Who’s Left?

If you don’t have a girlfriend in your last year of high school, you’re going to face a lot of uncertainty come senior prom.

Going stag isn’t an option. It’s well known that anyone who attends their final high school dance without a date does terrible in life. It’s also not as simple as merely asking one of your female friends to go with you. Doing so with anything resembling urgency creates a weird expectation in the relationship and is quite likely to signal to your friend that you’ve always harboured something of a crush on them. Wait too long though, and you either end up asking a girl from the grade below you (good luck with that) or you deal with the stigma attached to asking someone that in all likelihood, no one else has asked.

Toss in some peer pressure, a bunch of weird hormones, parents who just don’t understand, and you’ve got yourself a fine mess of a situation that isn’t all that far from resembling free agency in baseball. Yes, I really just used the senior prom as a metaphor for free agency in baseball. Get over it.

We’re now at the stage in the off season, where the majority of the top free agents have signed their contracts and committed to playing for new teams next year. Traditionally, those remaining are the chum of smart, small-market front offices looking to take advantage of a lack of leverage. To extend our quite likely  misogynist metaphor, the nerdy kids are moving in on the leftovers.

This off season, however, there remains a potential candidate for prom queen, and several other intriguing options that shouldn’t be passed over just because of questions that other teams might have. Let’s take a look at who’s left from MLB’s 2012 free agent class:

Prince Fielder

Rumours on Fielder have been all over the map this off season, with the latest batch seeming to link him with the Washington Nationals. There’s probably a fit there, but the voices singing the praises of agent Scott Boras for playing the long game have suddenly faded. Could it be that the market for an elite first baseman isn’t as strong as one would normally expect?

Ryan Madson’s one year deal with the Cincinnati Reds might be even more interesting than we first imagined, as it could represent the Boras strategy for a lack of interest. Is it actually possible that Fielder would sign a short-term contract in order to raise his stock ahead of the next round of free agent shopping, or are we getting ahead of ourselves by imagining that Boras hasn’t been in control of everything all along?

Edwin Jackson

It seemed like a forgone conclusion back in November that Edwin Jackson would eventually sign with the New York Yankees, but with Matt Cain and Cole Hamels both possibly testing the free agent market next year, the Bronx Bombers seem uninterested in offering multiple years to a pitcher. With any agent other than Scott Boras running the show this would probably exclude them from the Jackson derby, but once again Boras could do what he did with Madson. However, the appeal of potentially going against Cain and Hamels is limited.

Jackson is the very definition of an average pitcher who consistently gives teams a solid middle of the rotation arm. I don’t think he settles for a one year deal, but Jackson’s rumoured asking price of five years for $80 million seems especially exorbitant, especially with shorter term options available in Roy  Oswalt and Hiroki Kuroda.

Hiroki Kuroda

Kuroda seems like the perfect fit for the New York Yankees, as he’s most likely seeking a one year premium deal that very much fits the team’s timing and budget. The only thing getting in the way of these two parties getting together is that this description also fits the wants of the Boston Red Sox.

Buyer beware though. Kuroda’s normally high ground ball rate dropped dramatically in 2011. Line drives and fly balls don’t exactly play well in either Boston or New York.

Roy Oswalt

To me, Oswalt represents a better option than Kuroda, but it could happen that whoever doesn’t sign the Japanese right hander “settles” for Oswalt. The former Astros ace turned Phillies fourth pitched much better after coming back from a stint on the Disabled List due to his bad back, and rumours of his decline are exaggerated to a degree.

I previously thought that the St. Louis Cardinals would be interested in Oswalt, but rumours indicate that they’re unwilling to guarantee him a spot in the rotation over Jake Westbrook or Kyle Lohse. My head continues to shake.

Carlos Pena

When Pena signed a $10 million contract with the Chicago Cubs last year, I openly mocked Jim Hendry for the signing. Pena, at 32 years of age, was coming off a season in which he collected less than 100 hits and managed to strike out in more than 27% of his plate appearances. He redeemed himself with an excellent year in Chicago, getting on base almost 36% of the time, while slugging 58 extra base hits. However, the majority of his success came against right handed pitching, while he struggled against southpaws.

He could be the member of a super platoon with right handed batting first baseman, or a straight up regular with the Tampa Bay Rays or Pittsburgh Pirates. However, I’m not sure that his price tag makes him immediately affordable to either of those clubs. I’m surprised that the Texas Rangers haven’t come knocking at his door. The Cleveland Indians may be another option, as I’m sure they’d love an excuse to push Lou Marson out of the lineup.

