Sneak Preview of the 2009 Free Agents: Catchers and Infielders
As the baseball season finishes up the dog days of summer, I thought it would be instructive to take a peek at the upcoming crop of free agents.
With more teams signing young players to longer-term deals that buy out one or more free agent years, the talent pool is likely to age and/or diminish over time. These next few years could see the beginning of the end of the top 20-something players in their peak years turning to free agency. In the meantime, major-league baseball teams are still minting money, meaning there will be plenty of interest and dough for the best of the best. Moreover, the Yankees, with $88 million in salaries coming off the books, a new stadium that could produce a windfall in new revenues next season, and the strong likelihood of missing the post-season for the first time in more than a decade, will be bidding aggressively, driving up prices for the premiium players.
Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia fit the bill this off-season, while Pat Burrell, Adam Dunn, and Manny Ramirez, among hitters, and Ryan Dempster, Derek Lowe, Oliver Perez, and Ben Sheets, among starting pitchers, and Brian Fuentes and Francisco Rodriguez, among relievers, should draw a lot of attention – and money – as well.
In the first of a three-part series, let's take a look at the catchers and infielders in the free agent class of 2009. We will follow up with the outfielders and pitchers in separate articles. Players marked by an asterisk after their names are subject to club and/or player options.
First Basemen Club Rich Aurilia SF Carlos Delgado* NYM Jason Giambi* NYY Wes Helms PHI Kevin Millar BAL Mark Teixeira LAA Daryle Ward CHC
The Mets and Carlos Delgado have a $12M mutual option for 2009 (with a $4M buyout). The 36-year-old slugger got off to a poor start this season (.198/.297/.323 in April) but has hit .314/.407/.594 since July 1. Based on his buyout, the true cost of bringing him back is only $8M. He just may be a bargain at that price. However, Delgado, the team leader of the resurgent Mets, may not give his consent to such a deal. Stay tuned.
The Yankees will undoubtedly reject a $22M club option on Jason Giambi for 2009 and instead pay him a $5M buyout. Giambi, who turns 38 in January, is still productive at the plate, hitting .250/.381/.503 this season. Look for him to sign a one-year contract with an AL team.
Mark Teixeira (.302/.408/.541) is the prize of this year's free-agent class. The switch-hitting first baseman reportedly turned down an eight-year, $140 million contract extension from the Rangers last summer and is rumored to be seeking a ten-year deal for a minimum of $200M. The Angels need Tex's bat and approach (15 BB and 10 SO in 101 PA) but will be competing with the Yankees, Mariners, hometown Orioles, and perhaps the Mets, among others, for his services. If money is no object, sign him. However, I would be skeptical of Teixeira's performance in the final five years of such an agreement when he would be 34-38 years old.
Second Basemen Club Jamey Carroll* CLE Ray Durham MIL Mark Ellis OAK Mark Grudzielanek KC Orlando Hudson ARI Jeff Kent LAD Felipe Lopez STL Pablo Ozuna LAD
Orlando Hudson (.305/.367/.450 in 107 games) is the best of a relatively weak group of second basemen. The three-time Gold Glover's season has been shortened once again as he underwent surgery earlier this month to repair ligament damage in his left wrist. The soon-to-be 31-year-old will become a free agent for the first time and will be looking to cash in. O-Dog has posted an OPS+ of greater than 100 for each of the past three campaigns. Only three other second sackers can make that claim: Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla, and Chase Utley.
At 40, Jeff Kent has slipped noticeably this season, both at the plate (.283/.330/.424) and in the field (13 runs below average per 100 games). I guess it's possible that the Dodgers could bring him back for one more year, but it says here that the 2000 NL MVP and future Hall of Famer will retire.
