Free agency is inherently risky, and these five are some of the riskiest options out there
Josh Hamilton is a huge risk, likely the largest, on the free agent market this off-season. Everyone knows that, though, because at this point, Hamilton's life story is detailed every time there's a nationally televised game. There are plenty of others alongside Hamilton, though, who are not as obvious in terms of risk, but still have plenty of their own issues in the wrong environment.
Stephen Drew, SS: Drew is appealing, as he might be the only shortstop on the free agent market worth paying attention to. This means he is very likely to be overpaid by one of the many teams looking for a shortstop, despite a long list of reasons that make a one-year deal the more prudent approach.
Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 in 2012, splitting time between the Diamondbacks and the Oakland Athletics. He appeared in just 79 games in another season cut short by health troubles, and even though those issues were the same as the 2011 ones, they might be something that damages his game from here on out. Drew fractured his ankle in mid-2011, causing damage not just to the bone, but also to ligaments. Surgery was necessary to patch it back together, and that same off-season, Drew also went under the knife for a sports hernia.
Those are two injuries that can limit mobility, a necessary component for fielding well at shortstop. Ratings for Drew's defense have been all over the map over the years, when he was both younger and in possession of two non-surgically repaired ankles, so in the future, it's hard to act as if everything will be fine in that regard without seeing more of him at first.
Throw in that Drew is a career .239/.320/.348 hitter outside of Chase Field, and he's likely to be paid like the player someone wants him to be, rather than the one he is. If he's signed for one year, or with incentives and options built-in, then the risk has been confronted and understood. If he receives multiple guaranteed years, though, and pulls in double-digit millions in each season, then his new team could regret that decision sooner than later.
Torii Hunter, OF: Hunter came back in a big way in 2012, hitting .313/.365/.451 despite playing games in a pitchers' park. He also played a great right field by most accounts, and was underrated for what was a wonderful performance overall. There are some problems, though, that need to be recognized by whoever his new team is. Hunter's batting average on balls in play was .389, and it helped him play better than he likely should have both at home and on the road. It masked decreases in his walk rate and power production, and could end up making for an ugly 2013 when his line regresses.
On the other hand, in the right context, Hunter could still be valuable. Move him into a hitters' park, maybe one that can boost his doubles production since homers aren't his main thing anymore, and some of the regression could be nullified. In a place where his defense in a corner is a plus, he'll also contribute even if his bat slips backward. But, should a team in a pitchers' park, or in a lineup that requires Hunter to play a significant part, pay him as if he's one of the league's best right fielders, then they'll be disappointed. Somewhere like Boston, where Fenway would be a boon for his bat, and he could hide among an already strong lineup core, makes a ton of sense for Hunter.
Cody Ross, OF: In fact, Ross already saw the kind of boost in production at Fenway that someone like Hunter could experience in 2013. The right fielder hit .298/.356/.565 with 39 of his 56 extra-base hits at home, and a below-average .232/.294/.390 on the road. He's currently seeking a three-year deal for $25 million, and there's a chance someone gives that to him. It might sound crazy, but just one year removed from Michael Cuddyer's three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Rockies, maybe it's not far-fetched.
It's likely whoever brings him on board will have a hard time being happy with their investment, even if they cut it back to just two years. Ross is excellent against left-handers, and in the right kind of park for his swing, can be a devastating hitter. But roughly 75 percent of all innings are thrown by right-handed pitchers, and even a place like Fenway only accounts for half of the games. To punch that point home, Ross hit .220/.256/.341 on the road against right-handers in 2012 in 164 at-bats, while facing lefties in just 150 plate appearances overall. Now imagine his overall line, sans Fenway's influence. Like with Hunter, context will be key for Ross.
Dan Haren, SP: The right-hander could be great, as he generally is in his career. But the fact he was not traded before his option deadline should tell you that teams are not 100 percent sold on a return to form for Haren. The Cubs were reportedly close to a deal, in exchange for Carlos Marmol, but backed out late in the process. Was it because of Haren's medicals on his back? It's hard to tell, but it's probably a safe assumption to make.
Haren could still pull in multiple years and big money from someone who loses out on Zack Greinke and Anibal Sanchez, but the smart move with a pitcher whose velocity has declined, is dealing with back problems, and has only been great in one of the last three seasons is to give him big money for a single year, or try to work something out with lucrative incentives and options. Haren has his past to point to in negotiations, and that might be enough for one team or another, but all 30 clubs can counter with his lowest innings total as a starter, a career-worst homer rate, and his worst-ever ERA+.
Kyle Lohse, SP: If Lohse is paid for what he is -- an average pitcher capable of seasons both better or worse than that -- then there's no real risk here, at least not more than with any other pitcher. But if someone out there pays Lohse as if he's more than a mid-to-back rotation arm, there could be trouble. Lohse has benefited from his pitcher-friendly home park, from facing the mediocre NL Central, from pitching in the NL in general, and if he's taken away from all of those comforts, the results could be disastrous.
Pitchers face pitchers in the NL, and Lohse has excelled at defeating his fellow moundsmen. He limited number-nine hitters to a 325 OPS this past season, whereas the NL as a whole was at 465. In 2011, it was a 250 OPS, while the NL registered 482. It might seem like a small thing, but overpowering the pitcher can end rallies, limit BABIP, and help skew overall effectiveness numbers, at least when you're trying to analyze in a bubble. If Lohse remains in the NL, it's not a big deal, but a switch to the AL could hurt him. Lohse's career ERA in the AL is 0.81 points higher than his NL one, and the difference in ERA+ is eight percentage points.
Lohse, like the others, can be a valuable free agent, but it will all come down to what he's considered to be by his new team.