- Phil Rogers
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Sometimes the best players aren't the ones with the biggest reputations. The best signings aren't necessarily the ones that get the biggest headlines.
Consider the Boston Red Sox's infield. ESPN didn't exactly break into its regularly scheduled programming to announce the signings of Bill Mueller and Mark Bellhorn, did it? The signing of David Ortiz, after the Minnesota Twins released him, was just another transaction crawling across the bottom of the screen.
Who knew those moves were going to be essential to the staging of a World Series parade?
Keep this in mind when you consider the depth of the 2005 class of free agents. There's no doubt that whoever signs Jason Varitek, Carlos Delgado or Adrian Beltre is going to get a lot of media attention. But the biggest impact could come from the addition of, for the sake of argument, Mike Matheny, Mark Grudzielanek or Corey Koskie.
The beauty is this: You just never know.
With that caveat, here's a look at the guys available around the infield:
Most of the action is going to center on two prolific hitters, Delgado and Richie Sexson. The rest of the guys on this list already appear to have had their best moments.
Delgado: While he's no longer considered among the top handful of hitters in baseball, he's only 32 and remains an extremely reliable run-producer. Delgado has had 30-plus homers and at least 90 RBI for eight consecutive seasons, including 32 homers and 99 RBI last season. His batting average dipped from .302 in 2003 to .269, in part because he often seemed to swing for the fences, but a move from Toronto to a more competitive team should give him his focus back. Baltimore appears the frontrunner but he could do wonders for a lot of teams, including Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Sexson: Having given up four regulars to get him a year ago, the Diamondbacks badly want to re-sign Sexson. It does not appear he wants to stick around, however. He's one of the best power hitters available. It remains to be seen if Sexson will have long-term problems with the torn muscle in his left shoulder that sidelined him for most of 2004 but he's never been considered fragile, having missed only nine games in 2001-03.
Tino Martinez: Shipped from St. Louis to Tampa Bay last year, Martinez provided a positive influence in the clubhouse while hitting 23 home runs. He's not going to get a big deal, but could have value to a team looking for left-handed-hitting and experience.
Julio Franco: You wonder what his next act will be after hitting .309 at age 46. He will probably re-sign with Atlanta, but should interest every contender looking for a right-handed presence on the bench.
Any team looking to get a regular out of this crop is going to have to cross its fingers. Jeff Kent, Todd Walker and Tony Womack are quality players but Kent is the only one of these three likely to change teams, and he might decide to stay on his South Texas ranch, riding his tractor.
Kent: If former GM Gerry Hunsicker had gotten his way, the Astros would have exercised their option on Kent while letting Craig Biggio walk. He was a very effective player based at Minute Maid Park (.289-27-107 overall) and could be a huge boost for the Yankees. A reunion with Dusty Baker in Chicago is an outside possibility, but ...
Walker: After splitting time with Grudzielanek last season, he is expected to be re-signed by the Cubs. He's never going to be a Gold Glover, but his fielding deficiencies were hidden well by baseball's deepest collection of power pitchers. He turned down a bigger role from Cincinnati to sign with the Cubs last year and could be looking for a bump in pay after hitting .274-15-50 as a part-time regular.
Womack: St. Louis should not allow Womack to get away. Acquired from Boston late in spring training, he gave the Cardinals an exciting presence at the top of the lineup and lots of range in the field. He was a bargain in 2004, however, and won't be such an easy sign this time around. If the Cardinals go the extra mile to keep Edgar Renteria, they might not have enough left for Womack, who hit .307, stole 26 bases and scored 91 runs while setting the table for Albert Pujols and friends.
Placido Polonco: He hit .298 with 17 homers in the Phillies' new hitter-friendly park, but has never shown he's a top player. The good news is he'll play at age 29 next season, but he's one of those guys who can't draw enough walks to hit at the top of the lineup and doesn't produce enough runs to hit near the middle.
Grudzielanek: Health is a major question for a guy who has hit over .300 two years in a row. A series of leg injuries limited him during a two-year stay in Chicago, and he's played 150 games only once since 1998. He is a first-division second baseman if he can ever stay on the field.
