I spent most of the winter yelling at the free agent market to hurry up, hurry up! When you’re writing a season preview you want all the moves to happen as quickly as possible so your book is as up-to-date as it possibly can be when it hits shelves. All my goading got Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia signed, but it hasn’t budged Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, or any of the dozens of other free agents still on the market. Indeed, this winter has been one of the slowest to develop since the post-strike season, when any number of homeless players began Spring Training in a separate camp for displaced persons. With so many players still available, there are many teams that could look quite different when Spring Training convenes than they do now.
It has long been argued that teams should not shoot themselves in the wallet by overpaying for middle relievers, spot lefties, and the like, because those players are generally so inconsistent, and their roles frequently so marginal, that it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for their services. With the exception of the odd Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, 75 percent of relievers could be shoved into a paper bag at the end of each season and picked out at random until each team had a full bullpen compliment, and the Majors would probably see the exact same distribution of good and bad bullpens as it does now. With the sour economy, it seems likely that teams have finally acquired the discipline to do this, as well as extend the principle to any other suspect class or individual player. This seems the most likely answer for why, for example, so many reasonably good spot lefties are on the market. It’s not that LOOGYs have gone out of style, but that paying them has. The players in turn must adjust to the new reality and diminish their expectations — which, poor lambs, means they’ll still get millions of dollars.
One player who has almost certainly been harmed by the New Fiscal Realities is Bobby Abreu, a player who is undoubtedly looking for a multi-year contract with which to close out his career. So far it ain’t happening, and it’s probably a safe bet that the one-year offers haven’t been to Abreu’s liking either. Say you get hooked into Abreu for his age-35, -36, and -37 season. If Abreu stays right where he is, you’re in good shape, particularly if you’re asking him to be your designated hitter. Unfortunately, 2008 was the kind of termite season that breeds doubters.
It seems strange to say something so critical of Abreu’s .296/.371/.471 season, but there’s a lot to be concerned about. Abreu hit only 20 home runs, not an awe-inspiring total, and while he still took a solid 73 walks, he was less patient than at any time in his career. These two facts — lower echelon power and ebbing patience — mean Abreu’s production will depend heavily on his batting average, and batting average is the least consistent aspect of any player’s production. Throw in a home-road split favorable to Yankee Stadium and signs of declining ability on the basepaths, and there is real cause to worry about getting stuck.
Abreu has been further damaged because 2008 was the year that his defensive problems changed from something that those eccentric fans in Philly made fun of to something that was visible to all and was quickly perceived as a real problem. When Gary Sheffield played right field for the Yankees, I used to make fun of his lack of range and oddly circuitous routes in the outfield. On fly balls to medium or short right field he sometimes looked like water swirling down the drain. Abreu makes the Sheffield of a few years ago look like a master defender, in that Sheffield played his position badly, but at least he attempted to play all of it. Because Abreu cannot go back, only forward, he gives up a whole section of his zone that a right fielder without this unusual handicap would cover. Even a poor outfielder would catch the odd ball at the wall.
This estimation of Abreu’s defense likely restricts him to the American League, where he may be hurt by the fact that a younger, more versatile (sort of), and more productive player in Dunn is still hanging around the market, not to mention Ramirez. A solid year from Abreu could be a godsend for the Angels after losing Teixeira. He could probably help the A’s, although with Matt Holliday in left, two designated hitters in Jason Giambi and Jack Cust, and a first baseman they’d like to get back on track in Daric Barton, it’s hard to see where everyone is going to play. If the Mariners would let Jeff Clement catch and push Kenji Johjima to the bench, Abreu would be a good fit in the Emerald City. The Rangers have this odd idea about letting Nelson Cruz play in right field, so he probably wouldn’t fit in there, and their DH spot is occupied by Hank Blalock.
These are not great choices. There is no automatic fit. Nor is Abreu a good fit for any of these teams at three years, and maybe not even for two. Abreu never got his due as a great player at his peak, but now his game has eroded to the point that it’s far too late to give him the rewards his resume would suggest that he deserves.