It is a principle so well-known that it comes off as cliche: Buying low is the way to get good value.
When it comes to free agency, we have seen teams succeed by following this axiom. Scott Kazmir had last pitched in the majors when he threw 1.2IP for the 2011 Angels and was atrocious. Given his youth and former level of ability, the Indians took a flyer on him, giving him a non-roster invite for spring training. As a team in desperate need of starting pitching and quite realistic dreams of competing, Kazmir was a no risk, high reward investment, yielding 158 perfectly decent innings for virtually no cost. The last few years we have seen the Orioles get tremendous value by pulling Nate McLouth off of the proverbial scrap heap.
What’s more, a large portion of the 2005 White Sox was constructed on this concept. The Scott Podsednik for Carlos Lee trade was not a victory because Podsednik was better than Carlos Lee. It was a victory because it saved over $7 million. The White Sox, who also received Luis Vizcaino in the deal, were able to put that money toward guys like Jermaine Dye. Dye was coming off of two injury-plagued, somewhat disappointing years in Oakland, and signed for a bargain 2-year deal worth $10.15 million. The squad would also tab A.J. Pierzynski, who at age 28 was coming off of the worst season of his career both on and off the field.
This year’s free agent market is as limited as any free agent class in recent memory. Teams are getting more aggressive about preemptively buying out the free agency years of their young stars, and the Qualifying Offer system makes otherwise attractive free agents very unappealing, with teams losing a 1st round pick or a very high 2nd round pick.
So who are the potential bargains in the bin this year?
Huge caveat: It has been hard to gauge what kind of values some players are going to command. James Fegan and I have been discussing Corey Hart on a 1-year deal, only to find out that he has a ton of bidders and will likely get multiple years despite coming off of some serious knee troubles. Last year I was convinced Shane Victorino would be a buy-low single-year rebuild-your-value-show-me sort of deal and instead he got huge dollars over 3 years.
With that being said…
Scott Baker: The White Sox rotation is young, cheap, and pretty talented. But we’ve also seen how pitching can go from a position of depth to a huge question mark in a heartbeat – remember 2012 and 2013 when the two most reliable pieces in the rotation, John Danks and Gavin Floyd, spontaneously combusted. So while I am happy to head into 2013 with Chris Sale – Jose Quintana – Hector Santiago – John Danks – Erik Johnson and Andre Rienzo as insurance, there is quite a bit of risk floating around everybody in that group not named Chris Sale. I also think Santiago’s true home lies in the bullpen as a long man/spot starter/2-innings at a time guy.
The Cubs tried to get in on rebuilding Scott Baker on the cheap in the hopes of flipping him to a competitor in July. Unfortunately he got hurt again as Scott Baker is wont to do. Baker came back in September to make 3 starts – 2 good ones, 1 bad one. Barring another incident, he should be good for about 140-160 league average or better innings in 2014, which would help provide some insurance for the White Sox young arms, and potentially a good trade chip at the deadline. Going into his age 32 season, the White Sox should poke around Baker and see what kind of money he would take.
Other than how brittle he is, although Baker has good command and decent strike out stuff, he is also homer prone, which isn’t necessarily the best trait in U.S. Cellular. No qualifying offer was made to Baker, so he would only cost money.
Josh Johnson: For similar reasons that the White Sox should investigate Baker, they should check out Josh Johnson. He only turns 30 in January, and although he is coming off of a few down seasons (which should make him affordable! Right? Please?) his velocity is still there, and he is still able to miss bats. The Blue Jays did not extend him a qualifying offer either, and he is young enough to still be hunting for his big payday. A 1-year deal would have a lot of upside to go with minimal risk. If Herm Schneider and Don Cooper can get Johnson resembling his old self around the trade deadline, he could actually bring back a significant haul in trade. If he gets hurt again, oh well you’re just back to where you would be anyway. The White Sox are short enough on talent that they need to make some calculated risks in order to raise their organizational ceiling.
Much like James and my Corey Hart speculation, lots of other teams may have the very same idea, and it may become too expensive to be worth it. But you won’t know until you look.
Colby Lewis presents similar pros and cons as Scott Baker. Above average but dinger prone when healthy and coming off of a period of poor health. Other names in this category are guys like Dan Haren, and Shaun Marcum.
The Sox’ position player roster is a lot less easily streamlined, as it is cluttered with lots of redundant spare parts, many of which won’t be too valuable in trade. It would take some re-shuffling and some wheeling and dealing to make room, but Eric Chavez has shown himself to be willing to take short, cheap deals, and has shown that he can still hit when he can get on the field, batting .281/.341/.488 in 567 PAs in 2012-2013. The White Sox love them some veterans and need any left-handed bats they can get.
Franklin Gutierrez emerged in 2009 as an elite defensive center fielder who could actually hit a little bit. Since posting back-to-back 600+ PA seasons in ’09 and ’10, he has managed 344, 163, and 151 from 2011-2013 respectively while battling myriad injuries including some rather miserable sounding stomach ailments. The White Sox don’t have a ton of organizational strengths, but their medical/training staff is one of them, and Gutierrez is likely available on the cheap. Given that he turns 31 in February, there is a non-zero chance that there is some value to be had here. He has managed a .254/.292/.461 line over the last couple years (in a small sample) in a pitcher-friendly park. He’s like Dayan Viciedo if you ignore their park factors and the fact that Gutierrez is actually a good defensive player.
The White Sox spent a lot of years getting themselves behind the 8-ball like this. With some bold moves and some luck they can give their organization a much-needed talent infusion by investing in cheap players that can be flipped for prospects, and buy time to hopefully develop some more options internally.