Only six free agents this winter have signed contracts with an average annual value of $10 million or more. One of them didn't even appear in a game in 2009.
Congratulations, Ben Sheets. You might be the luckiest member of this free-agent class.
Not that Sheets isn't worthy, as reports during his Jan. 19 throwing session for potential suitors were positive, noting he repeatedly hit 92 mph on the radar gun, only a couple of ticks behind his pre-surgery velocity. He apparently sold the Oakland Athletics on his skills being every bit what they were before February 2009 surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow, or at least close enough to be worth a one-year, $10 million deal with $2 million in incentives.
But should fantasy owners follow suit?
Fortunately, we don't have to pay those kinds of prices, and chances are Sheets will be a late-round pick in mixed leagues (and a mid-to-late rounder in AL-only formats) even in the best-case scenario leading up to your draft. While there are no guarantees with his health, the Athletics were convinced he'll be fine for the start of the season, and with continued progress once camps open his value can only rise in the coming weeks. Sheets will be a key name to track during the exhibition season, his velocity and command most important in those contests. As ESPN Stats & Information points out, he has the third-highest strikeout-to-walk ratio among active starters with 1,000-plus career innings (3.85).
As for the league switch, moving to Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, with its spacious foul territory, should ease Sheets' transition. ESPN Stats & Information also offers this nugget: Among active pitchers with 15-plus starts who have never pitched in the American League, Sheets' 3.55 ERA versus AL teams is second best behind only Roy Oswalt. Sheets, assuming he's even 90 percent the Sheets of old, might yet maintain an ERA under four with a low WHIP. He might be one of the riskier low-end pitchers, but also one whose upside might be top-25 starter status.
(For more analysis on the Sheets deal, check out the KaraBlog.)
Now a look at some of the other moves of the past week:
Minnesota Twins sign Jim Thome: A veteran of the American League Central, Thome returns to the division he knows and loves, with his third of the five teams in that grouping. Who's next, the Detroit Tigers? Nice to see Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and general manager Mike Smith already contradicting each other in the Minneapolis/St. Paul papers; while Smith says Thome will be a bat off the bench, Gardenhire plans to use the slugger more often than that. Gardenhire's is the more sensible plan, as even in his advancing years, Thome has .255 BA/.377 OBP/.497 SLG numbers versus right-handers the past two seasons combined. He should start against most -- if not all -- righties, with Jason Kubel shifting to left field in place of Delmon Young, a .283/.317/.396 hitter versus that side. And though such a strategy might seem like a hit to the defense, keep in mind Young's metrics in left field were awful in 2009. He ranked dead last in baseball among left fielders in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), per FanGraphs, and among those with 800-plus innings at the position he had the third-worst fielding percentage (.973). Don't sweat the impact on the Twins' pitchers, because it might hardly be noticeable.
As for Thome himself, if you can, wait to ensure that Gardenhire's is the true plan come spring training. The fantasy values of Thome and Young, therefore, should reside on a sliding scale; as Thome's rises, Young's drops and vice versa, but both are probably now AL-only targets, but not in mixed leagues.
(For more analysis on the Thome deal, check out the KaraBlog.)
Chicago Cubs sign Xavier Nady: The Cubs and Nady agreed Tuesday on a one-year, $3.3 million contract plus incentives, according to ESPNChicago.com, albeit pending a physical. That's no small step in this instance, as Nady is coming off the second Tommy John surgery of his career, conducted last July, and is no guarantee to make it back to the baseball diamond, let alone to do so by Opening Day 2010. The chances are better he'll be fine than not, and if so, he'll serve valuable depth for a Cubs team that has an aging, injury-prone left fielder in Alfonso Soriano and a platoon-limited right fielder in Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome was a .164/.277/.255 hitter versus left-handers in 2009, but did you know that Soriano was actually no better against that side, batting .184/.283/.286? Expect Nady to play against practically every southpaw, mostly at Fukudome's expense, but such an arrangement might be best for all three corner outfielders. It'll keep them all most productive in batting average, facing their stronger platoon sides, and even provide Nady NL-only value if he's limited in at-bats as a fourth outfielder.
San Diego Padres sign Jon Garland: Amazingly, Garland might have found himself the perfect situation. A pitcher who doesn't overpower opposing batters, the right-hander moves to Petco Park, baseball's most pitching-friendly venue and one perfectly designed to take advantage of his skill set. Consider that among active pitchers with 1,500-plus career innings, Garland ranks dead last in strikeouts per nine (4.72) and swing-and-miss percentage (14.8), according to ESPN Stats & Information. He'll benefit from Petco's spacious outfields, especially in right field, and might for the first time since 2005 have a chance at a sub-four ERA. To that end, he had a 2.72 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in six starts last season following his trade to the Dodgers, who call another pitching-friendly ballpark their home. Small sample size yes, but it demonstrates that he might yet be an underrated late-round target in NL-only leagues.
New York Yankees sign Randy Winn: Perhaps Brett Gardner's competition for a starting job in left or center field, depending on which position Curtis Granderson claims, Winn doesn't seem to fit as a straight platoon mate for the speedster, which had seemed to be the Yankees' target for the past month. A .289/.348/.417 lifetime hitter versus lefties, Winn's numbers in that department sagged to .158/.184/.200 and he'll turn 36 in June, meaning he's not at an age where a significant turnaround in performance should be expected. Talk that the Yankees were still looking at Marcus Thames and Rocco Baldelli, too, hint that Winn might be a straight-up combatant for Gardner, hurting Gardner's fantasy value because Winn will make more money and has a track record. If Winn's the victor and a platoon mate for a Baldelli type, he might help AL-only owners with at least a league-average batting average, and he's an efficient base stealer, succeeding on 88.9 percent of attempts the past three seasons. But the downside is great, and if there's any frustration for fantasy owners, it's that Gardner's appeal takes a noticeable hit.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.