to cover spring training, I walked into the Giants clubhouse one morning and sitting at a table were Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Gaylord Perry. They were there for some sort of pregame ceremony and were just shooting the breeze and telling old baseball stories. Perry was laughing and animated and at times was practically breathless due to all of the cackling. He had Mays in stitches too. It was fantastic to see him smiling.

When the conversation ended Perry got up and walked from the table. I thought about saying something to him about the time in 1984 when my dad impulsively took his kids to Gaylord Perry’s house and to thank him for the kindness he and his wife showed my family that day. I didn’t, though. He was soon in another conversation and, on some level, it seemed awkward for me to have brought that up there, in the clubhouse, wearing a press credential when people were working and preparing and things. In hindsight I wish I had.

I’m going back to Scottsdale to cover spring training again in March. I hope he’s there again. If so, this time I will.