Free Agents (Still) Worth Watching

When Barry Zito and Jeff Suppan signed their contracts last week, it felt a bit like the free-agent season was coming to a close. It’s probably true that we’ve seen the last eight-figure annual contract (until Roger Clemens makes a decision, anyway), but there are plenty of interesting players still seeking a home.

What follows is my ranking of the five most interesting remaining free agents. This isn’t at all scientific: it’s hard enough to project the performance of an injury-prone pitcher; it’s doubly difficult without knowing the park he’ll be in or the defense he’ll be in front of. I’ve purposely left out Clemens, as well as the soon-to-be-signed Mark Mulder and Keith Foulke. The following players are, at least theoretically, completely up for grabs.

1. John Thomson, SP

Several weeks ago, it was reported that the Mariners were on the verge of signing Thomson to a one-year, $4 million contract. I was ready to hail that as an underrated, promising signing until … well, it didn’t happen. Thomson, of course, has quite the injury history, and perhaps interested teams have been scared off by medical data they’ve acquired.

If he’s healthy, though, he could outperform many of the pitchers scoring three-year deals. Thomson has thrown 160 innings or more in five separate seasons, and his lowest ERA+ among those campaigns was 98, in 2002. His ’06 performance is tough to put in a positive light, but ’05 is a different story: while his ERA was below average in about 100 innings, his FIP, at 3.39, was a full run lower than his ERA. He’d be a gamble, but a few million bucks for a league-average starter? I’m surprised no one has yet rolled the dice.

2. Trot Nixon, OF

Nixon is a terrific example of the importance of focusing on what a player can do, rather than what he can’t. Can Trot post a .306/.396/.578 line, like he did in 2003? Is he going to rack up 600 plate appearances? Will he suddenly learn to hit lefties? No, no, and no.

However, in a severe down year last season, Nixon still managed an OPS just under league average. His power wasn’t there, but he got on base at a .373 clip—above his career average. His steady defense, combined with even a mild bounceback in his power numbers, will make him a valuable player for another few years. There’s no room for him in the Cardinals outfield, but he seems like the type of guy Tony LaRussa could coax a career year out of.

3. Jeff Weaver, SP

Even taking his postseason heroics into account, we can say that Weaver had a bad year in 2006. Then again, so did $21 million man Jason Marquis, and Weaver has had a much better career than Marquis has. Last offseason, Weaver profiled a lot like Jeff Suppan does this offseason: a solid innings eater who no longer has overpowering stuff and has benefited from a favorable environment.

If you predict a mild recovery for Weaver—say, to the 85 ERA+ level, which is what he put together in his half season in St. Louis—he’s still well above replacement level. That’s not much of a selling point in early November, but in January, there aren’t a lot of guys out there who you can reasonably count on to give you 200 innings at that level.

4. Cliff Floyd, OF

I don’t think Floyd will be as valuable as Nixon next year, though he seems to be viewed as more of an “impact” acquisition—albeit one with just as many question marks. Floyd’s career OBP is only a few points below Nixon’s, but in his injury-limited ’06, his on-base mark fell to .324. That could just be an aberration, as it was almost entirely batting average-driven. His walk rate was only a bit below his career average.

Nixon may be Floyd’s superior in OBP and defense, but it doesn’t take as much wishcasting to project 20 or 30 dingers for Cliff. His slugging average of .407 last year was his lowest ever in a full season; between 1998 and 2005, his SLG never fell below .461. Ultimately, Floyd is the same type of gamble that John Thomson is: if he’s fully healthy, he could prove to be a great acquisition. Otherwise…well, he probably won’t cost too much.

5. Arthur Rhodes, RP

As goes Rhodes’s walk rate, so goes Rhodes. Predicting how a reliever will perform over his next 50 innings is a little like forecasting the stock market, but it is apparent that when Rhodes limits the free passes, he is a very effective pitcher. That’s true, of course, of most pitchers, but rarely is there such a dramatic demonstration in one player’s career figures:

Year    BB/9    ERA+
1997    2.45    145
1998    3.97    129
1999    7.64    89
2000    3.76    107
2001    1.59    245
2002    1.68    181
2003    3.00    107
2004    4.89    91
2005    2.49    197
2006    5.91    87

Typically, I wouldn’t try to make the case that a 37-year-old lefty reliever coming off an 87 ERA+ is worth signing. But, despite the fluctuating walk rates, Rhodes can still dominate: in his last two seasons, he’s averaged a strikeout per inning along with only four homers in about 90 innings. He may not deserve another three-year deal, but he could be a very pleasant surprise if he joins forces with the right pitching coach.

The Rest

Worthy of honorable mention are starters Tomo Ohka and Tony Armas, Jr., second baseman Mark Loretta, and lefty-masher Craig Wilson. For a complete list, here’s ESPN’s handy (and sortable!) Free Agent Tracker.

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