Baseball Beat/WTNYNovember 09, 2005
Free Agency Preview (Part Three)
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

UPDATE: Rich will be a guest on The Mighty 1090 AM radio show this evening at approximately 5:30 PST. The host is Ted Leitner, the voice of the San Diego Padres. The topics of discussion include the GM meetings, free agents, trade rumors, and, of course, the Padres.

For those who will be away from the radio or are out of the area, the show can be heard via streaming audio. Click on the blinking "1090AM LISTEN LIVE" button.

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We wind down our free agent series with the #21-30 players available this winter. Today's list includes a first-ballot Hall of Famer, three crack relief pitchers, a couple of former All-Star starting pitchers, three outfielders who have been around the block, and a Japanese import. (Part One and Part Two)

21. Esteban Loaiza - 33 - SP - 2005: Washington Nationals

W-L 12-10 | SV 0 | ERA 3.77 | WHIP 1.30 | 173 K/55 BB

With the exception of 2003 when Loaiza finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, he has always been the type of pitcher who was more of an innings-eater than anything else. The question has usually been whether that was a good or a bad thing. The native of Tijuana, Mexico relies heavily on his cut fastball while mixing in a four-seamer with average velocity, a mediocre slider, and a change-up.

Aside from his superb season, which two years later looks to be more and more of an aberration, Loaiza's ERA going into 2005 ranged from 4.13-5.71. The 11-year veteran then bounced back last season and posted the second-best ERA of his career. He was undoubtedly helped by RFK Stadium, one of the more friendly pitcher's ballparks last year. Loaiza fashioned an ERA of 2.86 at home and 4.71 on the road.

Projection: 2 years, $9-11 million. He is what he is, a guy who can throw 200+ IP with an ERA between 4.00-5.00 in a neutral environment.

22. Reggie Sanders - 37 - OF - 2005: St. Louis Cardinals

.271 AVG/.340 OBP/.546 SLG | HR 21 | RBI 54 | 28 BB/75 SO

Sanders only played in 93 games last year, but he sure looked good doing it. If he had survived a full season, his numbers would have projected to 37 home runs, 94 RBI, and 24 stolen bases. Of course, Sanders has never played a full season, as his career-high is 140 games. Counting on him to play more than 120 games would be a risk.

However, there is a high likelihood that he will play quite well in those 120 games. Sanders showed the same plus-power in 2005 that has always made him an attractive option, while also walking at the highest rate of his career. He will, of course, strike out a lot, but that is now one of his only flaws. He runs the bases well, plays good outfield defense, and can hit even the league's best fastball.

Given the right fourth outfielder, there is no reason to believe that Sanders' late-career success will not continue. Oh, and he's got that "winner" label, too.

Projection: 2 years, $10 million. An injury-filled past and old age will force teams to stay conservative with their offers. Whoever signs him should be pleased given the right expectations.

23. Preston Wilson - 30 - OF - 2005: Rockies/Nationals

.260 AVG/.325 OBP/.467 SLG | HR 25 | RBI 90 | 45 BB/148 SO

Wilson is unique among this year's free agent class in that he can play all three outfield positions. The former All-Star has a lot of pop in his bat, too. He has a big swing and always ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts. Owing to a knee injury, Wilson's days of stealing 20-plus bases are behind him. But he is only two years removed from leading the NL in RBI, a plus for those GMs who believe they need a "run producer."

The 6-foot-2, 213-pound former Met, Marlin, Rockie, and Nat has a career OPS+ of 106 so we wouldn't get carried away with his offensive abilities, especially for an OF. His counting stats are enticing at first blush, but they overstate his actual production.

Projection: 2 years, $10-12 million, as long as the Yankees don't get involved. A small- to mid-size market team will think his 25 HR and 90 RBI are a bargain at that price.

24. Trevor Hoffman - 37 - RP - 2005: San Diego Padres

W-L 1-6 | SV 43 | ERA 2.97 | WHIP 1.11 | 54 K/12 BB

Like Frank Thomas (who just missed our top 30), the prospect of Trevor Hoffman leaving San Diego is a sad one. Although Hoffman hasn't spent his entire career with one organization in the manner of Thomas, imagining Trevor in a different uniform is a strange thought. The right-hander has saved 434 games as a Padre, including 53 in his sparkling 1998 season.

