- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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This winter's free-agent class is awash in talent and high-profile names. Need a starting pitcher? Call the representative for CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets or Ryan Dempster. Looking for a closer? Francisco Rodriguez's agent is waiting on line 2. Mark Teixeira is available to fill your first-base void for the next decade, and if you need an outfielder, the laundry list of options includes Manny Ramirez, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn.
"I think we could see more money spent in the free-agent market this winter than we've ever seen before," said an American League general manager.
Now there's a scary thought.
Of course, recent history shows that money invested isn't necessarily money well spent. You need only reflect upon the events of last winter, when general managers groused about the weak free-agent crop, scrambled to make trades and still found a way to throw piles of cash at their roster holes.
For the sake of perspective, we spend this week's edition of Starting 9 looking back at the free agents who nabbed the biggest deals in terms of overall value, and assign them grades from "A" through "F." It's not much fun assessing free agents who re-signed with their old clubs, so Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo et al don't make the list.
Torii Hunter, CF, Angels
.283 BA, 19 HR, 71 RBI, .824 OPS
Contract: Five years, $90 million | Grade: B
Was $90 million a stretch for a player who entered this season with a career .793 OPS? We'll buy that. Hunter, an inveterate free swinger, ranks seventh among big league center fielders in slugging and 12th in on-base percentage this season. If he really were the big bat the Angels needed to complement Vladimir Guerrero, general manager Tony Reagins wouldn't have had to go out and acquire Mark Teixeira before the deadline.
That said, Hunter has done his part to help the Angels salt away the AL West. He played through heartache after the death of his grandmother back home in Arkansas, and stepped forward as the team's resident energizer, media go-to guy and goodwill ambassador. Hunter has already begun working on Teixeira to spurn free agency and sign a long-term deal to stay with the Angels. If he can enlist Scott Boras in the effort, then we'll start paying attention.
Although the defensive metrics show that Hunter has lost a step at age 33, he's still a presence with the glove. After Hunter robbed Texas' Marlon Byrd and Hank Blalock of home runs in consecutive games last weekend, Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times wrote that he's turned center field at Angels Stadium into "the place home runs go to die."
Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Dodgers
7-10, 3.87 ERA, 2 CG, .246 BAA
Contract: Three years, $35.3 million | Grade: B-
You'd probably rank Kuroda higher if you saw his masterful 3-0 complete game against the Cubs on June 6, or his one-hit shutout over Atlanta a month later. If you watched him get pounded by Arizona and San Francisco in July, this grade might be considered generous.
Scouts say the same thing about Kuroda that they said about Daisuke Matsuzaka a year ago: He has so many pitches in his repertoire, sometimes he appears to have trouble winnowing down his options.
"His stuff is real good," said a National League scout, "but once he gets some guys on base, it's kind of like he falls apart. He either gets you out 1-2-3 or gives up a bunch of runs. As somebody once described it, he's one of those guys who 'doesn't struggle well.'"
The statistics bear out that observation: Opponents are batting .212 against Kuroda with the bases empty and .300 with runners on base. He either needs to work on his stuff out of the stretch or concentrate less on the surrounding traffic and more on the catcher's mitt.
Nevertheless, Kuroda has thrown a quality start 62 percent of the time -- the same ratio as Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly and Matt Cain. His 7-10 record won't wow anyone, but the Dodgers have scored a total of 23 runs in his 10 losses.
And keep in mind that Kuroda has had to adjust to a whole new culture and learn new hitters and ballparks on the fly. Matsuzaka has been better his second time around, and the Dodgers have reason to believe it will be the same for Kuroda in 2009.
Aaron Rowand, CF, Giants
.278 BA, 13 HR, 69 RBI, .778 OPS, 108 SO
Contract: Five years, $60 million | Grade: B-
In a class this underwhelming, there's something to be said for getting what you pay for.
Skeptics pointed out that Rowand's numbers would dip with the move from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and that has, indeed, been the case. Rowand has a .411 slugging percentage at AT&T Park, and he's miscast as a No. 5 hitter. Rowand was a better fit complementing Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell in Philadelphia than carrying the load with Bengie Molina in San Francisco.
