Commentary

Karabell: How is Lofton still a free agent?

Updated: May 15, 2008, 2:42 PM ET
By Eric Karabell | ESPN.com

While Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens continue to make news for off-field transgressions, it's becoming more and more obvious they won't be performing on a baseball field near you anytime soon. I get that. The problem with them is they don't merely bring considerable skills to the table, but distraction as well.

Kenny Lofton
Icon SMIHe can hit, he can field, he can run, he can get on base ... and he's a free agent?
What I don't get is why Kenny Lofton hasn't found work. Sure, the guy is 40 years old and not quite as fast as he used to be, but we all slow down at some point. For what he does, Lofton was really quite productive in 2007, on par with the other unemployed stars, as he continued to make the rounds with as many major league teams as possible. He can steal bases. He can play defense. And most importantly, he can still get on base.

You would be surprised at how many teams could use someone like this. For the record, the major league average for on-base percentage by leadoff hitters in 2007 was .345, a bit higher than that in the AL, a tad lower in the NL. No team finished the season with a sub-.300 OBP from its leadoff men, with Washington and Houston bringing up the rear at .308 and .309, respectively. That's bad, folks. It's so bad that the middle-of-the-order hitters on those teams who didn't accrue the RBIs you might have expected, like Ryan Zimmerman and Lance Berkman for starters, should get some sort of pass.

This season there are seven teams currently floundering with a leadoff on-base percentage on the wrong side of .308, and these teams could use some help. Give Kenny a call! As not just a fantasy baseball owner, but a baseball fan and a simulation league player, I can tell you it's a lot harder to score runs when the leadoff men aren't on base. A great example of how this affects fantasy baseball is what Derrek Lee did for the Cubs in 2005. Lee hit 46 home runs that season, added 50 doubles, slugged a monstrous .662 and finished merely third in the MVP voting behind Albert Pujols and Andruw Jones (51 homers) because he knocked in a "paltry" 107 runs. Andruw Jones beat him out? It was the RBI total, I'm convinced. Lee should have had about 150, but Cubs leadoff men had an embarrassing .299 on-base percentage, thanks to Dusty Baker forcing Corey Patterson, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Neifi Perez into the top spot in the lineup. Hmm, aren't a few of those guys in Baker's current lineup? Meanwhile, I owned Lee the following season on a simulation team, gave him numerous on-base specialists at the top of the order, and he set that league's record with 201 RBIs! What a season!

That wouldn't have happened in the majors, of course, but certainly one reason the mercurial Josh Hamilton is on pace for 169 RBIs in 161 games is because the Rangers are putting men on base. Their leadoff hitters are fifth with a .372 OBP, and the No. 2 hitters are eighth. Meanwhile, Matt Holliday of the Rockies is on pace for just 91 RBIs. Blame Willy Taveras (.304 OBP), and his manager Clint Hurdle for sticking with him in the leadoff spot.

Not every team lacking a good leadoff hitter is a perfect fit for someone like Lofton, but here are the seven teams in baseball with an embarrassingly low on-base percentage (below .308) from that spot. You tell me it doesn't make sense to sign Lofton.

Oakland Athletics: As a team, the A's are actually No. 10 in team OBP, thanks to the Jacks and the Sweeneys. That would be Jack Cust (.434) and Jack Hannahan (.400), as well as Mike Sweeney (.378) and Ryan Sweeney (.343). After that, it's not so pretty. Catcher Kurt Suzuki has more than half the team's plate appearances in the leadoff spot, but let me tell you, it's not working out. His batting average there is .200, his OBP is .265. Travis Buck has posted even worse numbers there. Club leadoff hitters have a .198 batting average and .254 OBP. Look, you signed Frank Thomas to a deal, so you're obviously trying to contend, and you have the pitching to do so. But something must be done about the top of the order. Lofton had a .367 on-base percentage in 2007, and .376 when he was the leadoff hitter, and you have a hole in center field and leadoff. Some catchers have the speed and on-base ability to lead off, but Suzuki isn't one of them.

Michael Bourn
Icon SMIMichael Bourn can steal second base adeptly, but he hasn't proven he can "steal" first base.
Houston Astros: The next two teams, ranked Nos. 29 and 28 in leadoff OBP, are going with newcomers in center field, speedsters who might swipe 60 bases apiece. But they can't steal first base. Michael Bourn and Carlos Gomez aren't slow. But they aren't drawing walks, either. Bourn is batting .197 as Houston's leadoff option, with a .272 OBP. He does have 17 steals in as many chances in that spot, so fantasy owners don't seem to care that he should be hitting eighth. Kazuo Matsui, incidentally, isn't much better, and please don't tell me Hunter Pence is the answer. He's talented, has power and speed and is finally taking some walks over the past week or so, but a leadoff hitter he isn't. The Astros won't sit Bourn, so Lofton, who began his 17-year career with Houston before being foolishly dealt to Cleveland with Dave Rohde for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair, won't be going there, but right now just about anyone other than Bourn would be a better choice. Despite this, Lance Berkman might knock in 150 runs.

