Back in the days of 56K modems and Doug Creek, there was a martyr for the cause. The cause was the idea of "free talent", and the martyr was Roberto Petagine. Year after year he'd crush AAA, get about 60 at-bats in the majors, and then shuffle off to another team to repeat the process. Any team with a hole at first was kindly directed by internet nerds to pick up Roberto Petagine, but it never happened. Petagine went to Japan, became a star, and the rest was history. "History" in this case is loosely defined as "nerds feeling smug about themselves". I was proud to be one of those nerds.
That was a long time ago, though. It isn't correct to say that free talent doesn't exist anymore; the Tigers are in the World Series thanks to a heaping help of it, and bullpen help is always floating around the surface of the waiver wire. But it is certainly less likely that a player worth starting is just going to be hanging out in the open. Two names always seem to come up in these discussions, and have here over the past week: Hee Seop Choi and Carlos Pena. It makes sense; both used to be top prospects, and both have been neatly tucked into bassinets and left on the baseball world's doorstep. Choi's last impressive year was 2004, when he hit .270/.388/.495 with the Marlins (good) and .161/.289/.242 after being traded to the Dodgers (even better). But he hit .207/.347/.361 in AAA last season. Ouch. When he was with the Dodgers, he looked like a cricket player taking some swings in batting practice for a photo op. The recent results don't seem to indicate he's discovered the secret of hitting either. I'd sign him for the Fresno, but would rather have Damon Minor.
Pena has a .243/.331/.459 career line in the majors, and hit .278/.383/.490 in AAA last season. That's swell, but it was still AAA. For some perspective, consider that Lance Niekro hit .319/.349/.660 after being demoted this year. He isn't the punchline to a scout's bathroom graffiti like Choi, and his defense is supposed to be good. If every other hole on the team was filled with an offensive-minded player, Pena would be a good risk to take. If the lineup is filled with Pedro Feliz, Kevin Frandsen, Darin Erstad, and John Mabry, the team is doomed anyway, so taking a chance on a former prospect like Pena would make sense
A flier on both, a pox for all.
The Internet Baseball Nerd Reality Act of 2003 was passed by the good folks in our House of Representatives, making it illegal to bring up Jack Cust as the answer to any lineup question for any team above AA. I supported the law at the time, but am now starting to wonder if it isn't time to explore the idea again. After cratering in Baltimore at age 25, he bounced back to hit .293/.467/.549 in AAA last year. That's a .467 OBP. Zoinks. When he tries to play defense, he looks like the Tin Man trying to put the Cowardly Lion in a headlock, and it first it's funny, but then the headlock goes on for a little too long, and the Cowardly Lion's all like, "Dude, okay, that's enough," but the Tin Man just keeps going, and he's laughing a weird little laugh, and then the Cowardly Lion starts to spaz out and finally break free, and he's all, "Dude, what's your problem?". I don't know what that means, but that's how Cust plays defense, and it isn't good. If Niekro were on the roster, he could be a defensive replacement in the late innings, though, and it might be worth it to see if Cust can approach a .400 OBP in the majors. Of all of the free talent out there, Cust makes the most sense to acquire, even if only to stash in AAA.
The big issue is that when you start talking about players like Choi, Pena, or Cust, there is a very real downside. If you're a team with a top-ten payroll, and you go into the season with a $.5M player who has been derided by scouts (who have the stats to back them up), that's a recipe for a serious fan backlash. If the Giants bring in Carlos Lee for left and Alfonso Soriano for second, a little dumpster-diving will be tolerated. But that's not going to happen, and that's not going to happen. It's this mindset that leads to guys like Sean Casey coming around, it is certainly understandable. Part of it is that fans want players they've heard of, which is a pain in the ass at times, but the more important part is that this batch of minor league free agents and waiver bait isn't very good at all.
You can look for yourself. Nothing. Former prospects like Tagg Bozied and Ken Harvey are the most interesting of the lot, unless you have a hankering for AAAA talent like Kevin Barker and Graham Koonce. There are a few players on the list worth stashing on the end of a deep bench or putting at the end of a bullpen. Nothing you would want to see in a starting lineup. Give me Craig Wilson on a two-year deal, unless the Mariners want to donate Richie Sexson or the Phillies want to exchange bad contracts and give Pat Burrell to the Giants. I'd even be satisfied with the safety of a Sean Casey deal over the risk/reward imbalance of a Choi or Pena. Free talent is dead. Long live free talent. Roberto Petagine has left and gone away. Hey hey hey.