But when you're shuttling kids through the clubhouse all year, it helps when one of your franchise pillars can teach them something about professionalism and accountability. The Giants have been more competitive than expected, and while that's largely attributable to Tim Lincecum and the young pitching, Rowand has contributed by playing through injuries, playing the game the right way and helping the rookies through the grind. People around the Giants rave about his influence on the club.
Of course, $60 million is a lot to pay for great intangibles on a .430 team. "Sure, you can say, 'They had money to spend, so they spent it,'" said an American League executive. "But I'm not sure he was the best long-term fit for their competitiveness."
This contract could look worse in a couple of years if Rowand loses a step and has to move to left field, where his production won't play as well. According to John Dewan's defensive rankings on the Bill James Online Web site, Rowand has a minus-6 rating this season (zero is considered average; Minnesota's Carlos Gomez leads all big league center fielders at plus-26).
"After his phenomenal 2005 season, Aaron Rowand has never been the same defensively," Dewan wrote in an e-mail. "He certainly has made some of the best individual plays, but he has not covered as much ground as other center fielders overall in the last three years."
Scott Linebrink, RHP, White Sox
2-2, 2.31 ERA, 19 holds in 42 app.
Contract: Four years, $19 million | Grade: C+
After baseball executives ranted about Chicago GM Kenny Williams spending this much on an overworked set-up man, Linebrink combined with Octavio Dotel and Bobby Jenks to give Chicago a first-rate bullpen in April and May. He threw strikes with regularity, regained the zip on his fastball and looked more and more like Trevor Hoffman's old San Diego wingman.
Then Linebrink went down with a shoulder injury and left a major void in the Chicago 'pen. Is it fair to penalize a player for getting hurt? No. But there's a reason why so many clubs are hesitant to spring for deals of this duration for set-up men and middle relievers. Linebrink has a lot of wear and tear on that right arm, so his injury wasn't exactly a bolt from the blue.
Now Linebrink is back, and if he can help carry the White Sox past the Twins and into the playoffs, his grade could shoot back up in a hurry. "I still think it's a bad bet,'" said an American League GM. "But it's tough to take a snapshot of any four-year deal and say, 'This one is good or bad.'"
Francisco Cordero, RHP, Reds
4-4, 3.64 ERA, 26 saves, 6 blown saves
Contract: Four years, $46 million | Grade: C+
The Reds overspent to lure Cordero from Milwaukee and help stabilize an overtaxed bullpen. The obvious question at the time: Did a team with so many questions really need to invest $11.5 million a year in a guy who's going to contribute 70 innings a season?
Cordero, like Rowand, has generally performed to expectations. He has 26 saves in 32 chances, and he's averaged better than a strikeout per inning. But he's had his share of hiccups in Cincinnati's hitter-friendly home park, and he's suffered from sporadic usage. When Cordero went 16 days between save opportunities in April, it was a sign of things to come.
"You know you have your work cut out when he comes into the game," said a National League coach. "He has that closer mentality, and he can be intimidating. But you still wonder how good he would be on a better team."
Now that the Reds have traded Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn and turned the club over to Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, it's an admission that they're still in building mode. So Cordero's contract still qualifies as an extravagance.
Kosuke Fukudome, RF, Cubs
.265 BA, 9 HR, 54 RBI, 74 R, .751 OPS
Contract: Four years, $48 million | Grade: C
This signing made sense when the Cubs consummated it. Lou Piniella was clamoring for a left-handed-hitting, athletic outfielder who could give the lineup some balance. The Cubs were competing with several other clubs for Fukudome's services, and it's hard to argue against a big-market, contending club taking the financial plunge to fill a need.
So let's start with the positives: Fukudome has a .366 on-base percentage, and Nick Swisher, Jack Cust and Adam Dunn are the only hitters who've seen more pitches per plate appearance this season. The guy really does know how to work a count. He also has made a world of difference with his defensive prowess and strong throwing arm in right field.
Now for the scary stuff: Fukudome's OPS was .915 in April, .792 in May, .789 in June, .688 in July and .546 in August. He's hitting .215 since July. The scouting reports have clearly caught up with him.
More than one scout used the word "pitchable" to describe Fukudome. Opponents have found they just need to bust Fukudome inside once or twice early in the game, and they can get him out all day with stuff away. Fukudome has an Ichiro-like approach at the plate -- with the top half bailing out as he swings -- but he lacks Ichiro's speed and bat control.
