The accelerated off-season schedule—the free-agency period started earlier in the fall than usual, and the deadline for offering players arbitration was moved up—helped to clear out the free-agent pool more quickly than in any year in recent memory. Entering January, just a few top-tier players (third baseman Adrian Beltre and closer Rafael Soriano led the list) remained available.
Beyond them, though, there's value to be had. Teams that have been patient in a seller's market may be rewarded with significant contributors at a bargain price. A year ago the Giants signed first baseman Aubrey Huff in January and rode him to a World Series title. The Red Sox signed Beltre, and he performed at an MVP level. This year the following players could be the same kind of high-impact, low-cost signings:
Ramirez's 2009 suspension for failing a test for PEDs, his calf problems and lack of power for the White Sox down the stretch in 2010 have taken much of the bloom off his rose. But even in an injury-plagued season Ramirez, 38, hit .298 with a .409 OBP, numbers that would be a DH upgrade for most teams. The AL team that signs Ramirez will take a big step toward the postseason.
He's entering his ninth season, but the righthander is still just 28 and retains some of the upside he had before circulatory problems altered his career in 2008. In '10 Bonderman was erratic and seemed to tire after making just 13 starts in the previous two seasons. But he made 29 starts, and with the recovery year under his belt he could give a contender 30 league-average starts.
The reliever, 33, came into his own in Tampa Bay, with a 2.98 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in three seasons with the Rays. His perceived value may be low because of a lack of saves—eight in three years, none in 2010—but the righty's improved command makes him a candidate to continue his pattern of low ERAs. One problem: He's a Type A free agent who was offered arbitration, so a team that signs him has to give the Rays its top draft pick. Balfour fits best with a club that has already signed a Type A, like the Red Sox, Phillies or Tigers, and would therefore only lose a second- or even third-round pick.
Even at age 40 Edmonds showed he's still a threat from the left side, batting .276/.342/.504 in a part-time role for the Brewers and the Reds. As with Ramirez, he fits best with an AL team that can use him as a DH. Even in his dotage Edmonds is dangerous against righthanders—OPSs of .871 and .883 in his last two seasons—and when healthy he can man a corner outfield spot acceptably.
The slugger was a huge part of the Twins' success in 2010, helping pick up for the loss of Justin Morneau by hitting .303/.438/.669 with 15 homers after the first baseman went down with a concussion last July. Thome, 40, runs like a credenza, so he too is limited to DH duty. But the Angels, Rays and Rangers would all get a lot of value from the power he can bring.
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One of the key changes in the game in the last 20 years—paralleling the rise of sabermetric influence—is that teams are less willing to pay players merely for experience. The result: Many veterans are having trouble landing contracts longer than one year. For example, first baseman Derrek Lee, coming off a decent season at age 34, had to settle for a one-year deal worth less than $10 million from the Orioles. Experienced players such as reliever Kerry Wood ($1.5 million, Cubs), DH Hideki Matsui ($4.25 million, A's) and catcher Russell Martin ($4 million, Yankees) took one-year deals with pay cuts. As teams get better at evaluating players, they're inclined to pay for projected performance, rather than service time or the soft qualities associated with veterans.
ANDREW WEBER/US PRESSWIRE (RAMIREZ)
THE BEST-BRAID PLAN Ramirez's star is diminished, but even in a down year his 2010 numbers topped most teams' DH production.
TOM DIPACE (WOOD)