By Marc Normandin
Free agency is often a problematic endeavor for teams looking to fill holes. There's the potential to drastically overpay for players who, very likely, are already past their primes due to the fact that they can't even become free agents until six years of their career are behind them, and draft pick compensation rules further muddy the waters. The fact that so many high-quality talents are extended by their clubs well past their free-agent years nowadays has diluted the talent pool in the market, but there is still help in the free agency market for those who know how to find it. There are bargains out there for smart shoppers, and since it's not the World Series for 28 of the 30 MLB teams, we can begin to look for them now, starting with position players.
Morales might not be what you consider a potential bargain, but there are reasons to believe that, relative to some of the other potential first baseman on the market or already under contract, he'll come at a respectable price to the right team. Morales only made $5.25 million in his final season of arbitration, and while he's certainly in line for a raise, the chances of his significantly eclipsing whatever contract Red Sox first baseman Mike Napoli gets now that he's headed back on the market are slim, given that Morales will be turning 31 in 2014 and isn't the kind of player who will receive mega-contract offers like some first basemen in that age range the last few winters.
Morales' adjusted numbers come out looking better than his raw ones, because he's spent his entire career in pitcher-friendly environments while with the Angels and, in 2013, the Mariners. His home numbers are a bit better than his road ones in spite of that, but he averaged 402 feet on his 23 homers this year, and 405 on his 22 2012 blasts: he's going to hit the ball out of anywhere he plays. Putting Morales in the right park where this becomes a simpler task than it was in Los Angeles or Anaheim could do a lot for his numbers,
The one snag with Morales that could cause him to lose the bargain tag is if the Mariners give him a qualifying offer, attaching draft pick compensation to him. This does seem likely -- the Mariners haven't exactly been quiet about their love for Morales -- but even with that, given the lack of available talent on the first base market, giving up a pick for a guy who has hit .286/.339/.494 with a 128 OPS+ since coming into his own in 2009 isn't the worst idea for the right team, such as one with a protected top-10 draft pick that can just give up their second rounder instead.
Johnson is a less obvious talent than the power-hitting Morales. The 31-year-old signed a one-year deal for $2.45 million for 2013, and it's unlikely he'll pull in more than that to the point that he loses bargain status for 2014 and beyond. It's not that Johnson had a bad season, but the Rays used him as they do any of their non-major pieces -- picking and choosing his spots when they could, limiting his playing time. Johnson started 96 games and appeared in 118, batting .235/.305/.410.
That might not seem like much, but Tropicana Field is a notoriously pitcher-friendly stadium. Johnson's 99 OPS+ was right around his pre-2013 career level of 103, and he hit .240/.312/.434 with 10 homers in 218 road plate appearances. He's a useful defender, and lined up in left, at second, at third, and even picked up two starts at first base in 2013: if he can be a league-average bat and move all around the diamond, all while coming in at a low price, then Johnson can be a significant contributor to a competing club, just like he was for the 2013 Rays.
Salty is set to get a long-term contract for real money for the first time in his career, but given the way the more talented, more established catchers in front of him have been paid -- and will be paid -- over the last few years suggests that whoever signs Saltalamacchia is in for a relative bargain. Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and, in a few months' time, Brian McCann, all deserve (and will likely deserve) their significant paydays, but not every team can develop, nor afford, that kind of talent. Salty is the perfect fit for that organization that would like a more-than-serviceable backstop to fill a hole for a few years, and to do so without breaking the bank.
The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia hit .273/.338/.466 in 2013 with 14 homers and 54 extra-base hits, but that's likely his peak campaign. His .372 batting average on balls in play is going to regress, causing his batting average to crater, but with his power, that's fine, so long as he can keep his on-base percentage above .300. In the past, that wouldn't have been enough for him to earn his paycheck, but the praise his pitchers and a catcher who would know, teammate David Ross, have heaped on him this year will get him his significant raise.
In the past, there have been complaints inside the game that Saltalamacchia just wasn't a good defensive catcher, and had little interest in improving. While unfounded to a degree -- he's been an above-average pitch framer for a while now -- much of the chatter out of Boston was about how much the pitchers missed the retired Jason Varitek. This season, though, Salty has received high (and public) marks for his work ethic and dedication to mapping out a game plan for his starters, an occurrence that reminds you why the Red Sox wanted a veteran like David Ross around in the first place.
So, if Salty is going to hit homers, and his pitchers are going to enjoy working with him now that he's shown interest in more than just his swing, whoever signs him is going to be pleased. Like with Morales, if the Red Sox extend a qualifying offer, it's going to ding his value a bit, but good catchers you can trust for more than a year at a time that won't cost both the sun and moon are hard to find.
You're likely wondering what an outfielder who has hit .258/.310/.377 for an 87 OPS+ the last two years is doing on the list. If they're terrible at baseball, then they aren't a bargain even if they're playing for free. It's worth pointing out, though, that, like Kelly Johnson, if Davis is used appropriately, he can produce positive value, and very likely on the cheap.
Davis isn't going to set the world on fire at the plate, but once he gets on the bases, he can make up for some of those outs. FanGraphs listed him as being worth just over 10 runs on the bases in 2013, thanks in part to 45 steals in 51 attempts. He's been worth at least half a win on the bases alone every season since 2008, so if he can get on base at even a league-average rate, he can help to make up, to a degree, for his lack of power.
The real question with Davis is his defense. He's incredibly fast, but he's bounced between productive and sub-par seasons with the glove according to Baseball Reference, has been worth over a win in his career defensively per Baseball Prospectus, but has cost his team a couple wins with the leather per FanGraphs. If the latter is inaccurate, or Davis can at least avoid that kind of season afield, he can be a bargain. If not, well, at least he was cheap, yeah?
Hart is something of a forgotten man after missing all of 2013 recovering from microfracture surgery on his right knee. From 2010 through 2012, though, the first baseman/outfielder absolutely mashed the ball, hitting .279/.343/.514 for a 127 OPS+ over nearly 1,800 plate appearances. He's been a much better hitter at Miller Park, much like anyone else who has spent significant time there, but there are also other pro-hitter parks out there, and their checks will clear, too.
As Hart missed 2013, he's likely looking for a make-good, short-term deal with someone, especially since he's just 31 and hypothetically isn't limited to first base - microfracture surgery might mean a lot less right field in his future, but left is always an option, and the American League has the designated hitter spot should someone be unwilling to test his knee all that much. Hart could cost a significant amount on a one-year deal -- he did earn over $10 million in the final year of his previous deal with the Brewers -- but a hefty one-year commitment that will likely come without draft pick compensation attached could be a coup. Even if his new club failed to re-sign him after 2014, there is always the possibility they can get a draft pick out of it in the summer of 2015, should Hart perform well enough to earn a qualifying offer a year from now.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.