Minnesota Twins: I thought Gomez was better than Bourn back in March, and I still think so. Gomez isn't drawing walks, either; he's currently on pace for 23 walks and 181 strikeouts. Wow. However, when I watch him play, I see a super-raw 22-year-old, and when I watch Bourn I see a formed Dave Roberts. Gomez is going to get a lot better. He's going to develop power and, like an Alfonso Soriano type, eventually draw some walks. The Twins have nobody getting on base other than Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Really, Mauer should be leading off since his slugging percentage is about the same as his on-base percentage, and he has fewer home runs than Brad Ausmus, but the Twins have nobody else to hit second. Why not add Lofton where struggling Jason Kubel and Craig Monroe are eating at-bats?

Chicago Cubs: This one isn't so easy to solve because Lou Piniella wants Alfonso Soriano to be happy, and Soriano says he's happy only when he's leading off. Center field remains a problem for this team, as Felix Pie just can't hit and Reed Johnson is more of a fourth outfielder than a starter. Jim Edmonds isn't the answer, unless you're looking for a broken-down guy to hit a few home runs. Lofton would clearly be this team's best leadoff and center-field option. Back in March, the division-rival Reds, who had and still have the same problem, contacted Lofton, but the two sides couldn't agree to terms. The Cubs have money to spend, and I'm surprised they'd rather have Edmonds fanning in the seventh spot of the lineup than Lofton getting on base near the top. Overall, the Cubs' leadoff hitters are hitting .225, with a .282 OBP.

Willy Taveras
AP Photo/Jack DempseySpeed is about the only asset Willy Taveras offers.
Colorado Rockies: This doesn't surprise me one bit, as manager Clint Hurdle figures he made a scintillating September playoff run last year with Willy Taveras leading off, and he can do it again. The difference is, Taveras batted .324 as the leadoff hitter a year ago, with a .372 OBP, and Kazuo Matsui had similar stats when he led off for 30 games. This year Taveras is playing more like the guy the Astros didn't want, with a .299 OBP. Scott Podsednik, who had his moments for a few years getting on base and winning a World Series, would be a better option, but Lofton would be even better. Even Clint Barmes wouldn't be a bad choice leading off for now. Holliday isn't knocking in runs, but Garrett Atkins is, mainly because he gets to drive in Holliday and Todd Helton.

Kansas City Royals: The Royals and Tigers aren't in dire straits for Lofton because they have center fielders they like. But those guys aren't off to great starts, and they do have room for Lofton in the outfield or at DH. Kansas City didn't get production when Joey Gathright was leading off (.262 OBP over 80 at-bats), but David DeJesus has been better (.354 OBP). The problem for fantasy owners is that DeJesus has no power and not much base-stealing speed, and on most teams he wouldn't be a starter. But the Royals aren't contending and don't need a 40-something outfielder. All the other teams listed here are either contending or think they should be. As long as DeJesus plays the way he is now, and stays healthy, the Royals will generate more RBI chances for the middle of the order. Whether the punchless Jose Guillen, Mark Teahen and Billy Butler can take advantage is another story.

Detroit Tigers: The Tigers are No. 24 in on-base percentage from their leadoff spot, but like the team just ahead of them (Philly), now that the leadoff hitter is back off the DL, this problem should get better. Then again, neither Curtis Granderson nor Jimmy Rollins is a high on-base guy. They are exciting, though. Regardless, the Tigers are currently using a Matt Joyce-Marcus Thames platoon of sorts, and Lofton gets on base better than those guys. Also, I have doubts as to how long Gary Sheffield is going to last before he's sent to the DL. The Tigers will be fine at the top of their lineup. What they really need is Barry Bonds. Ready for the circus?

Kenny Lofton is owned in about half of my leagues, as owners figure this guy should find work at some point. It might not be with one of these teams, but rather the Padres or Braves or some other team that thinks it should be contending and has an outfield hole. Either way, don't forget about Lofton, as his skill set would still work at his age. What's really distracting is having your leadoff hitter not get on base.

Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com fantasy. You can e-mail him here.

Eric Karabell | email

ESPN.com Senior Writer