Posted October 31, 2013

Below-radar free agents who can help

free agents, Hot Stove
Jonny Gomes

Jonny Gomes, who turns 32 on Nov. 22, had his best OPS (.868) this season since 2009. (Brad White/Getty Images)

Elsewhere at SI.com, Ben Reiter’s rundown of this winter’s top 50 free agents contains the players who will grab most of the headlines this offseason, but even in this relatively thin class, far more are looking for work.

Unless you’re stocking a team that doesn’t mind losing 100 games, you won’t find too many cleanup hitters or third starters outside those 50, but as role players in a platoon, off the bench or out of the bullpen, others can do more than just fill out a roster.

What follows here are 12 more free agents worth considering. Many are deep into their 30s, taking them out of the realm of long-term deals; it would be a surprise if any received more than two years on their next contracts.

Some are coming off injuries or sub-par 2012 showings, while others are simply part-timers who deserve some love.

Jonny Gomes, OF/DH
2012: Oakland A’s, .262/.377/.491, 18 HR in 333 PA
2013 age: 32

Gomes provided plenty of bang for the buck in 2012, delivering a performance worth 2.2 Wins Above Replacement Player for the rock-bottom price of $1 million. He’s best used as a lefty-masher (.296/.398/.506 against southpaws from 2010-2012, compared to .220/.302/.390 against righties), and he’s not much of a defender, but an AL club can do much worse than keep him around for a couple million dollars.

Eric Chavez, 3B/1B
2012: New York Yankees, .281/.348/.496, 16 HR in 313 PA
2013 age: 35

The lasting image of Chavez will be his 0-for-16 slide in the playoffs at a time when the Yankees sought an alternative to the slumping Alex Rodriguez, but that shouldn’t obscure his fine season. Avoiding the disabled list for the first time since 2006, Chavez came in handy as a fill-in when Rodriguez missed six weeks with a broken metacarpal and took his turns at DH and as a backup first baseman as well. In all, he was worth 1.6 WARP while costing the Yankees less than $2 million including incentive bonuses. He has no business playing against lefties (.200/.236/.215 in 72 PA from 2010-2012), but he can still hold his own as a part-timer at the hot corner.

David Ross, C
2012: Atlanta Braves, .256/.321/.449, 9 HR in 196 PA
2013 age: 36

Ross long ago took the baton from Gregg Zaun as the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher. In four years with the Braves, he has hit a robust .269/.353/.463, saving wear and tear on the heavily used Brian McCann without much drop in production — though this year, that wasn’t the case as the latter played though a shoulder injury that required surgery. Ross, who made $1.625 million in 2012, is valuable for more than his bat; he’s an above-average pitch-framer who controls the running game, gunning down 44 percent of would-be base thieves this year. The latter stat is no fluke; he’s at 39 percent for his career, 11 percentage points better than the league average during that time.

Joel Peralta, RP
2012: Tampa Bay Rays, 3.63 ERA, 11.3 SO/9 in 67 IP
2013 age: 37

Outside of Tampa Bay, Peralta gained more notice for the eight-game suspension he received after umpires found pine tar in his mitt than for his performance, which included the fifth-highest strikeout percentage (31.8) of any AL pitcher with at least 50 innings. Thanks to improved command and increased reliance on his splitter as part of a three-pitch mix, he has blossomed into a very good, durable late-game reliever; over the past three years, he has struck out 9.4 per nine while walking just 2.2. Some contender — if not the Rays — is going to give him a raise from his $2.175 million 2012 salary.

(UPDATE: Peralta has re-signed with the Rays, according to the Tampa Bay Times.)

Jason Grilli, RP
2012: Pittsburgh Pirates, 2.91 ERA, 13.8 SO/9 in 58.2 IP
2013 age: 36

Since returning from a 2010 season lost to knee surgery, Grilli has improved his control dramatically and missed bats at an alarming rate. With both his fastball and slider netting swings and misses on at least 15 percent of his pitches in 2012, his 36.3 percent strikeout percentage ranked fourth among NL pitchers with at least 50 innings, behind only Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. In 91 1/3 innings with the Pirates over the last season and a half (when he made his way back to the majors) he has whiffed 12.5 per nine, up from 6.6 from 2000-2009; meanwhile, he’s trimmed his walk rate , issuing just 2.8 unintentional passes per nine, down from 3.7. He can be a setup man for a contender and will get a nice raise from this year’s $1.1 million.

Brandon Lyon, RP
2012: Houston Astros and Toronto Blue Jays, 3.10 ERA, 9.3 SO/9 in 61 IP
2013 age: 33

Lyon came into the year still recovering from surgery to repair tears in his labrum and rotator cuff and wound up with a new lease on life in the bullpen. Thanks to an increasingly effective curveball, he got the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career (18 percent of all strikes); his rate of strikeouts per nine, a pedestrian 5.8 from 2001-2011, shot up to 9.3. The three-year, $15 million deal he got from then-Astros general manager Ed Wade is a cautionary tale in the annals of contracts for fringy closers; he won’t get a ninth-inning job, but if he keeps missing bats, he’ll be worth the money as a setup man.

