With players having reported to spring training, teams are pretty much set as far as the major pieces of their rosters. Sure, there's jockeying for starting jobs, along with guys vying for spots on the back ends of benches and bullpens. But there's not really much left on the free agent market, even with the trend of some players signing later and later in the offseason.
This year you still could grab a starting shortstop (Stephen Drew), a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher (Ervin Santana) or a DH/first baseman (Kendrys Morales). That's only because those guys are clinging to the hope that a huge contract is on the horizon. For the most part, what's left are bench players (Kelly Shoppach, Laynce Nix, Andres Torres), organizational depth (Tyler Greene, Casey Kotchman), rehab projects (Jair Jurrjens, Johan Santana, Andrew Bailey), last-gasp attempts (Placido Polanco, Juan Pierre) or various arms to fill up a pitching staff (Jon Garland, Mike Gonzalez, Brett Myers).
The White Sox and Cubs don't look positioned to cull the cream of what's left, even if the price comes down. Even if they were, neither Chicago team has done well with last-minute additions.
By last-minute, I'm talking about a player signed after the start of February, but before Opening Day. That's when most of the good free agents are off the market, but before the season starts and the roster crunch some teams face creates a different kind of market.
We're just looking at the last 25 years, and not counting the post-strike year in 1995, when the work stoppage pushed free agency back and left everyone scrambling.
First here are the top five late-signing players for the White Sox, and later we'll look at the Cubs:
1. Kevin Tapani (Feb. 3, 1996)
Tapani signed late because while he was a solid innings-eater, he lacked overpowering stuff and owned a less-than-spectacular track record. At the age of 33, there were no takers for his services until the Sox offered him a one-year, $1.5 million contract.
The right-hander lived up to expectations, chewing up 225 innings with an average-ish ERA (4.59 -- average back in the swinging mid-90s) for a team that contended for a wild card before folding late. Like the Sox, Tapani also faded down the stretch, posting a 6.81 ERA in 71 1/3 innings from the start of August until the end of the season.
That didn't stop the Cubs from offering Tapani a five-year, $24 million contract the following offseason to be mostly mediocre, though he was very good in 1997 and almost won Game 1 of the 1998 NLDS against the Braves before Cubs manager Jim Riggleman left him in one batter too long.
As far as what the Sox got out of Tapani, though, they couldn't have really asked for more.
2. Danny Darwin (Feb. 7, 1997)
Darwin was the next-year edition of the Tapani signing. A very solid pitcher over most of his career, Darwin had trouble finding a job as a 41-year-old before the Sox gave him a one-year, $475,000 contract hoping he could help the back end of a suddenly needy rotation that had lost Alex Fernandez and Tapani to free agency and Jason Bere to injury.
While Darwin held up his end of the bargain (4.13 ERA in 113 1/3 IP), the Sox didn't. Other more highly touted (and much higher-paid) free agent pitchers Jaime Navarro and Doug Drabek were disasters, while the offense underwhelmed with a disappointing Albert Belle and Robin Ventura missing to injury.
Controversially, Darwin was packaged with Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez as part of the infamous "White Flag" trade. Other than that, this signing probably far exceeded what the Sox could have asked for.
3. Kenny Lofton (Feb. 1, 2002)
The Sox needed a center fielder while Lofton, just a few months shy of his 35th birthday, was coming off what would be the worst season of his very good career. That understandably scared off would-be suitors, so the Sox swooped in with a one-year, $1 million contract.
Lofton only disappointed people expecting him to recapture the glory days of his mid-20s. For the Sox he batted .259/.348/.418 and swiped 22 bases before being shipped off to the Giants for spare parts. Lofton went on to be a useful, and affordable, piece for contending teams through his 40th birthday. It's just that the 2002 Sox weren't a contending team.
4. Dewayne Wise (March 5, 2008)
This is where the list takes a turn for the worse. Is it a love affair that's still going on to this day? It's easy to be frustrated to see Wise on your team when he's been pressed into duties beyond his abilities. For a fourth outfielder, he still had his moments for the Sox.
5. Wil Cordero (March 23, 1998)
A domestic assault incident the previous year earned Cordero his release from the Red Sox. After a guilty plea in the offseason, the Sox were the only team to offer him a $1 million contract with a team option, only then because of his ties to then-manager Jerry Manuel from their days with the Expos, and his agreement to submit to tests and ongoing counseling.
If this story has any kind of a happy ending, it's that Cordero has seemingly put his history of violence behind him, at least by public indications. His talent was also rehabbed enough to last seven more seasons in the big leagues as a part-time player, though the rebuilding Sox never had much use for him. With Mike Caruso and Ray Durham ensconced in the middle infield, Cordero's inability to make good throws from third base, and lack of a bat big enough (.267/.314/.446 in 371 PAs) for first base or a corner outfield spot, the team said goodbye at the end of the year.
...to be continued when we look at late Cubs signings...