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The next tier of free agents

12/21/2012

There are only a few big contracts remaining under baseball's offseason tree. Some teams are now waiting for the prices of the remaining free agents to drop so they can plug a hole or round out their rosters.

Here are the best of the rest, beyond Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano and Kyle Lohse -- the best second-tier and third-tier free agents remaining:

Joe Saunders: I got a text in the middle of the winter meetings from a veteran player. "Why isn't there more talk about Joe Saunders?" he wrote. "He's really good." He is unspectacular but solid, for sure, consistently taking the ball and posting ERAs in the range of 3.60 to 4.60 in his career; he had a 4.07 ERA for the Diamondbacks and Orioles last year.

I spoke with Saunders the day after he shut down the Yankees in Game 4 of the playoffs -- he also started and won the one-game wild-card game against Texas -- and he talked about how much he liked pitching for the Orioles, and how he was very open to coming back. And there has been a lot of sentiment within the Orioles' organization to re-sign Saunders, a Virginia native.

Now that other starting pitchers have come off the board, the market for him is becoming more defined, with four teams involved, and the Orioles have stepped up in their efforts to keep him. It seems Saunders would be in position to get more than the two-year, $15 million deal signed by Joe Blanton.

Scott Hairston: The Yankees are desperate for right-handed hitting and there could be no better second-tier fit than Hairston, who does damage against left-handed pitching; last season, he posted a .550 slugging average against lefties. For his career, he's got a .500 slugging percentage against lefties. He'd be a perfect complement to the very left-handed Yankees' outfield (Ichiro Suzuki, Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson), and serve time at DH.

But he might be too expensive for New York in a winter in which they have reduced payroll. The 32-year-old Hairston made $1.1 million for the Mets last year and hit 20 homers, and he could be looking for something much better than that; Jonny Gomes, a similar player, got a two-year, $10 million deal from Boston.

Hairston had been talking with the Cardinals, writes Adam Rubin, before they signed Ty Wigginton.

Lance Berkman: Under the right circumstances, there will be no shortage of interest in him because when he's healthy, he can be a devastating on-base percentage machine. Even in a season in which he hobbled through only 32 games last summer, he posted a .381 on-base percentage. But there are three overriding questions that executives privately say they have about him:

A) Is he healthy, after having knee surgery?

B) Is he in shape?

C) Is he motivated to play again? Because he needs C to get to B.

J.P. Howell: He'll soon sign, perhaps with Washington. As he came back from shoulder surgery, his fastball velocity steadily improved throughout the 2012 season -- with his highest reading coming in his final appearance of the year, a sign that he could get back to being what he was for the Rays in 2008.

Mike Gonzalez: The veteran reliever is available again, and he showed that he's still a good matchup option; lefties had a .525 OPS against Gonzalez last season.

Dallas Braden: He has a reputation among former teammates for really knowing how to pitch, for doing more with less. But Braden is recovering from shoulder surgery and hasn't pitched since April 16, 2011. He's not going to get much money, but he is going to get a chance.

The Yankees have shown interest in Braden and Jair Jurrjens, writes Gerry Fraley.

Travis Hafner: For AL teams looking for depth, he'd be a classic make-good guy to bring to spring training. He won't cost much, and he'll take a walk and hit some home runs; in 66 games last season, he had a .346 on-base percentage with 12 homers. One problem: He wouldn't fit all rosters because he can't play a position. The Yankees, for example, might want to keep flexibility at the DH spot because of the general age of their roster.

Matt Lindstrom: He finished 2012 nicely, allowing one run in 11 September appearances and closing with a 2.68 ERA for the season. Right-handed hitters had a .573 OPS against him last season.

Grady Sizemore: Injuries have derailed him over the past four seasons, limiting him to 210 games; he didn't play at all in 2012. Now he has become an attractive buy-very-low free agent, because everybody still remembers the athleticism, the speed, the power. The Mets are reportedly one of the teams interested in signing him; Tampa Bay might be a very good fit.

Notables

Zack Greinke finished 58th in the majors in ERA in 2011 and 27th in 2012, and he got $147 million. Anibal Sanchez got $80 million. So if you think that Edwin Jackson is overpaid at $52 million over four years, well, this is the going rate; he's more expensive than Joe Blanton but less expensive than John Lackey. Jackson is plow horse, never overpowering but generally consistent -- he has never had any major arm issues at 29.

