Like any good shoppers, baseball's general managers are on the lookout for bargains as the Winter Meetings approach. Granted, these are bargains with price tags that go a few zeros beyond the 2-for-1 sweater deals at the mall, but there are some good finds out there for the frugal shopper.
Bargains in baseball's free agency department are not always inexpensive, but many can be found in the discount aisle, where a player not valued by many now could turn out to have a heap of value a year from now.
A year ago, for example, the Rays found a 48-save closer in Fernando Rodney for the huge discount of $1.75 million for 2012, and the club leaped at picking up his 2013 option at $2.5 million after he posted a ridiculous 0.60 ERA. That is the very definition of a bargain deal -- not that anybody was touting it as such when Rodney signed after posting a 4.32 ERA in the previous two seasons with the Angels.
Bargains by nature are a moving target, to be sure. Often, it's a risk/reward proposition, and the bigger the reward, the bigger the bargain. Other times, it's the right guy at the right price, giving more bang for the buck than the top-tier free agents.
With all that in mind, and with the knowledge that some potential bargains already have signed, here's a look at 10 free agents who might be considered a bargain next year after signing this winter:
Marco Scutaro, INF:
Nothing like a picture-perfect postseason to set up free agency. At age 37, Scutaro reportedly is only looking for a two-year deal, and the Giants are at the front of the line. If he can continue his remarkably steady veteran presence in the lineup and on the field, he'll help whatever team that signs him, and doesn't figure to stress out the budget.
Ryan Ludwick, OF:
After providing plenty of pop for the dollar to the Reds this past season, earning $2.5 million while delivering 26 homers, 80 RBIs and an .877 OPS -- all season highs since his career year in 2008. He'll turn 35 next July, and his playoff experience and solid bat make him a potentially affordable option for teams looking for a corner outfielder.
Angel Pagan, OF:
One big difference between Pagan and fellow World Series champion Scutaro is age -- Pagan will enter the season at age 30, coming off a career year that showed all his tools in an extended showing that lasted all October long. He is expected to sign a career contract that he'd have a hard time performing beyond, but he'll come at a lesser cost than other center fielders on the market such as Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn. If Pagan continues playing the way he did in 2012, he could deliver a lot of bang for the buck.
Shaun Marcum, RHP:
He signed one-year deals to avoid arbitration with the Brewers each of his two seasons there, including one for $7.75 million for 2012, but Marcum ran into elbow problems that limited him to 21 starts. He struggled to a 5.06 ERA upon his return in September but did have a few quality outings at the very end, showing some signs of being back to form. With some risk involved, the signing club could get a lot of reward from this middle-of-the-rotation right-hander.
Brandon McCarthy, RHP:
After he'd just recovered from shoulder problems, McCarthy sustained a scary head injury when struck by a line drive in September, so there are some reasons for trepidation. But, when healthy, McCarthy brings a presence not only on the mound, but in the clubhouse, and he figures to get some interest from teams looking for a 29-year-old veteran to mix into the top end of the rotation.
Grady Sizemore, OF:
A few short years ago, Sizemore was a rising superstar in the game, a perennial MVP Award candidate. But his knees and his back have betrayed him, and injuries have devastated his productivity the past three seasons. But Sizemore is only 30, and he has the desire to get back to a high level of play, if his body allows. Given the givens, he might even have to go somewhere on a Minor League deal, but the talent alone has to be intriguing. If he returns close to form, Sizemore could wind up being a bargain, and it's likely the financial risk won't be severe.
Jason Bay, OF:
Another possible reclamation project who is coming off a major bust of a contract, Bay also is just a few years removed from being one of the most coveted players on the market. After a four-year, $66 million deal with the Mets, which turned into just three years thanks to his plummeting performance, Bay likely could be had for relative pocket change this time around -- with a reunion with former Red Sox manager Terry Francona in Cleveland among the possibilities.
Lance Berkman, 1B/DH:
Still on the fence about whether he'll continue in 2013 or perhaps return to Rice University as an assistant coach, Berkman could return to the Astros -- and DH now, since the Astros are headed for the American League. Several teams are reported to have interest in Berkman, who starred with the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals but had just 81 at-bats in 2012. The Big Puma has to know he'll sign for a bargain vs. the $12 million he made last year, but how much of a bargain might determine whether he plays or not.
Jason Grilli, RHP:
In the second of two strong showings with the Pirates after he missed all of 2010 with a leg injury, Grilli delivered a 2.91 ERA and 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2012 -- that, on a one-year, $1 million deal. He's 36, which is an interesting age for a career year, but with his performance and experience combined, he could fill a valuable role for a club for a relative bargain.
Jeff Keppinger, INF:
He was already looking like a good pickup for a team searching for versatility without busting the budget, and his recent misfortune of suffering a broken fibula in a fall figures to be a factor in negotiations for the 32-year-old infielder. Keppinger made $1.525 million last year, taking a step down in salary from his $2.3 million the year before, but taking a big step up in production, collecting 125 hits in 115 games while playing three infield positions.
Of course, these aren't all the bargains out there. Somebody will sign under the radar and go over the top in terms of productivity in 2013, becoming the bargain nobody knew about this winter. And this list of potential bargains will expand as teams decide not to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players prior to Friday's deadline.
Ultimately, a bargain is in the eye of the beholder until it proves to be -- or not to be -- one during the season, so even the smartest of shoppers won't know until 2013 just how good of a deal they've found this winter.