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Best Free Agent Signings of the Year

Here’s the piece for tomorrow.

With the regular season winding down, those who won’t be playing in October are beginning to look forward to the Hot Stove season, and are picking through the list of free agents that will hit the market this coming winter. Part of that preparation is looking back at how previous free agents have fared after landing a big contract, and seeing what lessons can be learned from history. It turns out that the early results of last winter’s class holds some interesting lessons for those who are preparing to spend again this winter.

First, let’s just look at the free agents who had the best years in 2012 on the field. While first season performance doesn’t dictate whether a contract was a wise choice or not, these five players provided the largest boosts to their franchises with their play this year.

1. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee: 6.2 WAR

Ramirez was brought in to replace Fielder’s offense in Milwaukee, and he actually provided an upgrade over what the team got from their slugging first baseman the year before. Already 34, Ramirez is unlikely to repeat his career year, but swapping out Fielder for Ramirez looks like a net win for Milwaukee even before you consider the massive cost differences.

2. Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona: 5.6 WAR

Another surprising result, Hill has been rejuvenated in Arizona, finding his early career power and supplementing it with a .300 average for the first time in his career. He’s cut down on his pop-ups and is driving the ball regularly, and there aren’t many second baseman in baseball who can match what Hill did at the plate this year.

3. Yu Darvish, SP, Texas: 4.9 WAR

While Darvish was not techncally a free agent, all teams had the option to bid on his rights, so for all intents and purposes, he was available to the highest bidder. His command has been up and down, but over the last six weeks, he’s been pounding the strike zone with nasty stuff, and his ability to keep the ball in the yard even when he’s struggling to throw strikes has allowed him to thrive in Texas.

4. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Philadelphia: 4.8 WAR

Rollins may be the surprising name on the list, but after a slow start to the year, he’s been a monster in the second half of the season, carrying the Phillies back into the playoff race despite injuries to Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. Rollins ended up back in Philadelphia after finding the market for his services pretty dry, but in retrospect, teams should have been anxious to get one of the game’s best middle infielders away from the Phillies.

5. Prince Fielder, 1B, Detroit: 4.7 WAR

The Tigers haven’t played up to expectations this year, but don’t blame Fielder – he’s done his part, providing the kind of offensive complement to Miguel Cabrera that the Tigers were expecting when they gave him a massive contract to replace the injured Victor Martinez. How Fielder would hold up as he got older was always the concern, but the Tigers will take the value now and worry about the long term ramifications of the deal later.

Shopping in free agency isn’t just about getting the best results from the players you sign, however. Since teams have budgets to operate under, getting value for the dollar frees up money to spend on other players, so franchises can often be better off landing a couple of good players at bargain prices rather than focusing on trying to pay market value for one big name star. So, instead of simply looking at the best signings by total production, here are the best free agent values of last winter.

1. Fernando Rodney, RP, Tampa Bay: 1 year/$2 million AAV plus a team option – 2.2 WAR – $0.9 million per WAR

Rodney has an outside chance to best Dennis Eckersley’s 0.61 ERA in 1990, which currently stands as the lowest ERA any pitcher has produced in a full season in Major League history. Relievers in general are generally overvalued on the free agent market, but Rodney has been an amazing bargain, and perhaps the best part of the deal is that the Rays had the foresight to include a team option for 2013 in the contract, so Rodney can’t even cash in on his amazing performance this year.

2. Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona: 2 years/$5.5 million Annual Average Value – 5.6 WAR – $1.0 million per WAR

The going rate for free agents last year was about $5 million per win, while Hill only cost $1 million per win, an 80% discount off the market rate. Keeping the deal to just two years minimized their risk last winter, but in retrospect, they probably wish they would have gotten him locked up for three or four years now. If he comes anywhere close to repeating his performance in 2013, he’s going to land a much, much bigger paycheck next time around.

3. Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota: 3 years/$7 million AAV – 3.9 WAR – $1.8 million per WAR

Concerns about his age (33) along with the wrong-way trends of his walk and strikeout rates drove down Willingham’s price, but he didn’t take long to make teams regret passing on one of the cheapest sluggers to sign in the last few years. He’s set a career high with 35 home runs in part because he got his contact rates back under control, and is a reminder that trends don’t always continue on a straight line.

4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee: 3 years/$12 million AAV – 6.2 WAR – $1.9 million per WAR

The most productive free agent of the winter signed for just $36 million total, or just 17 percent of the total that Detroit guaranteed Fielder over the life of his deal. In a market where offensive performance is heavily rewarded, it’s rare to see a power hitting run producer come out as such a bargain, but that’s exactly what the Brewers got in Ramirez.

5. Hiroki Kuroda, SP, New York: 1 year/$10 million AAV – 3.6 WAR – $2.7 million per WAR

Kuroda’s production in LA was viewed with skepticism, especially when Brian Cashman asked him to make the switch from the NL West to the AL East. However, Kuroda’s sinker has proven just as effective against stiffer opponents, and he’s been a stabilizing force in the Yankees rotation. Perhaps most interestingly, the Yankees make him a qualifying offer and receive a draft pick as compensation if he signs elsewhere this winter, so they’ll either get him back on an another low-risk one year contract or gain an additional prospect for the future.

The one key strand that runs through the top five values? They were all on the wrong side of 30 and presumed to be on the downside of their careers. Each came at a discount due to questions about their long term value, and whether they could sustain recent successes while adjusting to their advancing age. Teams willing to place bets on older free agents did very well last winter, receiving a large bang for the buck without having to enter into a long term commitment to improve their teams in the short term.