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Reaching beyond the stars

A world of talent on the second level

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / November 16, 2008
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We know the top-tier free agents: Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramírez, CC Sabathia, Derek Lowe, A.J. Burnett, Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Rafael Furcal. But there are many teams looking to score with players on a lower level, where there may be some risk but also better value. Based on conversations with scouts and baseball executives, here are the next-best things, more affordable than the big stars:

1. Raul Ibanez, OF/DH. He was mentioned often by our panel as a hitter who could really help several teams, notably the Mets or Cubs, who have made a lefthanded bat a top priority. Ibanez, according to one of our guys, "brings a winning attitude, even though he played in such a tough place like Seattle. He'd be a good fit in Chicago because Lou [Piniella] loves pure hitters." Ibanez, 36, knocked in 110 runs and hit .293 last season.

2. Kerry Wood, closer. "Great arm, risky, and you'd have to cross your fingers, baby him, but worth the gamble if you need a closer," said one National League scout. Wood had 34 saves for the Cubs.

3. Bobby Abreu, OF. He's an on-base percentage machine (.405 for his career) who still has decent speed and can hit. His defense has declined, so his days of making $16 million per year are likely over. He'd be a good fit for the Cubs, Mets, A's, Giants, Angels, Phillies, or any team looking for lefthanded pop.

4. Mark Kotsay, OF. Just a ballplayer. Gritty, tough, and he'll give you max effort and clutch performance. His position flexibility is quite attractive (he showed with the Red Sox he can play first base very well).

5. Brad Penny, starter. The consensus is he needs to get away from Los Angeles and focus on pitching rather than movie star girlfriends and horses. His stuff is not far from the old Florida guys he pitched with, Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, so he could provide good value.

6. Casey Blake, 3B. Does he fit the perfect mold of a third baseman? Probably not, but he's not far from it. Blake's role in helping lead the Dodgers back was overshadowed by Ramírez's phenomenal hitting, but Blake fills a need. The Twins will be exploring him.

7. Milton Bradley, DH/OF. "He can be a pain in the you-know-what, but he can hit," said an American League official. "He's only 30 years old, a switch-hitter with some pop. His legs are an issue. There were no problems with him in Texas last year." Bradley hit .358 at the Ballpark in Arlington. His overall .321 average was impressive but his .436 on-base percentage is an eye-opener.

8. Jon Garland, starter. "Gives you 200 innings, 30 starts, has shown a slight decline, makes mistakes over the middle of the plate, but when he gets on a roll, keeps you in a lot of games," said an AL GM. Garland is only 29, is durable, and could be even better with the right pitching coach. Think Dave Duncan in St. Louis.

9. Ryan Dempster, starter. Another one of those old Marlin pitchers who has had an interesting career going back and forth from starter to closer. Back as a starter this year, he won 17 games for the Cubs and threw more than 200 innings. If his demands are reasonable, the consensus is he'd be a good signing at age 31.

10. Orlando Hudson, 2B. One of the best defenders at his position, the three-time Gold Glover hit .305 in 2008 and is a .282 career hitter. He will be a solid acquisition for any team.

11. Orlando Cabrera, SS. At 34, he's not going to get a lot of years, but he can still hit and play the position. His outspokenness doesn't fit with every team but, "he's a guy who can play at a high level for another couple of years," said one scout.

12. Rocco Baldelli, OF. "Nobody knows if that condition [mitochondrial disorder] will get better or worse," said an NL GM, "but the guy can hit, he's still a great athlete, and he still plays the outfield very well. Big risk, but as a fourth outfielder, I'd take him."

13. Joe Crede, 3B. Another high-risk guy, given a balky back that has limited him to 144 games the last two seasons, but in 2006 he hit 30 homers. Still only 30 years old, he is another guy the Twins may look into if the price is right. Hard to see giving him more than a year or two.

14. Randy Wolf, starter. A lot of NL teams like him an as end-of-the-rotation guy. The Astros are trying to retain him.

15. Kyle Farnsworth, reliever. One hundred miles per hour still sells. Farnsworth was better for the Yankees than he was for the Tigers last season, but his arm will be attractive to a lot of teams.

