In baseball, a premium on smart shopping

This winter's free-agent class included a Prince (Fielder) who got a deal fit for a king and a reliever who came away looking like a pauper by major league salary standards.

Closer Ryan Madson nearly had a four-year, $44-million agreement with Philadelphia in November, but talks broke down and the Phillies signed Boston's Jonathan Papelbon for four years and $50 million.

The demand for closers drying up, Madson settled in January for a one-year, $8.25-million contract with Cincinnati.

A tough break for Madson? Sure, but a stroke of genius for the Reds, who got a key piece for a potential division contender at a cut-rate price.

Free agency isn't just about who throws the most money around, though it often seems that way for teams such as the Angels, Phillies, Red Sox, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, who snagged Fielder with a nine-year, $214-million deal.

It's about value, getting bang for the buck and, as Papelbon-Madson shows, the Phillies paid a premium in dollars and years for an asset that doesn't look like much of an upgrade over what the Reds got on the cheap.

With that in mind, here's a look by position at the best and worst free-agent values of the off-season:

First base

Best: Carlos Pena, one year, $7.25 million, Tampa Bay.

No team stretches a $60-million budget like the Rays, who contend in the American League East despite puny payrolls. In Pena, 33, they have another low-cost, high-impact player.

Pena had a .357 on-base percentage and 28 home runs for the Chicago Cubs in 2011 after averaging 36 homers with a .368 OBP in four seasons at Tampa Bay. He's also a Gold Glove-caliber defender and a strong clubhouse presence.

Worst: Albert Pujols, 10 years, $240 million, Angels.

This contract will look great if the slugger leads the Angels to a World Series or two in the next five years. If not, it could become a financial albatross.

Pujols, 32, will make $12 million this season. But starting in 2017, when he'll be 37, he'll make salaries of $26 million, $27 million, $28 million, $29 million and $30 million in the final five years of the deal. Only one player in 40 years has had multiple MVP-caliber seasons after he was 37.

His name: Bonds. Barry Bonds.

Second base

Best: Aaron Hill, two years, $11 million, Arizona.

Hill, 30, slumped in 2011, hitting .246 with eight homers and 61 runs batted in, but he flourished after an August trade from Toronto to Arizona, hitting .315 with a .386 OBP. Hill has freakish power — 62 homers, 176 runs batted in over the 2009 and 2010 seasons — for a second baseman.

Worst: Mark Ellis, two years, $8.75 million, Dodgers.

Ellis, 34, is an excellent defender and clubhouse leader, but shouldn't a little offense be a standard feature with this sticker price?

Ellis hit .248 with a .288 OBP, seven homers and 41 RBIs for Oakland and Colorado last season, and his 1.3 wins above replacement (WAR) rating was third-lowest among major league second basemen.


Best: Jimmy Rollins, three years, $38 million, Philadelphia.

The length of this deal made it attractive to the Phillies to retain their sparkplug, who was looking for a five-year contract.

Rollins, 33, has tailed off since his MVP season of 2007, when he hit .296 with 30 homers, 20 triples, 139 runs and 94 RBIs, but he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 with a .338 OBP, 16 homers and 87 runs in 2011.

Worst: Jose Reyes, six years, $106 million, Miami.

The dynamic 28-year-old switch hitter has game-changing speed and had a .383 OBP to go with his NL-leading .337 average in 2011. But who pays $17.6 million a year for a leadoff guy?

The former Mets star was limited to 295 games by ankle, calf, hamstring and rib-cage injuries the last three seasons, and he's forcing the Marlins to move their best — and most temperamental — player, Hanley Ramirez, from shortstop to third.

Third base

Best: Aramis Ramirez, three years, $36 million, Milwaukee.

The knock on Ramirez, 33, is he has bad body language and occasionally takes defensive plays off, but he has consistently put up excellent power numbers and will ease the loss of Fielder.

Ramirez has a career .284 average, .342 OBP and .500 slugging percentage, has averaged 24 homers and 86 RBIs in 13 seasons and is a .299 hitter with runners in scoring position.

Worst: Wilson Betemit, two years, $3.25 million, Baltimore.

It's the years, not the money, that make this deal a head-scratcher.

Why would a rebuilding team give a mediocre-hitting, poor-fielding, 30-year-old journeyman with little power a two-year deal — with a $3.2-million, third-year vesting option, no less?


