Under-the-radar signings could prove worthwhile

Updated: March 6, 2013







Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Michael Bourn are almost certain to be big free-agent contributors for their respective teams this season.

While it cost teams big bucks to sign those guys, dozens of other free agents signed much more modest contracts. Despite the lack of fanfare after those signings, some of the lower-profile free agents have a chance to play significant roles for their teams, too.

Let’s take an alphabetical look at 20 under-the-radar signings that could pay big dividends in 2013:

SCOTT BAKER, CHICAGO CUBS (one year, $5.5 million): This is the biggest annual salary that made this under-the-radar list, but Baker has a chance to pay off in a big way for the Cubs.

Yes, he’s just 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2012 season. The 31-year-old right-hander should be back sometime in April, though, and he ought to either give the Cubs 160-170 quality innings or be a valuable chip at the trade deadline.

Baker is 63-48 with a 4.17 ERA for his career, and he won 15 games as recently as 2009. His fly-ball tendencies might not always play well at Wrigley Field, but he should be a strong No. 4 starter at a reasonable price.

JASON BAY, SEATTLE (one year, $1 million): Is his career coming to an early end or was his forgettable three-year stint with the New York Mets an aberration? The Mariners only had to pay $1 million to find out.

When Bay last played in the American League, he hit 36 homers and drove in 119 runs for the 2009 Boston Red Sox. Maybe he’ll never revisit that level of success. Maybe he won’t be able to carve out a meaningful role on a Seattle team crowded at corner outfield and designated hitter. If he doesn’t, the Mariners at least didn’t gamble much.

ERIK BEDARD, HOUSTON (minor-league deal): When he’s been healthy, Bedard has usually been a solid pitcher. The veteran lefty has a 63-64 career record and 3.86 ERA.

Bedard was outstanding for the first two months of last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then he collapsed and was released in August. For a minimal investment, the Astros may have obtained a No. 3 starter. At the least, if he’s healthy, he could fetch a decent prospect at the trade deadline.

MARLON BYRD, NEW YORK METS (minor-league deal): When you have a projected starting outfield of Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Mike Baxter, you might as well take a chance and sign a guy like Byrd to a minor-league contract.

Byrd was awful last year (.210, one homer, nine RBIs in 143 at-bats, as well as a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug), but he put up a .293-12-66 line as recently as 2010 with the Cubs. With a chance to be the primary right fielder, Byrd could be a Mets bargain.

MATT CAPPS, CLEVELAND (minor-league deal): A shoulder injury limited Capps to just 30 appearances with Minnesota last season, but he was respectable when he pitched (14 saves and a 3.68 ERA).

Capps is only 29 and he had a 42-save season as recently as 2010. For someone who received only a minor-league deal, he has the chance to be a real gem as maybe a seventh-inning guy in Cleveland.

ERIC CHAVEZ, ARIZONA (one year, $3 million): Perhaps best known for replacing the benched Alex Rodriguez last postseason for the New York Yankees, Chavez has a chance to be an impact player even though he has no clearly defined role in Arizona.

When the Diamondbacks acquired Martin Prado from the Atlanta Braves, it probably ended Chavez’s chances to open the season in the starting lineup. Prado is likely to be the team’s starting third baseman, but his versatility will probably result in him starting some games in left field and at second base, too.

When that happens, Chavez will start at third. He also might occasionally spell Paul Goldschmidt at first base against particularly tough right-handed pitchers. Last year, Chavez hit 16 home runs in just 278 at-bats. At the very least, he’ll be a nice power bat off the bench.

MARK DEROSA, TORONTO (one year, $750,000): When a team acquires the likes of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle during an offseason, the signing of a utility player like DeRosa isn’t going to be met with much fanfare.

DeRosa is not great in any phase of the game. He’s 37, and injuries limited him to just 85 at-bats last year. That’s why he was signed for such a small salary, but he is capable of playing five positions respectably. That makes him one of the best 24th or 25th man in the game and well worth $750,000.

MIKE GONZALEZ, MILWAUKEE (one year, $2.25 million): He’s had plenty of injury problems throughout his career, but Gonzalez has occasionally been one of the better left-handed relievers in the game. The 34-year-old hard thrower has a career ERA of 2.97, and he still averages better than a strikeout per inning.

Gonzalez figures to be either the seventh- or eighth-inning guy at the start of the season, but he provides cheap, yet quality, insurance if closer John Axford struggles like he did last year.

LATROY HAWKINS, NEW YORK METS (minor-league deal): He’s 40 now, and he’s been up and down for the past few seasons, but Hawkins still seems too good to have only earned a minor league contract and spring training invitation.

Although his strikeout rate has declined greatly, he has still delivered respectable results (3.64 ERA in 42 innings with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012). In a pitchers’ park, he ought to do no worse than post similar numbers this year.

SCOTT KAZMIR, CLEVELAND (minor-league deal): Whatever happened to this guy? The former big-time prospect went 12-8 with a 3.49 ERA for the 2008 AL champion Rays, but he hasn’t been effective since.

