November 4, 2003
After one of the best Octobers in baseball history the calendar now reads "November," which means we are officially in free agent season. Players are filing for free agency, teams are getting their plans and budgets together, and agents are starting to make some phone calls. Over the next several months dozens of major league veterans will be finding new homes and signing big contracts.
Today I will look at the free agent catchers and infielders. Yesterday I covered the free agent outfielders, and later this week I will discuss the free agent pitchers.
There are three legit, veteran starting catchers on the market this off-season, which strikes me as a lot. Last year, for example, only one such catcher was available, and he is once again a free agent.
Ivan Rodriguez signed a one-year deal for $10 million with the Marlins last off-season. Rodriguez had problems staying healthy in his last few years with the Rangers, so his hope was obviously to sign the one-year deal and show everyone that he could be injury-free and productive. I'd say he accomplished that, and then some.
Pudge played in 144 games for the Marlins, catching a total of 1,132 innings, and hit .297/.367/.474 with 16 homers, 36 doubles, 90 runs and 85 RBIs. Plus, he did all that in what is a very tough ballpark to hit in, and then hit .313/.390/.522 in the post-season.
Aside from simply having a very good season, Rodriguez also showed significant improvement in one facet of his game. Through his first 30 years on earth and his first 12 seasons in the majors, Pudge Rodriguez had been one of the most extreme free-swingers around. Prior to 2003, his career-high in walks was 38. He came into this season having walked an average of 30 times for every 150 games he played. Then he got to Florida and something just clicked, I guess. I don't know if it was the change of leagues or just plain coincidence, but Ivan Rodriguez started walking this year.
Way back in early April, Rodriguez walked in all five of his plate appearances in a game against the Mets. He followed that up by walking two times in each of the next two games and once more the next game, meaning he walked a total of 10 times in a four-game stretch. Just to put that in some context, in 1995 Ivan Rodriguez walked 16 times...in 130 games.
Rodriguez didn't keep up that walk-rate the whole year, but he did end up with 55 walks this season (six of them intentional). Because of that, Rodriguez was able to post the second-best on-base percentage (.369) of his entire career, despite hitting below .300 for the first time since 1994.
Pudge turns 32 later this month, but I still think he has some good years left in him. Defensively, he is still very good, although that cannon throwing-arm he showed in Texas appears to be gone. From 1995-2001, Rodriguez threw out at least 48% of would-be basestealers. Then in 2002 he threw out "only" 36.6%, and this season he was at just 33.3%. Of course, 36.6% and 33.3% are still very good throw-out rates, but there's a pretty big gap from "very good" and what Rodriguez did throughout the 1990s.
Offensively, Rodriguez has yet to experience much of a drop-off. His slugging percentage this season (.474) was his lowest since 1996, but a lot of that has to do with moving from one of the best hitter's park in baseball (Texas) to one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball (Florida). Pudge ranked third among all MLB catchers in "Runs Above Replacement Position" this year. From 1997 until this past season, Rodriguez's "Equivalent Average" has been above .285. It was .293 this year.
The only real question I have regarding signing Rodriguez to a multi-year deal (which is almost certainly what he will get) is whether or not he will physically be able to hold up for that long. Catchers tend to age very poorly and Rodriguez isn't just a normal catcher, he is a guy who consistently played in 130, 140, 150+ games per season while in Texas. That's an awful lot of squatting in the incredible Texas heat. Take that and add in the fact that he missed significant time with injuries in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and I think his health is a fairly big question-mark.
I would have no hesitation signing him to a two-year deal, but I suspect he is going to be looking for a lot more than that, and I bet he'll get it too. I figure Rodriguez probably made himself an extra $20 million or so by signing that one-year deal with the Marlins. Oh, and he got $10 million and a World Series ring out of the deal too.
The other top free agent catcher is Javy Lopez. His free agency is pretty interesting, for a couple reasons.
First of all, he had an extraordinary season for the Braves, hitting .328/.378/.687 with 43 homers and 29 doubles in 129 games. It was the best season of his career and one of the best seasons by a catcher in the history of baseball. Plus, he did all that at the age of 32 and in a "contract year."
