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November 30, 2005

Prospectus Today

Put the Checkbooks Away

by Joe Sheehan

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Is it too late to stop the madness?

I count 197 major-league free agents, of which 173 appear to still be available. My recommendation is that none of them--none--should be signed.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating collusion, or any organized effort to impede the market. I'm saying that there is very little chance that any free-agent signing this winter is going to return adequate performance for the dollars invested. In fact, I think this winter's crop of contracts may make last winter's fiasco look like a Warren Buffett seminar. Therefore, I would suggest that every team in baseball is individually better off not signing free agents, rather than involve themselves in overpaying and overcommitting to players who won't be worth it.

One of the key credos in what you might call the "BP philosophy" is that you want to sign free agents from the very top of the market or the very bottom. Superstars in their early prime, guys like Greg Maddux and Barry Bonds in 1992, or Alex Rodriguez in 2000, are excellent investments, because it's difficult to find players who have that kind of impact, and even harder to get their best seasons through the market. At the other end of the spectrum, a smart team can gain a real advantage by signing the right low-end free-agents to one-year deals, often minor-league contracts with invitations to spring training.

This winter, though, the very best free agents don't come close to approaching the caliber of those available in recent seasons. There is no Carlos Beltran in this market, no Pedro Martinez, no Vladimir Guerrero or Miguel Tejada. The top players in this market are flawed, aging or both, and either have no superstar credentials to speak of or little chance of sustaining star performance over the life of a new contract.

Consider the B.J. Ryan signing, which combines about four different flaws in one package. The Blue Jays gave Ryan a five-year deal averaging just over nine million dollars a season. The five years covered by the deal are two more than the number of effective seasons on Ryan's resume, and that's giving him credit for 2003, in which he threw 50 1/3 innings in 76 games as a specialist, posting just over two Wins Above Replacement. This is the same mistake, down to the details, that a variety of teams made last year with guys like Eric Milton, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, just to name a few of the more egregious examples. Evaluating a player just on his walk year is a recipe for disaster.

Think about this: the Jays are saying Ryan, a hard thrower with a violent delivery who has three good years under his belt, is going to be a star-caliber pitcher for the next five.

Even if that evaluation is correct--it's not--how does a team with the offensive problems the Blue Jays have commit about 10% of its payroll to someone who is going to throw 75 innings? The closer myth won't go away. Although the Jays have a broad assortment of live arms in their pen, the kind of collection that would make a closer-by-situation approach viable, they've instead made a ridiculous commitment to one guy to be their closer, just because he fits the profile and racked up a lot of saves last year.

The Ryan contract probably got Billy Wagner some extra money from the Mets, and if the length and dollars aren't the same, the problem of overvaluing a one-inning reliever remains. The Wagner signing also introduces the age issue; while Wagner has been consistent since his injury-marred 2000 season, he'll be 34 next summer, and this contract takes him through his age 37 season. Even a small decline from his current level of performance, which seems likely, would dramatically change his worth to the Mets. It's hard for even the best closers to be worth $10 million a year while throwing just 75-85 innings.

Age is the primary concern when it comes to Johnny Damon as well. Players with speed are said to age better than players without, which is a point in Damon's favor. He's 32, and will likely require a contract commitment through the age of 35, at least. He already has the worst arm of any center fielder in baseball, and if he loses any range--his Davenport numbers took a dip this year--he'll be unplayable out there. Damon isn't going to hit enough to carry a corner spot, so the risk involved in signing him is huge. Once he starts hurting you in center field, he's a very expensive albatross.

With Damon, there's also a gap between the perception of him and the reality. He's not a consistent .300 hitter, so his OBP can fluctuate a bit, and his 20-homer season in 2004 sticks out like a sore thumb. He's still a high-percentage base stealer, just not high-volume (19/8 and 18/1 the past two years). As Scott Boras' manifesto covered, Damon has been a very good player up to this point in his career, but you're not buying that player, you're buying the ages 32-35 player, and you get no guarantees with that.

I see a similar problem with Paul Konerko, who is being overrated thanks to his association with a championship team and his strong postseason performance, as well as some big counting stats in his platform seasons. Konerko isn't a high-impact first baseman, a .400 OBP or .600 SLG guy, although he's likely to get the kind of money Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado, two players who are legitimate 1000-OPS hitters, got in their free-agent deals. Konerko's age 28-29 seasons have been good, and he's stood out in a weak AL pool at first base, but to justify the kind of money and years being bandied about, he'd have to improve on that performance in his early thirties. Moreover, this doesn't address the issue of U.S. Cellular's impact on Konerko's numbers; how much of his stat line comes from playing in a great park for right-handed flyball hitters?

The biggest disconnect between perception and reality, and the probable winner of worst contract this winter, is A.J. Burnett. Last year was the first time in Burnett's career that he'd made 30 starts, and just the second time he'd thrown 200 innings. Burnett has never had an ERA below 3.30, has just three reasonably full seasons on his record, and, like ex-teammate Josh Beckett, has been ordinary outside of Dolphins Stadium.

And he's going to end up with a five-year contract, quite possibly for more than $70 million.

Here are two frightening stat lines for you, in each case, the career numbers of the players when they gained free agency:


                   ERA     IP    H   BB   SO   HR   WARP
A.J. Burnett      3.73  854.2  719  377  753   66   21.4
Darren Dreifort   4.28  667.0  636  281  581   68   15.8
Burnett's edges come largely because Dreifort spent more time as a reliever and pitched in a somewhat higher offensive era.

There are other similarities, both stylistic and statistical. Both pitchers were adored by scouts, both threw hard, both had injury histories. Both hit the market after their age-28 season, which was their second-best to date. Dreifort signed a five-year, $55-million deal with the Dodgers, and proceeded to throw 205 2/3 innings with a 4.64 in 2001. No, wait…that's what he did over the entire duration of the contract.

Darren Dreifort is to 2000 what A.J. Burnett is to 2005. I wouldn't sign Burnett with your money.

Ryan, Wagner, Damon, Konerko, Burnett…all of these guys are flawed investments for one reason or another. In another year, they'd be second-tier free agents making second-tier money, but this winter, they're the prizes. Booby prizes.

Are there free agents I would sign? Perhaps, but each new contract makes it harder and harder to get value down the list. I think highly of Paul Byrd, who throws strikes and eats innings, but if Esteban Loaiza gets three years and $21 million, I doubt Byrd can be had for that much less. The Phillies queered the market for bench help by giving ex-waiver-bait Abraham Nunez a two-year contract for more than $3 million. Frank Thomas is worth a flyer if you can structure the deal properly; he could DH for more than half the teams in the AL. Bill Mueller, a year removed from a batting title, would be a nice OBP boost for a lot of teams at third base.

In general, though, it's going to be nearly impossible to find bargains. There's just too much money available right now, and not enough talent in this market. The winters of 2003 and 2004, when guys like Vladimir Guerrero could be had for what we now call "Burnett money," are long gone.

GMs, don't sign anyone. You'll be better off for it. While your colleagues--or their successors--are working under the burden of albatross contracts in 2007 and beyond, you'll have the money to spend on future free-agent crops, on the players you develop internally, and on players you acquire in trades. Signing players from this winter's free-agent pool is just going to lead to regret, buyouts and firings.

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

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