"He profiles better in center field," said a scout. With a .385 slugging percentage and fewer extra-base hits than Brendan Harris, Yuniesky Betancourt and Akinori Iwamura, Fukudome certainly hasn't profiled very well in right.
Jose Guillen, RF, Royals
.248 BA, 18 HR, 81 RBI, .710 OPS
Contract: Three years, $36 million | Grade: C-
After ranking 27th in the majors in runs last season, the Royals decided they needed a veteran bat to provide cover for the team's young hitters. So they made a substantial investment in Guillen, who has now played for nine teams in his career and a whopping eight since 2001.
Guillen leads the club with 18 homers and 81 RBIs, but those are the highlights. His .284 on-base percentage is abysmal. His OPS-plus has dropped from 116 last year to 84 this season, and he's done very little with the exception of a torrid six-week stretch in May and June.
Still, it's not as if Guillen has flailed in a vacuum. Alex Gordon's progress stalled before he went down with a quadriceps injury. Billy Butler spent a month with Triple-A Omaha ironing out his problems, and Mark Teahen's numbers are down across the board. Guillen has 19 walks in 525 plate appearances, but given the performance of the hitters behind him in the No. 5 spot, it's no surprise that he's become less selective and swung at too many balls outside the strike zone.
Off the field, Guillen has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. He had a run-in with pitching coach Bob McClure and reportedly has not meshed well with manager Trey Hillman. He called his young teammates "a bunch of babies" during a losing streak in May, and got into it with a heckler in the stands last week. Now there are rumblings that the Royals are shopping him. "I think they're stuck with that contract," said an NL executive.
"One thing about him is, he always plays hard," said a scout. Guillen is also extremely bright, and he can be insightful and charming when he's so inclined. But he requires too much maintenance for a guy with a .712 OPS. At age 32, he's running out of franchises to disrupt.
Carlos Silva, RHP, Mariners
4-14, 6.53 ERA, .332 BAA
Contract: Four years, $48 million | Grade: D-
Teams that weren't equipped to enter the Johan Santana sweepstakes last winter had two major options on the free-agent market. Seattle made a big early bet on Silva. St. Louis, in contrast, waited for the dust to settle and scoffed up Kyle Lohse for $4.25 million in March.
Lohse has won 13 games for the Cardinals. Silva can't wait for the season to end.
After a 3-0, 2.79 April, it's been all downhill. Silva's 6.36 ERA ties him with Detroit's Nate Robertson for the worst by a big league starter. Lefties are hitting .346 with a .930 OPS against him, and he hasn't posted a victory over an American League team since beating Oakland on April 17.
This is what happens when you're a sinkerball pitcher and your ball loses its sink. Silva hasn't beaten himself with the base on balls, but as one scout observed, "He doesn't get through a hitter long enough to walk him."
Although the Silva signing didn't cost former Seattle GM Bill Bavasi his job, it was certainly a contributing factor. The one thing standing between Silva and an "F" is that he's been man enough to go out there every fifth day and get his brains beaten in -- unlike teammate Erik Bedard, who checked out mentally about four months ago.
Andruw Jones, CF, Dodgers
.161 BA, 3 HR, 14 RBI, .514 OPS
Contract: Two years, $36.2 million | Grade: F
The Dodgers knew they had a reclamation project on their hands when they signed Jones. But they were hoping for a little more than a .161 batting average, a .254 slugging percentage and 14 RBIs in 205 at-bats.
"He's a total bust," said a National League scout. "What else can you say?"
A West Coast scout who's watched Jones crush some balls in batting practice this season is convinced he has something left in the tank. But a year this horrid makes you wonder if Jones isn't finished at age 32. Compared to Jones, Roberto Alomar enjoyed a graceful descent into oblivion.
"Andruw is one of those fabulous athletes who never struggled," the scout said. "He would just do things because he could do them. He didn't have to analyze them. Then his mechanics got bad, and he got heavy, and he spent so much time hitting on his back leg that he hurt his knee."
The Dodgers just recalled Jones from Triple-A Las Vegas, where he spent some time at first base. For some reason, we suspect James Loney won't have to worry about losing many at-bats down the stretch.