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November 19, 2012

Overthinking It

All Quiet on the Free Agent Front

by Ben Lindbergh

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Late this season, Major League Baseball completed new broadcast deals with ESPN, Fox, and Turner Sports that will roughly double the amount of money the league receives from those three networks beginning in 2014. Couple those contracts with increasingly lucrative local TV deals, the highest regular-season attendance since 2008, the success of MLB Advanced Media, the new CBA’s restrictions on how much teams can spend in the draft and on the international market, the trend toward locking up young players before they become free agents, and the Dodgers’ apparent willingness to make their fans forget Frank McCourt by becoming big-time buyers, and the stage appeared to be set for significant offseason inflation.

It’s been less than three weeks since Sergio Romo struck out the AL MVP looking to end the World Series, and only a few prominent players have signed. However, the players who ink early have the potential to help dictate what the next few months might look like, and if an influx of cash were burning holes in baseball teams’ pockets, we would expect to see the new market rate reflected in the early returns. While it’s too soon to say with any certainty what the rest of the winter will look like, we can examine the first few signings for any evidence that a new spending boom has begun. Here’s a selection of deals signed so far compared to the contracts comparable players commanded last winter:

RF Torii Hunter
Signed by:
Detroit Tigers
Contract: Two years, $26 Million
Comparable player: RF Carlos Beltran (signed by St. Louis for two years, $26 million)
The Angels decided not to make Hunter a qualifying offer, a decision that they might regret after watching him sign elsewhere for two years at roughly the qualifying rate. (Granted, he wouldn’t have commanded the same contract had he cost his prospective employer a draft pick.) Hunter has averaged 3.3 WARP over the past three seasons, compared to a three-year average of 2.5 for Beltran before last winter. However, Beltran had a slightly better two-year projection when he signed than Hunter does now. While Beltran came with more injury concerns and arguably offered less clubhouse leadership, he was a couple years younger and boasted the better peak by far. The two received identical deals, which suggests that, in this case, $13 million might have gone a little less far this year.

RP Brandon League
Signed by:
Los Angeles Dodgers
Contract: Three years, $22.5 million
Comparable player: RP Frank Francisco (signed by the Mets, two years, $12 million)
League is probably the strongest evidence in favor of inflation so far. Only two relievers got three-year commitments and contracts larger than League’s last offseason: Jonathan Papelbon and Heath Bell, both of whom were older than League but had much more successful track records. League’s 123 ERA+ and 58 saves over the last three seasons compare closely to Francisco’s 121 ERA+ and 44 saves from 2009-11. Given League’s age and superior durability, his annual salary doesn’t actually look that unjustifiable compared to Francisco’s, so it’s not as if his signing was completely inconsistent with the standards established last winter. Still, the third year was a little lavish: as Jeremy Affeldt said after League signed, “There’s a market established.” The Dodgers wasted little time in living up to their newfound free-spending reputation. Now they’ll have to hope they’ll be happier with League than the Mets were with Francisco.

RP Jeremy Affeldt
Signed by:
San Francisco Giants
Contract: Three years, $18 million
Comparable player: RP Jon Rauch (signed by the Mets, one year, $3.5 million)
Like League’s, Affeldt’s deal would have qualified as the third-largest awarded to a reliever last year. The lefty has been about as consistent as relievers come during his time in San Francisco, he has a small platoon split, and he gets both groundballs and missed bats. On the surface, he doesn’t look so different from Jon Rauch when he signed last winter, either performance-wise  (117 ERA+ for Affeldt, 113 ERA+ for Rauch), workload-wise (175 IP for Affeldt, 179 2/3 for Rauch), or age-wise (both 33). Affeldt is left-handed and has more grounders going for him, which helps account for the discrepancy between their contracts, though the southpaw’s bank account may have benefited from San Francisco’s post-Series high. Affeldt’s contract isn’t crazy, but it it’s hardly a steal. Still, this offseason hasn’t been totally devoid of affordable contracts for relievers, as Joel Peralta and Oliver Perez have re-signed with the Rays and Mariners, respectively, at reasonable rates.

OF Melky Cabrera
Signed by:
Toronto Blue Jays
Contract: Two years, $16 million
Comparable player: None
It’s not every offseason that the list of available free agents includes a 28-year-old outfielder who played so well through mid-August that he finished the year as one of baseball’s most valuable players despite sitting out the rest of the season with a PED suspension. No player fit that profile last winter, but Jason Kubel signed for two years and $15 million after two seasons of roughly replacement-level play, which gives you some sense of how big a bargain this could be for Toronto. There might not be many believers in a repeat of 2012 (due as much to the fluky BABIP as the positive test), but if Cabrera can provide his 2011 production, he’ll be well worth the money. There was always a sense that Cabrera would sign a short-term, below-market deal and attempt to remove the testosterone stigma before cashing in on his next contract, but it’s somewhat surprising that he agreed to two years. It’s hard to say whether that can be traced to teams’ lack of confidence in Cabrera or Cabrera’s agent’s lack of confidence that teams would be willing to spend this winter.

C David Ross
Signed by: Boston Red Sox
Contract:
Two years, $6.2 million
Comparable player: C Ramon Hernandez (signed by Colorado for two years, $6.4 million)
Ross has been a better defender and hitter than Hernandez was in the few years leading up to the contract he signed last season, but he’s also played more sparingly and had the platoon advantage more often. The two were both 35 when they signed, and they got nearly identical deals.

SP Scott Baker
Signed by:
Chicago Cubs
Contract: One year, $5.5 million
Comparable player: SP Erik Bedard (signed by Pittsburgh for one year, $4.5 million)
Baker is coming off a season entirely lost to Tommy John surgery; Bedard had a better performance record but if anything was even more injury risk. Both starters got make-good one year offers, but Baker’s was a bit better.

SP Bartolo Colon
Signed by: 
Oakland Athletics
Contract: One year, $3 million
Comparable player: SP Bartolo Colon (signed by Oakland for one year, $2 million)
Colon is a year older than he was last time around, and his 2013 ended early due to a suspension for testosterone use. He did pitch well when healthy, but the expectations for a 40-year-old Colon can’t be as high as they were for the 39-year-old edition. He got a raise nonetheless.

Other Evidence
Hisashi Iwakuma and Maicer Izturis don’t have perfect 2011-12 free-agent analogues, but neither one signed for a sum that raised any eyebrows (two years, $14 million for Iwakuma; three years, $9 million for Izturis). A few players whom many media members expected to receive qualifying offers—including Hunter, Edwin Jackson, Angel Pagan, and Mike Napoli—didn’t, suggesting that the industry’s sense of the market may have been a bit more conservative than the public perception. There’s also the fact that David Ortiz and Jake Peavy, who would have been among the most high-profile free agents had they hit the open market, re-signed with their teams for amounts that would have been at or even below the market rate last winter rather than test the waters.

It’s possible that the free agents who signed early were the ones least inclined to take a hard line in negotiations, and that we’ll see an uptick as the winter wears on. All in all, though, the evidence suggests that so far we’re seeing spending roughly in line with what we saw last offseason. Last winter was marked by a number of megadeals that could have kicked off an even more irresponsible spree, but it’s looking more likely than it was a few weeks ago that we could be in for a short-term plateau instead of a rapid rise.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

4 comments have been left for this article.

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