And not only all of that, Lopez also had that incredible offensive season after several years of being a horrible hitter. Take a look at his yearly numbers, starting in 1999...
AVG OBP SLG 1999 .317 .375 .533 2000 .287 .337 .484 2001 .267 .322 .425 2002 .233 .299 .372
Even someone as mathematically-challenged as me can see the pattern there. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all declined each season. If you see that pattern from a catcher in his 30s, what would you have expected from him in 2003? .328/.378/.687 with 43 homers, of course.
It's hard to get a handle on Lopez's season. On one hand, it seems very "flukish" in that it came out of nowhere and followed several very poor seasons.
On the other hand, I know that Lopez worked to get into extremely good physical shape this year, I know that it's not uncommon for a player to have a good season right before they become a free agent, and I also know that Javy Lopez was actually a very good hitting catcher in the past. From 1997-1999, he slugged .534, .540 and .533, hitting a total of 80 homers, so it's not like this is completely out of character for him.
When I think of flukes the first thing I think of is someone like Brady Anderson, who hit 50 homers with a .637 slugging percentage in 1996, the only year of his entire career with more than 24 homers or a slugging percentage above .477. But is it a fluke if a guy used to be really good, was really bad for a while, and then became really good again, better than he ever was before, all at 32 years old?
Further complicating the issue of whether or not someone should give Javy Lopez multiple years and big bucks as a free agent is the fact that he has said he is interesting in switching to first base in the near future. If a team gives Lopez a big contract and he reverts back to hitting .267/.322/.425 or even .233/.299/.372, it isn't a complete disaster for a catcher, because the position isn't very offensive anyway (catchers hit just .258/.320/.403 as a whole this year). But if he hits like that while making tons of money and playing first base, it's going to be a huge problem.
Even if Lopez continues to hit well, much of his value disappears if he moves to first base. As a whole, major league first basemen were about 14% better offensively than major league catchers.
If I were a team with a hole at catcher and money to burn I would definitely pursue Ivan Rodriguez before Javy Lopez. If I couldn't get Pudge I would offer Lopez a two-year deal, with a whole bunch of incentives in place of some guaranteed money. If he balked at that or insisted on moving to first base, I would say no thanks and look to fill my hole at catcher with someone like...
Benito Santiago. Yes, that's right, Benito Santiago. Believe it or not he's still around and, at 38 years old, he actually had a very nice year, his second in a row. Obviously Santiago is not a guy you want to sign to anything longer than a one-year deal, but he is definitely a decent short-term solution behind the plate.
Here are Benito's numbers for the last two years:
PA AVG OBP SLG 2002 517 .278 .315 .450 2003 434 .279 .329 .424
Those numbers aren't great, certainly, but they are safely above league-average for a catcher, especially considering he did that while playing in one of baseball's most extreme pitcher's parks.
Santiago ranked 11th among MLB catchers in RARP this year and was fifth in RARP last season. At 38 a complete collapse is always looming, but I bet he will come cheap and I wouldn't hesitate to give him another year behind the plate. Faced with a need at catcher and the prospect of either signing Javy Lopez to a multi-year mega-deal or signing Benito Santiago to a one-year deal worth a million bucks or so, I would avoid the risk, sign Santiago and spend the extra money somewhere else.
Even if Benito Santiago is too rich (or too old) for your blood, there is one other attractive free agent catcher available. His name is Todd Pratt and he has been one of baseball's best hitting backup catchers.
Pratt hit .272/.400/.462 in 156 plate appearances this year and did even better last season, hitting .311/.449/.500 in 136 plate appearances. He had a very rough year in 2001, but hit .275/.378/.463 way back in 2000. At 36 years old Pratt is no more a long-term solution than Santiago is, but he will almost certainly sign for very little money and he is the type of guy a team could give 350 plate appearances to and get a very nice surprise season in return.
Most of the other available veteran catchers are pretty undesirable. Guys like Brad Ausmus, Brent Mayne and Sandy Alomar Jr. all have that shiny "veteran" tag, but they also can't hit, they're old and they are probably going to be extremely overpriced.
