Baseball free Agency: A Guide for GMs Who Want to Stay Employed

Which GM will be the next to get burned by baseball's Hot Stove wheeling and dealing?

Somebody told me they’re still playing NFL football. As if I care. Not! December means major league baseball’s Hot Stove League is stoking up. This is the time of the year in which--as they say of second marriages--hope triumphs over experience and guys who have had mediocre careers become instant gadzillionaires. As a public service I offer a guide to save general managers from themselves. Here’s my insider’s take on the free agency market.

Let’s start with the early dumb signing. That would be the Marlins’ decision to sign Javier Vasquez to a one-year $7 million deal. The world “gutless” pretty much sums up Vasquez. He may have “good stuff”--as we’re always told--but the $7 million arm comes with a fifty-cent makeup. He’s had one decent year (Atlanta 2009) and simply can’t pitch under pressure. I’d say $7 million is inflated by a factor of at least half.

Vasquez falls into the category of players who should have been great but never were. They’re like Chicken Little and after a while, a smart GM would just walk away. Here are a group of never-will-bes to which a general manager would have be crazy to offer anything more than a minor league deal: Vicente Padilla, Kyle Farnsworth, Kevin Millwood. Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver. Seriously--these are the kind of guys who get GMs fired. They light up radar guns and look great in tryouts. In actual games they turn .240 guys into Ted Williams. The hitter equivalents to these flameouts are Matt Stairs and Carlos Pena. Why would anyone want a strikeout king with an iron glove like Stairs? Pena hits lots of homeruns. The problem is he hits almost nothing else. Do you give several million to a player who can’t hit .200? Not me.

Closely related to the above are the guys who were good at one time, but who have been so ravaged by injuries that it simply makes no sense to offer serious money: Brandon Webb, Erik Bedard, Freddy Garcia, Scott Prior, Ben Sheets. These were rising stars once, but they’re supernova now. Sign only at bargain basement prices.

And let’s hear it for the over-the-hill gang. These guys would be worth Filene’s Basement prices, but if they start talking salad days salaries, hide the checkbook: Johnny Damon, Lance Berkman, Edgar Renteria, Orlando Hudson.

A subset is the don’t-touch-this guys who are either poison or steroid frauds, with Jason Giambi and Jose Guillen topping the list. And then there’s Manny Ramirez, who has a category of his own titled “More Trouble than He’s Worth.” In the flat-out “Stick-a-Fork-in-Him-Done” category is Jason Varitek.

Also to be avoided are the walk-year wonders. Heading this list is Carl Pavano. I don’t want to hear about his “turn around year” in Minnesota. Let Pavano pitch three straight decent years and I’ll remove him from the Turkey list. Until then, any GM who fills his carcass full of green stuffing is as stupid as Brian Cashman four years ago. Pavano’s 97-89 lifetime. How does that translate into anything other than short change? While I’m on the topic, why on earth would anyone offer Adrian Beltre a multiyear contract? A little history. The dude hit .334 in Los Angeles in his walk year in 2004 and then averaged around .255 in five mediocre years in Seattle. In 2010, another walk year, he hit .321 in Boston. Detect a pattern here?

Are there any bargains out there? Austin Kearns is a good buy for a team in need of a solid backup outfielder, and I’d be tempted to pay Magglio Ordonez an incentive-laden one-year deal rather than overpaying for Jayson Werth, especially if I’m an AL GM. Those NL guys have a habit of flaming out in the AL. Besides, I think Werth will end up back in Philly.

So let’s get to the Big Names in free agency. Add me to the list of those leery of Carl Crawford. The Angels are Jonesing for him and I’d say “good luck” and save my money. I would have wanted Crawford three years ago, but his game is simply built too much on speed and he’s already lost a step. He’s a solid player, but not worth what will be demanded. Love Scott Downs, but do you surrender a first-round draft choice and a supplemental for a situational lefty? Not me. I’m also fond of closer Rafael Soriano, but he’s a Scott Boras client and will command way more than his actual value.

This leaves Mariano Rivera and all any sane person can say to the Yankees is, “Pay the man.” At age 41 he’s still among the best in MLB. Who can you sign with an ERA of 1.80? Nobody. On the other hand, as big a fan as I have been of
Derek Jeter,
three years at $45 million strikes me as very charitable. It may be time for the Yankees to remind Jeter’s agent that they let Damon walk last year. Jeter would not get half of this on the open market, so hardball is the game to play. Face-saving gesture: add a passel of incentives to Jeter’s contract. Hey, if he returns to form and hits .330 again, it would be worth another $5 million, yes?

This leaves the big prize, Cliff Lee. I like Lee, but I don’t like him for more than three years and I think it will take five or six to sign him. This leaves the Yankees as the clear favorites to sign him. If they do, they need to think of it as three years of production and two (or more) years of charity. He should get three years at $60 million; he’ll probably get five at $120 million. Lee has said he doesn’t like pitching in the Texas heat and who can blame him? Arlington in August is more suitable for a reptile ranch than Rangers baseball. But if he takes inflated dough to go to the Bronx he’d better help deliver championship 28, or he’ll be the new Carl(a) Pavano and the Texas sun will seem like Baffin Island compared to the scorching he’ll get in the New York media.

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