Money well spent: The all-bargain MLB free agent team

Free agent bargains are about as difficult to find these days as instant replay opponents. Just look at the league leaders. The top 10s are stocked with players making top salaries.

Based on the first one-third of the season, however, a case can be made that several bargain signings from this past offseason have paid off better than many of the big-money deals (see: Matt Holliday’s .206 average with runners in scoring position; John Lackey’s 4.72 ERA; Jason Bay’s three homers).

Still not convinced?

A position-by-position look at the best free agent signings:

Rod Barajas leads the Mets in homers.
Rod Barajas leads the Mets in homers.

C: Rod Barajas, Mets ($900,000)
Who says the Mets don’t know what they’re doing? They did something right by not giving in to Bengie Molina’s contract demands this past offseason and instead picking up Barajas and Henry Blanco. Barajas leads the club — and all catchers — with 11 homers and has played solid defense. "He’s a big guy so I don’t know how long he can keep this up, but he’s getting better as he gets older," a scout said.

1B: Troy Glaus, Braves ($1.75 million)
After making $12 million-plus in a dismal 2009 season, Glaus had to take a huge pay cut and change positions. If he continues to hit like this, you won’t find him in the bargain bin next winter. Glaus was NL player of the month for May after leading the league with 28 RBIs and raising his average 80 points to .274. Chipper Jones said in spring training that Glaus would be an ideal fit because "he’s a big righthanded bat that we can put in the cleanup spot and not miss much when (Brian) McCann takes a day." Indeed, Glaus has done much of his damage batting fourth, hitting .343 with 23 of his 45 RBIs in just 67 at-bats (compared to .254 with 22 RBIs in 134 at-bats from the fifth spot).

2B: Kelly Johnson, Diamondbacks ($2.35 million)
He became a free agent when the Braves decided they would rather pay Martin Prado $440,000 than deal with arbitration-eligible Johnson. He quickly showed why Arizona was in such a hurry to sign him. Since homering twice in his third game, Johnson has ranked among second-base leaders in homers (13), runs (41) and OBP (.379).

3B: Placido Polanco, Phillies ($5 million)
While not quite a bargain at three years, $18 million, Polanco has met the Phillies’ expectations of being a strong contact hitter in the second spot in the order (.319 average, .356 on-base percentage). His value perhaps was best displayed when he missed a week recently and the club lost four of six as the offense staggered.

Alex Gonzalez and the Jays have surprised.
Alex Gonzalez and the Jays have surprised.

SS: Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays ($2.75 million)
He was one of the first free agents to sign after the Red Sox declined his $6 million option to pursue then-Jay Marco Scutaro, who signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Boston. Gonzalez signed early because he wanted to be assured of one of the few remaining starting shortstop jobs. He doesn’t have to worry about playing time now. He leads all shortstops with 12 homers and has emerged as a key reason the Jays have turned into one of the season’s surprise successes. For Toronto, the best part of the deal might be yet to come. The team holds an even more reasonable $2.5 million option on Gonzalez for 2011.

OF: Jonny Gomes, Reds ($800,000)
He waited until February to accept a minor league deal to return to Cincinnati. Gomes not only made the club in spring training but has hit his way into a regular job. His walkoff homer in the season’s third game gave the Reds their first win and established what has become a trend for the first-place club that leads the majors with 11 wins in its last at-bat.

OF: Scott Podsednik, Royals ($1.75 million)
"As long as he doesn’t try to hit the ball in the air, he’ll be fine," said a scout when the speedy Podsednik was leading the AL in hitting in April. To which Podsednik replied, "I’ll be fine as long as I hit it where they aren’t." Though he hasn’t been doing that as well as he did in April, he is hitting .288 with a .342 on-base percentage and ranks in the top 10 in the AL with 17 stolen bases.

OF: Austin Kearns, Indians ($750,000)
After struggling with the Nationals for the past two seasons, teams showed little interest in the former first-round pick and he accepted a minor league deal just hoping to make the Indians. Crediting improved health, the 30-year-old has had his average over .300 most of the season and has taken over the left field job.

DH: Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers ($6.5 million)
Though Vlad was the Angels’ best hitter in the 2009 postseason, the club didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign him after paying him $15 million and seeing him struggle with injuries during the regular season. Asked in spring training what he wanted from this season, Guerrero replied, "To be healthy so I can help my team." Check, check. Guerrero, 35, has been hitting on par with his career averages and ranks among AL leaders in homers (13), RBIs (49) and average (.330). His replacement in Anaheim, Hideki Matsui, is hitting .257 with nine homers and 33 RBIs on a $6 million salary.

Livan Hernandez ranks among the major league leaders in ERA and innings.
Livan Hernandez ranks among the major league leaders in ERA and innings.

SP: Livan Hernandez, Nationals ($900,000)
Jon Garland (6-3, 2.68 ERA) also deserves a mention for his part in the Padres’ success, but he was able to score a major league contract (for $5.3 million) before spring training. Hernandez was left with a late minor league deal to return to Washington. He has used the slight as motivation. Hernandez didn’t allow a run in his first two starts and still ranks among the major league leaders in ERA (2.22) and innings (73 in 11 starts). Hernandez has been especially big for the Nationals considering how Jason Marquis has disappointed. Given a two-year, $15 million deal, Marquis allowed 20 runs in his first three starts before going on the disabled list and having elbow surgery.

RP: Jose Contreras, Phillies ($1.5 million)
Shortly after giving Danys Baez a two-year deal for $5.25 million, Philly scooped up Contreras on a one-year deal. Baez has been OK, but Contreras has been the club’s best reliever (1.45 ERA, 3-for-3 in save chances).

