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Remaining MLB Free Agents Still Could Shape Playoff Teams
by - 2/8/2013

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Former St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Kyle Lohse

Perhaps the best four words in sports, especially for those living in cold-weather climates (enjoying that blizzard Northeast?), are: “pitchers and catchers report.” And, indeed, the first pitchers and catchers will report for Spring Training on Sunday, with the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies getting things started. The full squads will have reported to every team by next weekend, and Spring Training games begin Feb. 22.

Despite the arrival of spring camps, a few potential difference-making free agents are still on the market. Don’t feel too bad for the likes of starting pitcher Kyle Lohse, closers Jose Valverde and Francisco Rodriguez, and outfielder Michael Bourn, as they will get their tens of millions of dollars. Certainly they would probably like to know by now where they will be living for half the year.

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If you need more proof that a late-spring free-agent signing can make a difference, look no further than Raul Ibanez. He didn’t sign a deal until Feb. 20 last year with the New York Yankees to be a platoon designated hitter. Ibanez hit a solid .240 with 19 homers and 62 RBI, but his value really showed in the playoffs. In Game 3 of the ALDS against Baltimore, he became the first player in major-league history to homer twice in a postseason game he didn't start. He pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez (the beginning of the end for A-Rod) in the ninth inning and hit a tying home run, then he hit a winning shot in the 12th. In the opener of the ALCS against Detroit, Ibanez’s two-run homer in the ninth inning tied the Tigers. The Yankees would eventually lose the game in 12 innings and get swept. Ibanez is now with the Mariners.

Of all the free agents remaining on the market, the four listed above are the cream of the crop. Bourn is represented by Scott Boras, who somehow manages to always get his guys top dollar even when it seems there are no bidders at the asking price – just ask Prince Fielder (Tigers last year) and Rafael Soriano (Nats last month). Bourn hit .274 with nine homers and 57 RBI last season with 42 steals for the Braves, who won’t be bringing him back. Part of the problem for Bourn and Lohse is that they will cost teams a first-round draft pick in compensation.

Should Bourn sign with either the Seattle Mariners or New York Mets, two rumored pursuers, it wouldn’t really vault either club into playoff contention. But he would look awfully good in Texas, which has had a lousy offseason and could be facing a suspension for outfielder Nelson Cruz as he was in that PED report out of Miami. Right now, Texas is planning to go with either Craig Gentry or Leonys Martin in center. Clearly Bourn would be an upgrade over either of those two, and it would allow Texas to move Ian Kinsler out of the leadoff hole and into a run-producing spot where he belongs. The Rangers are currently +170 on 5Dimes to win the AL West, behind Angels (-120). I believe Bourn would close that gap and also improve Texas’ pennant odds (+675).

As for Lohse, the Cardinals might now be inclined to bring him back with the devastating news that Chris Carpenter won’t pitch this season and that his career is likely over. A nerve injury kept Carpenter out most of last year, but he did pitch three games at the end of the regular season as St. Louis earned the final wild-card spot in the NL. Carpenter also beat Washington in the division series before going 0-2 against the Giants in the NLCS. He was slated to be the No. 2 this season behind Adam Wainwright. With Carpenter out, the Cardinals will have to fill out their rotation with a youngster among Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. Miller is one of the top prospects in baseball, but has thrown just 13.2 big-league innings.

So why not bring back Lohse? He was the ace of the staff a year ago, going 16-3 (best winning percentage in the NL) with a 2.86 ERA. St. Louis wouldn’t have to surrender a pick for Lohse. The Cubs, for example, opted for Edwin Jackson over Lohse because Jackson didn’t require draft pick compensation. Currently the Cardinals are +180 second-favorites to win the NL Central behind the reigning champion Reds (+110). Lohse might not be enough to beat out the Reds, but it certainly would increase St. Louis’ chances for another wild-card spot.

The Baltimore Orioles also would make sense. They vastly overachieved last year thanks to a crazy 29-9 record in one-run games, but have been silent this offseason. The O’s are counting on pitchers who haven’t had consistent success like Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez. Lohse would solidify that rotation. Even thought Baltimore fought the Yankees down to the wire for the AL East title last season, they are the longest shots this season at +900. Milwaukee (+500 to win NL Central) also has been linked to Lohse after losing both Zack Greinke (traded last midseason) and Shaun Marcum off last year’s rotation.

I also believe the Tigers, the huge AL Central favorites at -200, would be wise to add K-Rod. Valverde was good in the regular season for Detroit but imploded late in the year and won’t be back. Rodriguez struggled in 2012 as a set-up man for the Brewers, but would be nice insurance with the Tigers banking on inexperienced Bruce Rondon as their closer – it’s about the only question on the roster. Valverde could also be closer insurance as a set-up man for a contender.

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