If you’re looking for a big bat this offseason, the free agent market has plenty to offer. There’s Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder at the top of the food chain, Carlos Beltran and Aramis Ramirez a notch below that, and Josh Willingham and Carlos Pena a notch below that. Aside from Pujols, no player on the free agent market has accomplished more in his career than Vladimir Guerrero, the once great slugger who has since become an afterthought.
The Orioles paid Guerrero $8 million last season, making him part of their campaign to add legitimacy to the roster along with the likes of Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds. Vlad rewarded them with 590 replacement-level plate appearances at DH, clubbing 13 homers as part of his 95 wRC+. Never fond of ball four, his walk rate fell to a unfathomably low 2.9% (that includes his three intentional walks), and his ability to hit the ball in the air continued to deteriorate…
Although he hit 29 homers with Texas just one season ago, it’s been three years since Vlad topped a .200 ISO. After a scorching hot first half with the Rangers last year (.330/.374/.566 with 18 homers in the team’s first 81 games), he crashed back to Earth down the stretch (.270/.315/.426 with 11 homers in the team’s final 81 games) and has been about as offensively potent over the last year-and-a-half (.283/.316/.420) as Delmon Young (.280/.315/.434).
Despite his obviously declining skills, Vlad wants to keep playing. “I feel I can play two or three more years,” he said to The Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connolly back in September. “And I just need to work a little harder this offseason when I go to the Dominican and see what happens.”
It’s great that Guerrero still believes in his ability, but unfortunately for him it takes two to tango. Is there a club willing to carry him on their roster next season, nevermind two or three years down the road? He has to be considered nothing more than a DH at this point (the last time he tried to play the outfield, this and this happened), and his offense obviously isn’t what it once was. His name carries more weight than his recent production and current physical skills. Looking around the league, it’s close to impossible to find a logical fit…
Athletics – Billy Beane’s club has been doing the “veteran near the end of the line as DH” thing for a few years now, with Hideki Matsui, Frank Thomas, and Mike Piazza spending time in Oakland over the last few seasons. Despite being comically thin in the outfield, the A’s already have a stable of DH candidates in Kila Ka’aihue, Brandon Allen, Daric Barton, and Chris Carter.
Blue Jays – The Jays are reportedly in the mix for David Ortiz, who would give them some serious left-handed thump to go along with Jose Bautista. They’re willing to add a DH, so we’ll have to put Toronto in the maybe pile for now.
Mariners – In perpetual need of offense, the M’s are kicking the tires on Fielder and would reportedly make Justin Smoak available in a trade if they land him. Mike Carp had a nice finish to the season (.341 wOBA) and is an obvious DH candidate, but they could also stick him in left to accommodate another bat. Safeco Field smothers right-handed hitters though, so Vlad’s not a great fit.
Orioles – They know him, he knows them. The only problem is that Nolan Reimold finished well this past season (.341 wOBA) and Luke Scott will be back following shoulder surgery. Those two need someplace to play. Plus, you know, Reynolds is a DH masquerading as a corner infielder.
Rangers – They could make this work if they really wanted to. Mitch Moreland was pretty terrible over the last two-thirds of the season (.226/.279/.347 after June 5th) and Mike Napoli showed that he’s not a total liability behind the dish, so they would just have to put Michael Young at first, Napoli behind the plate full-time, Moreland on the bench, and Guerrero at DH. Workable, but still unlikely.
Rays – Tampa hasn’t had much luck with free agent DHs over the last few years, starting with the Pat Burrell mess and continuing with the Manny Ramirez saga in 2011. Johnny Damon filled in admirably (.328 wOBA) this summer and they do have an opening, but we know they prefer players that provide some flexibility. Vlad would have to come real cheap, and even then it’s probably still a long shot.
Twins – Minnesota makes an appearance only because they need offense in the worst way, but it sounds like Ryan Doumit and Joe Mauer are going to share DH duties for the majority of the season. Justin Morneau might also see time there.
The other seven AL clubs are either set at DH (Tigers, White Sox, Royals, Indians) or have obvious in-house candidates (Yankees, Angels). The smart money is on the Red Sox retaining Ortiz, so they’re basically out of the mix as well.
Vlad’s job prospects aren’t promising right now, but that was the same thing we said last winter. He managed to find not just a job, but one that paid handsomely. It only takes one team, one GM to make it happen. Guerrero will be 37 in February, and right now it sure looks like the sun is getting ready to set on one of the most well-rounded and dominant careers in the game’s history.