The days left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training (38 days, three hours at press time, but whose counting, really?) are dwindling away, much to the common delight of those longing to put the snow shovel on the disabled list.
But as we inch closer and closer to the baseball promise land, several household name free agents are still readily available on the market, waiting to be plucked out from the unemployment line. Some of the veterans still searching for a new place to call home still could have an impact for some team in the 2008 season.
1. Barry Bonds—Bonds, of course, has bigger problems than trying to latch on with a new organization right now. With his freedom and legal status pending--along with the clubhouse baggage that comes along with the Bonds Show scaring potential suitors away--it appears as if Hideo Nomo (signed to a minor-league deal in Kansas City), has a better chance of appearing in game in the big leagues next season than the All-Time home run king. Armed with a high-powered legal defense team, however, and enjoying some newfound sympathy for his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs in the aftermath of the presence of Roger Clemens’ name in Senator George Mitchell’s report, the-Bonds-to- Oakland rumors are surfacing yet again. Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in uniform next year. There’s a 90 percent chance he’ll be with the Oakland A’s. It will be old, broken-down guys, me, [Mark] Kotsay and Barry, and a bunch of 19-year-olds."
Chavez, looking to successfully rebound from surgery, has other things to worry about, rather than putting on his Billy Beane cap. Even in the rebuilding mode Oakland finds itself in after dealing away All-Star right-hander Dan Haren and fan favorite Nick Swisher, though, Oakland appears to be the only realistic option if Bonds wishes to play in ’08.
The status of Bonds’ career and legal issues are up in the air, but one thing is certain: the man can still hit. There is one reason why a team should consider signing him to a one-year deal, baggage and all. He was the Giants' best offensive player in 2007, hitting .276, .480, .565 with an OPS of 1.045. While sitting among the National League's best most sabermetric-friendly categories, he also led San Francisco with 28 home runs as well. He just has an uncanny ability to get on base.
With several milestones left for Bonds to add to his illustrious résumé—just 65 hits to 3,000 and four RBIs to 2000, most notably—the motivation is there for him to lace up the Nike high-tops for one more controversial season. In a designated hitter role for a team in the American League, he can rest his knees without playing left field, increasing his productivity as a hitter in the process. He has freakishly-high career on-base percentage (.444), meaning that he will never be an easy out. So, with a chance to shatter even more records, he could put up impressive statistics again if a team is willing to shell out the funds for a short-term contract and deal with his antics.
From a strict baseball standpoint, Bonds is undoubtedly the top offensive free agent left on the market. Odds are, though, 762 will stand as the career home run mark for the time being, at least until Alex Rodriguez’s quest for 800 in 2015.
2. Kyle Lohse—Following a decent second half with the Philadelphia Phillies (3-0 4.72 in 11 starts), who acquired him at the July trade deadline, Lohse seemed destined for a large pay day this offseason. Labeled as one of the premiere starters available in a weak free agent market for pitching, he was expected to bring in a lofty, life-changing deal. Perhaps because one swing of the bat from Kaz Matsui, whose game-changing home run off Loshe in the Division Series appears to have had quite a detrimental impact on Lohse’s market value, the 29-year-old right-hander is still searching for a contract. Also, as a client of Scott Boras, who flashed a chink in his once-invincible armor during the A-Rod debacle, perhaps interested suitors are better off waiting into the start of spring training to begin negotiations.
Kyle Lohse (Associated Press)
Lohse has better stuff than his recent statistics indicate, constantly intriguing scouts. He cannot, however, be called upon to anchor a pitching staff, and is a clear-cut back-of-the-rotation starter. With a 63-74 record in 195 career starts, he has been effective during stretches of his big-league career, including for the Philadelphia in its push for the playoffs at the end of ’07. He does have the potential to become a strong addition to a playoff-caliber team as a number five starter--perhaps the St. Louis Cardinals are a good fit. Loshe is above all else a solid innings eater who can also be counted on to make his turn in the rotation due to tremendous durability. The New York Mets, clouded with uncertainty about their rotation and with the necessary financial resources, also appear to be a logical match, albeit in a short-term deal.
3. Bartolo Colon—This time two years ago, Colon was coming off a banner year with the Los Angeles Angels. During a season in which he posted excellent statistics—21-8 record, 3.42 ERA and 157 strikeouts—on his way to earning the 2005 American League Cy Young Award, he was regarded among the game's elite starters. The injury bug, though, has limited the veteran right-hander to only 28 starts since the beginning of the ’06 season.
