Posted 07/13/2011 at 03:37 PM
Every year there are a few impact free agent signings that can propel a team to playoff contention. Some of the big star player signings can be easy to expect success with but there are certainly many cases that do not pan out. Here is a look at a few of the lesser signings that are currently paying big dividends for teams in contention for playoff spots at the All Star Break.
Kevin Correia, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates (2 Years, $8 Million): The Pirates like many other small market teams rarely get first, second, or third choices in the free agent market and often have to overpay for some of the players that slip through the cracks. Correia looked like one of those players, 30 years old with a career record of 36-43 and an ERA in mid 4.00 range. His career had been spent pitching in favorable settings in San Francisco and San Diego and yet he had never delivered great success, with his best season coming in 2009 with the Padres when he won twelve games and finished with a 3.91 ERA. The Pirates took a chance on him with a modest deal and he has been a stabilizing force in the rotation. Correia does not have dominant numbers but his ERA is just 4.01 and he has walked just 26 batters in almost 117 innings. His next win will tie his career high and he was deservingly named as a replacement All Star reserve. Correia has been a veteran in a surprisingly strong rotation along with Paul Maholm as Pittsburgh has allowed the fifth fewest runs in the National League. The Pirates have great bullpen numbers this season and getting consistently solid starts from guys like Correia has been a big reason, and a big reason that the Pirates are above .500 at the break and right in the thick of a division race.
Lance Berkman, 1B, OF, St. Louis Cardinals (1 Year, $8 Million): Berkman has enjoyed an outstanding career in the big leagues but his numbers and health had deteriorated a bit in the last few seasons. At 35 years old entering the 2011 season Berkman was available on the market after finally being pried away from the Astros late last season. At first glance it seemed like a big contract and a big risk at $8 Million but the Cardinals took a shot for a season and have been rewarded generously. Staying in the NL Central likely has helped his comfort zone and Berkman is in the midway point MVP conversation, batting .290 with 24 home runs and 63 RBI. His OPS is 1.006, the best mark in the entire NL. With the injuries in the St. Louis lineup, notably to Albert Pujols, Berkman has been invaluable in keeping the Cardinals afloat, currently tied for the NL Central lead. St. Louis has scored the second most runs in the NL at this point in the season and Berkman has played a huge role in the production. I think most fans would have been satisfied with 24 home runs from Berkman for the season, but the Big Puma is putting a together a career season in what could round into a hall of fame career.
Chris Capuano, SP, New York Mets (1 Year, $1.5 Million): The Mets do not make it onto a lot of lists lauding free agent signings but the shrewd move to pick up Capuano can offset slightly some of the big mistakes. Capuano was certainly a risky case as surgeries had him out of baseball in 2008 and 2009 but he was effective mainly in a relief role with the Brewers late last season. There was not a great deal of interest in the 32-year old left-hander but he has found the opportunity to be a starter for the Mets and is making the most of it. In 19 games and 17 starts Capuano has eight wins and a 4.12 ERA. His strikeout numbers are solid with 87 in just over 102 innings and he has showed the control that made him an 18-game winner in 2005 and an All Star in 2006 for the Brewers. Capuano is attractive for the Mets to keep as they look to cut payroll but he also has pitched well enough to be an attractive acquisition to shore up the back of a rotation with a contender. A minimal risk one year deal for the Mets could turn into some prospects or at least enough solid starts to keep the Mets respectable through the fire sale.
Freddy Garcia, SP, New York Yankees (1 Year, $1.5 Million): There were great concerns for the Yankees entering the 2011 season with the starting rotation at the forefront of the fears. Seemingly washed up veterans Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia were not viewed as a comforting solution. So far the plan has worked and while former Yankees prospects Ian Kennedy and Jeff Karstens flourish, New York is doing just fine doing things its way. Garcia had made just 23 starts from 2007-2009 but last year finished 12-6 for the White Sox, albeit with a higher ERA. Garcia has delivered a 7-6 mark with a remarkable 3.13 ERA in 16 games this season and he has provided a stable force in the New York rotation. New Yorkís bullpen has been among the best in baseball and those numbers would certainly be hurt if solid starting pitcher was not helping limit the late relief innings. Whether Garcia holds up over the course of the season remains to be seen, but he has done his part and already earned his modest contract for 2011.
J.J. Putz, RP, Arizona Diamondbacks (2 Years, $10 Million): The cases of overpaid free agent closers that end up ineffective are far more common than the success stories but the Diamondbacks are a surprise contender in the NL West this season and Putz deserves a lot of credit. Arizona had one of the worst bullpens in baseball last season and it was certainly a goal to shore up that issue this season. That has been the biggest difference for the team as the pitching numbers are much more respectable and Putz has done his part with 21 saves and a 3.12 ERA. Putz has not been perfect but he has been very good and the positive reports from the Arizona clubhouse regarding his attitude and assistance with some of the younger pitchers on the staff can help to explain the turnaround for this franchise. After saving 40 games in 2007 with the Mariners, Putz has bounced around and been forced into a set-up role but he is proving this season that he is one of the proven reliable closers in the league, and well worth the price that the Diamondbacks paid.