The best player no one talks about is now the best free agent nobody is talking about.
If you look over on ESPN.com, probably the best source for different angles of online commentary, they seem to have linked to Steve Phillips as their definitive list of the top free agents this offseason, he's ranked Paul Konerko first, Johnny Damon second, Rafael Furcal third, Brian Giles is ranked ninth. The only other hitter on his top ten was Hideki Matsui, who signed a four year extension with the Yankees yesterday.
Let's look at the past four years of the top available free agents, by VORP.
Konerko: 43.3, 3.2, 48.1, 56.4
Damon: 49.6, 28.4, 51.0, 49.2
Furcal: 24.2, 57.6, 38.0, 49.4
Giles: 85.4, 55.5, 50.8, 65.1
Furcal is a bit of a different situation from the other three. As a middle infielder, he's going to be on the scale that got Edgar Reneria and Orlando Cabrera overpayed last offseason. Furcal is a better player than either of these two, and the number of very good shortstops out there is always lacking. When you consider that Furcal has also been a very good defensive shortstop and is only 27 years old, he's still a pretty good buy, if not a discount, at the 4 years, $40M he's going to get.
Johnny Damon has been a good player for a number of years now, but rarely has he been a great one. He was playing some of the best baseball of his career the first half of 2005, coming off the World Series win, but the last two months were a struggle, as his shoulder was clearly bothering him both at bat and in the field. As a defensive outfielder, Damon has always been good, but his range has never among the elite group with Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Jim Edmonds, Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron. His arm is bad, and the shoulder problem only seemed to make it worse, exemplified by the night in August where Carl Crawford tagged up and scored from second base on a deep fly ball to center.
Damon's all out style of play is likely to continue to result in the nagging injuries that have plagued him throughout his career. He just turned 32 this past week, and is reportedly looking for a five year contract, that will take him until he is 36. It's pretty reasonable to assume that Damon won't be quite so fleet five years from now, and that his range in centerfield will look an awful lot like the Bernie Williams of the past three years. Damon's shoulder problems aren't going to make his throwing arm any better, either. With his limited power, he doesn't make the kind of player that would be a plus corner outfielder, the was Ken Griffey can, or Eric Davis was when he was healthy. He's more likely to follow the career path of Williams, or even Andy Van Slyke, who fell from quality player to out of the league before anybody really noticed. There's a good chance that Damon will be a quality player for the next two, maybe three years, but beyond that, I wouldn't recommend it.
Paul Konerko was the darling of this season, the offensive leader of the World Series Champions. Indeed, the White Sox success this year had a lot more to do with the bat of Konerko, and a couple of their other power hitters and their starting pitching than it did with any of the "small ball" that was so popular to talk about in the playoffs.
Signing big, unathletic, power hitting first basemen has taken a bit of heat over the last few years because of guys like Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, who it seems don't tend to age very well. In Konerko's case, this is compouned by the fact that all four of them were MUCH better hitters at age 29, all legitimate MVP candidates. Konerko's improved plate discipline is a positive sign, but he's not really the pure stud hitter that he's being made out to be. With the market bare for power hitters, and some of the highest spending teams, the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Angels, all in the market for a first baseman, Konerko figures to get a ton of money this offseason, possibly as much as 5 years, $70M+. That's a ton of money to give to a guy who isn't a stud hitter, and even if he stays healthy isn't a great bet to be putting up 40 homers for too many more years. For a team looking to win next year, he's a good guy to add, especially on a team with a weakness at first base. Just don't be surprised if that team is paying for it down the road.
Which brings us to our last free agent, and one that might actually be a bargain for some team. Brian Giles doesn't seem to get talked about much as a top tier free agent, but he should--he's the best player available, and any team with World Series aspirations should be looking to sign him. At 35 years old on opening day, Giles is up there in age, which is probably what is keeping him off the radar. However, Giles is athletic enough that, barring a freak injury, he could still be a very effective hitter for the next five years. Giles has had one season with an OBP under .400 since he became a full-timer, along with only one season where he's hit below .298. He's a very similar hitter to Edgar Martinez--great plate disciple, power to all fields. Edgar was a top hitter until he was 40 years old. Giles gives the added benefit of being a very good defensive corner outfielder, and someone who can even spot in center field from time to time. Take him out of Petco Park, and his power numbers are likely to spike again, as well. Chances are he won't hit the upper 30's, but I'd be surprised if he didn't climb to the 25-32 homer range in a more neutral park.
Playing in Pittsburgh and San Diego, not too many people seem to have noticed that Giles has been one of the most productive players of the past eight years. He got too late a start to his career to put up Hall of Fame type numbers, but at his peak, he was that level of player. At this point, he's not a game-changing star, but as a #2 hitter in a lineup with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen, he may very well score 140 runs. Much of the discussion this offseason has Giles signing with the Cardinals. If he does, they're my pick for the World Series next year, regardless of what any other team does this offseason. And when you consider that whoever signs him may be able to get him at less than $10M per year, he may also be one of the few big name free agent bargains of all-time.