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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

January 13, 2011 at 1:28 PM

Late free-agent signings can have major impact

huff.jpg

(Aubrey Huff celebrates the Giants’ World Series title with catcher Buster Posey. Photo by Associated Press).

One year ago today, the Giants made a free-agent signing that barely caused a ripple, even among their own fans. They inked Aubrey Huff, coming off a disappointing year with Baltimore and Detroit, to a one-year, $3-million deal, and declared that he was “in the mix” at first base.

Ten months later, the Giants were celebrating a World Series title, and Huff was credited with an integral role in it. He hit .290 with 26 homers and 86 RBIs in 157 games, helping to pump up what had been a feeble offense the previous season. Huff had an on-base percentage of .385 and an OPS of .891, and earned himself a new two-year, $22-million contract after the season.

The point is that even though teams are largely formed at this point of the offseason, every year there are a flurry of deals after the new year. Most turn out to be as insignificant as they appear to be on the surface. For instance, one year ago today, the Mariners also made a transaction, signing first baseman Brad Nelson to a contract. That acquisition didn’t have quite the impact Huff’s did.

But some players signed last January and February made major impacts. Here are a few examples:

Colby Lewis, signed by the Rangers on Jan. 19, won 12 games in the regular season and was 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in the postseason, including a victory in the pennant clincher over the Yankees.

Eric Hinske, signed by the Braves on Jan. 12, became an important role player in Atlanta, hitting .256 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs in 320 at-bats.

Jose Valverde, signed by the Tigers on Jan. 19, made the All-Star team and saved 26 games.

Adam LaRoche, signed Jan. 15 by the Diamondbacks, hit 25 homers and drove in 100 runs.

Brett Myers, signed Jan. 12 by the Astros, went 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA in 223 innings.

Vlad Guerrero, signed Jan. 11 by the Rangers, hit .300 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs.

R.A. Dickey, signed Jan. 5 by the Mets, went 11-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 26 starts.

Russ Branyan, signed Feb. 24, hit 25 homers in 109 games between Cleveland and Seattle.

Adrian Beltre, signed Jan. 7 by the Red Sox, hit .321 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs, and a .919 OPS.

Jon Garland, signed by the Padres on Jan. 26, won 14 games.

Joel Pineiro, signed by the Angels on Jan. 22, won 10 games despite missing nearly two months with an oblique injury.

Jose Contreras, signed Jan. 28 by the Philies, appeared in 67 games and was an important bullpen contributor.

Jonny Gomes, signed Feb. 22 by the Reds, hit 18 homers and drove in 86 runs.

Jim Thome, signed Feb. 5 by the Twins, had 25 homers and a 1.039 OPS in 108 games.

There are others, but you get the point: You can get some key pieces in the waning days before spring training. (Or not. The Mariners’ signings after Jan. 1 last year, besides Nelson, included Eric Byrnes, Ryan Garko, Jesus Colome, and Mike Sweeney, as well as the trade for Casey Kotchman on Jan. 7). Many teams count on free agents getting antsy this close to spring training, and perhaps lowering their asking price, leading to some bargains.

By most accounts, the M’s are pretty much tapped out on their budgeted payroll, so barring a trade to clear salary, I don’t expect anything more than perhaps some bargain-bin signings between now and spring training. But there are still some intriguing free agents who remain unsigned, including Rafael Soriano, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Bruce Chen, Brian Fuentes, Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, Nick Johnson, Justin Duchscherer, Ben Sheets, Russ Branyan, Grant Balfour, Vladimir Guerrero, Kevin Gregg, Troy Glaus, Jeff Francis, Jason Giambi, Scott Podsednik, and Chris Young.

No doubt a few players from the unsigned list will play a large role in their team’s success in 2011. The key is figuring out which ones.

(UPDATE: There are reports Thursday evening that Rafael Soriano has signed with the Yankees, and Kevin Gregg with the Orioles).

UPDATE 10:43 A.M. FRIDAY: Cross three more names off the list: Jim Thome has re-upped with the Twins, Jeff Francis agrees with the Royals, and Grant Balfour is heading to Oakland.

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