Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE
The free agent market is mostly known territory, but there are still surprises to be had out there
On Wednesday, we looked at a few free agents who were likely candidates to disappoint if not put in the right circumstances during their next contract. There's no fun in always being negative, though, so this time around, the focus is on free agents who might end up being much better than their contracts (or their new club's fans) think they will be.
Kevin Youkilis, 3B/1B: The door should probably close on the era of Kevin Youkilis: third baseman. The only reason he even shifted back to the position was because the Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres before the 2011 season, and, once in Chicago, he was in line behind Paul Konerko for the first base gig. If he signs with a club to man the hot corner, it wouldn't be surprising, since the market for third is pitiful this off-season. But so is the first base market, and Youkilis would be a much better fit there.
In his career, he's a much better hitter at first. There are problems with leaving it at that, though, as Youkilis was also in his peak years when he played first. In 2012, in limited duty at the position, he hit .313/.421/.563. Of course, that was in 19 games, so let's not break out the checkbook just yet. The idea behind Youk at first makes a lot of sense, though: He's aging, and injury-prone. Moving down the defensive spectrum and back to first base makes a lot of sense at this stage in his career. If it helps reduce the wear-and-tear on Youkilis, he might be much more productive. In this market, where some team might be betting on James Loney or Carlos Pena to revive their careers, the risk of Youkilis could be well worth it.
Carlos Villanueva, SP/RP: Villanueva has never been a full-time starter in the majors. The 16 starts he made in 2012 represent a career-high, but he has thrown over 100 innings in a season four times in six full seasons due to splitting time between spot-starting and relieving. There's an argument to be made that he shouldn't start full-time, either, as he tends to see a lot more power against him when in that role.
However, Villanueva does have value as a hybrid arm in the bullpen, in the role he's had for most of his big-league career. Maybe he's not good enough to start full-time, but he's been great in the bullpen over the years, and can handle starting in short bursts. Villanueva is a useful piece to have around in the pen, since he can pitch where he's needed, doing the job of two pitchers, while taking up just the one roster spot. Put him a park that favors pitchers, and he might even be able to start more often than he has in the past.
If not in that role, then he should be throwing roughly 100 innings per year in relief anyway. There's a lot to be said about bringing back super reliever types, and Villanueva has the profile to succeed in that role.
Ichiro Suzuki, OF: It feels weird to think Ichiro could be undervalued, but after some rough times in Seattle, that's where his career is now. Ichiro hit just .272/.310/.335 in 2011 with the Mariners, and .261/.288/.353 before he was dealt to the Yankees in 2012. While with New York, though, Ichiro looked far more like the player of old, and produced at a .322/.340/.454 clip over his last 67 games and 240 plate appearances. Maybe that's not exactly what he'll do going forward, but teams that are in contention might want to pay attention.
Ichiro is still a strong defensive player in the outfield, and has long been a quality baserunner. If he's in a park that doesn't actively hate hitters, and also boosts batting average on balls in play, then that team could likely squeeze another productive campaign from the 39-year-old. He won't draw many walks, and that could be a bad thing if his batting average isn't there, but there's still reason to like him if your team doesn't play in a canyon.
Scott Hairston, OF: Unless you're a Mets fan, you might not have noticed that Scott Hairston launched 20 homers (and 46 extra-base hits overall) in under 400 plate appearances in 2012. He's not an every day player, but this is a guy who has even shown some pop in parks that are death to offense, like Petco. While Cody Ross is out there looking for a three-year deal worth $25 million, Hairston can most likely be locked up for low single-digits in the millions once more, and produce much the same.
Hairston is a career .276/.325/.500 hitter against left-handers, and plays a surprisingly solid outfield for a guy his size -- Hairston has actually played nearly a full season's worth of games in center, and mostly holds his own there. (Though, at this stage, maybe you don't want to push your luck anymore as he heads into his mid-30s.) On a team that already has someone who can hit right-handers, but struggles against lefties, Hairston is a great fit, and an inexpensive one, too. If the Dodgers weren't so intent on Andre Ethier as their every day right fielder, Hairston would make for a fantastic platoon partner, especially with their already high team salary.
Anyone who misses out on Ross might want to look towards Hairston. And, if they're in a hitter's park, maybe we'll finally get to see what Hairston can do when not fighting against his environment.