My version of the five free agents that I feel we should pursue in the coming weeks.
Going into the offseason in years past has been a mixed blessing for Rays fans. On the one hand, the agony of another losing season was in the past and you had several months "off" before the following season. Yet, for as good as that was, our favorite sport and our favorite team were going into the cave for the winter, and we would have to desperately resort to discussing fruitless rumors to whet our thirst for baseball. Further, we would have to resort to second-tier sports like Arena Football and the NHL (no offense Lightning and Storm fans, but every sport is second-tier compared to baseball).
Along with the offseason also came hope. Hope that the team would do something, anything at all, to give us hope that the team would make a real effort to improve themselves for the following year. Maybe it was the unrealistic hope that we would sign some star free agent (Matt Morris rumors, anyone?), but every offseason we escaped reality for a few weeks and had hope. Usually by mid-December, reality would have completely set in and we would once again be placing bets on which journeymen relievers that no one else wanted we would be giving a bullpen spot. It became a yearly ritual.
But for now, I am still in the hope period, and that hope has been fueled by the rumors that the Rays have placed a bid on Japanese baseball star Akinori Iwamura and have contacted the agent for former Athletics ace Mark Mulder. Now at this point, the chances of getting one or both are still very slim, as the Rays will be up against many other deep-pocketed teams that will line up to be the suitor for these two players. We all have seen in the past that Rays GM Andrew Friedman will not make moves merely on the basis of PR, and not feasibility, and eventually the bidding for both players may get to that point. However it is nice to see that Friedman is establishing contacts and making nice with agents-to-be, something former GM Chuck LaMar never seemed to do. Hell, if LaMar didn't piss an agent or GM off over his ten year tenure, we considered it a success. It is nice to see the organization going in a different direction.
With that, I present five free agents that I feel we should explore signing in the coming offseason. I tried to make this list as realistic as possible, so no Barry Bonds folks. Still, I think that the five players I have compiled still compose a great collection of talent that could make the 2007 Rays improved on the field for relatively minimal cost. The players are listed in no particular order, and of course this list is compiled with the literally the entire infield and the Designated Hitter, as well as a good number of the pitching staff being open for competition. Also, I tried to avoid using players that my two compatriots listed in their five. Granting those factors, enjoy my "fab five", which follows the jump.
1. SS Julio Lugo
Deja vu all over again? It all depends on the price. I have absolutely no idea how much Lugo would fetch on the free agent market after his recent slide following the trade that sent him to the LA Dodgers. Still with Reid Brignac likely coming up in late 2007 and B.J. Upton's position unsettled, bringing back Lugo would be a decent option you look into. Now how far his price tag has fallen from the $8 million or so he was commanding in late July, I don't know. But sparse playing time and a .219/.278/.267 line for Los Angeles can't help. Besides, once you factor that his brother plays here and the discount that he might give to the team that gave him a chance to resurrect his career, his asking price may be lower than you'd think. And while I never advocate spending for the sake of PR, should the Mulder and Iwamura deals not happen (and let's face it, they will in all probability not happen), then the goodwill that would be conveyed by bringing back a fan favorite and a very good player might help bring back into the fold some fans turned off by last summer's trades.
If we could sign Lugo to a two year deal for around $5-6 million, then I believe Lugo is a good investment. Should Upton or Brignac take the reigns at short, we could move Lugo to second like we were planning to do prior to the 2005 season and he could take over for Jorge Cantu, should he still be there following the 2007 season. I am confident, however, that over the next two years there will still be a place for Lugo in the infield, although I will say that right now I have as good a guess as any of you what the infield will look like for 2007, much less 2008.
There obviously are concerns about whether Lugo is worth a $5-6 million investment on the open market, and obviously for this team especially. I believe he would be worth said investment, and that his statistics in Los Angeles were an anomaly, rather than the norm. The Dodgers mishandled Lugo, switching him between positions, benching him at awkward times, and just generally doing all they could to screw up Lugo's production and their postseason chances. It is my opinion, however, that he was uncomfortable in Los Angeles, and that the Rays would provide a better environment that would be conducive to better production from Lugo. His brother, as mentioned earlier, plays on the team, he is familiar with St. Pete and the Rays organization, he was a fan favorite, and is generally well-liked in the clubhouse. I believe that with a return to the Bay Area, Lugo's production would mirror the .308/.373/.498 line he put up before the trade more than it would the slumping Lugo of Los Angeles.
