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The Land Mines of the 2014 Free Agent Class

Yesterday, I looked at five players who I thought would be significant bargains if they signed for the expected contract produced by the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing series. Today, let’s go the other direction, and look at five players who I think might be significant overpays at their projected salaries.

5. Joe Nathan, Relief Pitcher: 2 years, $21 million

Joe Nathan is a very good relief pitcher who just finished one of the best seasons of his career. Unfortunately, the two primary drivers of that success were the lowest HR/FB% (3.0%) and BABIP (.224) that he’s ever posted. Nathan’s always held down hits and home runs more than the league average, so we shouldn’t expect him to regress all the way back to 10% and .295 respectively, but even regressing him back to his own career averages would cause him to take a significant step backwards. And that’s before we get into the fact that he’s going to be 39 next year.

There are relief pitchers who are worth mutli-year deals, and there are relief pitchers who are worth $10M+ per season, but those are the Craig Kimbrels and Kenley Jansens of the world, and Nathan isn’t in that class. The fact that the Rangers are letting him walk with no real effort to re-sign him should be an additional warning sign, and while he seems like a natural fit for the Tigers, they’d be much off re-signing Omar Infante than spending his money on an aging closer.

4. Kendrys Morales, Designated Hitter: 3 years, $33 million

Morales has been an above average player exactly once in his career, back in 2009, when he was 26 years old. Since then, he’s broken his leg, spent a season and a half on the disabled list, lost his ability to play the field on a regular basis, and has gotten even slower, to the point that he’s now perhaps the very worst baserunner in the game. And he’s not even that great of a hitter.

Despite a skillset that has more weaknesses than strengths, the Mariners still made Morales a qualifying offer, signifying both that they want him back and that they believe Scott Boras won’t take a one year deal. Boras is very good at extracting dollars from teams, so he probably won’t end up taking the qualifying offer for Morales, but giving up a draft pick for the right to overpay Morales on a mutli-year deal seems like a trap in the making. There are hitters who can produce enough value solely at the plate to outweigh the fact that they don’t do anything else to help you win, but Morales isn’t that kind of hitter. Odds are pretty good that the Mariners end up bidding against themselves, but still manage to re-sign a mediocre one dimensional player anyway.

3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Catcher: 4 years, $45 million

In a season in which Salty posted a .372 BABIP, he still only managed a .338 on base percentage. That’s kind of amazing, but it highlights how significant Salty’s contact problem really is. Guys who strike out 30% of the time have to either have to hit for a lot of power or draw a lot of walks to be effective offensive players, because the vagaries of BABIP means that their rate of hits on balls in play will fluctuate too much to be dependable. Salty has some power, and he draws some walks, but expecting him to repeat his 117 wRC+ would be foolhardy, as he’s more of a below average hitter than an above average one.

He’s still a solid offensive player for a catcher, but a four year commitment for a guy who is more okay than good is a pretty big risk, especially at this price. $11 million per year might only require him to be an average player to live up to the deal, but the term is the real problem here, as average players shouldn’t require four year commitments. On a two year deal, $11 million per year would be fine. I’d have little interest in giving Salty a guaranteed third and fourth year at these prices though, and a team like the White Sox — desperately in need of a catcher — should hold the line rather than jumping to four years.

2. Curtis Granderson, Outfielder: 4 years, $56 million

I feel bad about this one, because I like Granderson and think he’s actually probably a little underrated, but this is just way too steep for a good-not-great player heading into his age-33 season when he just spent nearly the entire year on the disabled list. I think there’s actually a pretty decent chance that Granderson ends up taking the qualifying offer and returning to New York for 1/14, which would be a nice low-risk deal for the Yankees. $56 million over four years for Granderson’s decline phase, plus the cost of a first round pick, though; I just don’t really see what the crowd sees here, to be honest.

At the end of the day, I don’t think Granderson’s actually going to sign an albatross contract. The qualifying offer is going to do a number on the price he can ask for, and I think he’s probably looking for a short term deal to show that he’s healthy and can still play at a high level. If the market agrees with the crowd, though, then Granderson is very likely going to be a significant overpay for whichever team decides they must have his left-handed power.

1. Nelson Cruz, Outfielder: 3 years, $32 million

Cruz has had a weird career, going from being mislabeled as a 4A guy to now being perhaps the most overrated player in baseball. The way that Cruz’s value has been portrayed makes him out to be one of the game’s elite sluggers, when he’s really nothing close to that. While playing half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Arlington, he’s posted OBPs of .312, .319, and .327 over the last three years. Yes, he’s strong, and he hits some impressive home runs, but he also makes a lot of outs in the process.

Toss in poor defense, poor baserunning, always lingering health concerns, a PED suspension, the fact that he’ll be 33 next year, and the draft compensation that is attached because Texas made him a qualifying offer, and Cruz is a DUI away from Red Flag Bingo. It’s one thing to overlook all of these issues because the performance is just so great that the reward is worth the risk, but even a full strength, completely healthy Nelson Cruz is more of an average player than a good one. And that’s before we project how he’ll do in his mid-30s, as his body breaks down further, and his physical strength starts to slip away. Of all the free agents who are likely to get significant contracts this winter, Cruz looks like the most likely to just turn into a replacement level scrub overnight.

But, hey dingers and RBIs, right? The sole focus on “right handed power” has led to mediocre players like Cruz being labeled as difference makers, and some team that thinks they need a cleanup hitter is going to give Cruz way too much money and get far too little in return. The Phillies have already been linked to Cruz, which makes sense, in that his contract won’t look quite so bad when he’s constantly hitting behind The Ryan Howard Mistake. But at 3/32 plus a draft pick, this isn’t even a place the Phillies should want to go. No one should want Cruz at this price. He’s just not that good.