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Baseball’s Black Friday

Last night was the deadline for teams to announce which players they were tendering contracts to and which players they were not. As usual there were some surprises, but now begins the bargain shopping season for Major League teams. Every year, players are let go who can be valuable contributors to some other team (or even the team who let them go) for any number of reasons. They could have worn out their welcome, but had very little trade value because the team had been vocal about non-tendering them or maybe they were just going to make too much money for the production they figured to provide. Luckily for a team picking them up, they probably won’t make as much as their arbitration figure would have been.

For the Royals, they had eight players for whom they had to make a decision. They kept seven with Josh Fields being the lone non-tender. While I think there was probably a spot on the 2011 Royals for him, losing him isn’t exactly a great loss. Fields provides some power from the right side, but very little else as he’s limited defensively, doesn’t walk much and strikes out too much. Wilson Betemit and Brayan Pena have already agreed to contracts. Betemit’s is a surprisingly low $1 million and Pena is slated to make $660k next season. The other five are Billy Butler, Kyle Davies, Alex Gordon, Luke Hochevar and Robinson Tejeda. Those five will all head to arbitration.

But, as is the tradition, on Black Friday, it’s time to do some bargain hunting, so let’s take a look at some interesting names available. The names I see who might be able to provide some value to the Royals in 2011 and potentially beyond are Matt Diaz, Scott Hairston, John Maine, Russell Martin, Lastings Milledge, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Chien-Ming Wang. All of them would fill a major hole for the Royals in some way. Of those players listed, I believe there are two who could potentially fill long-term holes and a couple more who could if their injury issues are behind them.

Russell Martin is probably going to be more expensive than the Royals are looking for, but it’s a price that I believe would be worth paying. This is one of those times that I would accept tacking an extra year on the deal. Non-tenders don’t get multi-year deals too terribly often, but I’d give Martin two or even three years to get him to come to Kansas City. I imagine his agent will be working a John Buck comparison pretty hard, and I’m not sure I’d guarantee $18 million to a guy coming off a hip injury, but I wouldn’t be too terribly far off. Even as he’s declined the last couple of years, he’s provided a strong OBP along with very good catch and throw skills.

Three years ago, Martin looked like he was about to explode as one of the game’s great catchers, but something happened and he never quite made it. Offensively, he’s not worth much at any position but catcher. Thankfully that’s where he plays. The Royals system has a lot of catchers with potential to someday be Major Leaguers, but the odds are that the best hitter (Wil Myers) will be an outfielder while the favorite to someday be the Royals catcher (Sal Perez) is at least a couple of years away. Martin provides an excellent stopgap that’s better than anything else on the free agent market. There will be competition to get him, but to stick with the Black Friday theme, they just have to push them out of the way and take what they want.

Lastings Milledge is another very interesting case. He was a Mets top prospect and has never even come close to living up to his billing. His minor league track record indicates exellent on base skills as well as a very good defensive reputation. When he first came up, he was a corner outfielder who could play a passable center. I’m not sure if that’s still the case, but his defense in the corners is still very good. In his career against left-handed pitchers, Milledge has hit .289/.363/.435, so he would fit well with the current crop of left-handed hitting outfielders the Royals have. I’m not sure what I’d give him, but I would make sure I got him.

John Maine is someone who would have to be a true bargain basement deal for me to consider, but the payoff could be huge with him. I remember when he was in the Orioles organization that his name was brought up in Greinke trade talks. I’m not sure it ever got serious, but his name was one I followed because of that. He really took off after he got traded to the Mets as a solid middle of the rotation starter, but injuries took their toll and had a rough 2010. The thing I like about him is his strikeout rate, but his walks are too high. I’d love to take a flyer on him and see if someone in the organization can’t figure that out and make him right. He doesn’t fill the need for an ace, but he could potentially be a guy in the middle to back of the rotation that every team needs.

Chien-Ming Wang is probably the biggest name on this list. The Nationals signed him last year after being non-tendered by the Yankees and got nothing out of him. Wang, when healthy, is probably not an ace, but most certainly a number two pitcher. His injury history is a little strange. The injury that originally derailed his career was a foot injury, but his problem now is a shoulder. He hurt the shoulder by altering his delivery to pitch around the food injury. Shoulders are scary things, and Wang will probably get a more attractive deal from someone else, but if I’d give him a year and a club option to see if he’s back and healthy.

The bonus name from that list who I’d like to see is Scott Hairston. He’s made the rounds around the league, but has a little power and can play a few different positions. He’d be a nice platoon guy with Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas as he has just under a .500 slugging percentage against lefties. He’s a guy who won’t kill you with the glove and, if used correctly, can be a major asset with the bat.

I can always get on board with bargain signings. Most of the time, they don’t work out, but occasionally you can pick up a guy like Raul Ibanez or Wilson Betemit who provides a real spark to your team. When they don’t work out, the team is out a negligible amount of money and you move on. It’s the way small market teams have to survive sometimes. You can scout and scout and study the stats, but occasionally luck is what propels a team to the next level.

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