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July 8, 2010
Free Agent Midterms
Like most sports fans, over time I’ve developed a love/hate relationship with the concept of free agency. Since I happen to root for a team that’s seemingly gone a galactic year since last winning a title, the idea of getting something for nothing (since it’s not my money being spent) and adding a player for “free” is a powerful one. From an entertainment perspective there’s something to be said for the off-season interest that the annual free agent feeding frenzy engenders, while on a sociopolitical level it’s hard to argue with the concept of a worker bargaining his own worth on the open market.
And yet … tonight, when LeBron James completes his short-term benign takeover of the ESPN airwaves to reveal his closely-guarded secret (my money’s on him declaring that he is, in fact, Iron Man), we’ll see everything that’s wrong with free agency on full display: rampant egotism, overexposure, and the despair and panic of teams and fans who wind up without a seat when the music stops. Whether James signs up for a Superfriends squad in Miami, stays in Cleveland, or goes somewhere else, there will be several jilted suitors tempted to throw unreasonable sums of money at lesser players, because they have it and because they want to look like they’re doing something. It’s those front office decisions, the ones made out of the desire to seem “active,” that can cripple a franchise through long-term obligations to mid-level talent. Instead of getting something for nothing, those teams wind up paying something for nothing.
All of this got me to thinking about last winter’s baseball free agent crop, which, like this year’s NBA pool, was also generally considered to have three top players—Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and John Lackey—thought to be considerably better than the rest. None of the top three were superstars, but with the supply of top-notch free-agent talent so tight they were able to cash in, leaving dozens of other teams with fistfuls of cash to shower on a number of lesser players. At the time, our old friend Joe Sheehan opined that GMs should realize there was little point in sorting through the over-priced to-may-toes and to-mah-toes available to them, and would be best served if they just called the whole thing off. Of course, that’s not what happened—while teams have wisely stopped handing out long-term megadeals like college band flyers, every franchise with a hole to file and money to spend dutifully wrote out large checks to a rogue’s gallery of aging and/or injury-riddled veteran free agents.
Now that we’re essentially halfway through the season, I was curious as to how these investments have performed so far. Have the Big Three earned their keep, and is the oft-troublesome next tier becoming an asset or a liability?
Here we see the 10 players who took home the largest prizes from last winter’s free agent extravaganza, ranked by their average annual salary, and listing the WARP3 (all-time flavor) they’ve earned so far in 2010. The “Dollars Per Win” column is a rough metric to give some idea of value—it’s Salary/(WARP x 2), i.e., how much each win above replacement will cost if the player continues to accumulate WARP at his current rate for the rest of the year.
As Jay Jaffe, Chair of BP’s Liberal Arts Wing, accurately predicted last fall, Holliday’s glove has helped make him a much better value so far than Bay, while the usually-reliable Lackey has struggled to earn his pay. In the next tier, Adrian Beltre’s Fenway revival has provided by far the biggest boost to his team, while of the three players who received multi-year contracts, only one seems to be worthy of the money so far. Everyone knows Chone Figgins has been a sub-replacement disaster so far in Seattle, while Randy Wolf’s WARP belies his indifferent peripherals—click on his 5.16 SIERA and you’ll hear klaxons going off. Surprisingly, former Dave Duncan protégé Joel Pineiro has posted a 3.93 SIERA in Anaheim, but experience tells us we should still expect the Pitching Wizard’s spell to end long before Pineiro’s contract does.
All in all, this is a pretty uninspiring list, with the few big hits (Beltre and Holliday) offset by a few big misses (Figgins, Lackey and the struggling Ben Sheets). Thankfully, many of these are one-year contracts, with only the three-year deal given to Wolf looking like it might become a long-term liability. If the highest earners aren’t all providing solid production, who from last winter’s free agent class have been?
Of the high-income set, only Beltre and Holliday place in the overall top 10 in WARP—none of the second tier do. I’ve written about the bounceback season of Aubrey Huff before, and it’s been a godsend to his club; while a 5.1 midseason WARP3 is impressive, it’s Huff’s off-the-charts WARG-C (Wins Over Replacement Giant Cornermen) that has had a San Francisco fan base used to “offensive” production howling with delight. Next in line is Miguel Olivo, who was generally viewed as a mistake signing that would only take playing time from the younger (and better) Chris Iannetta. Instead, you can find him perched between Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen on the WARP leaderboard. Olivo’s always had power, and posting a randomly high batting average in Coors Field isn’t such a big surprise, but who would have expected him to suddenly almost double his walk rate at the age of 32? The Rockies, apparently, and if he can keep up his cut-rate Gene Tenace impression, he’ll still be an asset when his batting average inevitably starts to slip.
Livan Hernandez has been the most productive starter signed in the offseason, and his $900,000 salary makes him this year’s biggest bargain. So far: when last we peeked under his hood, Livan was sporting a 5.53 SIERA and a 1.62 ERA in late May. At midseason, his ERA is now 3.12, while his SIERA is 4.94—one might say he’s pitched better and gotten worse results. Expect the “getting worse results” part, at least, to continue. In the meantime, we can refer to the fact that Hernandez and Carl Pavano have been the most productive free agent starter signings as Reason No. 2,845 why the unpredictability of baseball is a gift that keeps on giving.
Only time will tell, but at a glance, it looks like last year’s free agent signings didn’t result in a large number of regrettable contracts handed out to the second tier of free agents by clubs who were jilted by the biggest names. It’s a nice reminder to those of us who notice things like leadoff hitters with low OBPs, closers not being used in tied games, and Jason Kendall’s multi-year contract with a rebuilding franchise, that baseball front offices continue to make smarter decisions and that good ideas usually win in the end. I just hope that when Stephen Strasburg signs his first free agent contact, he won’t be allowed to preempt all Internet traffic worldwide to webcast the announcement.
Since I have the numbers in front of me, for those that may be interested I’m listing below (with little comment) the five biggest 2009-10 free agent contracts by position grouping:
The “Seriously?” award goes to the money that Baltimore shelled out to watch Garrett Atkins put up a .214/.276/.286 line. Sure, you need someone to catch throws from the other infielders, but anyone can do that—and if I had $4.5 million to just throw away, you can be sure I’d get me a Bugatti Type 51 instead.
Scutaro has managed to stay healthy and be an asset for the Red Sox, but the man he replaced, Alex Gonzalez, has broken out his power bat in Toronto and posted the highest WARP of all AL shortstops. He’s still making outs by the truckload, but with a solid glove and all those home runs in the bank he’s already more than earned his money this year. Who’dathunk?
The Cubs are on the hook for two more years of Marlon Byrd, but so far he’s been a steal. If I would have told you last January (and trust me, I didn’t—far from it) that Byrd and Carlos Silva would both be nearly three-win players through half a season, would you have thought the Cubs would be 10 games under .500?
If Bengie Molina is the answer, I don’t really want to know the question, at least until we have a better way to quantify catcher defense and veteran gravitas.
I can’t wait for “The Club” to start airing, as I hope to see Ozzie and Kenny discuss why the White Sox (.225/.298/.385 from the DH position) decided to let Jim Thome sign with their archrivals in the Twin Cities (.256/.365/.469 from the DH position). I’m expecting a calm, rational discussion.
Between Atkins, Miggy and Mike Gonzalez, the Orioles budgeted $16.5 million and have so far received minus-2.7 WARP. Ouch.