Buyer's guide: 12 free agents the Indians should target
By Jeff Ellis
November 1, 2012
In my last column that posted on Sunday afternoon, I used WAR to try and figure out who might be the core players for the Tribe as they head forward. This showed something that surprised no one, that the Indians need to fill a lot of holes, and since the upper levels of the minors are weak this means the only way to add talent to this roster is through trades and free agency.
This time around, I will look at some free agents who the Tribe might be able to sign this offseason using the same approach with WAR. The Indians are not a hot spot for free agents as many do not want to come here and others are too expensive. If they are to get any player they have to overpay them, look for hidden gems, or find players who have some warts.
I went through the free agency list and looked up virtually every player on it, and ignored players whose options were likely to be picked up or that would likely not be in the Indians' price range. As mentioned in my last article, Shapiro specifically talked about WAR as an evaluation tool, so I looked for players who have a history of positive WAR or have had some recent dynamic years. I found 12 players who would make sense on the Indians shopping list.
The player who is the most underrated free agent in all of baseball is Michael Bourn. For a guy who Atlanta gave up very little to get, he excelled for them. He had the 11th best WAR of any batter last year, which by the way the Indians evaluate players it means he was a borderline MVP candidate. On top of that, over the last four years he has posted a WAR of at least at least 3. He won't get a ton of money in free agency because he doesn't post a high average, hit home runs, or anything that is a sexy stat, and the only thing he led the league in last year was caught stealing. Yet he is simply the best defensive centerfielder in baseball, and he knows how to work a count, get on base, and shows some doubles pop as well.
Over the past few years the Indians have been collecting players that can play centerfield, hit doubles, and walk. They tend to draft one player like this each draft, with recent examples of this being Tyler Naquin and Tyler Holt. The fact Bourn has been a consistent player, is still only 29-years old, and has never made over $7 million a year might lead the Indians to try and sign him to a multi-year deal. A player like Bourn would allow them to push Choo back to the third spot in the order and really improve multiple places in the batting order.
The next best hitter for the Indians would be one that comes with significant baggage. Melky Cabrera was inactive for the end of the year after being busted for steroids then compounded it all by lying and making a website to try and cover it all up. He is the most toxic property in free agency this year. This also makes him an ideal candidate for the Indians. He is a switch hitter who is a good defender with a great arm. The last two years he has posted WAR's over 4, and did it all while hitting righties better then lefties. Melky , I assume, is going to be looking for a one year deal with a mutual option for a second year so he can reestablish his value. He is exactly the kind of undervalued, tarnished gem that Shapiro always loved to add to this team through the years.
Angel Pagan in many ways is like the first two players on this list. He can play all over the outfield, and has more double power than home run power. His value is sure to be cresting though thanks to his help in the Giants' recent World Series victory. In three of the past four years he has posted WAR totals north of 2. He is a switch hitter who has hit left hand pitching well for his career. The bigger issue is would the Giants let a player like Pagan go? I feel like he was such a part of their success and that they will do whatever they can to keep him on their team going forward, especially since they generally prefer veterans to young players. But if Pagan hits the open market, he is a guy that could end up with a team like the Indians.
A hitter that might be ideal for the Indians is Scott Hairston. Hairston is a right handed outfielder who hit 20 home runs last year. I should also mention he has a career .830 OPS versus left handed pitching. His WAR last year was 1.5, and has been positive over the last three years. He can play all three outfield spots and has done so over the past few years. He will be 33-years old early next year, but this might make him more likely to take a two year deal. The Indians have been very reluctant to give longer term deals, so Hairston might figure into their plans. He is a player to consider because he fills the need of a right handed bat, but also brings versatility. He can play 150 games over four spots on the field, which means he would be - in my mind - the ideal secondary addition to this team.
I was firmly in the camp of people who thought Kevin Youklis was washed up. The fact he had hit so bad outside of Boston, and then struggled all year before his trade to the White Sox earlier this year made me think that he was done. Then he went to Chicago and after getting away from the horrible situation in Boston it seemed to revive him. His average was low, but his power rebounded and he walked enough to post a respectable on base percentage. He ended up posting a 1.3 composite WAR for the year. He has a long positive history with Terry Francona, so he might be interested in coming to Cleveland. He has always been a guy who destroys left handed pitching, and brings versatility as well. He would be a guy who can split time between 3B/DH/1B depending on need.
Cody Ross is a name I have seen no one talk about with the Tribe, but he may be the ideal player for them. He fits a need as a right handed bat who has a career .851 OPS versus left handed pitching. He has shown power hitting over 20 home runs three times in his career including last year. He has posted a WAR over 1 in five of the past six years, 2011 being his one down year. He has played parts of nine years in the majors and during that time played for six different teams. He played all three outfield spots last year and has for most of his career, though he is not a great defender and would be best served spending the majority of his time in a corner spot. He has always been a useful player, but I am sure what he is looking for at this point is stability. It's hard to believe no one is talking about a guy who has some power, but that is exactly why he should be a guy the Indians call as soon as free agency begins. I can't think of a better way to make a journeyman type of signing.
