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In baseball, a premium on smart shopping

There were plenty of big spenders in free agency, but which major league teams got the most for their money and which ones might wind up with buyer's remorse?

February 04, 2012|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Among the best free-agent acquisitions this offseason was relief pitcher Ryan Madson at one year and $8.25 million while first baseman Albert Pujols at 10 years and $240 million was the most expensive.
Among the best free-agent acquisitions this offseason was relief pitcher… (Photos by Associated Press…)

This winter's free-agent class included a Prince (Fielder) who got a deal fit for a king and a reliever who came away looking like a pauper by major league salary standards.

Closer Ryan Madson nearly had a four-year, $44-million agreement with Philadelphia in November, but talks broke down and the Phillies signed Boston's Jonathan Papelbon for four years and $50 million.

The demand for closers drying up, Madson settled in January for a one-year, $8.25-million contract with Cincinnati.

A tough break for Madson? Sure, but a stroke of genius for the Reds, who got a key piece for a potential division contender at a cut-rate price.

Free agency isn't just about who throws the most money around, though it often seems that way for teams such as the Angels, Phillies, Red Sox, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, who snagged Fielder with a nine-year, $214-million deal.

It's about value, getting bang for the buck and, as Papelbon-Madson shows, the Phillies paid a premium in dollars and years for an asset that doesn't look like much of an upgrade over what the Reds got on the cheap.

With that in mind, here's a look by position at the best and worst free-agent values of the off-season:

First base

Best: Carlos Pena, one year, $7.25 million, Tampa Bay.

No team stretches a $60-million budget like the Rays, who contend in the American League East despite puny payrolls. In Pena, 33, they have another low-cost, high-impact player.

Pena had a .357 on-base percentage and 28 home runs for the Chicago Cubs in 2011 after averaging 36 homers with a .368 OBP in four seasons at Tampa Bay. He's also a Gold Glove-caliber defender and a strong clubhouse presence.

Worst: Albert Pujols, 10 years, $240 million, Angels.

This contract will look great if the slugger leads the Angels to a World Series or two in the next five years. If not, it could become a financial albatross.

Pujols, 32, will make $12 million this season. But starting in 2017, when he'll be 37, he'll make salaries of $26 million, $27 million, $28 million, $29 million and $30 million in the final five years of the deal. Only one player in 40 years has had multiple MVP-caliber seasons after he was 37.

His name: Bonds. Barry Bonds.

Second base

Best: Aaron Hill, two years, $11 million, Arizona.

Hill, 30, slumped in 2011, hitting .246 with eight homers and 61 runs batted in, but he flourished after an August trade from Toronto to Arizona, hitting .315 with a .386 OBP. Hill has freakish power — 62 homers, 176 runs batted in over the 2009 and 2010 seasons — for a second baseman.

Worst: Mark Ellis, two years, $8.75 million, Dodgers.

Ellis, 34, is an excellent defender and clubhouse leader, but shouldn't a little offense be a standard feature with this sticker price?

Ellis hit .248 with a .288 OBP, seven homers and 41 RBIs for Oakland and Colorado last season, and his 1.3 wins above replacement (WAR) rating was third-lowest among major league second basemen.

Shortstop

Best: Jimmy Rollins, three years, $38 million, Philadelphia.

The length of this deal made it attractive to the Phillies to retain their sparkplug, who was looking for a five-year contract.

Rollins, 33, has tailed off since his MVP season of 2007, when he hit .296 with 30 homers, 20 triples, 139 runs and 94 RBIs, but he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 with a .338 OBP, 16 homers and 87 runs in 2011.

Worst: Jose Reyes, six years, $106 million, Miami.

The dynamic 28-year-old switch hitter has game-changing speed and had a .383 OBP to go with his NL-leading .337 average in 2011. But who pays $17.6 million a year for a leadoff guy?

The former Mets star was limited to 295 games by ankle, calf, hamstring and rib-cage injuries the last three seasons, and he's forcing the Marlins to move their best — and most temperamental — player, Hanley Ramirez, from shortstop to third.

Third base

Best: Aramis Ramirez, three years, $36 million, Milwaukee.

The knock on Ramirez, 33, is he has bad body language and occasionally takes defensive plays off, but he has consistently put up excellent power numbers and will ease the loss of Fielder.

Ramirez has a career .284 average, .342 OBP and .500 slugging percentage, has averaged 24 homers and 86 RBIs in 13 seasons and is a .299 hitter with runners in scoring position.

Worst: Wilson Betemit, two years, $3.25 million, Baltimore.

It's the years, not the money, that make this deal a head-scratcher.

Why would a rebuilding team give a mediocre-hitting, poor-fielding, 30-year-old journeyman with little power a two-year deal — with a $3.2-million, third-year vesting option, no less?

Catcher

Best: Ramon Hernandez, two years, $6.4 million, Colorado.

Hernandez is 35 with heavy mileage on his knees, and he's reached double figures in homers just twice in five seasons. But he is better suited to tutor 22-year-old Wilin Rosario, the Rockies' top position-playing prospect, than Chris Iannetta.

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