It's time to delve into the free-agent list. There's a ton of them out there, although not too many superstars. There are just so many question marks entering this offseason -- Bagwell's shoulder, Clemens' back and hamstring -- it's impossible to foresee what position we'll be in when it comes to the bidding.
This club has shown in recent years it is able to pull off a big deal and sign a premier free agent (Kent, Pettitte), but Purpura has not. He's more of a player development guy, which can hurt his effectiveness when it comes to signing a big name. For instance, he might hesitate in signing a player like Jose Cruz Jr. or Jacque Jones if it means Chris Burke's playing time will be cut. Anyway, I hope that's not the case.
This club has definite needs to pursue in the offseason: Offense, a utility infielder, another starter and a catcher. Oh, and an extra reliever might not hurt. I'll go into greater detail about each category later on, but here's the overview:
1) Offense. I expect similar numbers from Berkman and Ensberg, and Lane and Taveras should be expected to make slight improvements in their respective purposes (hitting home runs and getting on base). Biggio could drop off or he could hit 30 home runs... you never know. The big question mark is Bagwell. If he's able to return, he'll fill a key hole in the lineup. But if he can't, Purpura must make a deal to bring in another big bat, preferably left-handed. There are several outfielders available who could either replace Chris Burke entirely or enter into a platoon situation. Berkman could then shift full-time to first base.
Suggestions: Brian Giles, Jacque Jones, Jose Cruz Jr.
Other options: Ben Grieve, Richard Hidalgo, Todd Hollandsworth, Reggie Sanders, Rondell White
2) An infield utility man. Vizcaino and Palmeiro are out. Palmeiro was surprisingly useful this year, but really dropped off in the second half (.267 / .322 / .371). He is able to put the bat on the ball consistently and rarely strikes out, but at 36, he'll only get worse. And with Lane, Taveras, Berkman/Burke and Scott in the outfield already, he won't be necessary. Thanks for the good ABs, OP.
Viz is gone too. And about time. The scary thing is, Viz's two-run single against Jenks in Game Two might actually have bought him another year in baseball. Let's just hope it's not with us. So let's see: we have Lamb/Berkman, Biggio, Everett and Ensberg, plus Bruntlett, Burke and maybe Bagwell. I hate to say it, but we need a middle infielder with -- you guessed it -- veteran presence. Burke will no doubt be starting some games in left field, and Bruntlett is really there for defense. So we'd need someone to occasionally spell Everett and Biggio and have decent numbers at the plate.
Suggestions: Miguel Cairo, Damion Easley
Other options: Tony Graffanino, D'Angelo Jimenez
3) Another starter. I don't expect Clemens to return, nor should Purpura. He was phenomenal this year. Just unreal. But he got us to the World Series and for that, he can add "franchise savior" to his list of accomplishments. But now he's hurr, he's tired and he's 43. Oh yeah, and he'd command a gajillion-dollar salary. Thanks Rocket for a great ride, but your presence is needed in other places, like coaching your kid to be the next Lance Berkman.
Now then, as I've said before, we don't need a premier free agent starter, nor can we afford one. So forget A.J. Burnett and Jeff Weaver and Kevin Millwood (Although it's hard to believe those are the "premier" starters were exactly one game over .500 in 2005). We need someone who can throw 200 innings with an ERA under 4.50, and who can do so for relatively cheap... no more than $5 million a year. I know that's asking a lot. But it's possible. Another approach would be to sign a player who's been injured but has potential for greatness... someone like Padilla or Armas.
Suggestions: Tony Armas Jr., Paul Byrd, Jason Johnson, Vicente Padilla, Brett Tomko
Other options: Pedro Astacio, Scott Elarton, Matt Morris, Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers, Jarrod Washburn
4) A catcher. I don't know what to make of Brad Ausmus. I mean, I love the guy, and so does everyone else, but he's just getting old. While he put together an impressive campaign in erms of OBP (.350), his power numbers continued to sink. On the other hand, the potential free agents are somewhat overrated. The career OPS of Ramon Hernandez (.742) and Benjie Molina (.782) are not impressive enough to offer $8 million per year, which is what they'll make. Robert Fick can catch and hit well enough, but his bad boy attitude is enough to keep him off the club. Jason LaRue is NOT a free agent, although the Reds might be willing to trade him at the deadline... Prospect Humberto Quintero is not ready.
I honestly don't know what to make of this situation. After Bagwell and Clemens, it's our biggest problem entering the offseason. I'd really like to trade for Johnny Estrada.
Suggestions: Robert Fick, Ramon Hernandez, Benjie Molina
5) A reliever: In my dream world, we'd trade Dan Wheeler to get Johnny Estrada. Wheeler's been phenomenal, but Qualls is ready to step up and the Braves need a bullpen. Mike Gallo was okay as our lone lefty, but there are some better ones out there. Scott Eyre would really please me.
Suggestions: Joey Eischen, Cal Eldred, Alan Embree, Scott Eyre, Chad Fox, Todd Jones, Paul Quantrill, Mike Remlinger, Al Reyes, Ricardo Rincon, Felix Rodriguez, Julian Tavarez, Ugueth Urbina, Tim Worrell
Well, that's it for now. Tomorrow: an in-depth look at free-agent pitchers, and why Vincent Padilla and Jason Johnson would be perfect fits at the Juicebox.