Getting real value
From Jon Lieber to Placido Polanco, there are a number of quality free agents who won't command big money.
The free agent rolls seem to lengthen every year, giving teams plenty of choices. While few teams can bid on Carlos Beltran, there are lesser players who would give great return for more modest salaries. The top 10 value free agents:
1. Jon Lieber, RHP. He became more effective down the stretch and into the playoffs, his slider sharpening and darting, his fastball gaining enough late zip that he was able to pitch inside to the Boston hitters repeatedly in outings against them in September and October; his ERA in those three starts against the Red Sox was 3.18, and he allowed 16 hits in 22.2 innings with two walks and 12 strikeouts, winning twice.
Some of his overall numbers are ugly -- the opponents' batting average of .301, the lefties' average of .346. Those obscure his strong finish; Lieber was 10-4, playoffs included, after July 1. Last we checked, there weren't too many pitchers sticking it to the Red Sox.
He will be 35 next spring, but Lieber also will be 2½ years beyond reconstructive elbow surgery, and his mound makeup is exceptional. Lieber relentlessly attacks hitters, competing through his own mistakes, and he is absolutely accountable to teammates for whatever occurs whenever he pitches. Lieber will never be an elite pitcher again, never overpowering like a Jason Schmidt, so the Yankees had sound reasons for declining his $8 million option for 2005. But Lieber is a heck of a pitcher at $5 million to $6 million annually, with a two-and-an-option or a three-year deal, someone who could perhaps win 15 games a year -- particularly if he goes back to the NL.
2. Corey Koskie, 3B. You won't have to pay him like an Adrian Beltre or a Troy Glaus, but he's a pretty good, well-rounded player. He's 31 years old, a good fielder, a left-handed hitter, has decent speed, consistently reaches base (career on-base percentage of .373, though a low of .342 in 2004), and he's coming off a season in which he racked up 24 doubles and 25 homers. Koskie's biggest drawback is the fact that he's prone to strike out in bunches -- 103 in 422 at-bats last season -- but so long as he in a complementary position in the lineup rather than fourth or fifth, he'll definitely help a team.
3. Eric Young, Utility player. It's hard to say how, exactly, a contending team would use him, but he is useful. He's 37 and played left field, center, second base, third and shortstop for the Texas Rangers last season, none of them particularly well, but he handles them professionally. Young compiled a .377 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases, and his batting average away from Arlington was 52 points higher. He's a strong team guy. Very attractive one-year buy.
4. Paul Wilson, RHP. He might not be as potent as the best pitchers in this free-agent class, and he probably never will be as good as the Mets once hoped when they made him the first pick in the draft a decade ago. But Wilson has fought through multiple injuries to become a solid major-league pitcher, and there is a real toughness about the way he pitches and competes.
Wilson worked seven or more innings in 13 of his 29 starts, finishing strongly -- three earned runs in 24 innings in his last three starts (although two of those outings were against the Pirates and the other was against the Cubs). He is only 31 years old, and his ERA has improved in each of his last three seasons, dropping from 4.88 in 2001 to 4.36 in Cincinnati last season.
5. Rheal Cormier, LHP. Years ago, it seemed like everybody had at least one tough lefty middle reliever, but the ranks of lefties are dwindling and Cormier is one of the few good ones. He did not dominate lefties last season (.250 opponents' average) in the same way that Steve Kline did (.143), but he held them to one homer in 108 at-bats while pitching a whole lot. Over the last three years, lefties are batting .221 against Cormier, with two homers in 272 at-bats.
He will be 38, and this makes him somewhat of a risk, but Cormier takes the ball -- no fewer than 60 appearances in each of his last six seasons, and a career-high 84 outings last summer. And remember, it seemed like Jesse Orosco was 93 years old when he really hit his stride.
6. Miguel Cairo, 2B. One of those guys who is appreciated for what he adds on a day-to-day basis than for his overall numbers; the more you see him, the better you like him. Cairo makes routine plays, battles opposing pitchers through tough at-bats, contributes an occasional extra-base hit, runs the bases well, plays multiple positions if necessary. At age 30 last season, he hit .292 with six homers and 42 RBI in 360 at-bats, including a .336 average against lefties, and took the Yankees' second base job away from Enrique Wilson.
He is very much like another infielder who played in the Bronx: Randy Velarde, who, at age 30, hit .301 with seven homers and 24 RBI in 226 at-bats and continued on for nine more seasons. Cairo will probably be around just as long.
7. Placido Polanco, 2B. His batting average over the last five seasons has been steady: .316, .307, .288, .289, .298, and his on-base percentage has hovered around .345, consistent and unspectacular. Coming off a career-high of 17 homers, but that might not be repeated if he moves into a larger park. Can play second, third, and he just turned 30.
8. Jose Lima, RHP. Lima has gotten more attention for his mound antics and his multiple comebacks, but he is coming off a decent season, as well. Lima went 11-5 as a starter for the Dodgers, 13-5 overall, not including a shutout of the Cardinals in the Division Series. He fared much better in spacious Dodger Stadium, going 9-1 with a 3.08 ERA, compared to 4-4 with a 5.56 ERA on the road, and with his penchant for surrendering home runs (17 in 68 road innings, 33 homers overall), he probably needs a bigger ballpark. But Lima is 32 years old, his roughest edges honed, and while he might not be a candidate for a five-year deal, he has re-established himself.
9. Cristian Guzman, SS. He swings at pitches out of the strike zone, averages about a walk per week. He probably doesn't have the baserunning instincts to be a great base-stealer; some scouts say that Guzman hasn't improved that much since he broke in with the Twins in 1999. But Guzman has been a solid defensive shortstop for a playoff team the last three years, having committed only 23 errors the last two seasons, and he is only 26 years old. In an offseason saturated with free-agent shortstops, you would never give Guzman a long-term deal, but you could feel good about getting him for a short-term arrangement.
10. David Dellucci, OF. He knows how to play, he's got strong makeup, he can play anywhere in the outfield, he can run and draw a walk and occasionally hit for power. Maybe he's not a regular, but he's a pretty good major-leaguer.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.
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