For example, Ausmus is absolutely useless against right-handed pitching (.238/.290/.316 over the last three years), but he plays good defense and can hit lefties reasonably well (.248/.361/.385 over the last three years). He'd be a very nice veteran backup, capable of getting some spot-starts against left-handed pitching. Unfortunately, Ausmus has been given 1,319 at bats over the last three years and seems likely to be given similar playing time by another team blinded by whatever it is that he does that makes teams think he is worth playing everyday.
Same thing goes for Brent Mayne, who wouldn't be a horrible backup catcher able to play a little against right-handed pitching. As for Sandy Alomar Jr., you can stick a fork in him, because he's done. He's 37 years old and hasn't had a decent season in four years. At this point he's about as useless as Neifi Perez's bat.
THE FIRST BASEMEN:
This is a very weak class of free agent first basemen, although it is relatively deep in mediocrity. In years past there have usually been at least one or two star sluggers available at the position, but this year's best hitter is a guy who turned 39 years old about a month ago.
Rafael Palmeiro did this season what he seemingly always does, which is hit 35+ homers and drive in 100+ runs. In fact, he's done both things in each of the last nine years. Despite the continued power and production, 2003 was Palmeiro's worst season since 1997.
Like Benito Santiago, Rafael Palmeiro is obviously not a guy who teams are looking to sign long-term. He's 39, his offense is declining and his ability to play first base on a consistent basis is in question. Still, like Santiago, Palmeiro is an excellent short-term solution who will likely come relatively cheap.
Palmeiro hit .260/.359/.508 in 154 games this season. That was good for 30.1 RARP. Palmeiro didn't play a whole lot at first base so he is classified as a DH, but his 30.1 RARP would have tied him for ninth among all MLB first basemen. His .291 EqA would have ranked him 10th.
There is no doubt that Palmeiro is still an upper-level hitter and, even with his declining defensive abilities, he'd be a fine first baseman for some team next year or a DH for several seasons. I think his batting average will likely continue to drop as he ages, but the home run power is more likely to stay. For a one or two-year deal, I think Palmeiro would be a solid addition to a veteran team needing another hitter in the middle of the lineup.
Beyond Palmeiro, the list of available first basemen is long on depth and short on quality.
Travis Lee had a decent year in Tampa Bay, hitting .275/.348/.459 with 19 homers and 37 doubles in 145 games. The on-base percentage and power aren't quite what you look for in a first baseman, but he plays good D and his offense was actually right around league-average for the position.
The Devil Rays had a $2.5 million option on him and declined it, saying they hope to be able to work out a deal for a little less money. Like Palmeiro and a few other available first basemen, Lee would be a nice, cheap short-term answer at first base. If I were a team with a hole there, I would offer him a one-year deal for about $1.5 mill with a few incentives.
Scott Spiezio is similar to Lee in that he plays good defense at first base and hits a little bit. Spiezio hit .265/.326/.453 with 16 homers, 36 doubles and 7 triples this year. That's slightly below-average offensive production for a first baseman, but add in the good D and he's definitely worthy of starting somewhere.
The weird thing with Spiezio is the way his splits have fluctuated. Check out how Spiezio, who is a switch-hitter, has done against lefties:
AVG OBP SLG 2002 .368 .448 .539 2003 .223 .282 .338
And now look what he's done against righties:
AVG OBP SLG 2002 .248 .336 .389 2003 .282 .344 .499
If he could ever combine what he did this year against righties (.282/.344/.499) with what he did last year against lefties (.368/.448/.539) he could have a helluva year. Of course, combining 2002 versus righties with 2003 versus lefties makes him Neifi Perez (and yes, I realize that's the second Neifi line I've used already, but he deserves it).
Spiezio comes with an added bonus in that he can play a passable third base and probably second base too, in a pinch. He made 43 starts at third when Troy Glaus was injured and didn't do too badly. And back in his early days with Oakland, he was their starting second baseman.
Another potential starting first baseman who is available is...don't laugh...J.T. Snow. Now, Snow has deservedly taken a lot of heat over the last few years for his lack of offense with the Giants. And, while his hitting has not been good, there is a big difference between hitting like he does while making $6 million a year during a multi-year contract and hitting like he does while making what will probably be about a million bucks next season.
To me, Snow is an interesting player who is almost certainly worth a one-year deal for minimal money. I know that sounds weird, but stay with me on this...