Casey Kotchman

I suggested that the Pirates and Rays could be out of the running for Pena because of his price tag, but it’s also because of Kotchman’s availability. Last season in Tampa Bay he had a great season at the plate. Normally when one says this about a first baseman, it’s in reference to power numbers. Not so for Kotchman, who had only 10 home runs in 563 plate appearances. A career high .335 BABIP may also scare away some teams depending on which side of the divide over that statistic they fall on.

Was 2011 a lucky year for Kotchman, or has he suddenly found a previously unrealized knack for attaining base hits? Whoever signs him ahead of 2012 will find out, but the similarity between his batted ball data in 2011 to the same information for the rest of his career isn’t exactly encouraging. Then again, perhaps a little bit more choosiness at the plate has worked its magic, with Kotchman swinging at 3% fewer pitches than he did over the rest of his career.

Johnny Damon

With Luke Scott getting snapped up by the Tampa Bay Rays, Damon delivered a few sound bytes that might represent evidence at bitterness over not getting invited back to the scene of his mediocre display in 2011. I write “mediocre” but in actuality a .744 OPS from a soon to be 40 year old isn’t too shabby at all.

It makes sense therefore that the Orioles should be interested, not just because Damon would represent a downgrade from Scott, whom the woebegone franchise allowed to leave because of a salary that will end up being similar to what it’s going to take to retain Damon, but also because in many ways, Damon is this year’s version of Vladimir Guerrero, whom Baltimore foolishly overspent on, as in they spent anything at all on him, last season. It’s enough to write a run-on sentence about.

Yoenis Cespedes

While he’s not yet a free agent, as the Cuban defector awaits the clearance of red tape to make his status in the Dominican Republic official, Cespedes will draw a lot of interest in the coming months, and for more reasons than this promotional video:

While he waits, Cespedes has agreed to play in the Dominican Winter League, despite teams like the Miami Marlins already claiming that they’ll open up the purse strings for him. There have been rumours of an asking price from the 26 year old of $50-$60 million. That’s a lot of money for a player at that age who hasn’t been developed through a Major League system.

Other Intriguing Options

I’m anticipating a retirement announcement from Javier Vazquez any day now, so including him on the list seems a bit counter productive.

Starters Bartolo Colon and Jeff Francis are both likely to get some last minute looks, but despite a rejuvenation of sorts for both in 2011, it’s difficult to not get scared of their respective history with injuries.

It blows my mind that there were actually rumours that Joe Saunders had an offer for three years on the table a little over a week ago. The fact that he hasn’t already signed with the Orioles (surely the only team silly enough to do such a thing) suggests to me it wasn’t true.

Brad Penny and Joel Pineiro, while certainly not the bellesof any ball, would seem to me to be better options to round out a rotation than Saunders.

Bridging the gap between rotation and bullpen is Rich Harden who could be a cheap option for either. The requisite injury risk label still applies.

On the reliever front, a whole list of names are still available, the most notable of which are probably Luis AyalaTodd Coffey, Brad Lidge, Mike GonzalezKerry Wood (who should sign soon) and the defeated arm of Francisco Cordero. None of these guys were likely too impressed with Ryan Madson signing such a team friendly contract in Cincinnati, but especially Cordero, who is unlikely to get nearly as good of an offer from any other team.

The next tier, as unappealing as it is, likely includes names like Shawn Camp and the perennially available Dan Wheeler. Enjoy, Minnesota Twins. The mummified remains of lefty specialist Arthur Rhodes are also available although reanimation fees may be expensive.

There are a few interesting lineup choices remaining that should entice a team to give up guaranteed money, just don’t a whole lot of it to be sent in the respective directions of Rick Ankiel, Eric Chavez, Derrek Lee, Ryan Ludwick or Cody Ross.

My favourite of the remaining batter options are Wilson Betemit and Kusoke Fukudome. Used properly, these two players can certainly offer above replacement value to a team.

The only position players of any note that I haven’t mentioned already are likely Vladimir Guerrero, Raul IbanezJuan Pierre and Manny Ramriez. These players will take whatever they’re offered, and the most likely scenario has them accepting a Minor League contract if not hanging up the cleats all together.

Happy barrel scraping!