And as the Cubs rebuild, draft picks and signing bonus money cannot be ample in the way they used to be, and they must now work within the constraints of the international signing bonus cap. So overpaying in the free-agent market, as they simultaneously rebuild the player development system in a way that suits Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, is the best way for them to get better -- and their rotation should be improved next year. The Cubs finished 23rd in starters' ERA in 2013 at 4.52, but with the makeover, they now have a large number of options behind Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Jackson -- Scott Baker, Scott Feldman, Travis Wood and the newly signed Carlos Villanueva. The Reds and Cardinals are still probably long strides ahead of the Cubs, but there should be progress for a team that went 61-101.

Villanueva will challenge for a rotation spot.

The fact that Jackson wasn't given a qualifying offer by Washington -- and wasn't tied to draft-pick compensation -- turned out to be a big deal for him.

From Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information: Jackson's ERA has varied a bit over the past three years, but his underlying performance has remained much the same. While some ultimately expected more, Jackson has settled in as a solid mid-rotation starter.

• The red flag that some other teams see in Joel Hanrahan was the significant increase in walks allowed last season. After surrendering 16 walks in 68.2 innings in 2011, Hanrahan walked 36 in 59.2 innings in 2012, and there is some concern among rival evaluators that the diminished control is a sign of an arm issue -- something that obviously would be explored if Pittsburgh arranges a trade. From Hanrahan's perspective, the control problems may have been related to the inconsistent save chances that a closer for the Pirates gets. The Pirates have indicated to other teams they are open to trading their closer.

Bruce Rondon, who may or may not be the Tigers' closer in 2013, is having a strong winter ball season, as George Sipple writes.

• The Rangers signed A.J. Pierzynski. Texas desperately needs left-handed hitting for their lineup and the left-handed hitting Pierzynski can get some at-bats at DH on the days when he doesn't catch. The Rangers' lineup could look like this (as of today):

1B Ian Kinsler

SS Elvis Andrus

LF David Murphy

3B Adrian Beltre

RF Nelson Cruz

DH ?

CF Craig Gentry/Leonys Martin

C Pierzynski/Geovany Soto

2B Jurickson Profar

If Texas wanted more help, Nick Swisher would be the best possible fit for the Rangers among the remaining free agents, because of his power and on-base percentage. But the price could be high for the Rangers -- Swisher might have a shot at a four-year deal in the $50 million range with the Indians -- and Texas would surrender a draft pick. (This shouldn't be as much of a concern, because the Rangers are getting a compensation pick for Josh Hamilton.)

Pierzynski is a better bat than Geovany Soto. Pierzynski hit .278 last year with an .827 OPS, while Soto was at .198 and .613. He also had 27 HRs and a 2.6 WAR. His power numbers were the best of his career. He hit a career high in HRs, RBIs (tie), slugging percentage and OPS.

Francisco Rodriguez is among the unsigned free agents. He is still just 30 years old.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. The Marlins are betting on Placido Polanco.

2. Mike Pelfrey has been told to rest up.

3. The Indians added some depth.

4. Josh Hamilton asked the Mariners for more money than he got from the Angels, says Jack Zduriencik.

5. With Ryan Dempster, the Red Sox will be getting some leadership, writes Nick Cafardo. It has been a winter of progress for the Red Sox, writes Ron Borges. Boston is comfortable with what they have in left field, writes Scott Lauber.

6. The Orioles added some depth. The Orioles signed Adam Greenberg, too.

7. The Mets have reached out to the agents for Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano, writes Ken Davidoff.

8. Mike Adams says 2012 was a struggle for him.

9. Nick Piecoro reviews the Trevor Bauer deal.

Other stuff

• Jayson Stark lists the most improved and least improved teams of the offseason here.

• Rays president Matt Silverman bought a house.

• Some new Royals were at the team's FanFest.

Neil Walker is ready to come back.

• The Padres are better off without Phil Mickelson, writes Matt Calkins.

Rick Porcello feels he needs to get his slider back.

• Jerry Dipoto is the Angels' Mr. December.

• Lynn Henning breaks down his Hall of Fame ballot. Henry Schulman is voting for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

• Can't remember Vanderbilt doing this poorly in this particular skill.

• These words are inseparable: Loyal Mets fan. There is no other kind.

And today will be better than yesterday.