It’s time for part four, which will cover free agents Nos. 50-31. Now we’re going to start to see more players likely to command multiyear deals this winter. That’s particularly true of the relievers listed below.
50. Jim Thome (Twins – Age 40) – Unwanted and unsigned until February, Thome made a bunch of teams feel silly for overlooking him by clubbing 25 homers in 276 at-bats this season. He was one of just six major leaguers to post an OPS over 1000 in at least 100 at-bats. Thome is no longer any sort of option at first base and he probably shouldn’t be asked to start more than 120 games as a DH, but he’s never failed to produce when healthy. He won’t have to settle for a $1.5 million contract again.
49. Kevin Gregg (Blue Jays – Age 32) – The Jays have three choices with Gregg: they can retain him for $4.5 million in 2010, exercise a two-year option that would pay him $8.75 million through 2011 or they can set him free. My guess is that they’ll go with the one-year option. Gregg performed admirably after quickly taking over the closer’s role in April, saving 37 games in 43 chances. He’s never really excelled at any point — his career-best ERA was a 3.41 mark in 2008 — but he is durable and he’s struck out a batter an inning everywhere he’s been.
48. Chris Young (Padres – Age 31) – Young was limited to four starts by another round of shoulder problems this year, but at least they were all exceptional outings: he allowed just two runs in 20 innings. The negatives with Young are obvious: his career high for innings is 179 1/3, he hasn’t even made 20 starts since 2007 and, as an extreme flyball pitcher, he probably wouldn’t fare nearly as well if he didn’t pitch in Petco Park half of the time. Ideally, the Padres could re-sign him for about half of the $6.25 million he made this year. However, some team with a bigger budget might be willing to give him an incentive-laden contract that would allow him to make much more if he stays healthy.
47. Jon Rauch (Twins – Age 32) – Pressed into the closer’s role by Joe Nathan’s injury, Rauch was 21-for-25 saving games before the Twins acquired Matt Capps. He slid down the depth chart as the year went on, but he never lost his effectiveness and he finished with a 3.12 ERA. He also pitched 1 2/3 hitless innings in the ALDS. That Target Field turned out to be such a tough home run park likely did him a lot of good. The Twins are expected to emphasize re-signing fellow free agents Jesse Crain and Matt Guerrier, so Rauch may have to go elsewhere for his two-year deal.
46. Aaron Harang (Reds – Age 32) – Never the same pitcher since hurting his elbow in 2008, Harang finished 2010 with a 5.32 ERA and a 1.59 WHIP in 111 2/3 innings. He hasn’t lost any velocity from his glory days, but he doesn’t miss bats like he used to. I think a switch to a bigger ballpark will allow him to hang on as at least a fourth starter for a couple of more years, but unless he suddenly picks up a quality changeup or cutter, his upside would seem to be limited.
45. Frank Francisco (Rangers – Age 31) – Francisco saved 25 games in 29 attempts in 2009, but when he had a bad week to open this season, the Rangers went right to Neftali Feliz in the closer’s role. Francisco bounced back quickly and was a major asset in a setup role until August, when he strained a muscle in his side and it turned into a season-ending injury. At least Francisco avoided arm woes this year, but the fact remains that he’s turned in just one 60-inning season since debuting in 2004. What chance he had of securing a three-year deal this winter was probably erased by the injury, but he’s one of the most talented relievers available and he should be attractive both to contenders looking for a setup man and weaker teams seeking a closer.
44. John Buck (Blue Jays – Age 30) – Sick of his low batting averages, the Royals sharply reduced Buck’s role in 2009 and then cut him following the season. He landed with the Blue Jays and made the All-Star team after hitting 13 homers in the first half. He ended up at .281/.314/.489 in 409 at-bats for the season, making him one of the league’s top offensive catchers despite an awful 111/16 K/BB ratio. With Buck probably in line for a multiyear deal, the Jays may choose to move on to J.P. Arencibia now. Buck’s lofty average was a fluke, but he’s a solid enough defender and he should be a capable regular for a couple of more years.
43. Pedro Feliciano (Mets – Age 34) – We’re about to find out just how much value the Mets place on Feliciano’s ability to pitch practically every day. The lefty specialist made 86 appearances in 2008, 88 in 2009 and then he became just the fifth different pitcher to work in 90 games, finishing at 92, in 2010. Despite the heavy workload, he’s been consistently terrific against lefties throughout. However, righties have fared well against him two of the last three years. He probably won’t command as much cash as the top righty setup men on the market. However, he may well land a three-year contract.
42. Brad Penny (Cardinals – Age 32) – He’s probably never going to do it for six months, but Penny opened last season as well as any pitcher not named Ubaldo Jimenez. He was 3-0 with a 0.94 ERA after four starts, and he didn’t fail to turn in a quality start until his eighth appearance of the season. Unfortunately, that proved to be his next-to-last start, as what was originally thought to be a minor back injury ended up costing him the rest of the year. The Cardinals are focused on signing Jake Westbrook at the moment, so Penny is likely to head elsewhere this winter.
41. Mark Ellis (Athletics – Age 33) – Ellis is a $6 million player when he’s in the lineup, but given that he’s played in 130 games just twice in his career, the A’s aren’t going to want to pick up his option and pay him that amount next year. They likely will attempt to re-sign him at a cheaper price, possibly to a two-year deal. While second basemen often lose it in their early 30s, Ellis is coming off his best season since 2007 and he remains a well above average defender.
