Who's Left? A Look at the Free Agent Market.

As the Winter Meetings move behind us, the free agent market is still taking shape. Players, GM's, and agents are all working around the clock to improve their teams by adding talent from the free agent market. The question remains: Who's left? And how much could they help their prospective teams?

In today's post -- the first in a series -- we'll be looking at who's left on the free agent market by position and how they project for the 2009 season. Let's get started.

Because we're interested in seeing who's still available for teams, I wanted to break the players down into sections by positions. Today we'll be looking at free agent catchers and first basemen. In following posts we'll examine the positions of: second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field, and right field. The group of free agent DH's is pretty small, so in that case I'm going to stick them at their most likely position. For example: Jason Giambi will land in our first base list despite being a DH in recent years -- though, he did play over 100 games at first in 2008.

My list of free agents by position is courtesy of MLBTR. Their list looks solid, but if you think I missed someone -- or added someone who doesn't deserve to be there -- leave a comment and I'll fix it. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with all the players and it always seems that I'll miss a player or two.

So, we'll be looking at players by position but how will we compare them? I decided to keep it simple and compare the players by ISO and OBP, the two most essential qualities for hitters. The ability to get on base (ie: not make outs) and to move teammates around when they are on base (ie: hitting for power). ISO, or Isolated Power, is a measure of a hitter's "true power". The formula for ISO is simple, it's (SLG-BA = ISO). Batting average judges every hit as a single and ISO removes BA from the SLG equation. Everyone is familiar with on-base percentage.

In order to project the 2009 performances of our group of free agents, I decided to use the 2009 Oliver Batter Projections. The 'Olivers' are built on the framework of  Marcels. Marcel is a very basic projection system and Oliver adds some sophistication -- using minor league data, park adjustments, age adjustments, etc -- to the framework. Availability of data is another reason I'm using Oliver. You can download the entire hitter projections in one spreadsheet. After going through the Oliver projections, I've pulled out the projected 2009 ISO and OBP for each free agent. Then, after pulling the data, I've plotted each in terms of ISO and OBP.

A quick word on the plots. The horizontal and vertical red lines indicate the 2008 positional league averages for ISO and OBP. The horizontal and vertical blue lines indicate the 2008 league averages for ISO and OBP.   This divides the plot into four sections. The lower left section indicates hitters with below average power and ability to get on base. You don't want to be in the lower left quadrant. The upper right quadrant is the most desirable placement as it indicates hitters with above average power and ability to get on base. The horizontal and vertical league average lines will most likely be different in 2009 -- remember I'm using the 2008 averages -- but nothing drastic. Offense has trended down the last few years and they might swing a couple of points in either direction. But, for our purposes, our averages should be close enough to evaluate these players.

OK, let's check out our first plot for free agent catchers.

Isolated Power vs. On-base Percentage: 2009 Free Agent Catchers

  Catcher-isovobp-ed_medium

Name OBP ISO
Brad Ausmus 0.299 0.081
Paul Bako 0.293 0.098
Josh Bard 0.323 0.129
Michael Barrett 0.309 0.154
Gary Bennett 0.301 0.110
Henry Blanco 0.292 0.133
Chris Burke 0.317 0.113
Kevin Cash 0.280 0.131
Johnny Estrada 0.300 0.120
Sal Fasano 0.292 0.163
Toby Hall 0.295 0.115
Robby Hammock 0.303 0.129
Paul LoDuca 0.329 0.113
Adam Melhuse 0.316 0.145
Ivan Rodriguez 0.323 0.155
Javier Valentine 0.315 0.151
Jason Varitek 0.330 0.159
Vance Wilson* 0.316 0.150
Greg Zaun 0.338 0.141

Some thoughts about the 2009 FA class for catchers:

