November 11, 2009

Realistic Free Agent Options: Third Base

Projecting which free agents the Twins will go after is difficult because their pursuit of low-cost options depends upon how the market shakes out and who drops into their price range. In the past five years they've also wasted money on a lengthy list of washed-up veterans like Tony Batista, Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, Craig Monroe, Juan Castro, Sidney Ponson, and Luis Ayala (among others) with only an occasional worthwhile signing like Joe Crede or Dennys Reyes sprinkled in.

For the most part the Twins have targeted only bargain-basement options while far more often than not choosing badly, which makes it kind of pointless to predict which free agents they'll pursue. So, instead I'll focus on which free agents they should pursue. I'm trying to be realistic with the recommendations, highlighting guys who may actually sign modest one- or two-year deals rather than dreaming about the top-tier free agents. With that in mind, here are five third basemen the Twins should look into ...

Adrian Beltre: It makes sense for the Twins to go after Beltre as a free agent after trying to trade for him in the past, and missing 50 games while hitting .265/.304/.379 has his value lower than ever. Shoulder problems make Beltre a risk and he's seemingly been banged up constantly in recent years, but this season was actually the first time since 2001 that he failed to play at least 140 games. Despite being around forever Beltre won't be 31 years old until April, so if healthy he's capable of a nice bounce back.

He'll never repeat the monster 2004 season that got him a huge contract, but in five years with Seattle he hit .266/.317/.442 despite playing half his games in a ballpark that wreaks havoc on right-handed power hitters. Long one of the game's elite defensive third basemen, Beltre's glove has been as good as ever during the past two seasons. Despite this year's injuries and poor production Beltre may still be out of the Twins' price range, but he'd be an ideal target if the market proves lacking.

Mark DeRosa: After a career-year in 2008 the Cubs traded DeRosa to the Indians for a trio of mid-level prospects. He had a nice first half as Cleveland collapsed, hitting .270/.342/.457, and was then dealt to St. Louis for two nice relief prospects. Unfortunately for the Cardinals he suffered a wrist injury almost immediately and batted just .228/.291/.405 in 68 games while spending time on the disabled list, and DeRosa underwent surgery last week.

Between the wrist problems and turning 35 years old DeRosa is a risk, but he's hit .281/.356/.448 over the past four seasons while playing everywhere but center field and catcher defensively. His glove isn't particularly good anywhere, but if healthy DeRosa is passable at third base and plenty productive from the right side of the plate, offering solid batting averages, 20-homer power, and good plate discipline. If a rough finish to 2009 has dropped him into the Twins' price range, a two-year deal might work.

Troy Glaus: Struggles returning from offseason shoulder surgery followed by back problems left Glaus on the sidelines until September and he played just 14 games overall, basically making it a lost year for the four-time All-Star. His health remains a huge question mark, but Glaus hit .270/.372/.483 with 27 homers in 151 games for the Cardinals last year to top an .800 OPS in a ninth straight season. For the 2000s he leads all MLB third baseman with 274 homers and ranks third in adjusted OPS+.

Glaus' ability to play third base is certainly in doubt, because in addition to the shoulder problems he's 33 years old, stands 6-foot-5, and weighs around 250 pounds. However, he was originally a shortstop and his glove has graded out reasonably well at the hot corner, rating as a positive in 2007 and 2008. In terms of risk versus reward Glaus has the highest upside of any free agent third baseman, because if healthy he's an elite right-handed power hitter with good plate discipline and a decent glove.

Melvin Mora: Baltimore officially made him a free agent last week by declining an $8 million option for 2010 and Mora isn't likely to be very picky coming off a career-worst season. He'll also be 38 years old soon, so there's good reason for teams like the Twins to stay away, but Mora would be a worthwhile pickup on a one-year deal. Despite hitting just .260/.321/.358 this year he remained decent defensively at third base and Mora hit .285/.342/.483 with 23 homers as recently as last season.

In fact, this season was the first time since 2001 that Mora failed to post an above average on-base percentage and he's hit a combined .276/.340/.427 in the five years since his monster 2004 campaign. I'd hang up the phone as soon as his agent mentioned anything more than a one-year deal, but it'd be worth a few million bucks to see if Mora can hit .275 with 15 homers, a solid on-base percentage, and average defense while the Twins wait on prospect Danny Valencia to take a step forward.

Joe Crede: When he signed with the Twins last winter Crede was coming off a year in which he played just 97 games because of injuries and hit .248 with 17 homers and a bad on-base percentage. Now he's coming off a season in which he played just 90 games because of injuries and hit .225 with 15 homers and a bad on-base percentage. In other words Crede performed more or less like the Twins should have expected and was worth the incentive-laden investment with his great defense factored in.

So will the Twins offer him another one-year contract? Probably not, but he makes just about as much sense now as he did last offseason and may even be cheaper this time around. When healthy Crede hits in the low .200s with good power and plays excellent defense at third base, but he's missed 234 of a possible 488 games in the past three years. He clearly can't be counted on, but if the Twins don't feel that Valencia is quite ready and miss out on the aforementioned options Crede for $2 million isn't bad.

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