The 2018 Free-Agent Landmines

Yesterday, we covered my five favorite buys in this free-agent class relative to their expected contracts. Today, we’re doing the other side of the coin, looking at five players I wouldn’t have any interest in signing at the prices they’re likely to command this winter.

This exercise is a little easier than finding bargains. Last year, I highlighted Mark Trumbo, Kendrys Morales, Mark Melancon, Edwin Encarnacion, and Matt Wieters as the players to avoid. Those five combined for a grand total of +0.8 WAR in 2017 despite Encarnacion accounting for +2.5 WAR all by himself — and Encarnacion notably signed for significantly less than was expected. If we knew he was going to get three years, $60 million, he wouldn’t have made the landmine list.

While the game has gotten significantly better about allocating resources to legitimately good players, there are still some cases where blindspots exist, and these guys were the representation of those overvaluations last year.

Who are the five guys who you probably don’t want to win a bidding war for this year? Let’s find out.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $10.0 M $20.0 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $11.0 M $22.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2.3 $10.4 M $23.6 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
Age IP BB% K% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
31 138.0 8.6% 15.3% 47.1% 5.00 4.94 4.97 0.9 0.7

Of the 75 pitchers who threw 150-plus innings in 2017, 74 of them posted lower contact rates than Andrew Cashner. Cashner just entirely stopped missing bats last year, focusing on trying to generate weak contact instead. It sort of worked, as he got his fly-ball exit velocity down from 94.0 mph in 2016 to 91.2 mph last year, but despite getting weaker fly balls, the total lack of strikeouts just isn’t worth it.

Unless you think Cashner can sustain a .213 BABIP with men on base and a .171 BABIP with runners in scoring position — he can’t, by the way — he’s just going to give up a lot more runs even with weaker contact. In this day and age, a 12% strikeout rate just doesn’t cut it, especially for a guy who has a worse-than-average walk rate.

Ten years ago, Cashner would have turned his 3.40 ERA into a nice contract, but the league has stopped paying for ERA like it used to, and Cashner’s lack of strikeouts is going to keep interest somewhat contained. Even still, any multi-year commitment could look quite silly by mid-season if hitters keep making contact at the rate they did against Cashner last year. And there’s not even the floor of a guy who eats innings, since Cashner has a long history of health problems. At anything more than one year, I’d expect Cashner to be a disappointment for his signing club.

4. Eduardo Nunez, 2B/3B/SS
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $10.0 M $20.0 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $11.0 M $33.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2.9 $11.2 M $32.9 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
31 490 4.9% 13.9% .287 .325 .439 .326 100 0.6 0.0 1.7

At the contract for which I’ve forecast him — two years, $20 million — Nunez would probably be a non-offensive signing, a slightly overpaid utility guy who can at least provide some versatility. But if the crowd is right and he gets 3/$33M, the winning bidder is likely to wonder what they were thinking.

While he’s been worth north of +2 WAR each of the last two seasons, no player had a larger gap between his results and his expected outcomes based on Statcast data last year. His .275 xwOBA ranked 138th out of 143 hitters with at least 450 plate appearances in 2017, ahead of five guys who are only in the lineup because of their speed or defense.

Nunez isn’t slow, but he’s not an elite runner, and his defense has generally graded out poorly everywhere. If his offensive results in 2018 look more like his expected results in 2017, Nunez will quickly play himself out of a job in the first year of his contract. His versatility and stolen-base ability make him a decent bench guy, but he’s one or two lost steps away from replacement level. This isn’t the guy you want to sign into his mid-30s.

3. Lance Lynn, RHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 3 $16.0 M $48.0 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $15.0 M $60.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 3.6 $14.7 M $53.2 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
Age IP BB% K% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
31 150.0 9.2% 19.3% 42.6% 4.67 4.73 4.82 1.3 1.4

Lynn’s last three seasons — which occurred over the last four years, since he was sidelined in 2016 after Tommy John surgery — have established him as one of the game’s foremost FIP-beaters. His 3.06 ERA is 80 points better than his 3.86 FIP during that stretch, and 109 points better than his 4.15 xFIP. Both represent the largest gaps in baseball among starters with 500 or more innings. After three straight years of posting excellent ERAs with mediocre peripherals, it might be tempting to think that Lynn is one of the guys for whom the ERA estimators just don’t work.