2. IF Tony Graffanino
For my second position player, I propose bringing back a familiar face, except this one has not seen a Rays uniform since the 'Hit Show' days. He is an infielder that has been very productive since leaving the Rays, and has had a tour of duty with Atlanta in his career. Now I know how excited you all got at the prospect of Vinny Castilla returning (he actually did file to be a free agent, although that was merely for show as he retired following the conclusion of the Rockies' season), alas I am talking about Tony Graffanino. As much of an emotional pitfall as you are undergoing right now at being deprived of Castilla returning, let me help you move forward.
Graffanino would be an excellent addition to our infield as a utility backup. With the infield, anything goes and Jorge Cantu could very well be that "anything". Should Ty Wigginton be held down by a possible starting role at first, Graffanino would be an excellent choice to replace him as a backup infielder, spelling players at the same 1B/2B/3B positions that Wigginton can. But Graffanino is more than your stereotypical "utility player who can't hit". This isn't the second coming of Tomas Perez. Last year, Graffanino hit .274/.345/.406 with Kansas City and Milwaukee, numbers in line with what could be expected from a competent backup and certainly a far cry from the numbers produced by Perez last year. He was even better in 2006, hitting .309/.366/.425 for Boston and the Royals, and his career OBP is a healthy .338. Consider the fact that had Graffanino been on last year's team, his .345 OBP would have ranked second among all hitters who finished the year on the team. Signing him could take a good-sized step in improving that problem.
And the best part is, Graffanino should come relatively cheap. Consider that his previous contract was worth $1.1 million a year and he will be 35 next June, and the price should not deviate too much from that. For a strong utility bat in Graffanino, that is worth it.
3. RP Chad Bradford
Now we move onto the pitching part of the free agent list, aka the part we aren't very good at. The rotation is more settled than the bullpen, but there is an exciting pool of candidates in the 'pen from our farm system or just recently having graduated from it. Still, the bullpen despite all the young pitching talent that may pop up there is still vastly low on service time. Other than Dan Miceli (and let's face it, do we want the "experience" in our bullpen to come from him?) and Travis Harper in the unlikely instance he returns, no one in the likely Opening Day bullpen will have pitched in the major leagues prior to the 2004 season. That is where Bradford comes in. Not only does he provide the lacking experience in the current bullpen, but he is not a closer so that role can be left to whichever young player wins that spot. That player can then get playing time.
However, because of his experience, Bradford is still a good setup man to take the heat off of some of the younger players and clean up some of their not so occasional messes. Bradford would come in off of a 2006 in which he posted a 2.90 ERA as a valuable member of the NL East champion Mets' bullpen. His K/9 is pretty decent, though nothing that will blow your mind, at 6.53. The thing with Bradford is, he has impeccable control. No matter how good the current staff can be, a collection of young players can lack control in varying degrees of wildness. To bring in Bradford would be a welcome change from that, as he put up a 1.89 BB/9, for a K/BB of 3.46 last year. He also keeps the ball out of the seats, having given up one home run all of last year for a 0.15 HR/9. Now, how much of his performance you want to attribute to pitching in friendly Shea Stadium (at least to pitchers, hitters and fans may disagree) is up to you, but the control he exerted has been a constant over his career, and something that I do not expect would suddenly go down the toilet.
Now salary is clearly a concern with Bradford. He made $1.4 million with the Mets last year, and is apt to make more next year coming off of such an outstanding year. The question is how much more that will be. If it is only a reasonable amount higher than his current salary, I believe the Rays should make a strong push to sign him to a one or two year deal to stabilize the bullpen. Then again, anything with the Mets involved is highly likely to not be reasonable. Still, one of the hard things about playing GM here is trying and matching a good performance with a bargain price. With free agency barely 36 hours old, it is hard to tell how the market will set Bradford and others' price. However if the Rays do get an opportunity to sign such an excellent reliever for a good price, they should not hesitate to pull the trigger.
