Free-agent dollars and sense
One of the beauties of baseball, and the business of putting together baseball teams, is that you can study it is much as you want but it will remain as much art as science.
At this time last year, who knew that two of the most significant free-agent signings were going to be the White Sox's additions of A.J. Pierzynski and Dustin Hermanson, both castoffs from the San Francisco Giants? Who knew the Yankees would win another division title because they signed Aaron Small to a minor-league contract, not because they won the Carl Pavano sweepstakes?
You pay your money, you take your chance.
Just ask those wily Texas Rangers, who paid Alex Rodriguez $140 million to contribute to three last-place seasons, each viewed by fewer fans than in the season before. Or those Colorado Rockies, who somehow avoided becoming perennial winners after their splurge on pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. Or maybe the Philadelphia Phillies, who knocked themselves senseless with joy after signing Jim Thome, and now will pay him $7.33 million in each of the next three seasons to play for the White Sox.
The baseball gods laugh at anyone who believes they've got this game figured out. But with that nagging reality aside, here's a look at some of the best free-agent signings of the winter, and some that have a chance to be among the worst.
1B Paul Konerko | Age: 29
Contract: 5 years, $60 million
2005: .283 BA, 40 HR, 100 RBI
The White Sox could have locked up Paul Konerko -- their most consistent run producer -- for less had they done it last spring. They were wise to keep him, even if it meant essentially matching the Los Angeles Angels' offer after Konerko had decided to take it. Konerko and lefty Mark Buehrle are the World Series winners' cornerstones, and Konerko raised his standing by delivering the game ball from the final out of the World Series to the team's fans, through owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
He's quietly joined the ranks of elite hitters -- one of only five players with 40-plus homers the last two seasons and one of only 10 with 97-plus RBI in five of the last six years (the others: A-Rod, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Delgado, Jeff Kent and new teammate Thome). And he hit when it counted in 2005: .336-8-18 after Aug. 31 and .265-5-15 in 12 postseason games, including a grand slam in the World Series.
It's a stretch to say that Konerko will pay for himself, but the popular reaction to his re-signing played a huge role in driving season-ticket sales beyond 20,000 (from a base of about 11,000 in 2005). The average annual value (AAV) in his contract is less than Seattle gave Richie Sexson a year ago, and far less than many others on the list of baseball's top hitters.
RHP Kevin Millwood | Age: 31
Contract: 5 years, $60 million
2005: 9-11, AL-best 2.86 ERA
Sure, Scott Boras did his usual tap dance to the bank, getting the maximum value for another one of his clients. But give first-year Texas general manager Jon Daniels credit for landing his franchise the rare pitcher who walks and talks like an ace.
That's what Millwood was when he left Atlanta after 2002, and he has only grown mentally tougher in the three seasons he spent in Philadelphia and Cleveland. He used his sinker-slider combination well enough at Jacobs Field to lead the American League in ERA last season, and his ground-ball style should help him at Ameriquest Field in Arlington. The Rangers need someone to show their collection of young power pitchers that you can succeed at this hitter's park, and Millwood will provide a good example.
With Michael Young, Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and Rod Barajas, the Rangers have a core of players to compete with Oakland and the Angels in the AL West. They needed to change the face of a defeated pitching staff, and Daniels did that. Millwood might not have five good seasons in him -- no pitcher in his 30s is a good bet for that -- but this deal will be worth it if Millwood helps a floundering organization re-establish its credibility.
CF Johnny Damon | Age: 32
Contract: 4 years, $52 million
2005: .316 BA, 117 R, .366 OBP
Scouts weren't exactly singing odes to Damon at the end of 2005, citing a loss of bat speed and quickness down the stretch. Some wondered if it reflected a lack of commitment from a player coming off a dream season for him and his team. Teams that might have been interested in Damon, such as the Cubs, were scared off by Boras' request for a seven-year deal.
Damon should threaten his career high for runs scored batting leadoff in a lineup that will have Derek Jeter, Rodriguez, Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Jason Giambi hitting behind him. He has scored 100-plus runs eight years in a row, including 136 for Kansas City in 2000. It's true that his mind seemed to wander during 2005, including an underwhelming performance in the first-round series against the White Sox, but focus is never a concern in a clubhouse populated by guys like Jeter, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams. The Yankees haven't had a real instigator at the top of their lineup in years. Damon can make a difference, especially in October.
LHP Kenny Rogers | Age: 41
Contract: 2 years, $16 million
2005: 14-8, 3.46 ERA, 195.1 IP
No, we're not kidding. All that focus on Rogers' bad behavior has obscured how well this guy is pitching at the end of a very good career -- and we're not talking about tricking hitters like Frank Tanana did, either.
Since having surgery to remove a rib that was pressing on a nerve, Rogers has thrown as hard as at any time in his career. He has gone 58-33 in his last four seasons, and now moves from a hitter's park in Texas to a pitcher's park in Detroit. He'll hold up his end in a rotation that should be sneaky good (the others: Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson and probably rookie Justin Verlander).
Boras got Rogers a good deal, given the lack of leverage he had after burning bridges in Texas, but Detroit should get a decent return from a guy who has had one of the best arms in the majors over the last two decades.
