Baseball BeatOctober 21, 2005
Play On or Play Off?
By Rich Lederer

After the World Series is over, the baseball world will turn its attention to the year-end awards and the current crop of free agents. Some of these players will be retained and many others will be let go.

In a two-part series, we start with the four playoff teams from the American League. These players have all had an extra audition to play their way on or off the rosters of their respective ballclubs.


Los Angeles Angels

Paul Byrd, RHP
Jason Christiansen, LHP (x)
Bengie Molina, C
Tim Salmon, OF
Jarrod Washburn, LHP

Paul Byrd, Bengie Molina, and Jarrod Washburn are the only three free agents who matter. The Angels are unlikely to exercise their club option on Jason Christiansen, a journeyman left-handed reliever, while Tim Salmon will undoubtedly be extended an invitation to attend spring training as a non-roster player.

The Angels have Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Ervin Santana, and Kelvim Escobar coming back. They can either sign Byrd, Washburn, or another free agent, or make a trade for their fifth starter. Chris Bootcheck, Joe Saunders, and Jered Weaver give the team insurance in the event of an injury. Weaver has the most upside of the three and could be a factor in the second half of 2006.

Byrd will be a cheaper option than Washburn and is also more likely to accept a shorter deal. The soon-to-be 35-year-old right-hander is coming off the second-best season of his career and could be offered a one- or two-year deal for $5-$6 million per. I would let him go if it turns out he wants more security or dollars.

Washburn is represented by Scott Boras and will probably command a three- or four-year contract at an average salary of at least $8M. I would pass. Although he was fourth in the AL in ERA in 2005, it is a misleading indicator of his performance. Wash gave up more hits than innings and his K/BB ratio was under 2.0. In fact, his 4.77 K/9 was the lowest of his eight-year career. Jarrod had the highest DIPS/ERA ratio in the league, suggesting that he benefited last year from strong defense and luck more than anything else.

Molina presents a more difficult situation. The Angels would love to bring him back but not at his asking price, which might be in the neighborhood of $20-$25M for three years. I might give him $7.5M for one year or an average of $6.5M for two, but I wouldn't go beyond that. Bengie is not the power hitter that he appeared to be in the ALDS when he slugged three HR in the first three games nor as worthless as he was in the ALCS. He is at best a .280/.320/.440 type who has more downside than upside at this point in his career.

Given the fact that Molina is perhaps the slowest runner in baseball, putting the ball in play as often as he does isn't necessarily a virtue. The 31-year-old, heavyset catcher has grounded into a double play once every 25 AB over the past four years. He is one of the top defensive catchers in baseball but certainly no better than his brother Jose, who I believe has one of the quickest releases around. The highly touted Jeff Mathis is also a viable option. He will be 23 on opening day and is coming off a .276/.340/.499 season with 21 HR in 427 AB at Salt Lake City (AAA).

Boston Red Sox

Johnny Damon, OF
Tony Graffanino, 2B
Matt Mantei, RHP
Kevin Millar, 1B
Bill Mueller, 3B
Mike Timlin, RHP
John Olerud, 1B
Mike Myers, RHP
Mike Stanton, LHP

Johnny Damon is obviously the biggest name among the Red Sox free agents. He has star power and will be hotly pursued by multiple teams during the offseason, most notably the rival Yankees. Johnny D. (3-for-13 with a double and a walk in the ALDS) will garner a three- or four-year deal at an average annual salary of at least $10M. That's a tough one in my mind. I would probably offer 3x10, but if it takes 4x12 or something along those lines, I'd shake his hand and wish him luck.

The 11-year veteran will be 32 in November and his numbers -- while still outstanding -- raise a few questions. The lead-off hitter's walk rate (.077) dropped to a level not seen since 1996 and his isolated power (.123) and secondary average (.236) were well below his career norms. I also can't help but wonder if Damon's poor arm will require a switch to LF or DH before his next contract expires. A change in positions coupled with any further slippage in his offensive production could make Damon more of a liability than an asset at anything exceeding $10M per.

Damon would like Boston to re-sign Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller, too. The Red Sox have no business asking Millar (1-for-3 in just one start out of three) to come back unless he can be had on the cheap and as nothing more than the 25th man on the roster -- a pinch hitter who could start occasionally at Fenway Park. As to Mueller (0-for-11), well, I would offer him a one-year deal at or near the $2.5M he made in 2005. If that works, great. If not, c'est la vie.

Chicago White Sox

Carl Everett, OF
Paul Konerko, 1B
Cliff Politte, RHP (x)
Frank Thomas, dh

Paul Konerko (9-for-33 with 4 HR and 11 RBI), in my judgment, is going to get more than he should due to his high-profile postseason (Carlos Beltran, anyone?) combined with a weak free-agent class. I see Konerko receiving one or more offers similar to the four-year, $50 million deal Richie Sexson inked last year. Too rich for my blood. We're talking about a 1B/DH who has hit 60% of his dingers at home-run friendly U.S. Cellular Field over the past five years. Put him in a more neutral environment and I'd expect him to hit closer to 30 HR than 40.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the White Sox will pay up for him, especially if they wind up winning the World Series. Let's face it, Chicago wouldn't be the first ballclub to show loyalty to a star player in such a situation by rewarding him with a rich contract.

Frank Thomas may get a one-year deal at a greatly reduced salary. The traditionalist in me hopes the future Hall of Famer will take it and finish his career as a White Sox.

New York Yankees

Kevin Brown, RHP
John Flaherty, C
Tom Gordon, RHP
Tino Martinez, 1B (x)
Felix Rodriguez, RHP
Rey Sanchez, 2B
Ruben Sierra, OF
Bernie Williams, OF
Al Leiter, LHP
Hideki Matsui, OF
Alan Embree, LHP

Eleven free agents. Other than Hideki Matsui, is there anyone on that list worth keeping? The Yankees will surely bid good riddance to Kevin Brown, redirecting part of his $15.7M annual salary to Matsui and the remainder to another free agent signing.

Just as I would like to see the Big Hurt return to the ChiSox, I'm hoping that the Yankees and Bernie Williams (4-for-19 with a couple of doubles and a walk) can work out a mutually agreeable deal and relationship. The 37-year-old onetime star center fielder will probably have to accept a $10M paycut if he wants to continue playing in the Bronx.

Matsui deserves something north of $10M per year. I'd be agreeable to a 3x12 deal. Despite a disappointing playoff performance in which he went 0-for-9 in games four and five while stranding eight runners on base in the finale, Matsui gives the Yankees solid, consistent production and is a drawing card to boot. I don't think Hideki has much upside, but he seems a good bet to hit close to .300 with 20-25 HR and 70-80 BB.

I shouldn't dismiss Tom Gordon, who is still an effective set-up man. However, he will turn 38 in November and his K/9 rate (7.70) in 2005 was his lowest since becoming a full-time reliever in 1998. A one-year deal at or near $4M would seem ideal for New York, whereas a two-year contract at $5M per and a chance to be a closer might be more to Gordon's liking.

(x) = club option for 2006