Re-Evaluating The Free Agent Class

When people talk about this group of upcoming free agents, they generally comment on the lack of high end talent available. With all due respect to Matt Holliday and John Lackey, they’re a clear step back from the likes of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran types that have populated the market in recent years. The general consensus is correct – this group is not very impressive at the top end.

But let’s accept this free agent class for what it is – full of interesting players with a real chance to outplay the contracts they receive. Most years, free agency is akin to shopping at Pottery Barn, where you’re paying full price for marketing, store overhead, and the comfort of a familiar brand. This year, it’s more like buying scratch-and-dent furniture from Ebay.

Let’s be honest – you get a better deal on Ebay than Pottery Barn. Sure, you have to accept some risk that what you see in the picture bears some resemblance to what you’re going to get, and the chances of getting nothing for your money is a bit higher, but those factors help drive down price as well. And when you actually get what you were hoping for at an Ebay price, you come out with a really good deal.

That’s this free agent class. Rich Harden can be one of the best pitchers in baseball when he’s on the mound and throwing strikes, but his long injury history is going to limit him to a short term deal. He’s far from the only talented starting pitcher with injury concerns – Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, Kelvim Escobar, John Smoltz, Justin Duchscherer, Brett Myers, and Randy Johnson are all probably looking at one year deals at rates that will be a fraction of what they would get if they were coming off healthy seasons.

It isn’t just pitchers, either. There are several position players who will almost certainly sign for less than we’ll project them to be worth. Even with teams appreciating defensive value more, it has been so undervalued that we can’t expect a full correction yet. Thus, players who derive a significant chunk of their value from their play on the field will still likely be relative bargains. That’s Placido Polanco, Adrian Beltre, Adam Everett, Mike Cameron, and Randy Winn.

Defense hasn’t been the only thing that’s been going for a discount of late, either. Older players near the tail end of their career have been increasingly sent into forced retirement, as teams have moved towards younger players at a rate where they’ve probably over-corrected. Players like Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, and Carlos Delgado will probably find themselves in line for massive pay cuts, as they’re reaching the end of their usefulness as major league players. But they’re not there yet, and a team that can scoop up any of them on a one year deal could get a quality hitter without a long term commitment.

It’s a winter for bargain shopping. Maybe that’s not what the Yankees and Red Sox are into, but for the rest of baseball, this should actually be a nice change of pace.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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walkoffblast
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walkoffblast
6 years 11 months ago

The red so do not like to bargain shop? You might want to review last off-season.

Kampfer
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Kampfer
6 years 11 months ago

The reason why they bargain shop was because they couldn’t sign Tex.

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

Except their bargain shopping was primarily for the rotation, which doesn’t really have anything to do with missing out on Tex. They’d have wanted starting pitching depth anyway.

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

The Yankees and Red Sox like bargain hunting just fine. The Sox brought in injury-risk/reclaimation project pitchers (Penny, Smoltz) to fill out their rotation. JD Drew & DiceK being examples of paying for top, or nearly top, talent, but they’ve also brought in some players with limits or flaws, such as Baldelli and Kotchman.

The Yankees have finally figured out they need to stay away from the middle tier of the FA market. Pay top dollar for premium players in their primes, and look for bounce-back candidates to help fill out the roster. Thus, CC & Tex (and *grumble* Burnett I guess), complimented by the trade for Swisher. They’ve taken fliers on players with question marks before… heck, both teams tried Carlos Pena before he finally broke out with the Rays. They tried Josh Phelps at 1B. They did a sign & rehab deal with John Lieber, which paid off pretty well in 2004 (Belhorn HR off the foul pole notwithstanding).

Neither team has to RELY on those sorts of players, because they’re rich. But they can and do go dumpster-diving here and there and can profit from it as much as the Royals can (moreso, considering the Royals give no indication of knowning what they’re doing. PROCESS!).