Best: Ramon Hernandez, two years, $6.4 million, Colorado.

Hernandez is 35 with heavy mileage on his knees, and he's reached double figures in homers just twice in five seasons. But he is better suited to tutor 22-year-old Wilin Rosario, the Rockies' top position-playing prospect, than Chris Iannetta.

Iannetta, 28, may not have been as eager to take Rosario, who would be pushing for his job, under his wing. Iannetta was traded to the Angels for promising pitcher Tyler Chatwood.

Worst: Rod Barajas, one year, $4 million, Pittsburgh.

Barajas, 36, hits for power despite a .238 career average, but the Pirates say he will catch only 80-90 games. And $4 million is a hefty sum for a small-market club to pay a part-time catcher at the end of his career.

Left field

Best: Josh Willingham, three years, $21 million, Minnesota.

The Twins hit an American League-low 103 homers last season, and Willingham had 29 homers, 98 RBIs and a .332 OBP for Oakland.

Willingham, 33, has hit 20 homers or more in four of six years and has drawn so many walks that his career OBP (.361) is 99 points higher than his average (.262).

Worst: Jason Kubel, two years, $15 million, Arizona.

Kubel, 29, has 25-homer potential, but he is a below-average defender and his signing will push Gerardo Parra, a promising 24-year-old who had a .357 OBP and won a Gold Glove last season, out of the starting lineup.

Center field

Best: Grady Sizemore, one year, $5 million, Cleveland.

Injuries limited Sizemore, 29, to 104 games the past two seasons, and two knee surgeries will prevent the two-time Gold Glove winner from playing his usual 160 games.

But if Sizemore is healthy — he recently resumed baseball activities — he brings the potential for 25 homers, 80 RBIs and superb defense.

Worst: Coco Crisp, two years, $14 million, Oakland.

The A's can't afford to keep productive outfielders David DeJesus and Willingham, they trade star closer Andrew Bailey and superb starter Gio Gonzalez because of their rising price tags, and they give $14 million to a 32-year-old leadoff hitter with no power?

That isn't Moneyball. It's Mad Money.

Right field

Best: David DeJesus, two years, $10 million, Chicago Cubs.

The 31-year-old struggled in 2011 after being traded from Kansas City to Oakland, hitting .240 with a .323 OBP and .376 slugging percentage.

But he's one season removed from hitting .318 with a .384 OBP and slugging .443. DeJesus has 15-homer, 70-RBI potential and is an excellent defender.

Worst: Michael Cuddyer, three years, $31.5 million, Colorado.

The Rockies will give Cuddyer, 32, $10.5 million more over three years than the Twins will give Willingham, and Cuddyer (.284, 20 homers, 70 RBIs) didn't have nearly as good a 2011 as Willingham.

Starting pitcher

Best: Wei-Yin Chen, three years, $9.3 million, Baltimore.

A sleeper pick, the Taiwanese left-hander has a 93-mph fastball, a hard, slurve-like breaking ball and the potential to be a No. 3 starter. Chen, 26, pitched in Japan last season, with a 2.68 earned run average in 1642/3 innings for the Chunichi Dragons.

Worst: Yu Darvish, six years, $56 million in salary plus a $51.7-million posting fee, Texas.

The lanky right-hander has ace-like potential, but the Rangers are sinking $108 million — the most spent on a free-agent right-hander — into a player who has never thrown a big league pitch.

Some think Darvish, 25, who played most of his games in domed stadiums, will struggle to adjust to sweltering Texas summers.

Relief pitcher

Best: Madson, one year, $8.25 million, Cincinnati.

In his first season as a closer, the 31-year-old had a 4-2 record with a 2.37 ERA and 32 saves in 602/3 innings. He struck out 62, walked 16, gave up two homers and had a 1.154 WHIP (walks plus hits/innings pitched).

Worst: Papelbon, four years, $50 million, Philadelphia.

He has six years of closing experience, but his 2011 season (4-1, 2.94 ERA, 31 saves, 0.933 WHIP, 87 strikeouts, 10 walks, three homers in 641/3 innings) was only slightly better than Madson's. And Papelbon, 31, is one year removed from a career-worst 5-7 record, 3.90 ERA and 1.269 WHIP.

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