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12/18/08 10:00 AM EST

GMs searching for hidden gems

Some lesser-known free agents can become contributors

Every big-name free agent still on the market eventually will sign a multiyear, eight- or nine-figure contract and presumably live happily ever after, although it doesn't always work out quite that way.

While every general manager would love the luxury of having a payroll large enough to sign Manny Ramirez, Mark Teixeira and/or CC Sabathia, only a handful of them do. Therefore, those with smaller budgets must be more creative.

And this is where many of the free agents looking for jobs come in.

As GMs continue to assemble their rosters heading into Spring Training, some of the lesser-known free agents could become major contributors to a team's success in 2009, and beyond.

"You look at trades, you look at the free agent market and you look at other ways, hoping you can come up with a 'surprise' player somewhere along the way," first-year Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said. "I have our staff looking long and hard for that 'nugget.'"

As of Wednesday, of the 409 free agents, including 36 non-tendered players and Minor League free agents, 296 remain unsigned. Another wave of free agents will emerge at the end of Spring Training, when teams finalize 25-man Opening Day rosters.

For most general managers, finding that "surprise" player is a day-to-day search, and you just never know how many "nuggets" will become gems.

When the Blue Jays decided at the end of camp last season to release outfielder Reed Johnson, little did anyone know that he would bat .303, slug six home runs and drive in 50 runs in 109 games for the National League Central champion Cubs.

"Reed was a terrific contributor last year," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said at the recent Winter Meetings. "I felt I'd failed all winter [after the 2007 season] to acquire a right-handed-hitting outfielder who could play center."

Cubs scout Mark Servais saw Johnson play last spring and called in reports saying he was playing center field, doing well and seemed to have recovered from back problems that limited him to 79 games in '07.

"I'd been trying to get some guys who, in hindsight, would've been lesser additions," Hendry said. "We had all of our homework done and were reading in the papers that Shannon Stewart might be kept [by Toronto] and Reed might be released. I think [Johnson] got released at eight in the morning and we called him at 8:05."

Johnson signed for $1.3 million -- a $2 million salary cut -- but he was rewarded for his superb 2008 season on Dec. 12, when he signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Cubs.

Thirty miles north of Chicago, the Brewers, the eventual NL Wild Card winners, also hit a home run with a surprise free-agent signing last season.

Gabe Kapler, a journeyman outfielder who played for the Tigers, Rangers, Rockies, Red Sox twice and Yomiuri Giants, announced his retirement on Dec. 12, 2006, and then managed Boston's Class A Minor League team in '07.

After the season, the 32-year-old decided he wanted to play again and became available to all 30 MLB organizations.

The Brewers called and offered Kapler a one-year, $800,000 non-guaranteed contract, which he accepted. To get the money, he had to be on the 25-man roster.

"I don't think this was about the money for him," Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said. "It was about getting a chance to play again. He has great work ethic. People love the way he plays the game. He's a guy with Major League experience and can play all three outfield positions. And this guy is in better shape than our 25-year-old guys."

Kapler exceeded expectations, batting .301 with eight home runs and three stolen bases in four attempts. He batted .323 with two homers as a pinch-hitter, and he contributed two walk-off hits in extra-inning games, including a home run against the Nationals. One of his eight dingers came against Padres right-hander Chris Young to break up a no-hitter in the eighth inning.

A late-season injury knocked him out of action, and Kapler was unable to contribute in the playoffs, which was short-lived for the Brewers.

Other B-level signings have resulted in A-plus results.

The Twins signed reliever Dennys Reyes to a Minor League deal prior to the 2006 season after he'd spent time with eight different organizations in nine seasons. He didn't make the team out of Spring Training, but after being promoted, he emerged as the club's primary left-handed specialist. Reyes posted a 0.89 ERA over 50 2/3 innings that season.

Hot Stove

"[Reyes] is a great example of bringing someone in and giving them an opportunity," Minnesota general manager Bill Smith said.

The Rays hit it big when they signed first baseman Carlos Pena to a Minor League contract on Feb. 1, 2007, and invited him to Spring Training.

A mediocre camp resulted in Pena, who had previous big league experience with the Rangers, Athletics, Yankees and Red Sox, being sent to the Minors. But an injury to Greg Norton on the final day of camp opened the door for Pena's return to the Majors.

And look at what he has done since. Pena has hit 77 home runs, drove in 223 runs and helped the Rays stun the baseball world last season by playing in the World Series.

Surprise signings don't get much better than that.

But there is this other example:

The Big Papi of the under-the-radar signings has to be David Ortiz.

He batted .272, hit 20 home runs and drove in 75 runs for the Twins in 2002, but he was released on Dec. 16.

A little more than a month later, on Jan. 22, 2003, the Red Sox signed Ortiz to a one-year, $1.35 million contract.

Red Sox Nation had no idea as to just how big of a signing it would become.

During his five-year career in Boston, Ortiz has hit 181 homers and driven in 731 runs during the regular season, and he helped the franchise win two World Series championships in the past four years. The first one, in 2004, ended an 84-year Fall Classic drought.

His clutch hitting is legendary, as evidenced by his Wikipedia biography, which lists 19 of his most memorable walk-off hits.

Is there a Big Papi out there this year?

Probably not, but there definitely should be a smaller "surprise" player out there ready, willing and able to turn a quiet signing into a success story next season.

And who might that be? Stay tuned.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.