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

For instance, I’d love it if the Yanks brought Harden in on an incentive-laden deal. Their rotation next year projects as follows:

CC
AJ
Pettitte? If he returns
Joba
Hughes

The backup starter options would be: Chad Gaudin, Alfredo Aceves, Ian Kennedy. Two are currently in the bullpen. The other is working back from an injury and was thoroughly pummeled as a starter so far.

There are several problems here. AJ has an injury history that suggests a breakdown is coming. Pettitte is not a lock to return (though I figure the odds are good) and he’s no spring chicken. He’s had some minor issues with his shoulder late in the ’08 and ’09 seasons. Joba is missing several mph of velocity and has had a shoulder issue (mid-’08). He fell apart down the stretch this year. Hughes, like Joba, is a young starting pitcher who has had his struggles in the rotation. The team always ends up needing 6-8 starting pitchers, minimum. This year, they found themselves giving starts to Sergio Mitre (by my estimation the 9th starter on the depth chart, 10th once they traded for Gaudin).

Steve
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Steve
6 years 11 months ago

“AJ has an injury history that suggests a breakdown is coming. ”

really? based on what?

how many seasons does a pitcher have to put TJS in the rear-view mirror before it no longer has implications going forward?

i’d say AJ is no more or less an injury concern going forward than any other pitcher.

yes, i get it, you hate AJ Burnett. i’ve seen enough of your posts on various site to get that. that’s fine, but for all your huffing and puffing in the offseason, the guy took the ball every single time this year.

Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.
6 years 11 months ago

In 2006, he made 21 starts. In 2007, he made 25 starts. It’s not just his TJ in his injury history.

Steve
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Steve
6 years 11 months ago

right, and in 2006, he missed time b/c some of the scar tissue from the TJS broke off in his elbow and then some arm soreness.

since coming back from that, he missed a handful of starts in 2007, but overall, since the surgery, he’s been pretty durable. maybe it’s time to let go of the idea that Burnett is super fragile. he’s not. he’s just a guy who had some arm troubles in his mid-20’s and has now averaged almost 190 IP/year for the last 5 years.

he’s not exactly CC Sabathia, but he’s not Carl Pavano either.

Fresh Hops
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Fresh Hops
6 years 11 months ago

Harden is a fly baller who would be a bad fit for that park. In a neutral or pitcher’s park, Harden could post a sub-3.5 FIP next season, but a park that likes to lift flyballs high is not going to make him look good. With two straight seasons of 140 innings it’s starting to look like he could stay healthy for awhile.

But like Dave says, he needs to throw strikes. His control was shit last season.

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

I’m not talking about him blowing out his elbow. I’m saying I expect him to miss some time. I could, perhaps, have worded that better. I don’t hate AJ Burnett. I hate the contract the Yankees gave him, but that’s done now. I’m looking forward, and I expect him to miss some time (frankly, that’s not an unreasonable assumption about ANY pitcher, but Burnett gets a little extra concern is all).

The point is you have 1 horse (who is still no lock for health, being a pitcher), 1 guy who has been relatively durable recently but who does have a lengthy injury history and is getting up there in age (AJ is in his mid thirties now, no?), one guy – if he returns – who will be in his late thirties and has had some shoulder soreness two years running, and two young guys still trying to establish themselves as ML starters. I want backup.

Steve
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Steve
6 years 11 months ago

fair enough, and i agree with you that the Yankees should add some depth behind those guys.

i just think AJ’s injury history has been overblown.

Nestor Chylak
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Nestor Chylak
6 years 11 months ago

“I want backup.”

Jesus I hate Yankees fans.

big baby
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6 years 11 months ago

i’m not sure paying penny and smoltz a combined base of 10 million dollars counts as a “bargain”

Josh Engleman
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Josh Engleman
6 years 11 months ago

Considering that Smoltz and Penny combined to provide $17.8 million in value in 2009, I’d say getting an $8 million discount is a pretty big bargain.

big baby
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6 years 11 months ago

really? the red sox got good value from smoltz?

that’s some nice-a cherry-picking-a

and no, what the red sox did was “gamble.”

that’s not true bargain hunting, that’s leveraging resources.

