AL vs. NL in Free Agency

Just by casually observing transactions over the past few years, any baseball fan would say that it really feels as if some of the top talent in the game has transferred from the NL to the AL, whether by trade or free agency. Ask any fan to name a player that has left the Senior Circuit for the Junior counterpart recently, and top superstar names immediately come to mind, most notably Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Now ask them to do the reverse, and it’s much trickier. Does Zack Greinke count, even though it’s been back and forth for him? There’s B.J. Upton, but how has he fared so far in the NL?

Let’s take a look at the free agents of this offseason to see if there’s anything that supports the idea that top talent is trending towards the AL. I took the list of all 96 major league contracts given out so far, not including players coming from Japan, and only grabbed contracts worth $5 million or more annually. After all, with all due respect, we’re looking at trends with top major league talent. That cuts the total to only 50 contracts. Here’s the breakdown.

31 originally from AL, 19 originally from NL

24 signed in AL, 26 signed in NL

10 re-signed with original team

So by quantity, National League teams actually signed more contracts that were worth at least $5 million annually this offseason. And the NL also managed to “steal” a net total of seven players away. In this regard, the offseason could be considered a victory for the Senior Circuit. But let’s look at quality now.

Number

 Average Years

Average Dollars

Ended in AL

24

2.916666667

$32,750,000

Ended in NL

26

1.833333333

$14,687,500

From AL to NL

12

2.333333333

$22,833,333

From NL to AL

5

4

$63,000,000

There were only five players who transferred over from the NL to the AL, but those five earned contracts totaling $315 million, while the twelve that went from the AL to the NL received deals that only added to $274 million. Now, you could argue that American League didn’t really take Shin-Soo Choo away, but that it just reclaimed him after a one-year hiatus. But Brian McCann has been an NL-lifer up until 2014, and Carlos Beltran hasn’t played a game as a member of the AL in almost a decade. Even Ricky Nolasco, also a NL-lifer, was enticed over with a $49 million deal.

Curtis Granderson and Jhonny Peralta highlight the players moving in the other direction, and Granderson’s $60 million dollar deal also happens to represent the largest amount of money any NL team used in free agency this year. Think about that. The New York Mets gave out the largest contract to a free agent this offseason for National League teams, and there were four deals larger in the American League, two by the other team in that city.

Out of the top 14 largest contracts by total money, 11 came from an AL team. Keep in mind, all these numbers are fluid, with four big-name free agents still floating out in purgatory, but the idea remains the same. The number of free agents that sign into both leagues are roughly equal, but the American League is just handing over more money to more of the top players available. Also, if we factor in Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka, both of whom landed in the AL, the numbers would be even more skewed towards the Junior Circuit.

But maybe this was a one-year thing, a fluke. What about last offseason? Let’s do the same thing, with the same arbitrary $5 million annual salary cutoff.

There were a total of 41 contracts that met the cutoff. Here’s the breakdown.

28 originally from AL, 13 originally from NL

24 signed in AL, 17 signed in NL

13 re-signed with original team

Number

 Average Years

Average Dollars

Total Dollars

Ended in AL

24

2.083333333

$24,854,167

$596,500,000

Ended in NL

17

2.705882353

$31,485,294

$535,250,000

From AL to NL

10

2.5

$34,525,000

$345,250,000

From NL to AL

6

2.333333333

$23,166,667

$139,000,000

In case any readers have forgotten, the big fish for the 2012-13 offseason were Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, and BJ Upton. Interestingly, these numbers paint an entirely different picture, with more free agents ending up in the AL, but the quality lying in the NL. Now, the two contracts really doing the heavy lifting for the National League are Zack Greinke’s and BJ Upton’s, who both came over from the AL. While they respectively had deals worth $147 million and $75.25 million, the next closest guy was Edwin Jackson with his $52 million.

So it almost looks like the last two offseasons have been a wash. There was a more extreme split this year with the “steal” contracts, as the AL flat-out dominated. But the 2012-13 offseason did feature the  NL getting more involved and outbidding their AL counterparts, in quantity and quality.

Let’s go one more year back into memory lane just to settle this. Which league takes more players away with larger, more exorbitant contracts?

This is the 2011-12 free agent summary, with the same cutoff. There were a total of 28 contracts that met the requirements.

12 originally from AL, 16 originally from NL

10 signed in AL, 18 signed in NL

6 re-signed with original team

Number

 Average Years

Average Dollars

Total Dollars

Ended in AL

10

3.5

$61,925,000

$619,250,000

Ended in NL

18

2.555555556

$26,750,003

$481,500,058

From AL to NL

6

2.833333333

$29,416,676

$176,500,058

From NL to AL

4

5.25

$120,312,500

$481,250,000

This is the Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder offseason, so the most noticeable numbers are all in that bottom row. It’s ridiculous; the four players who transferred from the NL to the AL (Pujols, Fielder, Hiroki Kuroda, Carlos Pena) had contracts that added up to just $250 thousand less than the 18 players who ended in the NL. The average dollars amount is ridiculous, although it is of course boosted by the two big fishes. I think it’s safe to say that the American League had the more lucrative offseason, although their National League colleagues might be chuckling at the Pujols and Fielder deals now. From the AL point of view, hey, there’s always the Jonathon Papelbon deal to laugh at.

So what can we conclude? The AL has crushed the NL in two of the last three offseasons, with the National League coming away with slightly better results in 2012-13. The Junior Circuit has also dominated in terms of luring away big names, as teams have been able to acquire Pujols, Fielder, Choo, McCann, Beltran, and Michael Bourn in recent years. The NL has grabbed Greinke, Upton, and Granderson, but that’s about it. Peralta and Michael Cuddyer are nice, but not close to the level of the other guys.

We can’t really fully confirm the AL has been more successful without going further back, but it’s safe to say the American League teams have been more aggressive over the last few years when targeting top free agents. However, something else that stood out is the number of free agents that are coming from each league. Add up the totals for the last three years, and there have been 71 from the AL and 48 from the NL. Remember these totals are only for free agents who signed contracts with at least an AAV of $5 million, but that’s a noticeable difference. Without looking at any references, I believe that’s due to National League teams locking up young talent sooner and more willingly than AL teams. This offseason alone, it seems the Atlanta Braves practically signed their entire organization to long-term deals. Homer Bailey just finished up an extension, and of course, we had Mr. Clayton Kershaw settle a deal with Los Angeles.

But that’s an article for another time.




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2 Responses to “AL vs. NL in Free Agency”

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  1. Bad Bill says:

    As regards the Pujols contract, “been able to acquire” is a curious misspelling of “been voluntarily saddled with”. Likewise Fielder to no small extent. The fact that AL teams are more willing and able to spend free-agent money by the bucketful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.

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    • Christopher Liu says:

      Right, this was never supposed to be a look at who’s been the savviest. Like I said, the NL executives are laughing right now at the Angels for Pujols.

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