Don’t buy it, though. More complicated metrics like DRA don’t see anything here to support Lynn as a true-talent frontline starter. Statcast puts his xwOBA at .310, placing him in the same tier of NL starters as Tanner Roark, Taijuan Walker, and Trevor Williams. These are useful pitchers, to be sure, and Lynn has his strengths, but he’s a fastball-heavy right-hander who has stopped getting chases out of the zone and is still awful against left-handed hitters.

The NL Central happens to be pretty right-handed offensively, so Lynn faced a proportional mix of RHBs and LHBs last year, but if Lynn ends up in a division where managers can force him to regularly have to get left-handers out, his numbers could suffer.

I wouldn’t mind him at back-end-starter prices, something like 3/$36M, but Derrick Goold speculated that he’s looking for Jordan Zimmermann money and expects to get over $100 million. I don’t think he gets anywhere near that, but the crowd is projecting around $55-$60 million and others have guessed as high as $75 million. If he gets anywhere near those prices, I want no part of his deal, especially with a TJ surgery on the resume. Lynn is a solid pitcher whom most teams could use in their rotation, but if he wants to get paid like a frontline guy, run away.

2. Greg Holland, RHP
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 3 $15.0 M $45.0 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $12.0 M $36.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 3.0 $12.5 M $37.1 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
Age IP BB% K% GB% ERA FIP xFIP WAR RA9-WAR
32 65.0 10.4% 25.8% 43.6% 4.14 4.06 4.00 0.9 1.1

If you look at Holland’s monthly splits, you can talk yourself into his results being dragged down by just one lousy month. In August, he allowed a .455 wOBA and ran a 13.50 ERA; in every other month, he ran a wOBA allowed under .300 and an ERA under 2.25. For five of the six months, he got outs and saves, at times looking like the dominant relief ace he was in Kansas City.

But the reality is that several of Holland’s good months were high-wire save acts, and this version of Holland only really has one trick that works: throw a slider in the dirt and hope the batter chases it. It’s a good slider, most of the time, and gets enough strikeouts for him to get by, but Holland no longer misses bats in the zone like he used to. If hitters can manage to take his slider, he doesn’t have much else with which to go after them.

A slider-heavy 32-year-old with a recent history of arm problems isn’t someone to whom I want to give a big contract, but he’ll probably get a nice deal based on his track record and the 41 saves he racked up in Coors last year. And maybe he’ll trust his fastball more when he’s not pitching in Colorado. It wouldn’t surprise me much if Holland were just fine again in 2018.

But Holland walked away from a $15 million player option for 2018 because he wants that kind of salary in a long-term deal, and you can imagine his representatives will be comparing him to Mark Melancon while asking for similar money. I doubt he gets the fourth year, but even at three years, there’s too much risk here for me. I want my highly paid relief aces to have a plan of attack besides throwing breaking balls out of the zone.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 6 $21.0 M $126.0 M
Median Crowdsource 5 $19.0 M $95.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 5.5 $19.1 M $104.4 M
2018 Steamer Forecast
Age PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
28 651 9.8% 17.9% .289 .359 .482 .357 121 16.0 -10.7 2.7

It isn’t that hard to see why scouts like Eric Hosmer. He makes contact, hits the ball hard, and runs much better than most guys who play the position. And his small-market team reached the World Series two years in a row, so it’s easy to draw up a narrative about how he has magic winning beans or something.

But Hosmer is also now 28 years old, has over 4,000 plate appearances in the big leagues, and has a career wRC+ of 111. For the sake of comparison, here are other players who have the same adjusted batting line since 2011, Hosmer’s rookie year: Matt Adams, Todd Frazier, David Freese, Chase Headley, Howie Kendrick, and Josh Reddick. None of those guys are seen as franchise superstars. For the bulk of Hosmer’s career, he’s been a slightly above-average hitter while playing a position where hitting is the primary job description.