Mike K
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Mike K
6 years 11 months ago

Actually, the Sox got $11M in value for the two. Came out about even.

B
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B
6 years 11 months ago

You realize Smoltz posted a 57 ERA+ and Penny an 84 ERA+ in their time in Boston, right? Yes, I’m well aware of the shortcomings of ERA, and I understand why Fangraphs uses a context neutral stat like FIP for player valuations – but, when it comes to a team’s overall W-L record, context matters. Sure, the expected value of their contributions might have been $11M or so luck-neutral…but in this case, the luck went against them and they did not get that much value out of those two.

Michael
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6 years 11 months ago

Good piece Dave. This offseason will test a lot of teams’ front offices to see if they understand and are better valuing things like defense, or if teams that are more up to snuff in that regard are going to get great deals again this season.

Steve C
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Steve C
6 years 11 months ago

I would love for the sox to bargain shop and pick up Beltre and Everett (or get Hardy). Teams like the Red Sox can “afford” to bargain shop for retread pitchers because we already have at least 3 respectable options. If they take a flier on a risky pitcher there is no real loss as the core of the rotation is intact. A team like Baltimore can not be so aggressive as they do not have as strong a 1-3 starter as the Sox (or Yanks, or Phillies, or Braves …)

Cody
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Cody
6 years 11 months ago

who is this “we” you are talking about?

Rob in CT
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Rob in CT
6 years 11 months ago

Beltre does make sense for the Sox. What do you do with Lowell? DH platoon with Ortiz? Yikes.

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen
6 years 11 months ago

How is Halliday a clear step back from Mark Teixeira?

Halliday WAR over the past three seasons: 7.9, 6.2, 5.6
Teixeira: 3.8, 6.7, and 5.2

If anything Halliday is a better player.

Matt B.
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6 years 11 months ago

Holliday, not to be confused with Roy “Halladay”.

DavidCEisen
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DavidCEisen
6 years 11 months ago

Sorry for using the wrong vowel, but Holliday is still a better player than Teixeira.

Kincaid
Guest
6 years 11 months ago

Not only that, but Teixeira in his three years preceding free agency (since this year doesn’t really affect how he looked going into free agency):

3.1, 3.8, 6.7

I have no idea why so many people are so reluctant to give Holliday his due, but this kind of thinking seems to be pretty common.

Bill
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Bill
6 years 11 months ago

My guess is that it is because of his extremely slow start in the AL coupled with his immediate rebound in the NL. It’s easy to look at him and say that he wasn’t good enough to make it in the AL. This perception is wrong. There are many reasons why he got off to the slow start. The difference in the difficulty of leagues isn’t that big, especially for a hitter. It’s easy to suffer from confirmation bias and only focus on the success that Giambi and Holliday had when they changed leagues and to ignore the success of Rajai Davis and Carlos Quentin when they went the other way.

Matt B.
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6 years 11 months ago

Fangraphs has certainly showed love for Holliday this year, even during his supposed ‘slow’ start in OAKtown.

Yo Dawg
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Yo Dawg
6 years 11 months ago

Joe Saunders is starting Game 2 and possibly Game 6 for the Angels. Kazmir is Game 4. LOL.

Tom Au
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Tom Au
6 years 11 months ago

What about Jason Bay? Doesn’t he go free agent this year, and wouldn’t many consider him top end? Granted, he has weaknesses as a fielder, but some team could use him at third base, first base, or a DH (in the AL),and capitalize on his hitting.

JoeR43
Member
JoeR43
6 years 11 months ago

Bay?

At 3rd base?

@_@

Kevin S.
Member
Kevin S.
6 years 11 months ago

Jason Bay hasn’t been a ‘star’ in three years. He’s still a solid piece on a contender, but he’s on the wrong side of thirty and likely won’t be as good as he is now by the end of his contract.