4. SP Ted Lilly
I have always liked Ted Lilly for one reason or another. I have always felt that he is an underrated southpaw that could be an excellent addition to our rotation, and while his numbers are inconsistent, his peripheral stats have always been good. Last year with the Blue Jays, Lilly put up a 4.31 ERA and didn't leave a lot to the imagination, striking out 7.93 batters for every nine innings. As with a lot of pitchers who have high strikeout numbers, he does have his quarrels with control, but he has always maintained a K/BB of around 2 in most years, and has a 2.09 K/BB for his career. His main problem, however, has been with the long ball. He gave up a 1.39 HR/9 last year, which is one off of his career mark, and he was at a mind-boggling 1.64 the year before.
Another issue with Lilly is salary. He made $4 million last year with Toronto, and that was coming off of a year in which he posted a 5.56 ERA. I can't imagine what he thinks he's worth this year, though it can't be reasonable. In short, Lilly is a good pitcher, albeit inconsistent, whom I have always wanted to make a run at in free agency. I believe he and Jamie Shields could make for an excellent #2/#3 combo in next year's rotation. With all that said, I just don't know if he is worth an investment of over $2-3 million a year over two or three years. I just can't see paying $4 million to Lilly in the position we are in. So while I would like to see the southpaw and his potential shutdown stuff in a Rays uniform next year, the presumed price tag makes it unlikely.
5. SP Brad Radke
Radke is an intriguing possibility to join next year's staff for the Rays. The longtime Minnesota Twins workhorse was raised in the Bay Area, graduated for Jesuit High in Hillsborough County, and his family resides in Clearwater. Of course, the issue with Radke is that he is in retirement, or so he says. While he filed for free agency last month, that merely keeps his options open. He pretty much was set on retiring towards the end of the year and honestly, who could blame him? This was a man who had his arm dangling from the socket as he pitched through injury to help the Twins to the AL Central division championship. He is a man's man, very tough with none of the showy sock crap of Curt Schilling. This guy has done more for the Twins organization than anyone not named Kirby Puckett. He has given them their all, pitched hard, and pitched effectively. With the young pitching staff we have and a budding young ace in Scott Kazmir, how could you not want that influence in the clubhouse?
Of course, half the problem is just getting Radke to talk about coming out of retirement. With the pain he pitched through last year and a family to be with in Clearwater, who could blame him for wanting to stay retired? Still, the Rays should at least try. Give him a deal like the one Roger Clemens got, where he could pitch the games of his choosing over the course of the season. The rich experiences he has had, his work ethic, and at 34 the production he still has in the tank make it in the Rays' best interest to make a run at Radke. Besides, while this should never rule on the field performance, the fan buzz signing Radke would generate also needs to be taken into account.
The fact is, aside from all the "lessons" and "influence" that Radke could provide, Radke has still got some production left in the tank. He pitched to a 4.32 ERA last season for Minnesota, and like Bradford brings pinpoint control to the table. He has never been a high strikeout pitcher, however he doesn't need to be. With a career K/BB of 3.30 and a BB/9 of 1.77 last year, he can get by without blowing by hitters. Can you imagine how good a 1-2 punch of Kazmir and Radke would be? You have Kid K dialing up the heat and racking up 10 Ks, followed by the soft-tossing Radke who gets by on his control. What makes them different could make the head of the Rays' rotation great, just as it did for Johan Santana in Minnesota.
In terms of the playing side of this move, as well as the PR and clubhouse chemistry side, Radke gets high marks. I cannot think of a more perfect signing this offseason for us, granted of course that his salary is reasonable. This may be a question. Radke is coming off of a 2 year, $18 million contract with the Twinkies. If we could pare that down with a Roger Clemens-like playing schedule flexibility, as well as a hometown discount, you could be looking at a reasonable deal that makes sense for both parties to make. I cannot think of one reason why Andrew Friedman should not at least try and establish contact. At the very worst, let him know that he has a spot on the staff as a spring training instructor or something, but just make contact with Radke somehow. This is a guy you want to have around, and if it is on the mound, then ever the better.
That does it for my five free agents. But that isn't the final offseason-related activity you will see from me. Along with the MLB Awards being issued this week, we also conducted our first annual SB Nation Baseball Awards this past month, and I will be bringing you the results of those as well as the real winners and my choices in articles this week. Also look for the winners of the DRaysBay Awards this Friday.