At the start of every offseason, we gather around the ye ole table and try to predict where the top free agents are going to end up. We spend hours trying to figure out where the likes of Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira will end up.
And while signing superstars like the players mentioned above is important and could help a team improve the following year, a GM's ability to sign under-the-radar player or "low-risk, high-reward" players is just as important.
Every offseason, dozens of former stars and castoffs get signed by teams to low-risk deals in hopes that they have one last quality season in them. Some of these deals work like David Ortiz in 2003, but most of them don't like John Smoltz in 2009 or Carlos Silva this offseason.
If a low-risk, high-reward player does work out, they could provide just as big of a boost to a team as a big time super star does. Let's take a look at the top-five free agent bargains from this season:
5. Erik Bedard (1.4 WAR: one-year, $1 MM)
We covered Bedard last week in our "What's His Trade Market?" series and he has been a nice story for the Seattle Mariners in 2011. Bedard currently has a 3.00 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 3.25 xFIP, and is striking out a very nice 8.5 batters per nine.
Even if the Mariners do trade Bedard, they have certainly gotten their money out of him this season. He has performed like a $6.5 MM player this season. Not bad for the one-year, $1 MM flier the Mariners took on him this winter.
4. Ryan Vogelsong (1.4 WAR: Minor League Contract)
If you had "Ryan Vogelsong 2011 All Star" at the beginning of the season, then well, you are lying through your teeth. Coming into this season, Vogelsong had a career ERA of 5.97 and hadn't pitched in a major league game since 2006.
The San Francisco Giants signed Vogelsong to a minor league contract in January and to say he has been a surprise is the understatement of the decade. He has an unthinkable 2.13 ERA and his striking out a career high 7.3 batters per nine and walking a career low 2.9 batters per nine in 84 innings for the Giants this season.
3. Bartolo Colon (1.9 WAR: one-year, 900K)
I didn't think it was humanly possible that Colon had anything left in the tank, but the reality is he has been one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2011. Using a fastball that is back up over 91 mph on average, Colon is resembling the pitcher that won the 2005 AL Cy Young award.
As a matter of fact, Colon's peripherals are better this season than they were back in 2005. His K% is higher (8.3 compared to 6.4), GB% is higher (46.6 compared to 41.2), and his xFIP is significantly lower (2.96 compared to 3.91).
The Yankees have certainly gotten their money's worth out of Colon. He's given the Yankees the value of an $8.5 MM player in 2011.
2. Brandon McCarthy (2.0 WAR: one-year, 1MM)
McCarthy was once a top prospect with the Chicago White Sox, but things never panned out. He was traded to the Texas Rangers for John Danks (advantage White Sox) and didn't pan out in Texas either.
McCarthy signed a one-year, 1MM deal with the Oakland A's this winter in the hopes he could win the No. 5 spot in their rotation. Not only has McCarthy pitched better than a No. 5 starter this season, you could make the argument McCarthy has been the best A's pitcher not named Gio Gonzalez.
The 27-year-old (seems like he should be older) has a 3.39 ERA, 3.46 xFIP, and an impressive 48.1% GB% in 63.2 IP. McCarthy did spend some time on the DL, but that is par for the course wit him.
His 2.0 WAR is better than Jon Lester, Ricky Romero, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Yovanni Gallardo.
1. Philip Humber (2.1 WAR: one-year, 500K)
Drafted third overall in the 2004 June Draft by the New York Mets (that draft did produce Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver, but overall it was a terrible draft), Humber was supposed to lead the Mets' rotation for the next 10 years. That never materialized and the Mets lost patience with Humber. .
He was a throw in in the Johan Santana trade and Humber didn't work out in Minnesota either. Humber bounced around with the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A's before landing in Chicago. And in a rotation filled with big names like Jake Peavy, Mark Buehrle, and Danks, it's Humber who might have been the White Sox best pitcher in the first half of the season.
Humber is rocking it for the White Sox with a 2.69 ERA in 103.2 IP in 2011. He's rediscovered his slider (thrown 16.7% of the time), which has been a plus-pitch for him this season (3.7 wSL).
Next offseason, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and other big name free agents will get most of the headlines. But there will be a crop of low-risk, high-reward signings that won't make the National headlines, but will in some cases outproduce those big name players.