This year's MLB free agent class didn't have as many impact names as the NBA's, but it still boasted some of the better players in the game. Lee, Beltre, Werth, Crawford... these guys are legitimate difference-makers. But they've all signed already, and we still have weeks before Spring Training even begins. Teams that were hoping to land an impact player this offseason, someone who could provide a massive upgrade, probably missed out on their last chance when the Cubs traded for the eminently available Matt Garza last week.
But that's not to say that we've ran out of free agents that can offer some serious value. Every offseason, we see guys sign after the New Year that end up being integral to their team's success. Among the bigger names that signed on January 13 or later during the previous offseason: Adam LaRoche, Colby Lewis, Jose Valverde, Joel Pineiro, Miguel Tejada, Jon Garland, Ben Sheets, Jim Thome, Kevin Gregg, Orlando Hudson, Joaquin Benoit and Johnny Damon. So we're not yet at the point where teams are peering over a wasteland of aging reserves, fringe starters, fungible relievers and Quad-A guys.
So before we get to that point in a month or two, let's a look at the top-10 free agents left on the market. Also, I'd like to note that I'm excluding Andy Pettite. Yeah, he's a free agent, but he's a free agent with only one potential destination.. at least to me, his situation just isn't that interesting to talk about. I'm also excluding guys who have agreed to deals but haven't officially signed, like Brad Penny.
10) 1B Russell Branyan
He's limited to first base, he's going to strike out one-third of the time, and he's 35-years-old, but Russell Branyan can still hit an awful lot against right-handed pitching. Over the past three seasons, he's compiled a .264/.361/.553 line against them. There are few teams in the league that couldn't use that kind of overall production and power. Most teams don't like to "clog their roster" with players like Branyan that are limited in the field and can't play every day, but Branyan is the kind of bat that should come cheap enough to make an exception, because he's going to smack 25 homers with a good OBP in part-time duty for someone.
9) RHP Jon Rauch
If you're a baseball team in need of a decent center for pick-up basketball games, the 6-11 Rauch is presumably your man. But funny enough, it also turns out that he's a pretty decent reliever. He's not going to blow you away with anything other than his height, but over the past five seasons he's been a heavily used, solid reliever. He's traded some strikeouts for grounders over the past couple years, but it hasn't hurt his performance: he set career-bests in ERA and FIP with the Twins in 2010. He's not likely to repeat ERA/FIP marks around 3, but he seems like a good bet for a solid year.
8) RHP Grant Balfour
Teams in need of a power-throwing set-up man presumably are looking Balfour's way right now. His price has dropped to the point where people are wondering if he'll have to settle for a one-year deal, which could potentially be a huge bargain. He hasn't been able to match his 2008 dominance (1.54 ERA, 2.22 FIP) in the past two seasons, but he was still a high-quality reliever in 2010. He's put up 4.6 wins over the past three seasons, a really strong mark for a non-closing reliever, so past performance isn't exactly the issue. Here are the issues, I'm guessing: his velocity (dropped from 94.6 to 92.7) and his whiff rate (11.6% to 8.9%).
7) DH Vladimir Guerrero
Vlad got a lot of attention from the mainstream media because of his strong traditional numbers and the Rangers' success last year, but it'd be prudent to remember that for all of the homers and RBIs, he was still a DH with a .340 OBP. He put in a solid 2.6 WAR season, but this wasn't the return of the old Guerrero. There are reasons to be optimistic; particularly, his low strikeout rate and the fact that he's Vladimir Guerrero. But ZiPS projects Guerrero to essentially repeat his performance from 2010, and I think that's a fairly optimistic projection.
6) LHP Brian Fuentes
Fuentes might be getting more attention than he deserves because he has 187 career saves, but that doesn't mean that he can't be a very useful bullpen piece. He's an extreme flyballer, which doesn't really help things, but he's absolutely dominant against lefties so an excellent LOOGY is basically the worst-case scenario. In 154 innings against lefties in his career, he's put up a 2.73 FIP, but his struggles against RH hitters have worsened in recent years. He shouldn't be anywhere near a closer role, and teams should really keep that in mind when considering what kind of contract to offer him. But if he's willing to take a reasonable one-year deal, he could be a really nice addition for someone.
5) OF/DH Johnny Damon
Damon's defensive progression has been interesting. He was an above-average defender in center field, but after declining he moved to left field, where he was initially above-average. But after additional decline, he's now at the point where he doesn't really belong at any outfield position for extended periods of time. What he can still offer to teams, though, is the ability to get on base: his OBP hasn't dipped below .350 since 2003. He's more of a role player now, someone who can be a decent DH and play left field in a pinch, but his OBP skills still give him value.
4) DH Jim Thome
If Damon is a sort-of DH, then Thome is definitely a full-blown DH. After playing a total of 28 innings at first base with Chicago in 2006/2007, he's become absolutely unplayable at any position but DH. That hasn't stopped him from being a valuable player, though. Since becoming a full-time DH in 2006, Thome's bat has been nearly 150 runs above average, although he's slowly began to lose value against left-handed pitching. But that doesn't really matter, though, because Thome is still an elite hitter against the majority of pitchers. In 2010, he put up a .302/.455/.698 line against right-handed pitching, a mind-blowingly strong mark. With a 1.056 OPS against RHP in his career, Thome seems like a lock to be the key portion of a very good DH platoon.
3) LHP Jeff Francis
The former Rockie seems to be entirely underrated by many who have analyzed the free agent class. I know that we're talking about a pitcher that had shoulder surgery in 2008, missed all of 2009, and put up a 5.00 ERA in 104 innings in 2010. But once you get beyond that, I think there's some massive bargain potential here. He'll never be an ace, but his stuff is pretty much all the way back, he's only 30, and his underlying numbers from last season were actually pretty strong. His FIP and xFIP marks from last season would've been full-season career-bests, primarily thanks to shockingly good command. He'll never rack up the strikeouts, but lefties that can avoid walks and induce grounders can generally end up being awfully effective. Keep an eye on Francis; he's the kind of guy that could be the bargain of the winter.
2) DH Manny Ramirez
Nobody seems to want Manny, and I'm not really sure why. I mean, yeah, he can't really field anymore, and he's not exactly the glue to keep a clubhouse together. But this guy just batted .298/.409/.460 in 320 PA.. and people were disappointed! We might not get to see the power that's produced 555 homers and 547 doubles in 17 seasons ever again, but that totally ignores the fact that even a 38-year-old Manny Ramirez is still an excellent hitter. If some team can fit him onto their roster and into their clubhouse, he could end up being a massive bargain like Thome was for the Twins last season.
1) RHP Carl Pavano
Speaking of the Yankees, I'm guessing that they didn't expect to hear, "Carl Pavano: The Offseason's Top Remaining Free Agent," any time soon after the way he finished his Yankee tenure. But that's exactly where the finesse right-hander sits after putting together consecutive, high-quality performances in the American League the past two seasons. Pavano's never been a big strikeout guy, and things aren't any different now: Pavano's value comes from limiting walks, inducing grounders and eating up innings. He's put up 7 WAR over the past two years, and should have a positive impact on somebody's rotation next season.