Most of the big-ticket free agent signings that make Ken Rosenthal all hot under the bowtie have already occurred. There's still time to get on the Prince Fielder Flyer, but Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson are Angels, Jose Reyes is a Marlin and Yu Darvish will either be a Ranger or a Nippon Ham Fighter. Save for Fielder, none of the guys left on the market will elicit oohs and ahhs from fans.
There are still free agent values to be had as we enter January, however. Whether due to injury, a lousy walk year or a focus on what they player can't do instead of what he can, some guys with useful skill sets are still waiting to sign. Let's pick a Dumpster-Dive All-Star team, starting with infielders.
First Base: Carlos Pena
Why he's still available: Pena signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs last off-season and endured a miserable start to 2011, slugging just .175 in April. Always a high-strikeout hitter, he batted just .225 on the year (and that was a major improvement over 2010's .196 with the Rays). The lefty also continued to flail against same-handed pitching (.133/.260/.333 in 146 plate appearances vs. left-handers in 2011, .210/.309/.426 in over 1,400 PAs during his career).
Why he's valuable: Despite his low average and platoon issues, Pena isn't an all-or-nothing slugger. The 33-year-old remained a good source of walks (16.7% of his PA) and power, popping 28 home runs and posting a .237 Isolated Power. His 123 OPS+ placed ninth among first basemen who qualified for the batting title.
Pena struggles with breaking stuff, but he remains one of the deadliest fastball hitters in the game. His .574 slugging percentage against fastballs and sinkers ranked in the top 25 among hitters and blew past the .440 average for non-pitchers in 2011. As Pena's in-play slugging percentage against fastballs shows, he crushed pitches he connected with unless they were high and tight:
Where he'll sign: Cleveland makes all sorts of sense. The Tribe could contend in an American League Central division lacking a juggernaut club, and 27-year-old Matt LaPorta (career 93 OPS+) is now just a sour remnant of the CC Sabathia deal.Signing Pena would also allow Cleveland to keep Carlos Santana behind the plate more often, maximizing his value.
Depending on his asking price, Pena could also reunite with the Rays. Pena would be an upgrade over Adam LaRoche for the Nats if they don't sign Fielder, and he's likely better than Adam Lind in Toronto, too.
Second Base: Jeff Keppinger
Why he's still available: The former Met, Royal, Red, Astro and Giant missed nearly the first two months of the 2011 season following left foot surgery. Keppinger has never been known for his defense, and the bum wheel didn't help his substandard range (about -11 runs per 150 defensive game played last year at the keystone, and -3.5 during his career). Keppinger also hacked much more than usual, chasing 29% of pitches thrown out of the strike zone compared to about 20% in past seasons.
In particular, Kep became more hack-happy on high pitches and stuff thrown inside. Check out his swing rate by pitch location in 2011, compared to 2010:
Those extra outside swings led to a three percent walk rate (lowest of his career) and an 89 OPS+, his lowest tally since 2008. San Francisco non-tendered him rather than pay him somewhere in the range of $2.5-$3 million in arbitration.
Why he's valuable: While he lacks secondary skills even by the positional standards of second base, Keppinger just about never punches out (career 6.2 K%) and generally hits in the .280 range. With few walks or extra-base hits, his 95 OPS+ over the past three seasons is still right around average for second basemen.
Where he'll sign: Toronto could use a utility man with more offensive ability than Mike McCoy. Keppinger could compete with Jonathan Herrera, Eric Young Jr. and D.J. LeMahieu, among others, in Colorado.
Shortstop: Ronny Cedeno (slim pickings here; Ryan Theriot isn't someone you really want at shortstop)
Why he's still available: Cedeno's Triple-A mashing (a .937 OPS) has never come close to translating to the majors. He has a career 68 OPS+ in a little more than 2,300 big league PA, including a 76 OPS+ this past season with the Pirates. Since he debuted back in 2005, defensive dynamos Cesar Izturis and Adam Everett are the only shortstops with 2,000+ PA and a lower adjusted OPS.
Cedeno just can't help himself against inside stuff, trying to turn on pitches in on the hands:
He has swung at 48% of inside pitches thrown off the plate since 2008 (the first year for which we have Pitch F/X data), way above the 30% league average. Not coincidentally, he's rocking a career .286 on-base percentage.
Why he's valuable: He's not a defensive whiz, but Cedeno has a career -1 Ultimate Zone Rating/150 games at shortstop, including +6.8 this past season. Cedeno also has experience at second base and at 29, he's unlikely to lose his decent range in the near future. Being a defensively competent, semi-durable shortstop is enough to earn a 40-man roster spot and a major league paycheck.
Where he'll sign: San Francisco may be a fit. Brandon Crawford gets praise for his glovework, but his bat could be even more brutal than Cedeno's. Atlanta appears poised to turn shortstop over to prospect Tyler Pastornicky, though Cedeno could be a stopgap.
Third Base: Wilson Betemit
Why he's still available: Betemit is a switch-hitter in name only, with a career .246/.299/.385 triple-slash in 472 PA against left-handed pitching. Some might say he's only nominally a third baseman, too, as he has a career -14 UZR/150 at the hot corner. Betemit a utility player in the same sense as Ty Wigginton. Sure, he'll stand a reasonable distance away from a base and try to catch stuff that comes his way. That doesn't mean he'll be good at it, though.
Why he's valuable: Defensive foibles and platoon-worthy bat aside, Betemit hits righty pitching at a quality clip. The 30-year-old has a career .277/.348/.469 line in nearly 1,500 PA versus right-handers. He puts a hurt on righty pitches thrown upstairs or low-and-in:
No one should expect Betemit to retain the .391 batting average on balls in play that he sported in 2011, but he's a decent platoon bat who should be swapped for a defensive replacement in the later innings.
Where he'll sign: Betemit could be a cheap LaPorta upgrade for Cleveland, and he could compete with minor league masher Bryan LaHair in Chicago.
Check back later on as we continue to assemble our Dumpster-Dive All-Stars with outfielders, starting pitchers and bullpen arms.