He'll manage as scout or coach

A few questions for former Mariners manager John McLaren:

Got anything for the 2009 season yet?

JM: "Just interviewed for the bench coach job in Colorado, interviewed in Texas last week. If neither one of those things work out, I'd take a scouting job."

Has it been tough for you as a guy who was in the game for so long to get your chance to manage and be gone so quickly?

JM: "Really tough, but I'll get over it. We had some issues with our team, and when we lost J.J. Putz early, it really hurt our team. We couldn't recover from it. There are some things I wish were different, but I accept everything that happened. I was the manager and I'll accept the blame for it."

There was talk of an unnamed player going after Ichiro Suzuki and you having to call a team meeting.

JM: "I never called a team meeting. I never saw any of that. A lot of stuff comes out that was really overblown. We just didn't play well. I thought there were a few jealousies in there that had to be resolved before the team could jell and move forward, but that's all I ever said."

How do you feel about having to go back to being a coach again?

JM: "I think that's what I do best. I think I'm a good bench coach. I think I've always been able to offer my advice on the game to the manager and do what the manager wants me to do for him. I want to get back in the game and I think I have something to offer. I have no problem doing that and I know that's what I have to do and I'd love the chance to be a bench coach again."

One of your players, Raul Ibanez, is a free agent and he seems to be drawing a lot of interest.

JM: "He's a great hitter and a great guy on a team. He would fit a lot of teams because he's so professional in everything he does. He can really help a team looking for a lefthanded bat. He's a tough out."

After trade, Wood finds he is closed out of Chicago

Kerry Wood, 31, has been a risky proposition because of his injury history (three major shoulder and elbow ailments), but he stayed away from major problems last season and saved 34 games. He was told last week that the Cubs won't give him a multiyear deal and that he should test the free agent waters.

The decision was cemented after the Cubs acquired closer Kevin Gregg from the Marlins for outfield prospect Jose Ceda. Carlos Marmol will move into the closer role and Gregg will serve as a set-up guy or perhaps even co-closer.

Wood, meanwhile, has to be one of the most intriguing free agents out there.

There will be no shortage of teams inquiring on Wood, who has accepted one-year deals since his three-year, $32.5 million deal expired after the 2006 season.

"We felt it was time Kerry goes out and does what's best for him and his family, and gets a huge multiyear deal, if possible," said Cubs general manager Jim Hendry.

"We're just in a situation, as Kerry fully understands, that that length of deal, for the kind of salary he'd command right now, is not our first priority.

"We certainly have to finish our rotation, we have offensive situations to address, and by having the prominence that Marmol now brings to the table, it certainly doesn't come before the other needs we have."

Most Cubs insiders thought the team would have retained Wood had it not had Marmol, who has reached the point in his career where he needs to close.

Where does Wood go? He's close to Nolan Ryan in Texas and hails from the Dallas area. Milwaukee, St. Louis, Oakland, Atlanta, Cleveland, the Mets, and Tampa Bay could all be suitors.

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. A.J. Pierzynski would be pretty fun in Boston, wouldn't he?; 2. Wonder if John Farrell is Terry Francona's eventual successor; 3. The worst hitter in baseball with runners in scoring position last season? Drum roll . . . Julio Lugo (.139). Jason Varitek (.179) was fifth; 4. Another righthanded bat for the Red Sox: Randy Winn; 5. How about a new ballpark at Suffolk Downs?

At a standstill
To borrow a phrase from former Herald columnist Tim Horgan, here are the "Do Nothings and Nothing Doings" of this free agent season:

1. Pittsburgh. Go to PNC Park because it's a beautiful venue and you might see some really good baseball players - on the visiting teams. Sixteen years of losing - and selling off good players such as Jason Bay and Xavier Nady - make it hard to support this team. Frank Coonelly, who came from the Major League Baseball office to take over the team presidency in September 2007, told reporters recently, "We're not going to spend money unless it makes our club better. I think part of the reason this franchise has had problems is because it has spent money in the past on players who didn't improve the team." Don't think fans will be lining up for tickets to watch Paul Byrd, who might be on the Pirates' wish list.

