The official end of the NFL season, including the NFL playoffs, is a sign of wondrous things around the bend for baseball enthusiasts as that means Spring Training will soon be here. Baseball teams will open spring training on February 13 and the first set of exhibition games are scheduled for February 25. Seeing as how we are less than two weeks away from players officially reporting to camp and just three weeks away from actual games being played, now seems like a good time to take a whose left in free agency that could still make a difference.
As far as starting pitchers go Ubaldo Jimenez is one of the few left on the market with considerable upside and swing and miss stuff. One of the reasons he’s still available is because Masahiro Tanaka took his time deciding on a new team, waiting until just before the deadline to sign with a major league team, and the other big-name free agent starters on the market wanted to wait. The second reason he’s still available is because Ervin Santana hasn’t signed yet and there seems to be a game of chicken taking place between the agents of the two right now.
Once he does sign though, the signing team will be thankful they did because Jimenez is the kind of pitcher they can slot in near the top of the rotation and feel comfortable letting him loose on opposing lineups. He struck out a career high 25% of the batters he faced in 2013 and brought his walk rate down to a more manageable 10.3% (lower than the 11.8% rate from 2012). He also managed to throw first-pitch strikes 58.4% of the time, which is higher than his career average of 55.6%, and players swung and missed at his pitched 8.8% of the time, which is more in line with his days with the Colorado Rockies.
Now that A.J. Burnett has decided that he will, in fact, pitch in 2014 there are at least a dozen teams that are going to be taking a good, long look at the 37-year-old grizzled veteran. Burnett is one of those rare pitchers that actually got better with age, after having posted back-to-back seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates that were the best of his career since 2005.
With a ground-ball rate floating between 56% and 57% the last two seasons, a swinging strike rate of 10%, and of course his ability to strike guys out at a nearly 25% clip makes him one of the bargains of the winter. He won’t cost a draft pick, nor will he cost you a lot of money on a long-term deal. This makes him ideal for a team looking for that veteran pitcher with something left in the tank on a one or two year deal.
The free agent market is a barren landscape when trying to find an impact bat this late in free agency, but Kendrys Morales is still available – interest levels in him are held down by the draft pick compensation tied to signing him and of course the fact that he’s only a designated hitter. But that shouldn’t stop a team that is in need of adding a solid bat, one that projects well over the next three years, to hit in the third, fifth, or sixth spot in the lineup every day.
Morales has managed to hit 20 or more home runs in three of his last four seasons as an everyday player and he did that while hitting in pitching friendly parks (Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners). If you put him in a ballpark that is more neutral or even slightly more favorable to someone of his skillset I believe you have yourself the steal of the winter. His on-base skills are solid, has 30-home run potential in the right ballpark, and he knows how to drive the ball into the gaps consistently.
Not a single team with a need in the starting rotation or at designated hitter would be disappointed in what they would get out of these three players, especially considering two of them (Burnett and Morales) could be had on very reasonable deals. Being this late in the off-season, and Spring Training right around the corner, it’s getting down to crunch time for these players to sign with a new team.
The New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, and Baltimore Orioles all have a major need at designated hitter but the Yankees and Orioles are the two that would be the best fit for Morales. Just about every team could use one more high-quality starter but the teams where Burnett and Jimenez would have the most impact are, again, the Yankees and the Orioles. Other teams that would be a solid fit for either are the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, and the Toronto Blue Jays.