Snow has been playing in Pac Bell, which is one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in baseball. This year he hit just .267/.371/.361 at home, which is a nice OBP but horrible overall production at first base. Over the last three years he has hit just .227/.347/.322 at home, which is just plain awful.
But now take a look at what he has done away from Pac Bell during the last three seasons:
AB AVG OBP SLG HR 2B RBI RUN BB 525 .282 .384 .444 16 37 83 84 77
Over the last three years Snow has essentially totaled one full season's worth of playing time on the road. In that time he hit .282/.384/.444 with 16 homers, 37 doubles and 83 RBIs.
Look at how Snow's power disappears in Pac Bell:
2001-2003: AB/HB AB/2B Pac Bell 85.3 26.9 Road 32.8 14.2
If Snow could hit anything close to .280/.380/.440 with solid defense at first base, I would snatch him up in a second and would probably even say he's the #1 first baseman on the market (considering Palmeiro's age and higher price-tag). That may be saying more about the other first basemen than about Snow, but the fact is that if he hits away from Pac Bell in 2004 like he did from 2001-2003, his offense will be way above-average for a first baseman. Add in some good D and he's a no-brainer for a cheap one-year deal.
Of course, that is all based on the belief that his numbers away from Pac Bell are for real, and not just based on luck and sample-sizes, which is certainly debatable. If I am a team with a hole at first base and no internal options to fill it, I take one look at the list of first basemen available, groan, and then give J.T. Snow's agent a call. Seriously. You can probably get him really cheap, because I doubt he's sitting at home looking at his home/road splits on ESPN.com
After Palmeiro, Lee, Spiezio and Snow, there aren't really any other everyday first basemen available. There are, however, several guys who would be very good in platoon roles.
Julio Franco is just slightly older than God (and thus slightly younger than God's older brother, Jesse Orosco), but he can also still do one very valuable thing, which is smack around left-handed pitching.
Since coming back to the major leagues in 2001, Franco is a .369/.447/.528 hitter against lefties. He doesn't hit righties much at all, but he's a perfect platoon partner for a left-handed hitter. I dunno, maybe someone like...
Brad Fullmer. Fullmer went down with a season-ending knee injury in June, ending what was looking like it would have been a very good season. At the time of the injury Fullmer was hitting .306/.387/.500, after hitting .289/.357/.531 in 2002.
A left-handed hitter, Fullmer is essentially useless against left-handed pitching (.217/.246/.325 from 2001-2003), but he can beat up on right-handed pitching with the best of them. Over the last three years Fullmer has hit .301/.371/.523 against righties.
He and Franco would make a perfect platoon at DH for an American League club looking for cheap production. You could even platoon them at first base if you didn't mind sacrificing a little bit of defense in favor of some hitting.
If you aren't a big fan of Fullmer or you are interested in setting some sort of platooning age-record, you could platoon Franco and 40-year old Fred McGriff. Like Fullmer, McGriff is fairly useless against lefties at this point, but he still has a little juice left in him against right-handed pitching. Even in what was a pretty horrible season with the Dodgers, McGriff still managed to hit .275/.365/.441 against righties, in a pitcher's park. Over the last three years he has hit .297/.380/.522 against righties.
Aside from Julio Franco, another guy to partner with someone like McGriff or Fullmer is Eric Karros. I'm guessing some team will give him a contract that is for way too much, but if no teams do something dumb like that, Karros would be a nice guy to grab at a reasonable price. He has no business playing everyday, but he can do a great job playing against left-handed pitching. From 2001-2003 Karros has hit .316/.389/.515 against lefties, including .366/.441/.545 against them this year. Over that same span he is .246/.298/.374 against righties. Sign him cheap and platoon him? Yes! Give him a big deal and play him everyday? No!
I bet if you give a smart manager Julio Franco, Brad Fullmer, Fred McGriff and Eric Karros, he could mix and match them for a season and get one of the top-10 most productive 1B/DH-combos in all of baseball. And all for a fraction of what Mo Vaughn will get paid to sit on his couch and eat Cheetos in-between getting lap dances this year.
