Friday, August 23, 2013
Baseball's best bargains of 2013
By Jim Bowden
Pittsburgh lefty Francisco Liriano has been one of baseball's best free-agent bargains in 2013.
Let's be honest, the top two position players in last year’s free-agent class were complete disasters.
Outfielder B.J. Upton has reciprocated his five-year, $72.5 million deal with the Atlanta Braves by posting a .183 AVG/.265 OBP/.294 OPS slash line (through Aug. 22). The meager production at least makes him a candidate for NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2014. The Braves certainly hope he will step it up over the next six weeks as they approach the postseason, particularly in the wake of Jason Heyward’s injury (fractured jaw) Wednesday.
Then there's Josh Hamilton, who signed a five-year, $133 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels. He, too, fell flat on his face this season, posting a .229/.286/.418 slash line. Unlike Upton’s Braves, the Angels won’t sniff the postseason, but their season -- and Hamilton’s -- will come to a merciful end.
But which players are paying huge dividends for a fraction of the cost paid to Upton, Hamilton, Greinke and Sanchez? Here's a list of six players who have produced far beyond their contracts and have been the best free-agent bargains of the 2013 season (so far).
Stats: 14-5, 2.53 ERA, 1.182 WHIP | Contract: one year/$1M +incentives, ’14 team option
The Pirates were expecting A.J. Burnett or Wandy Rodriguez to emerge as the staff ace until rookie Gerrit Cole arrived later in the summer. What they didn’t expect was Liriano to be their No. 1 starter and to be tied for the league lead in wins (14).
He has become Pittsburgh’s stopper; he is undefeated when the Pirates lose two games or more prior to his starts. Liriano had an ERA north of 5.00 each of the past two seasons and three of the past four. Finally getting healthy and working hard on keeping his shoulder and body in top condition has paid off. He has been a key reason the Pirates have been atop the NL Central. His three pitches -- fastball, slider and changeup -- have regained their past velocity, break and late movement. But his command in the strike zone has been a significant difference-maker for him this season.
Stats: 12-4, 2.95 ERA, 2.5 WAR, 1.221 WHIP | Contract: six years/$36M (‘13-18)
Colletti was criticized after giving Ryu a six-year deal. Opponents questioned giving a long-term deal to a pitcher who hadn’t proved he could get big league hitters out. However, Colletti has had the last laugh, as Ryu has become the best rookie left-handed starter in baseball and given the Dodgers the best one-through-three trio of starters (Clayton Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu) in the NL.
Ryu’s fastball has been solid, averaging in the 88-92 mph range and occasionally touching 93 mph. His fastball command is impressive on both sides of the plate. His changeup has been his best secondary pitch and is an out pitch while his slider was way better than advertised. Also, his curve has been effective in the right spots, keeping hitters off balance. The separator has been his deception and the consistent release point on all of his pitches. This kid can really pitch and is a real bargain for an average annual value of $6 million for five more years.
Stats: 11-8, 2.41 ERA, 3.8 WAR, 1.054 WHIP | Contract: one year/$15M
Kuroda leads the AL in ERA and must be considered as a legitimate Cy Young Award candidate. He has been one of the main reasons the Yankees have been able to stay in the wild-card and divisional races despite all of their injuries. Further, he has surpassed CC Sabathia as the Yankees’ ace.
Kuroda knows how to pitch in tight games, and when he’s given a lead, he has shut down opponents all year. Kuroda gets a lot of his key outs on his split-finger fastball, which he has thrown this year more than ever, according to FanGraphs.com. His ability to pound the strike zone -- especially with the two-seam fastball at the knees and on both sides of the plate -- has been a difference-maker. The only question left for Kuroda is whether he re-signs a multiyear deal with the Yankees, returns to the Dodgers or heads to Japan to finish his career.
Stats: .248/.350/.402, 4.2 WAR, 11 HR, 46 RBIs| Contract: two years/$17M
It was one of the most bizarre free-agent marriages of the offseason when Martin joined the Pirates. Most experts thought the Yankees would re-sign him or, at the very least, that the Texas Rangers would nab him. The Yankees didn’t make him a single offer, and the Rangers didn’t come close to the Pirates’ final offer. So, Martin took the best deal on the table, and it paid dividends for the both the Pirates and Martin. Martin’s leadership in handling the pitching staff has been instrumental in helping the Pirates put together one of the NL’s best rotations. His ability to shut down the running game (44 percent runners caught stealing) also has been a difference-maker compared to last season, when the Pirates were among the game’s worst at preventing stolen bases.
Stats: .286/.333/.523, 24 doubles, 21 HR, 70 RBIs, 3.5 WAR | Contract: one year/$700K
Back in 2005, when I was GM of the Washington Nationals, I traded center fielder Endy Chavez to the Philadelphia Phillies for Byrd. It was one of those deals where I really thought I had "won" the transaction. I thought I had acquired in Byrd an eventual 20-HR, 80-RBI bat and good defensive center fielder. Byrd struggled, and the deal didn’t work out for either team.
However, eight years later, Byrd has finally lived up to his potential and is having a tremendous season for the Mets. He could get traded to the Pirates or another contending team over the next week, but either way, I’m sure the Mets would love to bring him back. For the dollars he’s paid, he has been one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason.
Stats: .311/.360/.439, 23 doubles, 10 HR, 55 RBIs, 2.5 WAR | Contract: one year/$2M
The Dodgers traded Loney to the Red Sox in July 2012, but he hit just .230/.264/.310 the rest of the season. Despite that, Friedman, one of the game’s best general managers, decided to take a chance on Loney. He knew his manager, Joe Maddon, was the best in the game at figuring out how to get the most out of his players and how to mix and match against certain pitchers to allow players to maximize their talents. Loney has found a home in Tampa, hitting over .300 the entire season while playing great defense at first base. He has been an integral part of the Rays’ success.
Early in his career, evaluators were hoping that the power he’d shown in batting practice would turn into 20 to 25 home runs a year. However, it’s clear his identity is as a solid .290 hitter and 13 home runs per year who is an above-average defender. And that’s good enough if you have a pitching staff like the Rays’ as well as hitters such as Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist.