Few spots left for remaining free agents
From Ben Sheets to Orlando Hudson to Johnny Damon, many players still eyeing jobs
Matt Holliday, John Lackey, Jason Bay and Chone Figgins all got their money. But when more than 100 free agents and December non-tenders are still job hunting in late January, it shows what a slog this winter has been for the people who represent them.
One prominent agent told ESPN.com that this has been "the most impossibly difficult offseason'' that he can recall in the past 20 years. Roster spots are like gold, and dozens of players with legitimate aspirations are being forced to downsize their expectations. The latest example is pitcher Joel Pineiro, who wanted a four-year deal after going 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA in St. Louis, then settled for two years and $16 million with the Angels.
At least Pineiro knows where he'll be playing this season. Lots of established big leaguers are on the Ray Durham plan: Accept a minor league contract with an invitation to big league camp, or come to grips with reality and retire.
"Just go through the simple math,'' said an American League assistant general manager. "Are teams going to sign between three and four free agents each between now and spring training? There aren't that many roster spots. All those guys aren't getting major league contracts.''
Who's still out there and who's still shopping? This Hot Stove edition of Starting 9 takes a position-by-position look at available free agents and teams that still have holes to fill.
Who's out there? Right-handers Ben Sheets, Jon Garland, Vicente Padilla, Pedro Martinez, Braden Looper, John Smoltz, Chien-Ming Wang, Livan Hernandez, Jose Contreras and Todd Wellemeyer, and lefties Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard and Noah Lowry.
Sheets has the biggest upside of the group, obviously. It's always been more about health than performance with Sheets. And judging from the positive impression he made on scouts at a throwing session in Louisiana on Tuesday, there's lots of interest out there. How much guaranteed money is someone willing to commit? That's one of the big mysteries left to be addressed.
Who's still looking? The Dodgers, Mets, Mariners and Padres are trolling for an established starter, and the Cardinals, Nationals, Pirates and Diamondbacks are among the clubs that could use some depth. Cleveland is absolutely desperate for pitching, but GM Mark Shapiro has no money to spend.
The Mariners make sense as a Sheets dark horse, for several reasons: (1) GM Jack Zduriencik likes to make bold, stealth moves; (2) he spent a lot of years in Milwaukee as scouting director while Sheets was an elite starter; and (3) once you get past Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, the Seattle rotation consists of Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell and someone from the Doug Fister, Garrett Olson, Jason Vargas contingent.
Conversely, the Cubs' interest in Sheets is overblown. GM Jim Hendry's biggest objectives are finding a late-inning reliever and a bat for the bench. The Cubs are set with Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Randy Wells in the first four spots, with Carlos Silva, Tom Gorzelanny and Jeff Samardzija set to compete for the fifth spot. Sheets would look great in Cubbie blue, but he's more of an extravagance than a necessity.
The catching crop was weak to begin with, and it's really barren now that Pudge Rodriguez, Jason Kendall, Bengie Molina, Gregg Zaun and John Buck have found gainful employment. Rodriguez, 38, and Kendall, 35, did quite nicely landing two-year, $6 million deals with all that mileage on them.
Who's still looking? The Mets have moved to Plan B now that Molina is back in San Francisco to keep the catching seat warm for Buster Posey. The Rangers, Dodgers, Padres and possibly the Yankees could use some depth. It's Los Angeles, San Diego or retirement for Ausmus.
Branyan hasn't generated much buzz for a guy who hit 31 homers last year. He says he's healthy, but there's some concern in the industry about his back.
Jacobs has power, but his defensive issues and career .318 on-base percentage inhibit his market. The same goes for Blalock, who hit 25 homers and posted a .277 OBP for Texas last season. Delgado's recovery from hip surgery remains a mystery, for the most part.
If the Orioles play Garrett Atkins at third, they'll need help at first. Seattle could use a righty platoon mate for Casey Kotchman. Garko doesn't quite fit the Mariners' strong-defense profile, but that .887 career OPS against lefty pitching is a selling point.
Chris Davis needs to step it up in Texas, but Justin Smoak will begin the season in Triple-A and could be ready in a month or two. The Mets could use a right-handed complement to Daniel Murphy, and Tatis, who was overexposed in 379 plate appearances last year, might fit in another go-round with New York.
Last winter was an emotional ordeal for Hudson. Teams backed off of him because of concerns over his wrist and the draft pick compensation attached to him as a free agent. From all indications, he also misjudged the market by looking for a four- or five-year deal out of the chute.
This year, it's happening again. "You can say, 'This is what I think I'm worth,'" said an American League executive. "But at some point you have to adjust and listen to what the market says you're worth.''
Hudson lost his starting job to Belliard late in the season in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers didn't offer him salary arbitration. His defense has slipped a bit, and he turned 33 in December.
But Hudson's OPS was .779 before the break and .767 after it, so it's not as if his production fell off the face of the earth. It's hard to believe he can't help someone.
Who's looking? The Nationals and Twins.
Unless the Cubs are playing coy, they're looking at a Mike Fontenot-Jeff Baker platoon at second base. The Dodgers, similarly, seem comfortable with Blake DeWitt and Jamey Carroll at second. The Mets have been mentioned as a potential Hudson suitor, but Luis Castillo has two years and $12 million left on his deal and ranked third among MLB second basemen with a .387 OBP a year ago.
Washington still looks like the best fit for Hudson. But unless Hudson's price compels the Nationals to act, they're ready to go with a combination of Cristian Guzman at second base and Ian Desmond at short -- or vice versa. That could change, of course, if Hudson's contract demands become more budget-friendly in February.