Pokey Reese: Popular off the bench in Boston, Reese seemed to go backwards as a hitter this past season. That's not a good thing given that he has never fulfilled the potential he showed in the minors. He could be a valuable bench player for someone.
Roberto Alomar: Once a good bet for 3,000 hits, his total has dropped three years in a row, all the way to only 45 in 56 games last season between Arizona and the White Sox. He got his hand broken by a Ben Sheets pitch and then shut himself down with back problems in September. He isn't ready to quit, but has probably reached the point of having to consider non-guaranteed contracts.
Teams looking for middle-of-the-order help can find it here. While Beltre and Troy Glaus should get mega-deals that come with huge expectations, the most intriguing guy on this list is Koskie.
Koskie: While he has trended downhill the last three seasons, averaging 18 homers and 70 RBI, this is a major talent. Some scouts look for Koskie to put it all together after leaving Minnesota, as Ortiz has done in Boston. Twins general manager Terry Ryan tied up Koskie after his .276-26-103 season in 2001 and watched with frustration as he failed to get near those totals in ensuing seasons. As a left-handed hitter, there should be significant interest in Koskie. But he could prove to be a major bargain.
Beltre: Coming off a career season and having Scott Boras as his agent, Beltre is not going to be a bargain. He's looking for elite money, on the premise that he turned a corner in 2004, and he's likely to find a team to take the bait. But if you're giving somebody a four- or five-year contract, you'd like them to be more consistent than Beltre has been.
Glaus: Remember this guy in the 2002 playoffs? He was a force of almost Barry Bonds-like proportions. Shoulder problems have robbed him of two peak seasons, but he returned from surgery to hit seven home runs in September. It wasn't enough to convince the Angels that they should spend heavily to keep him -- they opted to clear payroll room to pursue Carlos Beltran -- but should ease the concerns of any team giving him the deal he's seeking. Glaus will play at age 28 next year and should be a productive player, providing he doesn't have recurring issues with his shoulder.
Vinny Castilla: Coming off a huge year in Colorado (.271-35-131), Castilla is looking for a big long-term contract. He's done good things in many places, including Atlanta and Houston, in recent years. But he's most comfortable at Coors Field. He should keep that in mind in seeking a deal.
Tony Batista: He's a one-trick pony with a crazy stance, but somehow Batista keeps driving in runs. He enters free agency off a 32-homer, 110-RBI season. It's hard to see a top team committing itself to a low-average defensive liability, but he could do good things for a team needing punch.
Joe Randa: He's a better all-around player than Batista, but won't be in much demand after hitting .287-8-56 as a regular with Kansas City. Hard to believe the Cubs pursued him before trading for Aramis Ramirez.
Year in and year out, this is a seller's market. Supply always outpaces demand. It's no different this year. There are many free agents catchers but few get the blood flowing.
Varitek: It's a good year to be him. It's possible no one player will benefit more from the Red Sox's championship than their switch-hitting catcher. He is considered a priority for the World Series champs, but could have his price determined on the open market.
Matheny: Given their other free agents, it's possible St. Louis will lose a catcher who has been one of Tony La Russa's favorites. He's coming off a typical season -- .247-5-50 with his greatest value being as a skilled receiver and handler of pitchers.
Damian Miller: Oakland wants to keep the veteran catcher, but wasn't able to lock him up. He has been a solid presence behind the plate for good pitching staffs and would be very attractive for a team like the White Sox, which is trying to win with pitching and defense. He's become a better hitter in recent years, too, batting .272 last season.
Dan Wilson: Free agency arrives too late for a guy who was a quiet backbone for many good teams in Seattle. He's a native of the Chicago suburbs who could wind up with the White Sox but would be a risk as more than a backup.
Henry Blanco: He did a good job filling in for the heralded Joe Mauer in Minnesota, but is never going to hit a lot. He should be in demand as a backup catcher, however, and might have more teams interested in his services than any catcher on this list, albeit at second-tier numbers.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.