40. J.J. Putz (White Sox – Age 34) – Credit Ken Williams for seeing that Putz would reemerge as a quality late-game reliever when he looked like anything but before undergoing elbow surgery in 2009. If not for a knee injury that shut him down for a spell in August, Putz probably would have taken over as the White Sox’s closer and rebuilt his value further headed back into free agency. He did return in September, and he was effective in allowing three runs over seven innings. Still, it was somewhat telling that the White Sox didn’t often let him face tough left-handed hitters with the game on the line. Putz’s strong work has put him back in line for a multiyear deal. If the White Sox are nervous about giving him one, he could sign on as a closer elsewhere.
39. Vicente Padilla (Dodgers – Age 33) – Padilla was effective when healthy this year, going 6-5 with a 4.07 ERA, but he missed most of May, June and September due to a bulging disk in his neck. That should serve to make him pretty affordable if the Dodgers want to bring him back. Because of Padilla’s attitude and occasional off-the-field problems, many teams view him as not being worth the hassle. However, he hasn’t appeared to be the source of any strife in the Dodgers clubhouse. Another one-year deal worth about $5 million would be appropriate.
38. Grant Balfour (Rays – Age 33) – While Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit got most of the credit, Balfour’s rebound was another big reason the Rays had one of the game’s best bullpens this year. He had a 2.28 ERA during the regular season, and he pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the ALDS against the Rangers. Often set back by arm problems, Balfour took a long time to establish himself. However, he’s been on the DL just once the last three years and that was for a strained rib muscle. Since he has a power arm and he won’t be too expensive, he could be pursued by as many teams as any free agent this winter. It might get him a three-year deal in the $12 million range.
37. Juan Uribe (Giants – Age 32) – Uribe has spent his entire career alternating between being underrated and overrated. He’s almost always had dreadful OBPs, and he’s frustrated his teams with occasional lackadaisical play. On the other hand, he was a legitimately excellent defensive shortstop for a few years and he hit 80 homers over a four-season span with the White Sox. Two years ago he was so underappreciated that he had to take a minor league contract from the Giants. Now the pendulum is going to swing the other way. Uribe set new career highs with 24 homers and 85 RBI while making $3.25 million this year, guaranteeing that he’ll receive a nice raise. The problem is that he’s no longer much of a shortstop, and he might be better off at third than at second. A utility role suits him best, but he’ll be paid like a starter this winter.
36. A.J. Pierzynski (White Sox- Age 34) – Nobody likes him, he doesn’t throw out basestealers and his offense took a significant dip this year, yet Pierzynski will still likely be regarded as the No. 2 catcher on the market. And deservedly so. He is durable, and he’s always seemed to handle pitchers well. Disappointed by Tyler Flowers’ progress this season, the White Sox will try to keep the veteran. Ideally, it’d be a one-year deal. There could be enough interest to force the team to go to two years, though.
35. Brad Hawpe (Rays – Age 31) – Hawpe’s furious fall from grace culminated in him getting released by the only organization he had ever known in August. Remarkably, there was little enough interest in him after he became a free agent, and he ended up playing only a bit role for the Rays down the stretch before he was left off their ALDS roster. The real fresh start will come next year. Hawpe is a lousy defender in right field, but he posted OPSs right around 900 each season from 2006-09 and he was nearly as good on the road as at Coors Field. What kind of career he has in his 30s will largely be determined by his ability to readapt to first base. It was his original position in the minors, and if he can pick it back up now, he should spend several more seasons as a regular. He wouldn’t have nearly as much value as a DH or an outfielder.
34. Joaquin Benoit (Rays – Age 33) – Just an unbelievable season: after missing all of 2009 following shoulder surgery that left his career in doubt, Benoit came back and posted one of the best WHIPs ever in 2010. He ended up with a 1.34 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP in 60 1/3 innings following his April 29 callup. Benoit had a couple of nice seasons previously, particularly in 2007 (2.85 ERA in 82 innings), but he was largely viewed as a disappointment in his Rangers career. It’s going to be very interesting to see how he’s treated this winter. He was always durable before the shoulder surgery, and he performed well on a big stage in October, throwing 3 2/3 hitless innings in the ALDS. It’d seem worth gambling $10 million over two years to see if he can do it again.
33. Jeff Francis (Rockies – Age 30) – Back from a labrum tear that cost him all of 2009, Francis was expected to put in a full season in 2010. However, he suffered a setback with his shoulder in spring training and didn’t make his first start until mid-May. After an encouraging initial run — he had a 3.53 ERA through eight starts — he began to struggle and he went back on the DL in August with shoulder tendinitis. Upon returning in September, he allowed 11 runs in 11 2/3 innings. Francis’ velocity has come all of the way back, and he displayed surprisingly good command for someone who figured to be rusty. He’s far from a sure thing to stay healthy, but he has the potential to be one of the winter’s top bargains.
32. Coco Crisp (Athletics – Age 31) – Crisp’s A’s career got off to a very rough start, as he was limited to two games in the first 10 weeks by a broken finger and a strained intercostal muscle. Finally healthy in late June, he was exactly the player the A’s hoped he’d be; he hit .279/.342/.438, stole 32 bases in 35 tries and played quality defense in center field. Expectations are that the team will pick up his $5.75 million for 2011.
31. Kerry Wood (Yankees – Age 33) – While all of the wildness remains a cause for concern, Wood certainly helped his stock during his time with the Yankees. After posting a 6.30 ERA in 20 innings as the Indians’ closer in the first half, he came in at 0.69 ERA in 26 innings with the Bombers. He also had a 2.25 ERA in eight postseason innings. Including October, Wood walked 23 batters in 34 innings. However, he allowed just 20 hits and he struck out 38 in that span. Last time he was a free agent, Wood chose closing for a mediocre team over setting up for a contender. I’m guessing he’ll go in the other direction this time, though it’s possible he could get the best of both worlds if the Rays want him.