Kazmir didn’t pitch in the majors in 2012, and he threw just 1 2/3 ineffective innings for the Angels in 2011. Still, Kazmir’s only 29, and he reportedly hit the mid-90s on the radar gun during winter ball in Puerto Rico. Maybe the pitching-needy Indians can find lightning in a bottle. It’s worth the minimal risk.

GERALD LAIRD, ATLANTA (two years, $3 million): Incumbent catcher Brian McCann is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season while battling back from shoulder surgery, so Laird will be the Opening Day starter behind the plate.

Laird is nothing special offensively, although he hit .282 in 174 at-bats with the Detroit Tigers last year. He is solid defensively, though, and it was well worth the investment to bring him aboard because McCann’s health is a question mark.

JOHN LANNAN, WASHINGTON (one year, $2.5 million): Lannan earned $4 million last season, when he spent most of his time in Triple-A for the pitching-rich Washington Nationals. He has taken a considerable pay cut to be the Philadelphia Phillies’ fifth starter.

Moving to a bandbox like Citizens Bank Park would seem to be a drawback, but Lannan is a groundball machine. More problematic is his weak strikeout rate, combined with what could be a shaky Philadelphia defense at the corners. Lannan’s a battler, though, and should win 10 games for a relatively small salary.

EVAN MEEK, TEXAS (minor-league deal): Shoulder injuries have derailed the career of the 29-year-old Meek, who was once one of the league’s elite setup men in Pittsburgh. In his last full season – 2010 – he compiled a 2.14 ERA in 80 innings.

If he’s healthy, Meek should easily earn a spot in the Rangers’ bullpen. If he somehow returns to 2010 form, he’ll provide the same kind of production that costs some teams several million dollars.

MIGUEL OLIVO, CINCINNATI (minor-league deal): Olivo is underappreciated. He’s probably better than some of the league’s starting catchers. Even though he batted just .212 for the Mariners last season, he belted 12 home runs in a terrible hitters’ park and threw out 31 percent of would-be base stealers.

With veteran Ryan Hanigan and youngster Devin Mesoraco on board, the 34-year- old Olivo is not guaranteed a roster spot in Cincinnati. However, there’s a chance Mesoraco, who struggled last year, could start the year in the minors. If so, Olivo would be a good catcher to have around.

MANNY PARRA, CINCINNATI (one year, $1 million): Once a solid prospect in the Brewers’ system, Parra has 10- and 11-win seasons to his credit. He’s never had good control, however, so Milwaukee has given up on him.

Now 30, Parra will never be a star. Maybe the Reds can find a role for him in their bullpen, since fellow lefty Aroldis Chapman is moving into the rotation. In 2012, Parra held left-handed hitters to a .229 batting average and .635 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). Right-handed hitters batted .296 against him with an .827 OPS.

CARLOS PENA, HOUSTON (one year, $2.9 million): The Astros will threaten to have the majors’ worst offense, so it might not be much of an accomplishment, but Pena ought to lead the team in homers. He hit 19 in 497 at-bats for the Tampa Bay Rays last season, despite a .197 batting average.

Pena hit 46 homers and batted .282 for the Rays in 2007, but he’s pretty much become his era’s Dave Kingman since then. Still, the production is well worth $2.9 million, and the Astros will likely be able to flip his power bat to a contender at the trade deadline.

JON RAUCH, MIAMI (one year, $1 million): It seems easy to find bargains for the bullpen and Miami surely appears to have found one in Rauch. How does a guy who put up a 0.99 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) last year for the Mets only merit a one-year, $1 million contract?

The Marlins will be fortunate to avoid 100 losses, but this was a smart pickup. Rauch will be a popular target for contenders at the trade deadline.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ, PITTSBURGH (minor-league deal): Dealt from the San Francisco Giants to the Royals last offseason, Sanchez stunk out loud in 2012. The Royals eventually released him and the Colorado Rockies picked him up.

For those two teams, he compiled a combined 1-9 record and 8.07 ERA. He was arguably the worst pitcher in the majors. However, he was 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA for the world champion Giants in 2010, so he is not without talent.

Sanchez probably won’t be on the Pirates’ roster at the start of the season, but his contract allows them to stash him on the farm and hope that a minor- league pitching coach could work enough magic to help him recapture his 2010 form. For a franchise with 20 consecutive losing seasons, it’s worth a try.

LUKE SCOTT, TAMPA BAY (two years, $2.75 million): Scott was never really 100 percent in 2012 after returning from shoulder surgery the year before. Even though he hit just .229, he cracked 14 home runs in just 314 at-bats, so Tampa Bay re-signed him.

A healthy Scott ought to be able to hit 20 homers this year. He’ll be an adequate designated hitter for the Rays at a bargain-basement price.

TY WIGGINTON, ST. LOUIS (two years, $5 million): The Cardinals are a team that knows how to assemble a useful roster. Wigginton, now 35, isn’t exactly an All- Star. He’s not even a starting-caliber player.

However, Wigginton can fill in at first, second and third base and left field without killing a team’s defense. Offensively, he’s collected double-digit home runs in seven consecutive seasons and in nine of the last 10.

Teammate Matt Carpenter is a younger and more talented version of the same player, but Wigginton is still an intelligent signing. No one has ever lost because they have too many versatile players on their roster.

Jeff Saukaitis has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.