  • There's not a lot out there right now on the free agent market for teams with catching needs. Jason Varitek, Ivan Rodriguez, and Greg Zaun are probably the cream of the crop. And I'm using that phrase very loosely. All three catchers are getting up there in years and could be treading the fine line between acceptable and disaster.
  • Jason Varitek took a nosedive last season but he's still projecting as an above-average catcher in terms of ISO and OBP. Oliver is predicting that he'll see some bounce back in both ISO and OBP. Scott Boras has been trying to drive up his asking price with talk of his game-calling abilities, but despite being one of the less truly terrible catching talents on the market -- I'm looking at you Brad Ausmus -- I'm not sure I'd want to take the 2-3 year bet on his ability to remain semi-productive.
  • Ivan Rodriguez might have a little left in the tank and might sign for less -- in both years and salary -- than Varitek. He didn't look particularly strong during his brief stint with the Yankees last season but someone will probably give him 1-2 years.
  • I think if we're picking for overall value, Greg Zaun could be a nice fit for a team with little catching depth. Since 2004, when his playing time increased, he's been a very consistent hitter. From 2004-2008 he's produced OPS+'s of: 96, 94, 112, 98, and 87. His OBP of .338 is the best among our catching class.
  • Brad Ausmus, Paul Bako, and Gary Bennett are some of the least desirable catchers on the market. Ausmus has never been a good hitter but it seems year-after-year he finds work. The Astros will most likely kick their Ausmus addiction this year but he could turn up somewhere as a backup. 
  • You may notice that Vance Wilson has an (*) attached to his name. That's because he wasn't included in the 2009 Oliver Projections for some reason. I used his Marcel projection instead. I'll be emailing Brian Cartwright, creator of the Olivers, to see if he has a projection for Wilson. I'll update the data if I get some information on Wilson. 
  • Michael Barrett had a great run of offensive seasons between 2004-2006. Over those years he posted OPS+'s of: 108, 110, and 120. That's fantastic offensive production from a catcher. But he has struggled in recent years and only played in 30 games last year in an injury filled season. He had both elbow and concussion problems last season. Oliver projects him to hit for fairly good power for a catcher. He's near the grouping of: Varitek, Rodriguez, Wilson, Melhuse, and Valentine. If he's healthy, which could be a big if, he might surprise a few people. Getting out of Petco should help him.

Isolated Power vs. On-base Percentage: 2009 Free Agent First Basemen

Firstbase-isovobp_medium

Name OBP ISO
Rich Aurilia 0.326 0.150
Miguel Cairo 0.306 0.098
Sean Casey 0.344 0.118
Tony Clark 0.322 0.200
Nomar Garciaparra 0.328 0.162
Jason Giambi 0.385 0.235
Eric Hinske 0.325 0.185
Doug Mientkiewicz 0.344 0.134
Kevin Millar 0.345 0.162
Richie Sexson 0.325 0.216
Mark Sweeney 0.333 0.134
Mark Teixeira 0.372 0.239
Daryle Ward 0.316 0.174

Thoughts on our first basemen group:

  • Mark Teixeria is about to become a very rich man. First basemen, as a group, are some of the best hitters in the game. Teixeria is way above-average on offense at first base. His ISO projects as the best among free agents and his OBP is 2nd only to Jason Giambi. He's one of the most desirable free agents this offseason because of his relative age and skill-level. Both he and Giambi blow away the average first baseman in both ISO and OBP production.
  • Speaking of Giambi, he could be a nice buy in comparison to Tex. He's projected to be around the same value on offense -- and remember, we're only discussing offense...his glove is going to cost him some at first -- and he'll cost less in both years and money. If a team thinks they can keep Giambi healthy and on the field, they should consider him. Ideally, he'll sign with an American League team where he can DH now and then to keep him off the field.
  • The rest of our group includes players who were once pretty good -- Sexson, Garciaparra, Sean Casey, and Kevin Millar -- but who are on the downsides of their careers. At this point in his career, Richie Sexson will only hit for a little power. In fact, I would probably take the under on his Oliver projection. Garciaparra is made of glass and Sean Casey has had injury problems over the last few years. Casey won't hit for power but he can still get on base. Kevin Millar has been surprisingly useful over the past few years but took a slight dip in 2008.
  • Eric Hinkse isn't someone your favorite team should build around, but in the right scenario he could give you some value at first base as long as you platoon him. He should never take an at-bat against left-handed pitching but he's proven that he can hit right-handed pitching enough to be semi-useful. He shouldn't cost much and if you've already got a guy who mashes LHP, he might be a cheap 1-year fix for a platoon.
  • Everyone point and laugh at Miguel Cairo. He hits like a shortstop but for some reason he accrued 160+ PA's at first base last year for the struggling Mariners. Cairo really isn't a first baseman -- he's more of a utility guy -- but somehow over his career he's played 93 games at the position.

In the next post, we'll be looking at free agents for the positions of second and third base. Stay tuned.

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