Top 25 thriving free agents so far

NEW YORK -- Not all free agents got $240 million and have one home run. Or got $106 million and look ordinary. Or got $27 million and have already lost their job.

Sometimes, it even works out, right from the beginning.

The impression might be that free agency itself is a bust judging by all the newsprint used on the early travails of Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and others struggling to meet the expectations that come with mega deals.

To the contrary, many free agents are thriving. Some of them even look like bargains.

Here are 25 free agents from last winter who are not causing agita for their owners, being booed by their new fans or badly underperforming their career norms. As you'd suspect, the 25 are pretty well spread across the game.

But one team more than most others seems to be able to avoid the free-agent mistake while also finding the free-agent bargain, and that is the Tampa Bay Rays, who have three players on this list. Tampa's regime struck out with Pat Burrell on a two-year, $16-million contract a couple years back, but beyond that, they've had almost exclusively hits via free agency.

One advantage (if you can call it that) is that they can't afford to bomb; they just flat don't have the money. The other part is they have a good idea of what will work for them. "That speaks to (GM Andrew Friedman) and the scouting staff,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

It's Maddon, too, of course. There's less pressure playing in Tampa Bay, anyway, but Maddon fosters that feeling.

"It's a relaxed working environment. Guys are allowed to be themselves,'' said Luke Scott, who has seven home runs his first year in Tampa after signing as a free agent.

Maddon has a very small list of rules: 1) run hard to first, 2) pitchers need to work on their fielding, too, and 3) be on time.

Scott, who once got into some hot water for expressing political views that were right of right, recalled that Maddon only told him to "be yourself, be professional, and if you say something, think before you say whatever it is.'' Maddon stresses individualism. Rays people people believe Maddon has it exactly right; if you are comfortable you can perform better.

Scott surely appreciates it. "I have different opinions, and I'm entitled to them,'' he said. "Everyone's allowed to have their own personality here. They're not trying to have cookie cutter people.''

Maddon sees Scott's great traits. "He's one of the nicest guys, he cares and he's a great teammate,'' Maddon said.

New Rays closer Fernando Rodney, who's undergoing an amazing transformation in Tampa, where he has begun the year with nine out of nine saves and is throwing 97-98 mph, said the key for him is being allowed to pitch his way.

"With the Angels they tried to change my mechanics to throw more strikes,'' Rodney recalled. "Here they told me, you come here, we're not going to change anything.''

Yet, everything has changed. Rodney has gone from struggling set-up man to the closer having the best year in a difficult year so far for closers.

Here's a look at 25 free agents who are off to strong starts under new contracts in (mostly) new places. Disclaimer: it's early, of course. 

    1. Carlos Beltran (Cardinals OF, $26M, 2 years). He's made up for the loss of Albert so far at a fraction the cost. I thought this was a bargain when he signed it, and still do. He had eight home runs (seven more than you know who) going into Tuesday night, when he hit two more in the first two innings. Plus, there's his 17 walks and a .925 OPS.

    2. Rodney (Rays RP, $2M, 1 yr). As Rays closer, he has the same WHIP and ERA, 0.66.

    3. C.J. Wilson (Angels SP, $77.5M, 5 yrs). He seemed to get under the skin of some folks in Texas, but let's not forget he's hard working and talented. Overshadowed so far by Albert Pujols' struggles and Jered Weaver's greatness, but very good nonetheless at 4-2 with a 2.61 ERA.

    4. Yu Darvish (Rangers SP, $111.7M, 6 yrs). The big gamble seems to be paying off.  He's 4-1 with a 2.54 ERA amid enormous expectations and pressure.

    5. Josh Willingham (Twins OF, $21M, 3 yrs). The Oakland Mausoleum couldn't hold him, and neither can Target Field. A bright spot in a dreary start by Minnesota. Has five home runs and a remarkable .999 OPS.

    6. Bartolo Colon (A's SP, $2M, 1 yr). The noted strikethrower seems to be on his third life (at least), with his 3-2 record and 2.83 ERA.

