Sifting Through a Thin Free-Agent Class
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Over the last few years, New York baseball fans have disproportionately enjoyed the fruits of free agency, even more so than usual. Yes, there have been expensive disasters like Carl Pavano and Kaz Matsui, but for the most part both the Yankees and Mets have spent prudently and well, importing valuable, entertaining players like Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield, Pedro Martinez, and Carlos Beltran.
Importing players of this caliber is the best thing a team can do with its free agent dollars. In baseball, five nickels do not add up to a quarter, and the silly investments in below-average veteran that teams like the Royals and Cubs made last winter are among the biggest reasons they’re so bad. Instead of doling out the cash for a gaggle of generic relievers, the Cubs should have made an irresistible offer to a power threat like Brian Giles and filled out their bullpen with some from among their many in-house options. They’d be in better shape.
Unfortunately for the Mets and Yankees, who will have holes to fill after this season, there aren’t many appealing options on the market this winter. Last winter’s free-agent class was considered the worst in decades; this one’s even worse. The sport’s revenue sharing and luxury tax arrangements, along with a flood of new-media money, have, contrary to expectations, enabled most competently run teams to keep the players they want to keep. The last franchise-caliber player to be auctioned off for prospects because a team felt it couldn’t afford to resign him was Carlos Beltran, and that was two years ago. Shrewd deals have kept premier players like Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Mark Buerhle, and C.C. Sabathia from even hitting free agency. This adds up to a seller’s market, and danger for the New York teams, which will have money to spend.
The top prize on the market will be 28-year-old A’s lefty Barry Zito, whose 3.53 ERA this year is right in line with his 3.50 career mark. Zito is going to get paid an ungodly sum of money, and he may well end up right here in New York. Zito is an extraordinarily valuable pitcher – he routinely pitches 225 innings, which, given present-day norms, is like pitching 275 innings a year in the 1980s – but he’s more like the best no. 2 starter in the game than the true, top tier ace he’ll get paid to be. Over the course of a season there are few more consistently excellent pitchers, but Zito doesn’t quite have the stuff or command to be the sort of prototypal ace you want starting Game 7 of the World Series. As someone to slot in behind Pedro Martinez, he’d be worth whatever he wanted; as someone to front the Yankees’ rotation, he’d probably end up being viewed as a disappointment.
Past Zito, there’s not one player without serious issues. (I’m not touching Barry Bonds.) Alfonso Soriano is shocking the world by having his best season while playing his home games in Washington’s cavernous RFK Stadium and adjusting to a new position; even so, all the old questions about his discipline remain, and even his performance this season isn’t the kind that should really inspire a team to shell out $13 million or more a year for a 31-year-old left fielder.
Milwaukee RBI machine Carlos Lee, who’s on pace for 50 homers, presents much the same difficulties. He has awesome power but isn’t very good at anything else, and is so unathletic that he seems like a good candidate for early decline. The Mets should steer clear of both players, who are bad fits for their lineup and park. The Yankees, though, could absorb the payroll hit if either lived down to expectations, and if they don’t re-sign Gary Sheffield, these two would be worth careful consideration.
The next tier down from these two consists of iffy starters from the NL Central: Houston’s Andy Pettitte, Chicago’s Greg Maddux, and St. Louis’s Mark Mulder. Pettitte is supposedly healthy for the first time in years, not that you’d know it from his 5.81 ERA. Given his monster 2005 (17-9, 2.39 ERA) and history of success in New York, I expect the Yankees to be aggressive about signing him. It wouldn’t be a bad gamble, but he’s pitched an awful lot in his career.
Maddux is what he is at this point, a durable league-average starter. I’d be stunned to see him sign in New York. Mulder may be the scariest player of all in this free agent class. He has a reputation as a Zito-caliber starter, but he’s not much more than a no. 3 starter with a famous name, and his 5.20 ERA is probably more representative of his skills at this point than the 3.64 mark he put up last year with the aid of an exceptional Cardinals defense. He’s a very good pitcher, but he’s going to break the heart of some team thinking he’s still an ace.
Past these players, you have the usual assortment of veterans and projects. Oftinjured Cubs starter Kerry Wood looks like Dennis Eckersley or John Smoltz right now to everyone in baseball, but it would be hard to set a price on that potential. There are some youngish pitchers like Adam Eaton and Jason Marquis who aren’t all that good, but still retain some prospect luster.
That’s pretty much it. The real market is going to be in trades. The White Sox have a ludicrous surplus of top-line starters, and if they decide to trade them, the Marlins will be able to name their price for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. Willis is a prize, but Cabrera, the scariest young hitter in the game, is something else entirely – I would, for instance, trade a couple of B-prospects plus Lastings Milledge and Mike Pelfrey or Robinson Cano and Phillip Hughes for him without thinking twice about it.
If this is what the winter comes down to, the Mets are going to be in a much better position than the Yanks. Either way, for both team’s fans it will be more a matter of hoping a dreadful mistake isn’t made than keeping fingers crossed that a new stud player will be coming on board to bolster the juggernaut.
Several readers caught two errors in yesterday’s column, in which my brain cramped. The Mets and Phillies are playing their current series in Philadelphia, not New York, and should the Mets win two of three the Phils will be 7.5 games back, not 8.5.