Plenty of cost-effective alternatives on market
Second tier of players offer potential of high values at lower costs
If a team wants Josh Hamilton, it had better sign Josh Hamilton. There's really no other comparable choice on the free-agent market.
But if someone wants Michael Bourn? Well, no one can equal Bourn's speed -- his 257 steals the past five seasons are easily the most in the Majors. But, depending on a team's needs, Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan can provide similar production in most areas.
Every agent is going to try to explain to teams why there's no comparable player to his this offseason. It's understandable, but is it true? Not necessarily.
Take this center field trio. Bourn, Pagan and Victorino are similar in age: On Opening Day, Bourn will be 30, Pagan 31 and Victorino 32. Bourn certainly has a big edge on the basepaths -- 216 steals the past four years compared to 117 for Victorino and 112 for Pagan -- and in the field.
But over that time, the three have gotten on base at a similar clip -- Bourn with a .348 on-base percentage, Victorino .340 and Pagan .337 -- and crossed the plate at a comparative rate -- Bourn has 371 runs, Victorino 353 and Pagan 297.
Pagan, who sandwiched a poor 2011 season in the middle of the past three years, has played nearly 100 fewer games than Bourn -- certainly another reason Bourn is the one more likely to get a big-money contract.
Reports indicate Bourn could land a deal around five years and $80 million, with clubs like the Nationals, Phillies and Reds believed to be interested. That's $16 million a year for a guy whose game is predicated on speed and will be 35 upon the contract's completion.
With Pagan and Victorino a tad older, they're more likely to get a three- or four-year deal. There's less risk involved, and should their legs go, they should still have power. Victorino has a .776 OPS and 56 home runs the past four years, with Pagan sporting a .764 mark and 32 homers over that time. Bourn's OPS during the same period is .726.
Victorino's 2012 season, especially his time in Los Angeles, could be cause for alarm. And Pagan's second-half and postseason play with the Giants are the main reasons he's in this category. But neither seems remotely close to signing a Bourn-like deal, which makes them cheaper and less risky alternatives to Bourn.
Other outfielders who could be bargains:
B.J. Upton: Only 28, the center fielder has averaged 18 home runs and 39 stolen bases the past five years while posting a .248/.330./416 slash line. That's simply not good enough for someone with his tools. Upton will sign for less than Bourn, meaning his youth, speed and power could make him the steal of this free-agent class. Or he could continue to be among the game's most puzzling players.
Melky Cabrera: It all depends on which player you think he is: the failure with the Braves or the National League batting leader before his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. If he's the latter, whatever contract he gets will be a club-friendly deal.
Torii Hunter: Hunter proved to be worth the $90 million the Angels paid him the past five years. He'll likely get close to the same annual pay of guys who sign longer contracts, but a short-term commitment could make his a better deal for a club.
Elsewhere in the free-agent market, Zack Greinke is the Hamilton of hurlers, with fellow right-handers Anibal Sanchez, Edwin Jackson and Kyle Lohse the next-best bets for longer-term deals. Short-term options include Hiroki Kuroda, Ryan Dempster and possibly a flier on Dan Haren, who needs to rebound and prove his back isn't an issue.
Here are three pitchers who could greatly outperform their contracts:
Jeremy Guthrie: If Guthrie hadn't spent the first part of the season at high altitude with the Rockies, he might have been in a higher echelon of free-agent starters. His numbers in Colorado -- 6.35 ERA, 122 hits, 21 homers and 31 walks in 90 2/3 innings -- are bound to drive down his value, even though he was impressive in Kansas City (3.16 ERA, 84 hits, nine homers and 19 walks in 91 innings).
Brandon McCarthy: If McCarthy -- who posted a 3.32 ERA in 170 2/3 innings in 2011 and a 3.24 mark in 111 innings last season -- has, indeed, recovered from brain surgery and can stay healthy, the 29-year-old could arguably be the biggest steal among free-agent pitchers.
Carl Pavano: Pavano didn't pitch after June 1 and was shut down with a bruised right humerus bone in August. The injury affected his velocity, and though he'll be 37 in January, he could be a good sign.