    7. Rafael Furcal (Cardinals, $14M, 2 yrs). He was obviously hurt last year. This year he has a .905 OPS heading into Tuesday night, with 22 runs.

    8. Scott (Rays DH, $6M, 1 yr). His .551 slugging percentage is just what they were looking for from him. Johnny Damon seemed like the obvious play for them, but they sought more power and defense (though Scott's shoulder would allow him to play first base if pressed, he said he's still a little away from playing the outfield).

    9. Wei-Yin Chen (Orioles SP, $11.38M, 3 yrs). Seemed like a stretch at the time, but he's been among the most consistent pitchers in the league.

    10. Erik Bedard (Pirates SP, $4.5m, 1 yr). Has a 2-4 record only because the Pirates scored only three runs for him in the first four games (that's three total). Pittsburgh probably a good spot for him.

    11. Prince Fielder (Tigers 1B, $214M, 9 yrs). The huge money doesn't seem to have curtailed him. Very productive, though the homer total of four isn't quite what he's used to.

    12. Jonathan Papelbon (Phillies RP, $50M, 4 yrs). Mets rookie Jordany Valdespin got him, but before that he'd been just about perfect. Still is nine for nine in saves.

   13. Mark Buehrle, (Marlins SP, $58M, 4 yrs). Don't let that 2-4 record fool you. His 2.83 ERA and 1.09 are more indicative of how he's throwing.

   14. Carlos Pena (Rays 1B, $7.25M, 1 yr). He's back where he belongs and has 22 walks, five homers and an .809 OPS.

   15. Edwin Jackson (Nats SP, $11M, 1 yr). Even if he's doing the worst of the Nats' five starters, it's still pretty good. While he's just 101 with a 3.49 ERA he has 34 strikeouts and just nine walks.

   16. Yoenis Cespedes (A's OF, $36M, 4 yrs). Incredible raw talent provides plenty of reason to watch the A's, even before Manny Ramirez returns. Five home runs so far, some of them long ones.

   17. Luis Ayala (Orioles RP, $925,000, 1 yr). One of a few Orioles relievers having allowed no runs to date. Has logged 15 2/3 innings thus far.

   18. Joe Saunders (Diamondbacks, $6M, 1 yr). They didn't originally tender him a contract, perhaps saving a few pennies. But they look smart to have brought him back, as he's 2-2 with a 2.50 ERA thus far.

   19. Cody Ross (Red Sox OF, $3M, 1 yr). Has the right swing and attitude for Fenway Park and Boston. Has five homers and 21 RBI, and there's more where that came from.

   20. Jason Kubel (Diamondbacks OF, $14M, 2 yrs). As solid a hitter as they come; has .795 OPS.

   21. Jon Rauch (Mets RP, $3.25M, 1 yr). He's 3-1 with a 0.98 WHIP setting up again for Frank Francisco, who signed for $12 million over two years and is eight for nine in saves.

   22. John McDonald (Diamondbacks ss, $3M, 2 yrs) Great defender has .894 in early going. Needed with no timetable yet set for Stephen Drew.

   23. Raul Ibanez, (Yankees DH, $1.1M, 1 yr). Couldn't hit a lick for most of spring, but here he is with five homers and a .520 slugging percentage.

   24. Juan Pierre (Phillies OF, $800,000, 1 yr). Playing better than he did when he had a $55-million contract. In 83 at-bats, he's hitting .334  with just four strikeouts. Laynce Nix who signed for $2.5 million over two years, is hitting .311.

   25. Juan Cruz (Pirates, $1.25M, 1 yr). Another of the unscored-upon relievers, through 11 innings. Also underrated.

   (Oops dept.) 26. Chris Capuanao (Dodgers SP, $10M, 2 yrs). Cpauano should have made the original ist, somewhere in the top 10, too. as several people pointed out. Capuano has been nothing short of brilliant at 4-0 with a 2.21 ERA as his comeback is obviously omplete from past arm trouble. Very nice addition to a very solid staff.

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