OF Preston Wilson | Age: 31
Contract: 1 year, $4 million
2005: .260 BA, 25 HR, 90 RBI
This guy can hit, and Houston needs hitters, especially those with power. There's uncertainty about whether Jeff Bagwell will be in uniform, but even if he does play, no one thinks he'll be the run producer he was in the past. Wilson, who has twice had 121-plus RBI in a season, could join Lance Berkman (assuming he bounces back from a second surgery on his injured right knee) as the cornerstones of a lineup that has been a little too much like a patchwork quilt.
At the worst, he becomes a valuable platoon partner for left-handed-hitting corner outfielders Jason Lane and Mike Lamb, allowing Berkman to be a full-time first baseman (assuming no miracle recovery for Bagwell).
Closer B.J. Ryan | Age: 30
Contract: 5 years, $47 million
2005: 1-4, 2.43 ERA, 36 SV
Sure, it would be easy to question whether a guy with a 49-50 lifetime record should have gotten a $55 million deal. But at least A.J. Burnett has established himself as a starter, albeit an inconsistent, unreliable one. And as a starter, he has a chance to somewhat control his fate.
Ryan's next big game will be the first of his career, as he has spent his career with second-division teams in Baltimore. Who knows how he'll react to the spotlight?
Then there's the question of whether there will be a spotlight in Toronto. If the Blue Jays don't improve enough across the board to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox, will it matter if they have slightly upgraded their closer situation? And shouldn't they have decided they were going to get serious about contending when they still had Carlos Delgado?
SS Rafael Furcal | Age: 28
Contract: 3 years, $39 million
2005: .284 BA, 100 R, 46 SB, .348 OBP
There's no doubt Furcal is a very good shortstop and a solid leadoff hitter. But his skills were always secondary to the likes of Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and others in Atlanta. The news of new Dodgers GM Ned Colletti's paying Furcal $13 million a year -- middle-of-the-order money -- shocked many of his fellow executives, especially those with the Cubs.
At age 28, Furcal should be a steady performer throughout the three-year contract, giving him another chance at a big-money deal. But he had drunk driving problems in Atlanta, and underwent a supposedly minor knee surgery after signing with the Dodgers. You'd like to think that he was baggage-free at that price.
Atlanta was a good spot for Furcal, just as St. Louis had been for Edgar Renteria. It's going to be interesting to see if Furcal handles his transition to Los Angeles better than Renteria did his to Boston.
Set-up man Kyle Farnsworth | Age: 29
Contract: 3 years, $17 million
2005: 1-1, 2.19 ERA, 87 K in 70 IP
Bright lights, big problems? A Georgia native, Farnsworth found himself in a good situation after Atlanta traded for him at midseason a year ago. The Braves expected to re-sign him as their closer, but apparently weren't offering as much money for him in that role as the Yankees were willing to pay him to replace Tom Gordon as the primary set-up man.
There's never been much question about Farnsworth's stuff. He is as nasty as trigonometry. But he was a meltdown waiting to happen during his six seasons with the Cubs, exhibiting questionable judgment off the field and recurring control problems on the mound. He doesn't exactly cultivate friends in the press corps, either.
That's your basic recipe for disaster around Yankee Stadium. The two potential saving graces for Farnsworth are that no team judges players less by the size of their paychecks than the Yankees and that Octavio Dotel should be available for a set-up option by June, if not before then.
1B/OF Nomar Garciaparra | Age: 32
Contract: 1 year, $6 million
2005: .283 BA, 9 HR, 30 RBI, .452 SLG
The guy can still hit, but where does he play? Not shortstop, where Furcal will be the regular. Not third base, where newcomer Bill Mueller takes over. That leaves left field, where he'll battle Jayson Werth and Jose Cruz Jr. for at-bats, and first base, which is probably his most likely position. He's never played first, doesn't fit the profile and faces competition from Hee-Seop Choi and possibly even Olmedo Saenz, a veteran bench player signed to a two-year contract.
At least this was a low-risk signing for Los Angeles. The Dodgers have vastly upgraded their lineup and have an abundance of prospects within a year or two of emerging as possible impact players. If he can stay healthy, Garciaparra could become a midseason bargaining chip for the Dodgers, who should be solidly in the middle of the NL West race.
C Ramon Hernandez | Age: 29
Contract: 4 years, $27.5 million
2005: .290 BA, 12 HR, .450 SLG, 25.7% CS
Going to his third team in four years, Hernandez is a quality catcher. But the idea is to upgrade areas where you are weak, especially when you're spending big money. It's hard to figure how having Hernandez will make Baltimore better than it was with Javy Lopez and Geronimo Gil sharing the catching duties.
Lopez has more of an upside as a hitter than Hernandez, who hit .290 with 12 homers in San Diego and figures to be helped by the move to Camden Yards. It's clear that new manager Sam Perlozzo wasn't impressed with Lopez's handling of the Orioles' staff, but if pitching was the priority he should have targeted a top-flight receiver, like Houston's Brad Ausmus. Expanding the role of the weak-hitting Gil wouldn't have been a terrible idea, either.
Hernandez feels like an impulse signing, and it's going to make for an uncomfortable situation if Lopez remains as a part-time designated hitter and backup catcher.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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