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Free agent bargains are about as difficult to find these days as instant replay opponents. Just look at the league leaders. The top 10s are stocked with players making top salaries.

Based on the first one-third of the season, however, a case can be made that several bargain signings from this past offseason have paid off better than many of the big-money deals (see: Matt Holliday’s .206 average with runners in scoring position; John Lackey’s 4.72 ERA; Jason Bay’s three homers).

Still not convinced?

A position-by-position look at the best free agent signings:

Rod Barajas leads the Mets in homers.
Rod Barajas leads the Mets in homers.

C: Rod Barajas, Mets ($900,000)
Who says the Mets don’t know what they’re doing? They did something right by not giving in to Bengie Molina’s contract demands this past offseason and instead picking up Barajas and Henry Blanco. Barajas leads the club — and all catchers — with 11 homers and has played solid defense. "He’s a big guy so I don’t know how long he can keep this up, but he’s getting better as he gets older," a scout said.

1B: Troy Glaus, Braves ($1.75 million)
After making $12 million-plus in a dismal 2009 season, Glaus had to take a huge pay cut and change positions. If he continues to hit like this, you won’t find him in the bargain bin next winter. Glaus was NL player of the month for May after leading the league with 28 RBIs and raising his average 80 points to .274. Chipper Jones said in spring training that Glaus would be an ideal fit because "he’s a big righthanded bat that we can put in the cleanup spot and not miss much when (Brian) McCann takes a day." Indeed, Glaus has done much of his damage batting fourth, hitting .343 with 23 of his 45 RBIs in just 67 at-bats (compared to .254 with 22 RBIs in 134 at-bats from the fifth spot).

2B: Kelly Johnson, Diamondbacks ($2.35 million)
He became a free agent when the Braves decided they would rather pay Martin Prado $440,000 than deal with arbitration-eligible Johnson. He quickly showed why Arizona was in such a hurry to sign him. Since homering twice in his third game, Johnson has ranked among second-base leaders in homers (13), runs (41) and OBP (.379).

3B: Placido Polanco, Phillies ($5 million)
While not quite a bargain at three years, $18 million, Polanco has met the Phillies’ expectations of being a strong contact hitter in the second spot in the order (.319 average, .356 on-base percentage). His value perhaps was best displayed when he missed a week recently and the club lost four of six as the offense staggered.

Alex Gonzalez and the Jays have surprised.
Alex Gonzalez and the Jays have surprised.

SS: Alex Gonzalez, Blue Jays ($2.75 million)
He was one of the first free agents to sign after the Red Sox declined his $6 million option to pursue then-Jay Marco Scutaro, who signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Boston. Gonzalez signed early because he wanted to be assured of one of the few remaining starting shortstop jobs. He doesn’t have to worry about playing time now. He leads all shortstops with 12 homers and has emerged as a key reason the Jays have turned into one of the season’s surprise successes. For Toronto, the best part of the deal might be yet to come. The team holds an even more reasonable $2.5 million option on Gonzalez for 2011.

OF: Jonny Gomes, Reds ($800,000)
He waited until February to accept a minor league deal to return to Cincinnati. Gomes not only made the club in spring training but has hit his way into a regular job. His walkoff homer in the season’s third game gave the Reds their first win and established what has become a trend for the first-place club that leads the majors with 11 wins in its last at-bat.

OF: Scott Podsednik, Royals ($1.75 million)
"As long as he doesn’t try to hit the ball in the air, he’ll be fine," said a scout when the speedy Podsednik was leading the AL in hitting in April. To which Podsednik replied, "I’ll be fine as long as I hit it where they aren’t." Though he hasn’t been doing that as well as he did in April, he is hitting .288 with a .342 on-base percentage and ranks in the top 10 in the AL with 17 stolen bases.

OF: Austin Kearns, Indians ($750,000)
After struggling with the Nationals for the past two seasons, teams showed little interest in the former first-round pick and he accepted a minor league deal just hoping to make the Indians. Crediting improved health, the 30-year-old has had his average over .300 most of the season and has taken over the left field job.

DH: Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers ($6.5 million)
Though Vlad was the Angels’ best hitter in the 2009 postseason, the club didn’t make much of an effort to re-sign him after paying him $15 million and seeing him struggle with injuries during the regular season. Asked in spring training what he wanted from this season, Guerrero replied, "To be healthy so I can help my team." Check, check. Guerrero, 35, has been hitting on par with his career averages and ranks among AL leaders in homers (13), RBIs (49) and average (.330). His replacement in Anaheim, Hideki Matsui, is hitting .257 with nine homers and 33 RBIs on a $6 million salary.

Livan Hernandez ranks among the major league leaders in ERA and innings.
Livan Hernandez ranks among the major league leaders in ERA and innings.

SP: Livan Hernandez, Nationals ($900,000)
Jon Garland (6-3, 2.68 ERA) also deserves a mention for his part in the Padres’ success, but he was able to score a major league contract (for $5.3 million) before spring training. Hernandez was left with a late minor league deal to return to Washington. He has used the slight as motivation. Hernandez didn’t allow a run in his first two starts and still ranks among the major league leaders in ERA (2.22) and innings (73 in 11 starts). Hernandez has been especially big for the Nationals considering how Jason Marquis has disappointed. Given a two-year, $15 million deal, Marquis allowed 20 runs in his first three starts before going on the disabled list and having elbow surgery.

RP: Jose Contreras, Phillies ($1.5 million)
Shortly after giving Danys Baez a two-year deal for $5.25 million, Philly scooped up Contreras on a one-year deal. Baez has been OK, but Contreras has been the club’s best reliever (1.45 ERA, 3-for-3 in save chances).

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*