2. Florida. The selling off of players as they head into arbitration is getting a little old. How can you expect to keep your fans interested? Mike Jacobs was traded to Kansas City, Kevin Gregg to the Cubs, Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen to the Nationals. It's too bad because Larry Beinfest is a pretty good general manager.

3. Kansas City. It's unfortunate that the Glass family, which owns the team, makes the general manager tie one hand behind his back so he can't reach for his wallet. And Dayton Moore turned down the Boston job for this? With their young guys not coming through and a lack of overall talent, it looks like another grim year ahead.

4. Arizona. Confusing team. Sometimes they spend, sometimes they don't. They recently laid off 30 front-office employees, they couldn't re-sign Randy Johnson (five short of 300 wins), and they will lose second baseman Orlando Hudson as a free agent. The only money they will spend will be on Joe the Second Baseman or an incentive-filled offer to Curt Schilling, who says he'd like to return.

5. Colorado. Before it's over, you won't recognize the team that played in the 2007 World Series. Matt Holliday is gone to Oakland, Willy Taveras (68 steals) is a free agent, power-hitting third baseman Garrett Atkins will be the next one dealt, and they won't re-sign closer Brian Fuentes. Yep, exciting team.

6. Tampa Bay. OK, maybe they don't need to do much after their tremendous Cinderella run, but their downfall will be a lack of resources. Eventually they'll begin to lose their talent like the old Montreal Expos. It's a good thing they got Evan Longoria to bite on a nine-year, $45 million deal.

7. Houston. All you hear about the Astros is that they're trying to "dump money." They want to move Miguel Tejada or Jose Valverde and if they could get Carlos Lee, coming back from a finger injury, to waive his no-trade clause, they'd probably move him. They won't be completely shut out - they'll try to sign Randy Wolf and another end-of-the-rotation starter - but don't expect a blockbuster signing.

8. San Diego. The Padres will make headlines when they finally deal Jake Peavy (though the Braves are out for now), and it's amazing they have to do that, but what can you do when your owner is getting divorced and the financial future of the team is jeopardized? The Padres couldn't even keep Trevor Hoffman. They'll probably take one or two of the cheapest free agents they can find.

9. Detroit - The front office got the word late last week that it could keep the payroll at about $134 million, same as last season, which means they can sign a cheap free agent (Darren Oliver, Hoffman) or two. A far cry from last season, when they went all out and had nothing to show for it. They're also contemplating a deal with Boston to send either Nate Robertson or Dontrelle Willis for Lugo, but some money issues must be resolved.

10. Chicago White Sox. GM Kenny Williams will likely be very active in trades and probably not so active in free agency. The word you hear most with the White Sox is "younger," so they're trying to move veterans such as Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, and Javier Vazquez. Williams will make splashes in the offseason, just not in free agency.

Short hops
One of the touching stories at the Red Sox Hall of Fame dinner last Friday was Sue Leader sitting with Mo Vaughn's parents to watch Vaughn's induction. Sue is the mother of Jason Leader, the young cancer patient who befriended Vaughn some 15 years ago. Vaughn was touched by Jason's resolve, and in a page out of "The Babe Ruth Story," Vaughn promised the young man he'd hit a home run for him one night. On his third at-bat, Vaughn delivered. Jason died a year later, but Sue Leader has remained a close friend of the Vaughns . . . From the Bill Chuck Files: "Boy of Summer Preacher Roe died this week; he and Cliff Lee are the only pitchers in baseball history to go 22-3. Roe did it in 1951 (before there was a Cy Young Award) and Lee did it this past season (winning the Cy Young Award)." . . . Happy 33d birthday, Julio Lugo.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the position played by Jose Ceda of the Florida Marlins was incorrect in the Baseball Notes in Sunday's Sports section. Ceda is a pitcher. The contract status of Willy Taveras of the Colorado Rockies was also incorrect. He is arbitration eligible.

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