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January 12, 2013

Overthinking It

Bargain Bin Free Agents

by Ben Lindbergh

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At this point in the offseason, few impact free agents remain on the market, save for Scott Boras clients who’ve been hurt by the new CBA’s draft pick compensation system. Assuming Mike Napoli and Francisco Liriano eventually ink with the Red Sox and Pirates, respectively, only seven of the top 50 free agents have yet to find a home.

However, there are still some decent values waiting to be dug up by teams that are willing to look in the bargain bin. Last year, injury reclamation projects like Bartolo Colon, Oliver Perez, and Pat Neshek, bench bats like Jonny Gomes, Jeff Keppinger, Wilson Betemit, and Gregor Blanco, and unremarkable relievers like Fernando Rodney all went on to have strong seasons after signing in January, most of them with contending teams. (Rodney, who entered the year with a 4.42 ERA in his previous five seasons, became one of 2012’s best stories, posting a 0.60 ERA and finishing fifth in AL Cy Young voting.)

None of those players made many headlines by signing, but several of them proved pivotal in their teams’ playoff runs. Here’s a look at 10 low-profile free agents who are still unsigned and could have a similar impact this season.

Travis Hafner
The 35-year-old Hafner isn’t technically coming off an injury, since he returned from a DL stint for a bulging disc in his lower back—which was preceded by meniscus surgery—in late September. However, he’s spent at least part of every season since he turned 30 on the disabled list, and the wear and tear has sapped his skills. Still, he retains some resemblance to the patient, powerful hitter he was in his prime.

Last season, Hafner roughly matched his career walk rate and Isolated Power and bettered his career strikeout rate, but his overall line was dragged down by a BABIP 80 points below his career average, which may have been the result of bad luck. If that luck turns in 2013, Hafner could be a potent weapon against righties and a league-average hitter against lefties, at least until his next injury. But he’ll have to find an AL team with an opening at DH, since it’s been almost six years since he last wore a glove in a game.
Good fit: Rays

Scott Hairston
Like Hafner, Hairston has the “powerful” part down. Unlike Hafner, the “patience” part eludes him. Hairston posted a career-low 4.8 percent walk rate last season, but he also hit a career-high 20 homers, which made the Mets happy. The right-handed hitter has a weighted multi-year TAv of .300 versus southpaws, and he topped that in 2012 with a .315 mark (.286/.317/.550 triple-slash line). He’s also capable of faking center field, which gives him enough versatility to be a valuable bench bat if he’s used in situations that play to his strengths.
Good fit: Yankees

Luke Scott
Scott had a disappointing 2012 in Tampa Bay, spending 50 days on the DL with back spasms and an oblique strain following an even more injury-plagued season in Baltimore. However, when healthy, he still displayed his trademark talent for punishing opposite-handed pitchers. The southpaw posted a .294 TAv against right-handers, almost identical to his .293 multi-year mark. Like Hairston, he could be a perfect platoon player, though he’s much more limited defensively.
Good fit: Orioles

Ben Francisco
Francisco is a Gregor Blanco-type player who can offer something close to league-average offense, defense, and baserunning in a part-time outfield role. If he’s starting regularly, it’s a sign that something on the roster went wrong, but a team could do worse than Francisco as a relatively inexpensive reserve.
Good fit: Mets

Kyle Farnsworth
A right elbow strain cost Farnsworth the first three months of last season, and in his second game back, he walked four and allowed three runs. From that point on, he pitched to a 3.16 ERA with 22 strikeouts and nine walks in 25 2/3 innings, not far off the solid peripherals he’d posted in previous years. His fastball velocity was down a bit from where it had been before the elbow issue, but “down,” for Farnsworth, meant an average of 95.4 mph. The righty has recorded a 3.16 FIP over the past four seasons since picking up a cutter in Kansas City and becoming a more complete pitcher, and he should serve some team well in a setup role.
Good fit: Rays

Erik Bedard
Injuries have long been Bedard’s bugaboo: in several seasons leading up to last year, he almost inevitably struggled to stay healthy, but he also hadn’t posted an ERA over 4.00 since his 2004 rookie campaign. Last year, he started strong and stayed off the DL for the first time since 2006, but his fastball was missing some bite. By late August, his ERA had crept over 5.00, at which point the Pirates released him. Bedard’s FIP was almost a full run lower than his ERA, and while he’ll always be fragile, he might have a bounceback in him.
Good fit: Indians

The walking wounded

Joey Devine
Like Brian Wilson, another formerly successful reliever looking for a make-good deal, Devine is making his way back from April 2012 Tommy John surgery. The difference is that that TJ procedure was Devine’s second in three years. It’s a long shot, but if his second surgery works better than the first one did, Devine could be a nice surprise for someone. In 2008, the last time he had a fully functioning elbow, he held righties to a .120/.182/.130 line, albeit with plenty of batted-ball luck.
Good fit: Rangers

Dallas Braden
Braden is attempting to come back from multiple shoulder surgeries, which have kept him off a major-league mound since April of 2011. When healthy, Braden was Joe Saunders with fewer grounders but a better strikeout-to-walk ratio (the two have nearly identical career ERAs). Some team will take a flyer on the off chance that he can effect a Colon-like recovery and be that good again.
Good fit: Twins

Pedro Feliciano
From 2007-10, Feliciano led the majors in appearances (by over 40 games) and limited lefties to a .203/.273/.290 line. Then he signed with the Yankees and broke before he threw a pitch that counted. He spent most of 2011 unsuccessfully attempting to heal himself through rest and rehab, had rotator cuff and capsule surgery that September, and then made it back to the minors late last season. If he’s healthy and still has his stuff, it would be worth a team’s time to see whether he can still get lefties out with a lighter workload.
Good fit: Blue Jays

Grady Sizemore
Since 2009, Sizemore has appeared in only 56 games and hit just .220/.280/.379, and he didn’t play at all last season. He’s also had seven surgeries over that span, the most recent of which was a microfracture procedure on his right knee last September. Sizemore wants to play again, but he might not sign until he’s close to recovered, which could take until midseason. It’s unlikely that the 30-year-old will ever again look like the player he was in his mid-20s, but teams have little to lose by letting him try to turn back the clock.
Good fit: Mets

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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