THE SECOND BASEMEN:
Second base is another position with quite a bit of depth and not much quality. The best of the bunch is Luis Castillo, who is coming off a .314/.381/.397 year and a trip to the World Series. Castillo is a good defensive second baseman and would make a very nice leadoff man for many teams. The thing that concerns me with him is that most of his offensive value comes from his speed, and there are signs of that vanishing.
First of all, speed is an asset that leaves players sooner than most other things, like power or plate discipline. So, in that sense, Castillo is at risk just because of the type of player he is and the group of players he belongs in. More specifically though, Castillo himself has shown signs of a speed drop-off.
After stealing 193 bases over the previous four seasons, Castillo stole just 21 this year. More disturbingly, he stole those 21 bags while being caught 19 times. That's just a horrendous rate, and it's particularly troubling coming from a guy who is both incredibly fast and has had good stolen base percentages in the past (74% in 1999, 74% in 2000, 76% in 2002).
The lack of stolen bases is not what worries me, because I am not really a big fan of the running-game anyway. What does worry me is that Castillo's offense is based almost solely on his ability to hit singles. In 595 at bats this season, Castillo had 187 hits - 156 of them singles. Over the last three years, 83.6% of his hits have been singles, and many of those have been of the infield variety. If the speed vanishes and Castillo stops beating out all of those ground balls, you're basically left with a guy who doesn't do a whole lot else other than drawing a few walks.
Still, if I were running a team with a need at the top of the lineup and at second base, I would definitely pursue Luis Castillo. There is some risk that his legs could go and take all of his offense along with, but if he stays at his current level you have yourself one of the top all-around second basemen in baseball and a really nice leadoff man.
After Castillo, it gets a little iffy. Roberto Alomar is certainly the biggest name available, but I wouldn't touch him with your team's payroll. He's still okay defensively (although not nearly as good as some delusional people would have you believe), but he simply can't hit any longer.
He hit .266/.331/.376 last year and just .258/.333/.349 this season. He remains somewhat passable against right-handed pitching, but absolutely unplayable against lefties (.189/.250/.277 this year, .204/.259/.315 last year). Alomar is a Hall of Famer and one of the best second baseman in baseball history. He's also pretty much done and not a good person to spend money on this off-season.
Todd Walker is available, although I seem to be a bigger fan of his than just about anyone else in the world. I thought Boston bringing him in for a year as their second baseman was a good move and, although he hit just .283/.333/.428, I think he's still an attractive option for someone at second base for next year. Assuming he comes cheap and for a one or two-year commitment, of course.
Walker's defense is highly underrated (although still not good) and, although he struggled offensively this year, he still finished 13th among all MLB second basemen in RARP, with 23.2. I'd take Walker on a cheap one-year deal over whatever Alomar ends up getting anytime.
Mark Grudzielanek is similar to J.T. Snow in that he has gotten a lot of grief for his play over the years, particularly when he was with the Dodgers. But, like with Snow, there is a big difference between paying someone $6 million a year and $1 million a year. At a small price, Grudzielanek is a solid defensive player who hits lefties well (.302/.361/.453 from 2001-2003). At a big price, he's a guy making a lot of money and not hitting righties (.279/.318/.373 from 2001-2003). He's another guy I would talk to well before I thought about calling Alomar.
Eric Young wouldn't be a completely horrible one-year solution. At 36, Young isn't much of a defender at second, but he can still hit a little bit. He batted .251/.336/.392 this year and was hitting .260/.344/.421 before being traded to San Francisco (where he hit just .197/.293/.225). Personally I would rather try to find someone in the minors to play second, but for a team wanting a veteran at the position, Young would be okay, assuming he's cheap.
For team's looking for a glove-man, they need look no further than Pokey Reese. Of course, with Reese, you don't just get the glove. You also get the anemic bat and some injury concerns. Reese played just 37 games this year after tearing a ligament in his thumb. He also played in just 119 games in 2002.
If you like good fielders who may or may not be able to play and may or may not be able to crack a .600 OPS, Pokey is definitely the man for the job. Actually, if I had a good offensive team in place and a pitching staff that was ground ball dominant, I might consider Pokey if he was extraordinarily cheap.