Fresh Hops
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Fresh Hops
6 years 11 months ago

I worry Bay benefited from a hitter’s park last season. He’s not a youngster anymore. Also, while teams are starting to pay for good defenders, there’s still a problem of people over paying for non-defenders. The result is that Bay will probably command a little too much money.

Judy
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Judy
6 years 11 months ago

FWIW, Bay was one of the few Red Sox who actually did anything usefull offensively on the road.

Bill
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Bill
6 years 11 months ago

If Bobby Bonilla could play third…..

JoeR43
Member
JoeR43
6 years 11 months ago

And btw, absolutely no way Holliday is signing for under 9 figures this offseason. He’s going to get paid, and it’ll probably be from the Mets, Yankees, or Red Sox.

Brian Recca
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Brian Recca
6 years 11 months ago

I am a firm believer that the Red Sox stop the bidding war with Teixeira because they were relying on Lars Anderson becoming their first baseman of the future. Clearly there plan backfired when Anderson struggled in his second stay at AA and didn’t play an inning in AAA this past season.

I do think the Red Sox did a good job at spending less on some high risk/ high reward type guys. Unfortunately they got pretty unlucky with Smoltz and to a lesser extent Brad Penny. I think the strategy the Red Sox used needs to be used more often on high payroll teams. A team like the Mets could have used some cheap backup options in their rotation, bullpen, and bench.

Steve
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Steve
6 years 11 months ago

“I am a firm believer that the Red Sox stop the bidding war with Teixeira because they were relying on Lars Anderson becoming their first baseman of the future.”

if so, then that’s really, really dumb. Teixeira was 29 and has a non-zero shot at the Hall of Fame. Anderson had 163 PA’s above A ball.

there is no way that’s the reason, b/c Theo isn’t dumb.

Judy
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Judy
6 years 11 months ago

Right, the Red Sox most likely refused to increase their offer to Teixeira because they didn’t believe a word that came out of Scott Boras’s mouth, who may have been telling them that their only chance was to add 2 years and another $50-60M.

Bruce W
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Bruce W
6 years 11 months ago

Most likely the Red Sox front office put a value on Teixeira and stayed within that. When a front office “has” to have a player they lose all negotiating power and are at the mercy of the agent’s often ridiculous demands. If Lars Anderson played any part in their negotiations at all, I would be astonished.

Brian Recca
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Brian Recca
6 years 11 months ago

stopped*

gnomez
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gnomez
6 years 11 months ago

God I would love to see the Tigers re-sign Polanco.

gnomez
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gnomez
6 years 11 months ago

^ I’m way too tired to post my reasoning right now.

Joe R
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Joe R
6 years 11 months ago

Mainly so the analysts can talk about the Tigers’ NL style of play, like there’s this huge gap between what scores runs in the two leagues?

“WOO NL STYLE”
/feebly pops up bunt to catcher

“Well it’s aggressive.”

SamoanRob
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6 years 11 months ago

Does Bobby Crosby belong on the FA glove list? He’s only 30, but looks like he played first base in 2009. Is he still a good shortstop? (If Cubs miss out on Figgins I’m thinking sign Crosby and slide Theriot to 2b?)

Steve
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Steve
6 years 11 months ago

he belongs on the “FA glove” list in that his actual, leather baseball glove might be a useful asset for a team to acquire, possibly as a Christmas gift for the GM’s 8 year old nephew?

joser
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joser
6 years 11 months ago

It’s not that the Yankees and Red Sox can’t or won’t bargain shop, it’s that they would prefer the market not be one that rewards that. Their comparative advantage is in their payroll, so the richer the FA market (ie the more higher cost / higher return players) the more WAR unavailable to smaller market teams, and the more of it available to them. Oligarchies always prefer expensive luxuries to bargains.

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