Those days are long gone, however, as Hoffman really is not a threat to post a 1.98 ERA anymore. His K/9, which once lived in double-digits, has been below 9.00 for two seasons. In 2005, his .235 batting average against was the lowest since 1995. Hoffman's game is now a different one, as he is walking batters at David Wells-like rates. He still has one of the game's best change-ups, though his fastball is down to around 90-MPH.

Given his age, past injuries, and the declining K/9 rate, Hoffman isn't the safest bet for an eight-figure contract. However, he provides a sort of ninth-inning comfort that few other pitchers in the Majors could. Let's just hope that's with the Padres.

Projection: 2 years, $14 million. He deserves to be overpaid a bit, but no one should make the mistake of giving him a third year.

25. Todd Jones - 37 - RP - 2005: Florida Marlins

W-L 1-5 | SV 40 | ERA 2.10 | WHIP 1.03 | 62 K/14 BB

Jones throws four pitches for strikes, including a fastball that was consistently hitting 95-MPH on the gun last year. The 13-year veteran challenges hitters and was equally tough on LHB and RHB, as well as at home and away. Jones claims that he didn't shake catcher Paul LoDuca off once all year. Whether the author of "The Closer" column for The Sporting News can maintain his excellence without LoDuca remains to be seen, but the change of scenery won't be anything new as he has been with Boston, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Florida the past three years.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder allowed only two HR in 73 IP last season. Todd's ERA was almost two runs below his career norm. He also ranked fourth in the NL in saves despite not registering his first until the end of April. His ERA was under 2.00 every month except September (4.91) when he gave up four hits and five runs (four earned) without getting an out in a forgettable appearance vs. Philadelphia.

Projection: 2 years, $7-8 million. A cheap closer option for a small- or middle-market team.

26. Bob Wickman - 36 - RP - 2005: Cleveland Indians

W-L 0-4 | SV 45 | ERA 2.47 | WHIP 1.26 | 41 K/21 BB

Wickman throws a two-seam fastball, a slider, and a change-up. His fastball sits in the low-90s and doubles as a heavy sinker. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Wickman isn't light on his feet. He is a poor fielder and not adept at holding baserunners (11 SB and 0 CS last year and 21-for-21 the past three seasons).

A closer since 1998, Wickman has a bulldog mentality on the mound. He wants the ball and thrives in pressure situations. His 45 saves ranked second in the AL although his peripheral stats were less than spectacular. He had arm surgery two years ago and is a health risk.

Projection: A Jones-like 2 years and $7-8 million. They don't allow month-to-month deals, do they?

27. Kenji Jojima - 29 - C - 2005: Fukuoka Softbank Hawks

.309 AVG/.381 OBP/.557 SLG | HR 24 | RBI 57 |

An unknown commodity if there ever was one. Most Japanese products are, although players like Ichiro, Hideki and Kaz Matsui came with fantastic reviews. Tadahito Iguchi, however, slipped through the free agent process last year, signing a small deal with the World Champion White Sox. Jojima lies somewhere in the middle, as he isn't well-known as one of Japan's most dangerous hitters but is garnering more interest than Iguchi.

Jojima wasn't much entering the 2003 season, following a 2002 in which his OBP was below .310. The last three seasons, however, Jojima has averaged something like .320/.405/.600. His 2004 season was fantastic, where Jojima showed good discipline, power, and a solid throwing arm. This past season, Jojima broke his shin at the end of a year in which he hit 24 homers and had a .381 OBP. However, traditionalists might worry that he only had 57 RBI. Don't let that concern you.

Because as unknown commodities go, he might just be worth the risk.

Projection: 2 years, $13 million. Teams will only guarantee two, but you can bet they will have some options on the back end just in case.

28. Kenny Rogers - 40 - SP - 2005: Texas Rangers

W-L 14-8 | SV 0 | ERA 3.46 | WHIP 1.32 | 87 K/53 BB

If only age and make-up didn't matter, Rogers would be ranked much higher. He is the definition of crafty lefty, throwing 90-MPH only on occasion, while mixing a good curve and solid change. His control has never been a forte, but an ability to pitch with runners on base and keep the ball in the park has made him a 16-year veteran.

However, his status as a veteran comes at a cost: age. Rogers will turn 41 tomorrow, and his days are getting more and more numbered. Only eight southpaws have ever thrown 180 or more innings at his age. Only five pitched decently. The numbers are simply against Rogers succeeding, against his ERA staying below 5.00. Throw in a certain camera man incident from the regular season and a second half ERA of 4.72, and you can see why Rogers might not be the winter's hottest commodity.