I would love it if Joe Morgan were the General Manager of a team. Not my team obviously, and not just because I'd like to see what moves he would make. No, I would want to see specifically how much money he would give to Miguel Tejada. There hasn't been a TV announcer this in love with a shortstop since Tim McCarver first laid eyes on Mr. Clutch many years ago.
Morgan not only supported Tejada's undeserved AL MVP award last season, he also had Tejada as his #2 candidate this year. I've talked about Tejada's 2002 season and its lack of MVP quality too many times in the past, so I won't go into it again.
What I will say is that Tejada is definitely one of the top shortstops in baseball. He ranked sixth among MLB shortstops in RARP this season and, if you account for defense, he moves ahead of at least one of those other five shortstops.
So, he may not have been the MVP of the 2002 season, but he is almost certainly a top-five shortstop, he doesn't turn 28 years old until May, and he's also a free agent. What does someone like that deserve, on the open-market?
Well, if a team is planning long-term this off-season, I would say Tejada is the second-most attractive free agent on the market, behind only Vladimir Guerrero, whom I talked about in some length yesterday. However, while I said I would "bust the bank and give [Guerrero] just about whatever he wants," I would stop well short of that with Tejada.
While Tejada is a good defender at a key position who also hits well, he is also a guy with a .339 OBP over the last three years. But beyond that, I just have a feeling that some team out there is going to give Tejada a massive contract. I don't know who that team will be (although I have an idea or two), but based solely on the amount of media attention he gets, the amount of RBIs he racks up and the amount guys like Joe Morgan adore him, I've got to think that at least one team out there sees Tejada as their Vladimir Guerrero.
For five years and $40 million, I would definitely sign Miggy up. But if he gets anything close to that, in either years or yearly salary, I'll be extremely surprised.
The #2 shortstop on the market this year is Rich Aurilia. Aurilia had a monster year in 2001 (.324/.369/.572), but followed that up with back-to-back injury-plagued seasons in which his offense was nowhere near that level.
Aurilia hit .277/.325/.410 this year, finishing 15th among MLB shortstops in RARP. He hit .257/.305/.413 in 2002 and finished 13th. Like J.T. Snow, Aurilia has played in Pac Bell. Unlike Snow, his offensive numbers don't seem to have been hurt by playing there. Over the last three years Aurilia's OPS (on-base % + slugging %) at Pac Bell is actually about 8% higher than it is on the road. Obviously ballparks impact different hitters in different ways, so I'm not as intrigued by the possibility of Aurilia breaking out once he's away from Pac Bell as I am with Snow.
For a team with a hole at shortstop and no interest in giving Tejada a huge deal, Aurilia is a nice option. He's much older than Tejada, but for the short-term he's a good bet to give overall production that isn't extraordinarily different. While Tejada might give a team .290/.350/.500 over the next couple years, Aurilia could certainly hit .270/.330/.440. I'd see what Aurilia thought about two years at about $3 mill per.
For those teams priced out of even Rich Aurilia's range, there are a couple of decent (and cheap) options. For a team looking for offense at shortstop, Jose Valentin would be a very good choice.
Valentin can't hit lefties at all, but he does very well against righties. He hit .265/.345/.535 against them this year and .264/.337/.522 against them over the past three years. He definitely needs a platoon partner, but that is much better offense against righties than Aurilia will give and even Tejada has hit just .288/.324/.486 against righties in the last three years (albeit in a pitcher's park).
On the issue of defense, I think Valentin gets a bum-rap. He doesn't look particularly good at shortstop and he tends to make a few really horrible looking errors every year, but that only matters if you are a big fan of fielding percentage and unable to look at the bigger picture. Most of Valentin's other defensive statistics suggest that he has good range and that he makes more plays at shortstop than many other, more highly-regarded defenders.
Because of the likely difference in cost, I might actually go after Valentin before Aurilia, particularly if I had a good platoon-partner for him already in place.
There isn't a whole lot left after Valentin. Jose Hernandez was absolutely horrendous this year for three different teams. He even did the impossible, which is hit .261/.340/.373 in Coors Field. I have to admit that I thought Hernandez was in for a huge season when he signed with Colorado. The thought being that players who strike out a lot were helped by playing in Coors, in addition to the fact that everyone's offense is helped out by being in Colorado. Hernandez is probably worth a cheap one-year deal, just because he hit .288/.356/.478 in 2002 and can play almost anywhere on the field.