The third-base contingent felt the squeeze when Colorado non-tendered Garrett Atkins and converted second baseman Placido Polanco landed a three-year, $18 million deal with Philadelphia. Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre and Pedro Feliz have also found safe havens this winter.
Who's looking? Minnesota, St. Louis and Baltimore.
If the Twins play Nick Punto at second base, they're looking at someone from the Brendan Harris, Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes, Danny Valencia contingent to handle third. An upgrade would be nice, but it's not quite as imperative given that new arrival J.J. Hardy should give the club more offense at shortstop.
David Freese is the front-runner to play third in St. Louis, although that DUI arrest in December didn't help his cause. Tony La Russa wants someone who can provide insurance at third base and play some outfield, and it's hard to find that animal now that Mark DeRosa is a Giant. Maybe it's former Cardinal Felipe Lopez. He's spent most of his career at second base, but is athletic enough to embrace a utility role.
There's been some speculation that the Orioles might bring back Tejada, who previously played in Baltimore from 2004 through 2007. After three straight sub-.800 OPS seasons, Tejada would have to settle for being a short-term bridge to prospect Josh Bell.
Cabrera is the biggest name left now that Marco Scutaro, Alex Gonzalez et al have found new homes. The Twins took a liking to Cabrera during his run with the team in August and September, and earlier this winter they entertained the possibility of bringing him back to play some second and third and back up Hardy at short.
Who's still looking? Nobody jumps out. Houston plans to go with rookie Tommy Manzella at short, Cliff Pennington is the guy in Oakland, and the Pirates will let Ronny Cedeno and Bobby Crosby compete for playing time in spring training. Cincinnati could use an offensive upgrade from Paul Janish, but Cabrera probably isn't it.
Who's out there? A mother lode of options. You've got righty hitters Jermaine Dye, Reed Johnson, Rocco Baldelli, Xavier Nady and Marcus Thames, lefties Johnny Damon, Rick Ankiel and Garret Anderson, and switch-hitter Randy Winn. Jim Edmonds, looking to make a comeback at age 39, and Eric Byrnes, just designated for assignment by Arizona, are also available.
Most of these guys have warts on them. Nady and Ankiel are coming off injuries, and Baldelli's durability is always a question. Dye slugged .297 after the All-Star break and has regressed defensively, and Winn batted .158 from the right side to go with .292 from the left. But with the possible exception of Edmonds and Anderson -- whose name hasn't appeared anywhere in speculation this winter -- they're all likely to land jobs somewhere.
Who's still looking? The Yankees need a left fielder. At this point, it's either a return engagement by Damon at a reduced price, or Baldelli, Johnson or Nady sharing time with Brett Gardner. Rest assured that Brian Cashman will do something.
The Cubs want a righty bat off the bench, and they've talked to Nady and Dye. The Cardinals, Mariners, Nationals and Reds could use some depth, and the Mets might try to do something to hold the fort while Carlos Beltran rehabs from knee surgery.
Toronto's outfield consists of Vernon Wells in center, Travis Snider in left, Jose Bautista in right and non-roster invitees Joey Gathright and Jeremy Reed, but GM Alex Anthopoulos says that adding an outfielder is "not a real priority.''
If Ankiel and Nady are still around in February, don't be surprised if the Royals jump into the fray. Both those players -- and Thames -- would fill GM Dayton Moore's desire to add some pop to the roster.
Who's still looking? Royals, White Sox and Mariners.
The American League Central could provide refuge for somebody here. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen likes flexibility in the DH spot, but it's hard to imagine GM Kenny Williams standing pat with an Andruw Jones-Mark Kotsay combo if he can upgrade for a reasonable price.
The Royals ranked 12th in the AL in slugging percentage and they've since lost Miguel Olivo, Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen -- who accounted for 54 of the team's 144 home runs -- and they have to recover it somewhere. If manager Trey Hillman decides to play Chris Getz at second base, Alberto Callaspo could log a lot of DH time. But K.C. definitely needs a power infusion.
Gomes, 29, is considerably younger than the other DH candidates. The Reds declined to tender him a contract in December even though he had a nice year, with 20 homers and a .541 slugging percentage in 281 at-bats. He could do some damage at Kauffman Stadium or U.S. Cellular Field.
The Tigers have been mentioned in conjunction with Thome and some others. But in an e-mail to ESPN.com, GM David Dombrowski said, "We are not trying to sign a full-time DH.'' The Tigers plan to divvy up some of their DH at-bats to Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez, both of whom are liabilities in the field.
If Austin Jackson is ready to play center field and Ryan Raburn and Clete Thomas can handle a little more playing time, it'll give manager Jim Leyland more latitude to shift his aging corner guys to the DH spot.
Who's out there? Unless John Smoltz decides he wants to resurrect the whole Dennis Eckersley thing, this market is tapped out.
The Marlins plan to go with Leo Nunez at closer, and Houston has Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom at the back end. Free agents Kevin Gregg, Kiko Calero, Mike MacDougal, Guillermo Mota and Chan Ho Park might help some clubs in the seventh or eighth, but not the ninth.
Who's still looking? The Cubs want to add a set-up man through free agency or trade after losing out to Washington for Matt Capps. Calero, who posted a 2-2 record with a 1.95 ERA and struck out 69 batters in 60 innings for Florida, has the strongest portfolio of anybody on this list.
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