Thursday, February 19, 2009

Big Free Agents Signings - and What to Expect

Okay, we've all been through the big free agent signings before with the Rays - and historically, especially early in the history of the Rays, those signings rarely paid dividends.

Wilson Alvarez - 5 year $35 million contract, and all he did was compile a 17-26 record with a 3-year ERA of 4.62 - hardly worthy of $7 million per season.
Greg Vaughn - 4 years $34 million contract, and in his three season of work - compiled a batting average of .226, hitting 60 home runs, and knocking in only 185 runs. Hardly worth the $8.5 million per season.
Jose Canseco - signed a one year deal worth $2 million - but didn't even last that one season before being traded to the dreaded Yankees - he hit .257 with 9 home runs and 30 RBI's in 61 games that season.
Paul Sorrento - signed a 2 year 5.25 million contract with an option for a third year at $3 million - he never stood a chance for that option to be picked up. In the two seasons, he batted .229 with 28 home runs and 99 RBI's ... hardly the pop the Rays had hoped for in the signing.
Juan Guzman - signed a 2-year contract worth a guaranteed $12.5 million - he pitched exactly 1 2/3 innings with the club.

This doesn't even include such blockbuster trades as the acquisition of the likes of Vinny Castillo, but that argument is neither here nor there, for this post's sake.

The point is, in the past, the Rays have tried. They have put big money out there for big names in attempts to reap big rewards, but that just hasn't been the case. So, what can we expect this season, after multiple free agent signings? Are any of those signings going to be huge busts like the above? Let's hope not - but in all honesty, only one can actually nab the tag of "bust" anyway, but we can still hope for the best. Today, I will attempt to shed some light on the free agent acquisitions of this past offseason and predict how I believe each can fare in their new uniform.

We'll start with the obvious acquisition that could potentially feel the most pressure - Pat Burrell signed a 2 year $16 million dollar deal. He is 32 now (will be 33 on October 10th) and has a career batting average of .257 (he hit .250 last season) but for his career he has averaged nearly 28 home runs per season - not too shabby from what would likely be the Rays' DH this year, and Burrell also will walk - or in other words, force the pitcher to work against him. Since Burrell will not be asked to bat clean-up for the Rays, I believe he will work well on this team, and hit near or above his career average for home runs. He may be on the cusp of actually being worth the $8 million per year, but I think he will prove to be a major contributor for the Rays - and an upgrade from the DH position over that of season's past.

The only other position player they added this year via free agency is Gabe Kapler (they traded for Joyce) who is set to earn just a notch above $1 million for 1 season. Kapler is 33 (will be 34 on August 31st) and has a career batting average of .273 (he hit .301 last season). Kapler is expected to fill in spot duty in right field, and could potentially fill in the duties on limited basis in left. He will bat toward the bottom of the order, when he bats, but he provides a good contact hitting pinch hitter - having only struck out an average of 41 times per year for his career. He will be worth the $1 million dollar price tag - simply because, baseball salaries are absurd, and a million for a bench player seems more the norm than ever.

As for the pitchers:

The Rays signed Joe Nelson to a one-year $1.3 million contract. Nelson is expected to fill the middle relief innings - in order to get the game to the likes of Balfour, Howell, Wheeler, and, if healthy, Percival. Nelson is 34 (he will be 35 on October 25th) and has spent considerable amount of time in the minors in his career (only having 4 seasons of major league experience - of which only 2 are full seasons). Nelson's career ERA is 4.09 (2.00 last season) with a record of 4-2 (3-1 last season). I would not be surprised to see Nelson begin the season in Durham, in order to make roster space for those pitchers (Hammel, Niemann, and, to an extent, Rodriguez) that are out of options.

The last free agent signee of the off-season was a recent addition - in Brian Shouse. Shouse signed a one year, $1.55 million dollar contact with the option of being retained for the 2010 season. Shouse is 40 years of age (he will be 41 September 26th). He has a career 3.65 ERA (2.81 ERA last season) with a record of 12-9 (5-1 last season). Shouse will fill the void of left-hand specialist for the Rays - a position held last season by Trevor Miller. He will pitch in many different situations, both starting innings and squashing threatening innings. He will be a good fit in the Rays' pen - and is essentially the cloned left-handed version of Chad Bradford - the two combined can easily get 6 quick, easy, ground-ball outs - which is something any team can relish.

So four free agents - at least 3 will make the team from camp - all 4 likely could, but all 4 will be major contributors for the Rays in '09. In my opinion each provides an upgrade from what was already in place, except maybe Nelson, and one could argue the same for Kapler (depending on if you see him as a replacement for Rocco Baldelli or Johnny Gomes).

Shouse is a major upgrade from Trevor Miller of a season ago - where his ERA was hovering in the 4.50 range. Also, Burrell is an upgrade at DH, over the likes of Cliff Floyd - not that I dislike Floyd, but his numbers have declined in resent memory. Kapler, though I don't particularly think is an upgrade over Rocco Baldelli (he would be an upgrade over Gomes on the bench though) is in good shape and should provide, at the very least, health - I do wish Rocco luck in Boston - but wish for the worst for the team. And Nelson, if and when he makes the team, will take over the middle relief role - and by that, I mean the middle innings, and in short term situations giving Balfour and Howell a day off when needed. However, depending on how many relief pitchers the Rays enter the regular season with, I do feel Nelson can be the odd man out - of course, with the injury to Bradford, he may just make the team, at least for now.

The free agents are in. Camp has begun. The season cannot come soon enough. For these Rays, the mantra is '09 > '08 - and for the fans, let's hope that certainly rings true.

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