Time's running out, but help is still available
Already, you're reading scare-stories about agents having misread
the market and teams doing too much preparatory throat-clearing.
Across baseball, there's the growing sense that time is running
out. After all, in less than two weeks, the arbitration-filing
process begins, and pitchers and catchers report in less than two
months. Yet despite the ticking clock, roster holes and unemployed
Since we're at that "time is running out" juncture, let's take a moment to ponder what's left. Free agents like John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Randy Wolf, Rich Harden, and the reigning World Series MVP are off the board (among many others), and trade targets like Roy Halladay, Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson have already been swapped. So where does that leave us?
In terms of the 10 best remaining guns for hire and trade targets -- i.e., the best players still available -- this is where that leaves us ...
1. Adrian Gonzalez
The Padres' first baseman is the best talent up for grabs. His merits are many: Gonzalez fields his position, he's coming off a season in which he batted .277 AVG/.401 OBP/.551 SLG despite playing his home games in a ludicrously bad hitter's park, he's just 27 years old, and he'll make a total of just $10.25 million over the next two years. That's a young, complete player who's also a serious bargain. It's little wonder, then, that a heady team like Boston is angling for him. The Padres don't have to move Gonzalez, which is why they're asking for a sheik's ransom in young talent. But Gonzalez is worth it.
2. Matt Holliday
Scott Boras doesn't mind playing the waiting game, so a Holliday signing may not be in the immediate offing. When he does sign, though, he'll provide his new team with plenty of skills. He runs the bases well for a big guy, he shows plus range in left, and he's an impact hitter at the plate -- even when not hitting at a mile above sea level. In fact, Bill James projects Holliday to hit .316 AVG/.391 OBP/.531 SLG with 27 homers and 43 doubles. And at age 29, he should remain productive for at least the next handful of seasons. The only question is whether Boras and Holliday will get the eight-year contract for which they're pressing.
3. Dan Uggla
According to rumors, the Marlins, those terminal shedders of payroll, are looking to trade Uggla, who's eligible for salary arbitration. He's a below-average defender at second base, but his bat is more than good enough to compensate. Uggla has uncommon power for a middle infielder (more than 30 homers in each of the last three seasons), and he's coming off a particularly strong second half of 2009. As well, Uggla played some third base in the minors, so a position shift isn't out of the question. Mostly, though, it's Uggla's bat and ability to man the keystone that make him a rare talent.
4. Jason Bay
Bay is an accomplished hitter, but ever since his 2007 knee injury he hasn't shown adequate range in the field. That's why he'd be a better fit on an AL team, who could stow him away at DH. Accordingly, he's not an ideal match for the team rumored to be hotly pursuing him -- the Mets (that's especially the case, since patrolling spacious Citi Field is substantially more challenging than doing so in Fenway's cramped left field). Even on an NL team, though, Bay will be a net plus because of his bat, and getting out of the brutal AL East would likely help his offensive numbers. Because of his limitations, though, a contract longer than four years is difficult to justify.
5. Adrian Beltre
The most underrated free agent on the market? That's a subjective matter but probably so. Beltre is an elite-level defender at third base, and his offensive game was uniquely ill-suited to Safeco Field in Seattle. So he's a better hitter than you might think. Don't be surprised if, in 2010, Beltre is good for an OPS of around 800, 20-plus bombs and Gold Glove-caliber fielding at the hot corner. Yes, his numbers in '09 took a dive, but he's a serious rebound candidate. Besides, who among us would be ourselves after taking a hard ground ball to the pills?
6. Heath Bell
Bell's another affordable Padre talent who might be on the block. Bell has emerged as a shutdown closer in San Diego, and he's also been capable of high workloads by closer standards. Don't be surprised if a healthy market for him emerges. Any reasonable projection for Bell in 2010 will tab him for 70-plus innings, a high K rate and an ERA in the 2.00s. He'd be an ideal addition for the Phillies, who are a reliable closer away from being World Series favorites.
7. Aaron Harang
Ignore Harang's grim win-loss record over the last few seasons (looking at wins and losses is not a useful way to evaluate pitchers) and instead focus on what he does fairly well: give you 200-ish innings and keep runs off the board at a better-than-average rate. Many a rotation can use someone like him. Harang will make $12.5 million for the upcoming season, and his 2011 buyout is $2 million. That's why the budget-conscious Reds are, reportedly, willing to move him.
8. Pedro Martinez
The future first-ballot Hall of Famer proved last October that he's still capable of excellence, and his numbers down the stretch for Philly were also impressive. Yes, Martinez is 38 years old and an injury risk, but he's still capable of good strikeout numbers and an ERA comfortably below 4.00. The ideal fit would be a team who plays in a park that cuts down on home-run rates (Martinez has strong fly-ball tendencies) and is in need of a high-upside calculated risk in the rotation. The Mets perhaps?
9. Johnny Damon
A return to the Bronx makes a lot of sense for Damon. They could use him in left (in the absence of a Matt Holliday signing, of course), and Damon's swing appears to be perfectly tailored to the new Yankee Stadium (.533 SLG at home last season, .446 on the road). As well, he's a capable defender in left, and despite batting lefty and having many moving parts to his swing Damon can get by without a platoon partner. He's not worth the three-year deal he hopes for, but he's a useful addition -- particularly for the Yankees -- at one year plus a team option.
10. Jose Valverde
Valverde is a Type A free agent who was offered arbitration, so he'll cost his new team a compensatory draft pick. Still, Valverde's a sensible target for a GM who needs a closer. He's been a reliable ninth-inning guy in four of the last five seasons, and at age 30 he figures to sustain that level of performance. The flush market for closers also means that Valverde may be reduced to signing a one-year contract. Potentially, he'll be a value addition.