Maicer Izturis, IF
2012: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, .256/.320/.315, 2 HR, 17 SB in 319 PA
2013 age: 32

By his own standards, Izturis didn’t have a good year; his OPS was his lowest since 2005, and his WARP slipped into the ready because he was overexposed at shortstop, taking a beating via most defensive metrics. Taken together, those may be signs that he’s on his way out, but then he’s also just a year removed from one of his best seasons. Izturis isn’t fit for a full-time job, but as a guy who can play second and third competently (and spot at short, briefly) while getting on base at a better-than-league-average clip with virtually no platoon split (.276/.326/.367 versus lefties from 2010-2012, .259/.327/.357 versus righties), he’s a handy bench guy, though he’ll have to take a pay cut from the $3.8 million he made this year.

Koji Uehara, RP
2012: Texas Rangers, 1.75 ERA, 10.8 SO/9 in 36 IP
2013 age: 38

Uehara missed 2 1/2 months with a strained latissimus dorsi (shoulder), but when he was healthy, his 33.1 percent strikeout rate ranked fourth among AL pitchers with at least 30 innings, while his 2.3 percent walk rate ranked second; the man had an eye-popping 43/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Uehara’s a bit prone to the longball (1.1 HR/9 career), but his microscopic walk and hit rates minimize that problem considerably, and he deserves better than to be stuck in low-leverage duty, where the Rangers had him for much of last year.

Joe Blanton, SP
2012: Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers, 4.71 ERA, 7.8 SO/9 in 191 IP
2013 age: 32

Blanton’s ERA was ugly in 2012; as a matter of fact, it’s ugly more often than not, just like that dead animal pelt that he has mounted on his chin. Still, there’s something here, because he misses bats and has good control; his walk rate was the league’s third-lowest. Give him better defensive support than the .314 BABIP he suffered through in 2012 (.347 with the Dodgers, making for a bust of a trade), and a big enough ballpark to offset his flyballing ways and trim his inflated homer rate (1.4 per nine last year, 1.1 career), he can provide 180 or so innings of league-average work at the back of a rotation.

Scott Feldman, SP
2012: Texas Rangers, 5.09 ERA, 7.0 SO/9 in 123.2 IP
2013 age: 30

Like Blanton, Feldman’s ERA wasn’t much to write home about, but his peripherals underlying that suggest an uptick in performance and make a case that he’s a better pitcher now than the guy who went 17-8 with a 4.08 ERA in 2008. Thanks in part to the development of an effective changeup, his strikeout rate was the highest of his career — well above his career 5.0 per nine prior — and not simply the product of a ton of short stints out of the bullpen (it was 7.2 in 13 2/3 innings in the latter role). Meanwhile, his walk rate (2.3 per nine) was a career low, so his strikeout-to-walk ratio effectively doubled. His ERA was inflated by a .318 BABIP and a hitter-friendly ballpark; in Arlington, batters tagged him at a .300/.333/.487 clip, compared to .255/.307/.351 on the road. In a more hospitable environment, he can help.

Carlos Pena, 1B
2012: Tampa Bay Rays, .197/.330/.354, 19 HR in 600 PA
2013 age: 35

The raw numbers are ugly, there’s no getting around it; for the second time in three seasons, Pena wound up below the Mendoza Line. This time, he failed to offset his low batting average with adequate power and wound up setting a career high in strikeout rates. He needs to get out of run-suppressing Tropicana Field, and his next manager needs a restraining order against playing him with a lefty on the mound (.166/.295/.343 in 518 PA against southpaws from 2010-2012). Pena won’t hit for average, but protected from his limitations, he can be a productive ballplayer again, and he won’t cost anywhere near the $7.25 million he made in 2012.

Update: Since great minds think alike, the Rays announced that they had re-signed Joel Peralta to a new deal around the same time this article was published. Thus, we offer you an additional bargain candidate:

Kyle Farnsworth, RP
2012: Tampa Bay Rays, 4.00 ERA, 8.3 K/9 in 27 IP
2013 age: 37

Farnsworth enjoyed a late-career breakout in 2011 thanks to the
 emergence of his cut fastball, but elbow soreness curtailed his
 follow-up, and he spent the season’s first three months on the disabled
 list. His performance upon returning was uneven, but he did string 
together a dominant stretch from the All-Star break to early September,
 holding the 78 batters he faced to a .123/.194/.123 line. If his elbow
is in sound shape, he’s worth another shot.

4 comments
Michael10
Michael10

Gomes was worth as many wins as Derek Jeter this year--and he's six years younger.  Maybe the Yankees can use him at the discount price of $16 million a year...

jay_jaffe
jay_jaffe

 @Mikey A Hairston's a good player who should be relatively inexpensive, but as Ben Reiter included him in his top 50 (#37, in fact), that ruled him out from inclusion here.