Royce Clayton is a good defensive player, but he complains when he doesn't play everyday and he doesn't give a team any sort of offensive contribution. He's the sort of guy who could be a very nice backup infielder for a few more years, if only he'd have an attitude adjustment and/or realize he is just not a good baseball player. If you need a backup glove-man, save the hassle and just sign Rey Sanchez.
One guy I really like as a backup infielder is Tony Graffanino. He has been serving as a platoon-partner for Jose Valentin in Chicago for the last few years and whichever team goes after Valentin would also be smart to talk to Graffanino about filling the same role next year. He hit .303/.356/.533 against lefties this season and .293/.367/.497 against them over the last three years.
THE THIRD BASEMEN:
Third base is far and away the weakest position in this year's free agent class. Here's basically all you need to know: Joe Randa is the best third baseman on the market. Sad, isn't it?
To Randa's credit, he had a relatively good year, hitting .291/.348/.452 in 131 games. How he got to those totals is pretty interesting too. Randa hit .329/.388/.632 in April and then was absolutely horrible in May (.152/.218/.232) and only sort of horrible in June (.281/.320/.396). He ended the first-half of the year at .248/.304/.414. So what did he do in the second-half? He hit .344/.402/.500, of course.
Over the last three years Randa is a .275/.331/.420 hitter who does slightly better against lefties than righties. Considering that, and the fact that he turns 34 next month, I would probably lean towards staying away unless he wanted to sign a cheap one or two-year deal.
That said, if a team has a hole at third base and they stay away from Randa, they may have nightmares about their other options.
Here's a list of names to pick from:
Those guys should get together and form a third base super-group. They could call themselves "Old, Injured and Just Plain Stinky" (O-I-J-P-S). I see Fernando Tatis playing the role of Justin Timberlake.
But okay, the gun is to your head and you need to sign one of those above seven guys to a contract for next year. I think the least sickening choice is probably Robin Ventura.
Ventura hit .242/.340/.401 last year between New York and Los Angeles. At 36 years old, he is essentially down to playing defense, taking some walks and yanking the occasional homer. His .242 batting average last year came after averages of .232, .237 and .247 in the previous three seasons. But unlike the other guys in that group, Ventura at least showed the ability to get on base at a reasonable clip last year.
I think most people given those seven names to pick from would go with Tony Batista, on the basis of his power numbers. Batista hit 26 homers this year and he has 154 homers over the last five seasons, including 41 long balls in 2000. Of course, the team that gets those homers also gets a guy who makes an out about 70% of the time, and that's not really a trade-off I'm all that interested in making.
Batista had a .270 on-base percentage this year, which was dead-last among the 164 players who qualified for the batting-title. That's just unbelievably horrible and his OBPs from past years (.280 in 2001, .309 in 2002) aren't much better. As nice as home runs are and as fun as it is to look at Batista's wacky batting-stance, I would not be interested.
Vinny Castilla had a similar season to Batista this year, posting a .310 OBP in 147 games with the Braves. He hit 22 homers but, unlike Batista, his slugging percentage actually cracked .400 - .461 to be exact. Vinny also plays pretty good defense at third, so I guess he wouldn't be a completely horrible choice for a one-year pickup, although that .232/.268/.348 performance from 2002 would probably scare me off.
Among the other guys, I think Zeile is pretty worthless at this point. I used to think Stynes was a nice utility player, but he just finished a year in which he slugged .413 while playing in Colorado. I'm a bigger Mark McLemore fan than most, but he hit .233/.318/.314 this year and, at 39, he might be done. Fernando Tatis still has that .298/.403/.553 season on his resume, but he hasn't been healthy at all since then and he's also a .225/.305/.357 hitter over the last three years.
For those of you who are fans of a team with an established third baseman in place, consider yourselves lucky. For those of you who root for a team with a hole at third, it's a tough-break. The best you can hope for is that your team's GM fills the hole with a trade. The worst you can hope for is that you open up your local sports-section one morning and read the words: "Batista agrees to three-year deal..."
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