Projection: 1 year, $6 million. He'll get a $1.5 million raise on his 2004 salary, plus some team will throw in an option for a second year, with a nice seven-figure buyout.

29. Mike Piazza - 36 - C/DH - 2005: New York Mets

.251 AVG/.326 OBP/.452 | HR 19 | RBI 62 | 41 BB/67 SO

Piazza can still hit reasonably well. Too bad we can't say the same for his defense. Oh, Mike is good enough to spell a starter here and there, but no team can -- or should -- count on him to be their number one catcher. Whether he wants to admit it or not, those days are simply behind him. However, Piazza's agent says the former Dodger and Met great isn't interested in being reduced to a part-time role -- and therein lies the problem. They are still of the belief that Mike can play for "two or three more years" and maintain that he will have the option to catch in either league. We say "good luck" to that and expect AL teams to be much more involved in bidding for his services as a designated hitter and backup catcher than NL teams.

The future Hall of Famer still has above-average power to all fields, but he no longer has what it takes to hit .300. In fact, we think it would be a mistake to expect anything more than a .265 AVG with 20 HR (with little or nothing else behind those numbers) over the course of a 400-450 AB season. Like it or not, at this point in his career, he is more of a name than anything else.

Projection: 1 year, $5 million. Piazza will be hard pressed to earn his keep on the field, but he just might be enough of a box-office hit for the right AL team to justify the price tag.

30. Juan Encarnacion - 29 - OF - 2005: Florida Marlins

.287 AVG/.349 OBP/.447 SLG | HR 16 | RBI 76 | 41 BB/104 SO

For four seasons, Juan Encarnacion has been the same player. He has played the same good outfield defense, while staying the same poor baserunner. You can expect about 140-150 games, 40 or so walks, and about 45-55 extra-base hits (the smaller the park, the less doubles and more HR). The only thing that changes on a year-to-year basis is batting average.

Lucky enough for Encarnacion, his batting average rose 50 points during the 2005 season. Interestingly, his BABIP on the season was .334, far above the league average. This followed a season in which he had the opposite luck. In the middle lies a player who should hit about .270/.330/.430 over the duration of his contract. It's nothing great, but he's a sure bet for those willing to settle for mediocrity.

Projection: 2 years, $8.5-9.5 million, basically repeating his previous salary. Encarnacion is young, consistent, and coming off perhaps his best year. You can rest assured that some General Manager will bite at that.

Honorable Mention: Jeromy Burnitz, Octavio Dotel, Erubiel Durazo, Carl Everett, Alex Gonzalez, Mark Grudzielanek, Bobby Howry, Bill Mueller, Frank Thomas, Rondell White

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Check back tomorrow when we get together and chat about our predictions for the winter.

We also would like to point out two new additions to our sidebar. The first is the "Hot Off the Stove" feature near the top, in which we will be commenting on the day's hottest topic. Second, our list of the top 30 free agents is at the bottom and will be updated as these players sign throughout the offseason. As for now, feel free to list your own thoughts in the comments section.


Re Sanders:

You have him walking at the highest rate of his career in '05, which seemed odd to me; a glance at bb-ref shows 2005's rate to be actually only his 9th or 10th best. Given that his best walk-rate years were 1996, '96 and '97, and his worst years were 2002, '03 and '04, it seems that 2005 was a continuation of a downward trend.

I think you guys are underrating Frank Thomas. He *mashed* the ball last year when healthy. Now, of course, "when healthy" is the key phrase.

I think a team can expect about 400ABs out of him next year with a line that looks like this:

.265/.340/.510/25 HRs

Great series, guys. Here's hoping the Angels drive up the prices of admission for the Chisox to re-sign Konerko, and stay the hell away from the three-headed M monster of Manny, Mike (Piazza), and Molina.

I'm a big fan of baseball specialy when there's latin player, please tell me, What will be the future of the two times MVP Juan Gonzalez in major league baseball? For me he still has at least 2 or 3 more good years if he stays healty.
Thank you.

Carlos, I can appreciate the fact that you like Juan Gonzalez, but I am extremely skeptical about his chances of succeeding at this point. Gonzalez is 36 years old and has only played 186 games the past four years (or an average of 47 per season). He is not a good defensive outfielder and can no long run very well. As a result, Juan Gone would really have to mash his way into a roster and lineup spot.

Is that possible? Sure. But I don't think it is likely. That said, I'll keep my fingers crossed on your behalf.