Shortstops Club Orlando Cabrera CWS Alex Cintron BAL Alex Cora BOS Adam Everett MIN Rafael Furcal LAD Cesar Izturis STL Edgar Renteria* DET
Orlando Cabrera (.272/.326/.357) is a solid, if unspectacular, shortstop. He doesn't hit for much power (7 HR in 585 PA) but still runs the bases well (18 SB in 22 attempts) and can more than handle the defensive requirements of the position. However, at the age of 34, OC may find the going tough this winter. Look for a team to ink him to a two-year contract as a stop gap awaiting a younger alternative.
When healthy, Rafael Furcal is one of the most productive shortstops in the game. He put up a .366/.448/.597 line through the first week of May before hitting the disabled list with a bulging disk in his back, which was surgically repaired in early July. The Dodgers were 18-14 in those 32 games and have been 47-51 without him. There is an outside chance that Furcal could return this season. Either way, the 31-year-old will have a tough time duplicating the three-year, $39M contract he signed as a free agent in December 2005.
Coming off a .332/.390/.470 campaign with the Braves in 2007, Edgar Renteria has been a huge disappointment for the Tigers. He is arguably having the worst year (.264/.314/.355) of his 13-year career. The 33-year-old is average at best defensively and no longer steals bases like he once did. Renteria has picked up the pace a bit in August (.290/.342/.449) and how he performs in September will probably determine the level of interest this winter.
Third Basemen Club Hank Blalock* TEX Joe Crede CWS Chipper Jones* ATL
The Rangers can exercise a $6.2M club option on Hank Blalock for next season or let him go for a rather cheap $250,000 buyout. After missing more than three weeks, Blalock returned to action last Friday. Due to continued soreness in his right shoulder, Blalock may be relegated to first base, at least for the foreseeable future. Unless the seven-year veteran can man the hot corner, his value will be circumspect, especially given his career splits (.227/.282/.352 vs. LHP and .244/.301/.398 on the road). Put me solidly in the camp of the skeptics.
Joe Crede (.255/.323/.474) has been out of action with a bad back for more than a month. He is serving a rehab assignment with the Triple-A Knights and will likely join the White Sox before the month is out. His pluses (good power and excellent defense) and minuses (health and consistency) are well known. Crede will turn 31 next April and his best days are probably behind him. Put it all together and he looks like a poor man's Scott Rolen.
Make no mistake about it, Chipper Jones will be wearing a Braves uniform next season. According to Cot's Baseball Contracts, Atlanta has a club option that will vest between $8M and $11M (depending on performance and award bonuses). If anything, look for the Braves and Jones to work out a new deal that keeps the switch-hitting third baseman with the one and only club that he has known. Always an injury risk, Jones is more productive at the plate than ever. Look no further than his OPS+ marks the past four seasons:
YEAR AGE OPS+ 2005 33 151 2006 34 154 2007 35 166 2008 36 173
Jones (.359/.460/.568) is not only getting older, he is getting better. While I'm aware that the above trend is unlikely to continue, I would be comfortable tearing up his contract and signing him to an extension that would keep him in Atlanta for the next three seasons.
Utility Infielders Club Craig Counsell* MIL Nomar Garciaparra LAD Nick Punto MIN Juan Uribe CWS
Catchers Club Rod Barajas TOR Henry Blanco* CHC Toby Hall* CWS Mike Redmond* MIN Ivan Rodriguez NYY Javier Valentin CIN Jason Varitek BOS Gregg Zaun* TOR
There are two oldies but goodies...um...scratch that, oldies and formerly goodies...in this group. Ivan Rodriguez (.284/.329/.402 overall but .217/.265/.304 in 16 games with the Yankees) will turn 38 in November and is little more than a good defensive catcher at this point. He served as a two-month rental for New York but doesn't fit into the club's future plans as Jorge Posada is expected to return next season.
Jason Varitek is in the midst of the worst year (.223/.315/.370) of his 11-year career. Boston may have an interest in bringing back its captain, who turns 37 next April, for one more season but not at the $10M average he earned from 2005-2008. However, the question is whether or not Scott Boras' client can suck it up and accept such a deal.