Monday, November 2, 2009

Capps, Hardy, Uggla, Willingham among intriguing non-tender candidates

(Three days after this was posted, the Red Sox acquired Jeremy Hermida. Go figure.)

Six weeks remain until the Dec. 12 deadline for teams to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. As's Buster Olney detailed over the weekend, more than a few players will become free agents when their teams decline to tender them contracts in order to save upwards of $5 million.

And the pool of players might be better than you'd think. Reliever Takashi Saito was not tendered a contract by the Dodgers a year ago, for example, and he eventually signed an incentive-laden contract that earned him a season-long job in the Red Sox bullpen.

But the Red Sox don't have to wait until Dec. 12 to pounce. With the way arbitration drives up salaries, teams might be open to trading players who will start to see their salaries climb in the next year or two. (Even the Red Sox will be in this mindset with first baseman Casey Kotchman, a bench player in Boston who nonetheless will be in line for a paycheck around $4 million if he goes to arbitration this season.)

Among the players the Red Sox might consider inquiring about during the next six weeks or so:

Garrett Atkins, 1B/3B, Colorado ($7.05 million last season): Atkins will turn 30 in December and has seen his OPS tumble in each of the last four seasons -- from .965 in 2006 to .853 in 2007 to .780 in 2008 to .650 in 2009. He hit just nine home runs in almost 400 plate appearances this season and appears to have lost his job to youngster Ian Stewart.

Atkins' approach at the plate -- he's seen at least 3.9 pitches per plate appearance in two of his last three seasons and swings at pitches out of the strike zone at a clip well below the major-league average -- once seemed to make him a fit for the Red Sox. But the presence of Casey Kotchman and Mike Lowell make Atkins redundant, so it would take an accompanying move to make Atkins a worthwhile acquisition.

Matt Capps, RP, Pittsburgh ($2.3 million last season): The Pirates might not want to pay a closer who put up a 5.80 ERA a year ago -- especially since arbitrators love saves, and Capps had 27 of them last season. But that might be to the benefit of a team that still remembers the 2.28 and 3.02 ERAs Capps put up in the two years previous.

Capps saw his opponents' batting average on balls in play jump by almost 100 points a year ago -- from .268 to .364 -- a jump that's almost certainly unsustainable. The jump in his ratio of home runs per fly ball -- from 6.8 percent to 13.5 pecent -- might be fluky, too.

What might be cause for concern, though, is the fact that his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell from 7.80 two seasons ago to 2.71 last season.

He wouldn't be a closer with the Red Sox the way he is with the Pirates, but it's not hard to envision the 26-year-old as a useful bullpen arm -- perhaps filling the same role Saito did.

J.J. Hardy, SS, Milwaukee ($4.65 million last season): The Brewers shipped Hardy to Triple-A Nashville this season with his batting average down at .229 and his on-base percentage at .300. It was easily the worst season for a 26-year-old shortstop who hit 31 doubles and 24 home runs a year ago as part of an .821 OPS.

In some ways, it could be considered fluky: His .260 batting average on balls in play last season was 45 points lower than it was two years ago.

In other ways, it could be considered a fair result: His line-drive rate dropped to a career-low 13 percent, meaning he wasn't hitting the ball as hard as he did in the past. His strikeout rate also climbed to a career-high 18.3 percent, and while his walk rate climbed, too, it didn't quite keep pace.

The Red Sox can't go into next season depending on Jed Lowrie to stay healthy and play shortstop. With as much as the door has revolved at that position, however, the risk of trading for Hardy might be too much.

Jeremy Hermida, OF, Florida ($2.25 million last season): At one time a highly touted prospect, the star of Hermida seems to have lost his luster. He did, however, seem to get back on track a little bit -- he cut down his strikeout-to-walk ratio and boosted his line-drive percentage a season ago. He also has tremendous pitch-per-at-bat numbers -- numbers that climbed to a career-best 4.21 a season ago. Had he qualified -- he had 491 plate appearances, just missing the cutoff -- he would have ranked eighth in the National League in that category.

Like Hardy, he's still young: He doesn't turn 26 until January, meaning it's too early to give up on him as a worthwhile major-league player.

The biggest downside: Hermida is a lefthanded hitter, and if Rocco Baldelli should sign elsewhere, leaving the Red Sox without their best fourth outfielder, they'll almost certainly be in the market for a righthanded hitter to spell J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Dan Uggla, 2B, Florida ($5.35 million last season): You can read more here, but here's the gist:
* He has OPS'ed over .800 in each of his first four seasons;
* His strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped in each of the last three seasons;
* His batting average dropped to .243 this season, a career low, but his on-base percentage almost held steady -- and his batting average on balls in play dropped by 50 points, a sign he ran into some bad luck;
* He played third base in the minor leagues almost as much as he played second base.

If the Red Sox decide to jettison Mike Lowell or to play him more at designated hitter than at third base, Uggla could be an intriguing option.

Josh Willingham, LF, Washington ($2.95 million last season): It's not that Willingham would be a spectacular alternative to Jason Bay. But should the Red Sox's left fielder depart via free agency, they could do worse as a replacement -- while upgrading elsewhere, of course -- than Willingham.

For one thing, Willingham is a righthanded hitter and would balance out the lefty-heavy Red Sox lineup. For another thing, the 30-year-old has the type of plate approach the Red Sox like to see: His strikeout-to-walk ratio is below the major-league average, and he consistently sees more than four pitches per plate appearance.

His power is almost purely to left field, meaning that the Green Monster might do wonders for a slugging percentage that already was close to .500 last season.

No comments: