Monday, February 09, 2009

Top Five Under-the-Radar Signings

This offseason has been one unlike any other in recent memory. Tons of talent was available via free-agency, but most teams were in penny-pinching mode. As a result, numerous superstars and role-players remain unsigned with the countdown to Spring Training now in the single-digits.

With that fact in mind it’s time to take a look at some of the more under-the-radar signings that did happen, but aren’t getting nearly the hype they deserve.

Juan Rivera, Los Angeles Angels - three-years, $12.75-million

I’ve been very high on Rivera since his breakout campaign in 2006 where he raked a line of 23/85/.310. A broken leg coupled with the back-to-back high-priced offseason signings of Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter limited his playing time in 2007 and 2008.

Despite the abundance of outfielders on the roster last season, Rivera won over manager Mike Scioscia and stole at bats down the stretch from both Garret Anderson and Matthews. From July onward Rivera hit .274 with 12 home runs and 42 runs batted in; a very good sign that the glimpse of his potential we received in 2006 was the real deal.

Now that Anderson is out of the picture and Matthews has been reduced to a fourth outfielder/DH the path is clear for Rivera to step in as the everyday left fielder in 2009. He has incredible potential to be the power bat the Angels have long coveted and recently lost when Mark Teixeira signed with the Yankees.

If healthy and given a full-season worth of at-bats Rivera could very easily hit .300 with 30 home runs and 100+ runs batted in.

Andruw Jones, Texas Rangers - one-year, $500,000 (minor league deal)

I know…the dude is toast. To be perfectly honest, if I didn’t believe heavily in second (and third or fourth) chances, I’d feel the same way. Unfortunately, I do--in fact--believe in second (and third or fourth) chances. As such, I can’t quite give up on the belief that the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man could show up to Spring Training in shape and ready to crush.

Rumors out of Texas are that Jones has indeed slimmed down and his surgically repaired knee appears to be in good shape. If those reports prove true Jones’ next obstacle will be to regain his once infamous power stroke. Between 1998-2007, Jones hit .266 with an average of 97 runs scored, 34 home runs and 103 RBIs.

Renowned hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo will be counted on heavily to help Jones on his quest to win the centerfield job. Jones could have a big year in Texas, especially in a lineup that surrounds him with the likes of Josh Hamilton, Hank Blalock, Chris Davis, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young.

If he can stay healthy (and fit) Jones could easily put up a big year. I’d consider a .260 average with 30-40 home runs and 100+ runs batted in to be very much in the realm of possibility for Jones given the ideal ballpark and lineup conditions he’ll be given in 2009.

Ty Wigginton, Baltimore Orioles - two-years, $6 million

Wigginton, a career .270 hitter with 110 home runs in seven seasons, is coming off a career year. The right-handed hitter split time between left field and third base with Houston last season, batting .285 with 23 home runs in just 386 at-bats. In his career he’s also put in time at second base, first base, right field and designated hitter.

Three of the Orioles’ top four power bats--Aubrey Huff, Nick Markakis and Luke Scott--bat from the left side, and Wigginton may be able to break up that block of the lineup. The acquisition of Wigginton also provides some obvious defensive flexibility for Baltimore. His ability to start at the corners in both the outfield and infield as well as second base (his natural position) could also allow the O’s to move Brian Roberts and/or Melvin Mora before season’s end.

Although no stranger to the American League East--Wigginton hit 24 home runs with a .275 batting average for Tampa Bay in 2006--it is still logical to assume Wigginton will have a period of adjustment and may struggle with consistency until the Orioles find a permanent position for him in the field.

A rough early projection for Wigginton would see him putting up a line of 20/75/.270 in 2009 while seeing significant playing time at multiple positions.

Juan Uribe, San Francisco Giants - one-year, $1 million (minor league deal)

In signing Uribe, the Giants have strengthened their odds of competing in the wide-open National League West. Uribe is coming off one of his worst professional seasons after being displaced twice in 2008 with the White Sox first losing his starting job at shortstop to Orlando Cabrera and later losing his second base job to Alexei Ramirez; eventually settling in at third base when Joe Crede went down with a back injury.

Despite a down year in 2008, Uribe can still provide the Giants with some much needed pop. He has averaged 20 homers per season from 2004-2007, but is no longer a strong defensive shortstop and the power comes with a hideous .295 career on-base percentage. As such, he figures to play a prominent bench role; although it is not completely out of line to think he could win a starting job at second base with a strong showing this spring.

Uribe hasn’t played in the NL since 2003 with the Rockies and could struggle to readjust to the ballparks and deep rotations of the NL West. Uribe, however, showed last season that he was more than capable of adjusting to change and could turn into a major contributor with the Giants in 2009.

I’d project a line (assuming he plays part-time and off the bench) of 11/36/.275 with plenty of contributions around the infield throughout the season.

Brandon Lyon, Detroit Tigers - one-year, $4.25 million

Brandon Lyon hit the market at the worst-time possible, when it was flooded with marquee closers and prices were being driven down. As the dominos started to fall it seemed that Lyon would be forced to settle for a deal as a setup man…and then the Tigers came calling.

The Tigers--who went from a World Series lock to a last place team in 2008--are working to rebuild a bullpen that was one of many glaring weaknesses in last year’s lost season. Lyon, who saved 26 games in 2008, figures the best bet to win the closer role over incumbent late-inning warriors Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya.

Lyon isn’t cut from the same mold as the usual overpowering closer. He uses a solid four-pitch repertoire that combines low to mid 90s fastball with a big curveball, slider and changeup. Occasionally he gets away from that mix and gets in trouble as he did down the stretch last year in Arizona when he lost the closer’s role.

Projecting a line for a closer is always tough, but I’ll go ahead and give it a go. I’d expect for Lyon to save close to 30 games in 2009 with an ERA around 4.00 and 50+ strikeouts.

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