Last-minute shopping can lead to great finds
Like Ibanez last year, potential impact players are available as Spring Training looms
On Oct. 10, 2012, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, 40-year-old Raul Ibanez hit a pinch-hit home run in Game 3 of the American League Division Series to tie the score in the ninth inning. Then he beat the Orioles with a walk-off in the 12th. Three days later, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers, he hit another game-tying homer.
Not bad for a guy who was on the outside looking in when Spring Training started.
Ibanez went almost the entire offseason before agreeing to a one-year contract on Feb. 20, after most of the other Yankees had already checked in at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa.
With camps set to open across Florida and Arizona next week, it's worth noting that there are dozens of remaining free agents still looking for a job. Teams that are smart enough and lucky enough strike a deal with the right ones by keeping an eye on that market.
"It's really about clubs being opportunistic," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. "I would imagine most players would like to have a club and be settled, but there are going to be times where that just doesn't happen.
"There are always times when you can improve your team. So, from an organizational standpoint, the way to think about it is that if there's a fit out there that makes sense, and you have the resources to pursue it, any time of year makes sense. From a strategic standpoint, whether it's November, December, January, February or even March, your goal is to find ways to improve your team. Our [idea] is about feeling confident with what we have in camp. And if we feel there's a deficiency, we'll certainly pursue it. If not, we're not going to add just to say we're adding. Or if you feel adding depth will make you stronger, that's a reason to pursue it."
The two big names remaining on the free-agent market are center fielder Michael Bourn and right-hander Kyle Lohse. There has been a recent scramble to bring some of the other players into the fold, though. Just this month there has been a flurry of signings, including catcher Kelly Shoppach (Mariners), designated hitter Travis Hafner (Yankees), outfielder Marlon Byrd (Mets), left-hander Manny Parra and catcher Miguel Olivo (Reds), left-hander Mark Hendrickson and right-hander Joel Pineiro (Orioles), catcher Omir Santos and outfielder Jeremy Hermida (Indians), right-hander Jon Rauch (Nationals), right-hander Kyle Farnsworth and second baseman Kelly Johnson (Rays), right-handers Miguel Batista and Chris Volstad (Rockies), left-hander Jonanthan Sanchez (Pirates) and shortstop Alex Gonzalez (Brewers).
But there are still several players who could find a niche with the right team.
"It all depends on what you're looking for. You can usually find relievers late in the winter," noted Rangers GM Jon Daniels.
The Pirates, for example, didn't sign Juan Cruz until late last year. He ended up making 43 appearances for them, with a 2.78 ERA. Other February signings that worked out pretty well included right-hander Edwin Jackson, who helped anchor the young Nationals rotation; Shawn Camp, who pitched in 80 games for the Cubs; left-hander Jeff Francis, who made 24 starts for the Rockies, and right-hander Luis Ayala, who had 2.64 ERA in 66 appearances for the Orioles.
There are relievers available this time around, too. Two of particular interest are Jose Valverde and Francisco Rodriguez. Valverde was the closer for the American League-champion Tigers before late-season struggles cost him the role. Rodriguez saved 62 games for the Angels in 2008 and was one of the most sought-after free agents the following winter, but he has been inconsistent since.
Outfielder Grady Sizemore was a budding superstar for the Indians before his career was derailed by knee injuries. Infielder Freddy Sanchez led the National League with a .344 average for the Pirates in 2006 and was a key member of the 2010 World Series-champion Giants but has since battled injuries. Both are available.
Need starting pitching? Chien-Ming Wang, who won 19 games for the Yankees in 2007, is only 32. Randy Wolf, Roy Oswalt and Carlos Zambrano could also be worth a look. Future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, 42, would reportedly like to play another year. Outfielder Scott Podsednik had a solid season as a role player for the Red Sox in 2012. Carlos Lee was once one of the more feared right-handed hitters in baseball. If Scott Rolen doesn't retire, he could bring a lot to a team. Brandon Inge is still available.
Who knows? Somewhere in there could be the guy who comes up big like Ibanez did for the Yankees last year.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.