Thin free-agent market requires taking gambles

By Tracy Ringolsby | 12/03/12 10:25 PM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When the San Francisco Giants, in their effort to add outfield depth, worked deals last offseason that brought Melky Cabrera from Kansas City for the unfulfilled promises of left-hander Jonathan Sanchez and picked up Angel Pagan from the New York Mets for journeymen pitcher Ramon Ramirez and outfielder Andres Torres, there was barely a blip on baseball's offseason radar.
A year later, with Cabrera and Pagan both having cashed in on the roles they played in the Giants winning a world championship, the afterthoughts of a year ago have become focal points for this winter's wheeling and dealing.
Who'd have thunk it?
Cabrera, who had a career year interrupted by a positive drug test that resulted in a 50-game suspension and left him in such a world of uncertainty that the Giants didn't even activate him for the postseason once his sentence was served, not only received a raise in 2013 from the $6 million his contract with the Giants called for, but found some security in a two-year, $16 million deal the Toronto Blue Jays gave him last month.
Then on Monday, 363 days removed from being dealt by the Mets, Pagan gave up his free agency to re-sign with the Giants for four years and $40 million -- nearly $29 million more than he had made combined in his six previous big league seasons.
And that came on the heels of the Boston Red Sox have reached agreement on a three-year, $39 million deal for catcher Mike Napoli, whom the Red Sox are planning to play at first base and counting on to fill a need for a right-handed run producer, even though he has never even had an 80-RBI season.
That's the same Napoli that Texas declined to even make the $13.3 million one-year qualifying offer needed to get them Draft-choice compensation for losing Napoli to free agency because there was a fear he might accept that deal, even though the Rangers are now having to scour the market to try to find someone to share the catching chores with Geovany Soto.
This is what free agency has come to.
The market is slim.
Over time, teams have more often than not made the pre-emptive move to sign cornerstone players to multi-year deals instead of risking losing them on the open market.
The signings of Pagan, Cabrera and Napoli underscore the slim pickings for teams in search of run producers. The only other run-production bats who have signed so far are outfielders B.J. Upton, who was given a five-year, $75.25 million deal with Atlanta, Torii Hunter, who at the age of 37 received a two-year, $26 million deal in Detroit, and Jonny Gomes, whose clubhouse impact earned him a two-year, $10 million deal from Boston.
The remaining run producers on the free-agent market are outfielder Josh Hamilton and first baseman Adam LaRoche.
Hamilton has been one of the game's most prolific run producers, having driven in 100-plus runs in three of his five seasons with Texas, but also has a checkered off-field history that leaves teams never sure what might happen next. Texas hasn't even made Hamilton a contract offer and has spent plenty of time with internal discussions weighing whether it is willing to even offer a guarantee in excess of three years.
LaRoche was a critical part of Washington claiming the National League East title and advancing to the postseason for only the second time in the 44-year history of a franchise that began as the Montreal Expos, but while he has driven in 100 runs in two of the last three seasons, he's also 33 and has bounced around with five clubs in his nine big league seasons.
There are 19 outfielders remaining who filed for free agency. Michael Bourn, 29, is the only one younger than 30. At the other extreme, Raul Ibanez is 40; Bobby Abreu, 38; Mark DeRosa, 37; Scott Podsednik, 36; and Eric Hinske and Reed Johnson, 35.
Nine of the 11 first baseman who filed for free agency are 34 or older -- Carlos Pena and Juan Rivera, 34; Aubrey Huff, Lyle Overbay and Ty Wigginton, 35; Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, 36; Miguel Cairo, 38; and Jason Giambi, 41. The exceptions? LaRoche is 33, and Casey Kotchman is 29.
The pickings are slim.
And the gambles are big.
It has turned last year's afterthoughts into this winter's free-agent focal points.