Using career numbers is a bit unfair to Hosmer, since aggregating everything puts equal weight on his terrible 2012 season as his excellent 2017 season, and obviously those two shouldn’t be counted as equals. But even just looking at the last three seasons, his 120 wRC+ ties him with Chris Davis. It puts him one point ahead of Lucas Duda, and two points ahead of Carlos Santana, whose contract he’s expected to dwarf.

Hosmer’s big 2017 offensive season was mostly driven by a .351 BABIP, and Statcast doesn’t support a batted-ball profile that can sustain those results. He still hits the ball on the ground far too often to really tap into his power, and while maybe another organization can tweak the swing enough to get more production, they’ll have to pay like he’s already made that adjustment in order to have the chance to try.

If Hosmer were really an elite defensive first baseman, that would be one thing. But the numbers suggest otherwise. Whatever you think of UZR and DRS, a lot of their problems tend to get washed away once a player has played 9,000 innings in the field, as Hosmer has, and his career totals put him at -29 UZR and -21 DRS. Even if you think those figures are selling him short, you’re still looking at a conclusion that he’s maybe a slightly above-average defender even if the systems are wildly underrating him. It’s almost impossible to believe that he’s really a great defender who has just been incorrectly rated as a poor one for seven straight years.

None of this makes Hosmer a bad player. Steamer projects him for +2.7 WAR in 2018, and you can round that up to +3 pretty easily if you think that UZR is low on his fielding abilities. He’s an above-average big leaguer in the prime of his career, coming off the best season of his career, so Hosmer should get a nice contract this winter.

But a nice contract for this kind of skillset would be $80 or $90 million. I guessed that he’s actually going to get $125 million. Jon Heyman projected $160 million. At those kinds of prices, Hosmer could very easily become one of the most overpaid players in baseball, especially if he continues to just pound balls into the ground.

There’s enough youth and upside here that a team can rationally justify $20 million a year for four years, but once they pass either of those marks, they’d very likely be better off just signing one of the cheaper first baseman and throwing the difference at another quality free agent. Especially if the price gets up to $150 million; for that kind of money, you might be able to sign both Carlos Santana and Lorenzo Cain, and it’s not clear that Hosmer is definitively better than either one of those two, much less both of them.

We hoped you liked reading The 2018 Free-Agent Landmines by Dave Cameron!

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Chicago Mark
Member
Chicago Mark

How much do Hosmers offensive numbers go up in a better hitting situation? Hasn’t Kaufman Stadium always hurt some of his numbers? Would he do better in say Boston or Yankee Stadium? I do understand the Yankees aren’t in the mix for a first baseman. Just asking the question. I’m not even certain how much better he could do (by war) in these situations. Do GM’s even look at this?

Don Zimmer will have his revenge on Pedro
Member
Member
Don Zimmer will have his revenge on Pedro

The wRC+ stat that Dave cited accounts for park factors so theoretically you would not expect that to change regardless of where he goes even though the surface stats might change.

Chicago Mark
Member
Chicago Mark

Oh! Old man still hanging on to ERA and wins and batting average here. Ha! Thanks for the reply Tom.

Paul Clarke
Member
Paul Clarke

Also, Kaufman is hitter-friendly, it’s just not homer-friendly.

EonADS
Member
EonADS

Yep. The big outfield is a boon for doubles and gap hitters. And it’s hot in Missouri a lot of the time, so lifting the ball is somewhat easier.

Shauncore
Member
Shauncore

And the most important point: groundballs are groundballs at every stadium, not just Kauffman. Even moving him to Coors Field isn’t going to turn grounders into homers.

Paul G.
Member
Member
Paul G.

In theory, he should be the same value. In practice, we know this is not true in all cases. Some players are simply better suited to some ballparks than others. Bill James likes to compare Bill Dickey, whose bat was very well suited to Yankee Stadium, and Elston Howard, whose bat was very not suited to Yankee Stadium, as an illustration. The old turf parks definitely benefited some skill sets more than others compared to grass fields. Whether this applies to Hosmer in any significant way I have no idea.