Every year, as the Hot Stove season winds down in January and February, a few players will be signed for less than they are probably worth. Bobby Abreu in 2009 is the classic example, but even outside of this context, there are deals to be had. In this post, I will examine a few such deals that could be had in this season's remaining free agent class.
These players could be bargains for several reasons: a deep position (not a seller's market, if you will), coming off injury, or just undervalued skillsets. Let's get started:
Mike Gonzalez, RP -- A lot of Gonzalez' value comes from his handedness. Left-handed relievers carry more value from their pitching hand than lefty starters, because they are more maneuverable, and a team can capitalize on their platoon advantage. In his career, Mike Gonzalez has a .616 OPS against and a 3.68 K/BB with left-handed hitters. This is not to say he can't get righties out, either. Despite his recent struggles in Baltimore, Gonzalez has a K/9 over ten, a K/BB of 2.53, and a 124 ERA+ against all competition since 2009. Additionally, while Gonzalez' K-rate took a hit in 2011 (it was below 9 for the first time since his injury-plagued 2007 campaign) his ability to miss bats was still well-above-average in 2011, as a 10.1% swinging-strike rate shows.
Where's the Bang? Gonzalez' value comes from being a left-handed reliever able to miss bats. Even in a down 2011, he was still quite good, according to the peripherals (3.73 xFIP, 3.37 SIERA). Gonzalez would be a great addition to almost any bullpen, able to work as either a LOOG or setup man as the situation dictates.
The Buck? The market for relievers has more or less collapsed after the Bailey trade. No real powers in baseball need proven relievers, and there are several (Cordero, Rodriguez, Madson) on the market -- and Mike Gonzalez isn't one of them. Gonzalez earned $6 MM in 2011, but was, in the public eye, a failure. Keep in mind, also, that that money was supposed to be for a closer, a job he never fulfilled, racking up two saves in the last two years. A guy who has never been a closer, will be 34, is an injury risk, and who is perceived by the public as a failure? It would be hard to imagine a team needing to give him more than $2 MM on a one-year deal, perhaps $5 MM over two years. At most, he would be getting paid for half a win per year, value he can easily create.
Kosuke Fukudome, OF. Fukudome brings a lot of tools to the table. He likes to walk, he fields very well, and even has a little bit of power. This showed in 2011 to the tune of a 2.8 WAR, and, even with his age taken into account, he should be an average-plus player in 2012 (2-2.5 WAR). The bargain, of course, is in that he will not be paid as one.
Where's the Bang? Fukudome will provide value. He has an average of a little over 2 WAR per season in his four MLB seasons, and provided 2.8 in 2011. Can he put up another 2.8? Probably not. He's likely more of an average guy. A slashline of .260/.350/.375 or so, and a plus glove in a corner outfield position is what you're going to get, and there is a spot for a guy like that on plenty of teams.
The Buck? Bobby Abreu comes to mind here. An aging corer outfielder, Bobby Abreu was a very good player in New York. From 2006-2008 he gathered 9.4 wins, and this was at the tail end of a Hall of Fame-caliber prime. Bobby Abreu got $5 MM and one year from the Angels. Abreu, like Fukudome now, was turning 35. Fukudome is not Bobby Abreu. Ya dig? There's a deal to be had here.
Casey Kotchman, 1B. Kotchman was a bit of a breakout in 2011, finally cashing in on the promise we once saw in him as an Angels minor leaguer (four-time top-22 prospect by Baseball America, ranked #6 in 2005). He had a big year, slashing .306/.378/.422 and posting a 2.9 WAR.
Where's the Bang? Normally when a guy goes from fringe bench player to fringe All-Star you shake your head and say 'next' like your friendly DOT clerk. Kotchman, however, is a special case. From the time he was drafted 13th overall by Anaheim in 2001, he was supposed to win batting titles, and even in his MLB career he has shown good tools: the ability to take a walk, a strong aversion to strikeouts, and the ability to play a slick first base. If you look at his peripherals, there aren't even real glaring holes. His babip is a little elevated, but at the same time his HR/FB rate was depressed and he drew fewer walks without increasing any of the stats that would indicate a propensity to do so (chiefly O-Swing%, or swinging at balls). All told, given his age (28), there is little reason to expect Kotchman to fail to put up something like a 2.5 WAR again.
The Buck? Kotchman might be had at a bargain simply because nobody needs a first baseman. There are a few destinations: the Cubs, Indians, and Brewers are really the only ones with no better options, and it's tough to imagine Cleveland getting into a bidding war over Casey Kotchman. This leaves Chicago and Milwaukee, the latter of which may end up finding an internal option like Mat Gamel or even Aramis Ramirez. Kotchman seems like a perfect fit for Chicago, who has indicated that they will be shying away from a complete rebuild, but probably aren't going to be big spenders. Keep in mind, however, that Kotchman isn't the only 1B on the market. You may have heard of Prince Fielder. So, with limited destinations, vastly superior competition and a 2011 (third-year arbitration) salary of just $3.5 MM, it would be hard to imagine Kotchman fetching even half of his own value. Something to the effect of $5-7 MM per season sounds appropriate, maybe even an Adam LaRoche deal ($16 MM/2 years + option).
And there you go, as I see it, some of the top bargains to be had remaining on the free agent market.