Concerns about his ability to stay healthy over a full campaign and a nagging elbow injury are the biggest reasons why he is still available this late in the game. Similar to the San Diego Padres’ transaction of oft-injured starter Mark Prior, though, perhaps Colon is a risk worth taking in a short-term deal. The chance for greatness is there, even with his unorthodox mechanics and poor conditioning habits. Due to his electric stuff when he is on, it is not difficult to imagine Colon adding value to a team's pitching staff in '08. Plus, perhaps a change of scenery is in his best interest.
The Kansas City Royals have reportedly shown interest in Colon, but nothing is certain at this point. As a team attempting to escape mediocrity, talented general manager Dayton Moore might just strike gold if the signing pans out in the end.
4. Mike Cameron—Cameron produced encouraging power totals in pitcher-friendly Petco Park during his stint with the San Diego Padres. In addition, he is one of the premier defensive center fielders in Major League Baseball as well, though his skills are declining as he ages. The surplus of other All-Stars at his position—Torii Hunter, Andruw Jones and Aaron Rowand—on the market this winter, however, hurt his market value.
To make matters worse, he will serve a 25-game suspension to begin the '08 season after testing positive for a banned substance (amphetamines) for a second time. On its own, this has reportedly chased away several suitors. San Diego has officially cut its ties with Cameron as well, squashing any reunion talk when they traded for an aging Jim Edmonds. Reportedly, the two sides were at odds--not even in the same ballpark--in the negotiation process. Perhaps equally concerning as the suspension, his annual on-base percentage consistently hovers under around .340 (.328 in ’07). An undisciplined hitter, his OPS, .759 this past season, is nothing to write home about, either.
If he moves into a home ballpark better suited for right-handed power hitters, however, Cameron may have some production left in the tank. An above-average defender at a crucial outfield position (although his skills are deteriorating as he enters the twilight of his tenure in the majors), he will add value with his defense as well.
5. Brad Wilkerson—Wilkerson consistently posts low batting average and on-base percentage totals (.234, .319 in ’07), which have always been a cause for concern. However, perhaps the outfielder's plus power potential—evident by three seasons in which he hit 20-plus home runs, including 32 with the Montreal Expos in 2004— eases some of those worries for clubs interested in pursuing his services.
In only 338 at-bats, Wilkerson belted 20 homers last season, slugging .467 and chipping in 62 RBIs. He had the luxury of playing at a hitter’s ballpark, though, down in Texas. Also, according to his PECOTA card at Baseball Prospectus, his VORP (Value Over Replacement Player for the old timers out there) of 6.8 nearly failed to crack the Rangers’ top ten in that statistical category. In the right short-term deal, Wilkerson could surprise a lot of people, especially considering he is entering an his early 30s--perhaps the peak stage of his career.
Octavio Dotel—An expensive option, but Dotel is a consistently effective reliever coming off a down year with Atlanta. With Scott Linebrink securing a four-year, $19-million deal, though, he will not come cheap, that is for sure.
Livan Hernandez—Few things, if ever, are guaranteed to happen in Major League Baseball. Hernandez registering 200 innings is an exception. One of the games’ finest innings eaters, the veteran right-hander, generously listed at age 32 (really?), enters spring training carrying a lofty streak of eight consecutive seasons with 200.0-plus innings pitched.
Also in his favor, Hernandez—the NLCS and World Series MVP for the Florida Marlins in ’97—is a clutch performer with postseason experience. He is clearly not a rotation savior, but for a team looking for a durable starter who they can count on every fifth day, Hernandez is the best option available.
Jeff Weaver—Weaver picked the right time (especially for his wallet), to prosper, providing the St. Louis Cardinals with numerous quality starts in the 2006 postseason on their way to an unexpected World Series title. Last season, though, he came back down to earth, struggling during his lone season with the Seattle Mariners—7-13, 6.20 ERA, good for around $1 million per victory. His status for next year is still up in the air, but Jered has officially surpassed him as the best pitcher in the Weaver household--if he had not done so already.
Other Position Players:
Bobby Kielty—In the right platoon situation, signing Kielty, whose clutch home run in Game Four of the World Series pushed the Boston Red Sox over the top, to a short-term deal could translate into quite a bargain.
Kenny Lofton—Lofton, the DHL poster boy for constantly switching teams, always seems to be in the thick of things for a contending team come playoff time. At 40 years old, however, there is no telling how long he can keep that pace up. Lofton should get a one-year deal. But to a general manager, perhaps July would be a better time to court the veteran leadoff man.
To listen to Rays Digest writers Ted Fleming and Tyler Hissey discuss the latest baseball news, use the media player below, which features the January, 8, 2007 edition of Speaking Of Sports, TBSN Radio 510's signature show.
Contact Tyler Hissey by sending an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.