The last hitter that stood out to me was Jeff Keppinger. Like a majority of players on my list, Keppinger would bring a lot of versatility to this team. Last year there were concerns that Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera both got tired because the Indians had no one who could step up and give them a rest. Keppinger would do this as he can play anywhere in the infield. Last year for Tampa he had a WAR of 2.5, and over the last five years has posted a positive WAR four times. He doesn't strike out , but also rarely walks. He, like Hairston, would be a good secondary addition. I think the question is would you sign a Keppinger, or do you go with Donald and at this point hope he can become a Keppinger type hitter.
The top free agent pitcher for the Indians to try and go for is the one with the most risk and that is Brandon McCarthy, a guy who has a history of injuries, played in a pitchers park, and has a height concern since most guys 6'7" end up with injury issues. He has posted WAR values over 2 the last two years and is still under the age of 30. If he had been healthy all year this past season his WAR value would have been closer to 4, but in spit of the injuries he still started 18 games and was more valuable in those games than every starter for the Indians combined. He is a risk, but that risk is what allows a guy like him to be available for the Indians.
Joe Saunders was not a guy that was a hot commodity as a free agent last year. He wasn't a big piece at the trade deadline either, yet he is still someone the Indians should consider. His one year $6 million contract last year was a very reasonable deal. He is a guy who posted a positive WAR over the last three years, but never lived up to his high draft pick status. He did have a better year this year, but he is really an innings eater four-five starter type of pitcher as in the last four years his lowest inning total was 174 innings pitched. He might not be exciting, but as a steady arm he is worth a look. Last year he would have been the ace of the indians' staff, and really if he can be had for $6 million it's a steal.
Chris Young is a lot like Brandon McCarthy, a big pitcher (6'10") who has a history of injury problems. The difference is that his 2010 and 2011 seasons were basically wiped out due to injury and recovery. This last season he was healthy he pitched in 20 games and had a positive WAR, and an ERA right around 4. He performed very well in spite of his rust and would be a great lesser known target. He is a former All Star who has had excellent years, but is approaching 34 years old. Still, the American league is an ideal place for him since he would no longer have to risk batting, and it might improve his numbers. Plus you know the front office loves to add Ivy league players, and Young is a Princeton graduate.
Kevin Millwood might be the first pitcher to have a bad home-away spilt with his home park being Safeco Field. If you want consistency how about a guy who has never posted a negative WAR in a 16 year career. He is near the end of his career, but he is a guy who is familiar with Progressive Field and has a history of success there. He has chased contracts and not wins the last few years, so he would be willing to come to Cleveland. He made $1 million dollars last year, so if the Indians can get him anywhere near that amount it's a risk worth taking. The Indians paid more for failures like Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman last year.
Jeremy Guthrie was the biggest name pitching prospect the Indians have had since CC Sabathia. He was a big name draft pick who tore up the minors early in his career but then stalled. I still don't blame the Indians for giving up on him as he had showed little in the recent years leading up to their decision to let him go, yet somehow he turned it around and became a solid pitcher in the majors. Last year the Orioles traded him because they wanted to cut salary, so he went to Colorado and was awful before they traded him to Kansa City in a disappointing pitcher swap (Colorado received Jonathan Sanchez). Once Guthrie got to Kansas City he pitched well and had a WAR of 1.7, which is right in line with what you would expect for him at this point in his career. It would be nice for the Indians to finally get something out of him after investing $3 million dollars in a signing bonus plus those years of development. Of late his skills have diminished a little, but he also showed that his time in Colorado was more about the thin altitude than his ability. A full year in a pitcher's park like Progressive Field might allow him to post a WAR closer to 2.5 which would make him quite valuable.
The Indians are going to have to make a few additions this year through free agency as they have too many needs to be able to get them through trades or promotions. The problem is a small market team like the Indians has to find inventive ways to find talent. The big names in free agency are never going to come to Cleveland, it's just not a place that a players want to come anymore nor do they have the ability to compete on the open market for them.
So, I for one am hoping the Indians do the research and try and find players who have performed consistently the last few years. Last year they gambled on guys who were unsigned for a reason, so this year they need to be more aggressive in finding talent to make this team better going forward.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Keppinger amazes me; why isn't he more appreciated?
Check his minor league stats.
He'd be an outstanding utility player.
Hairston is old, but that's exactly what we need: someone to play well until the low-A kids are ready.
Bourn will be a tough sign, but Cabrera & Ross may be available.
None of those pitchers is a good idea.
Hate the Harrison idea = Dellucci part deux
Cody Ross = should have been a target last year (but hey we got Grady!); might as well sign him this year.
Youk = on the fence, really would prefer to pass unless $$ makes sense.
I'd take a shot with any of the pitchers outside of gutherie and millwodd although none of them are going to make our rotation similar to that of the ChiSox, Tigers or even Royals.
Fully prepared for the Front Office to get none of these guys and then cry to the media/fans "hey, we tried". I hate this front office.
If they were to sign Ross, Youkilis and McCarthy, at least they'd be giving some effort. What about Victorino? He's coming off a down year, but he still destroyed left-handed pitching, stole a lot of bases and played good defense.