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February 19, 2009

Free-Agency Mistakes

Big Money, Bigger Regrets?

by Christina Kahrl

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Trying to make a big splash in free agency automatically risks making a big mistake. While this winter's shopping season has been especially strange because of the way in which the economic situation has had an impact on who signs where and for what, it's interesting that most teams haven't made the mistake of offering too many long-term contracts for pitchers, a reflection of the increasing certainty that anything beyond three years can go from million-dollar expense to millstone on the payroll lasting years beyond that bit of off-season impulse buying had seemed like such a good idea. Nevertheless, spend some teams did, and regrets they will most certainly have, but who did the worst? Let's break this into different categories: the worst one-year, two-year, and three-year contracts, with honorable mentions in each category, and capped by the worst deal of the winter for its length, expense, and likely return.

Worst One-Year Contract: Trevor Hoffman, Brewers, $6 million

There was a lot of action involving closers changing places this past winter, but you can rely on the Brewers to keep throwing money at the problem in their joyless pursuit of a reliever who might merit a seven-figure payday. Ever since Derrick Turnbow's control vacated the premises during 2006, they tried trading for Francisco Cordero only to watch him walk away after 2007, rented Eric Gagné for 2008 at the hefty cost of $10 million only to watch skipper Ned Yost burn out the fragile former All-Star early on, and have now decided to pile a subsequent risk on top of that one by giving the fading future Hall of Famer a chance to spin his wares far from the wide-open spaces of Petco Park. With little to keep lefties honest any more, and without the benefit of the game's best pitcher's park to provide an assist, the changeup fiend might have to switch from AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" to "Back in Black," to at least celebrate his reward for almost certainly closing out his career as a Brewer. What happened to the wisdom that conjured up Turnbow, or before him Danny Kolb, and then avoided getting too involved with either? As the transient utility of Turnbow or Kolb or even Salomon Torres last year substituting for Gagné demonstrated, you can assign save opportunities for all sorts of people and get perfunctory effectiveness; spending top dollar for falling stars can go Tunguska on you both on the payroll and on the diamond.

Honorable Mention: Jason Varitek, Red Sox, $5 million. Alex, can I buy a 'C' for $5 million? It takes an awful lot of faith in one player's intangibles to look past last year's equally intangible production at the plate and spend a very tangible number of clams on a player who isn't a better option than any of the less-expensive alternatives in camp, starting with Josh Bard, but also including George Kottaras and Dusty Brown. Add in concerns over Varitek's ability to deter the running game, and that's a lot to pay for a former famous person.

Worst Two-Year Contract: Willy Taveras, Reds, $6.25 million

The problem with signing Willy Taveras has little to do with the total expense; it's not zero dollars down, but in baseball terms it's not really all that expensive. It has even less to do with the things that he does do well, like run and steal bases (generating a NL-best 11.9 Equivalent Baserunning Runs), covering the gaps, throwing pretty effectively for a center fielder). The problem is what Taveras is being employed to do-lead off-and the chance that he can deliver on it with even a modicum of effectiveness. His park-neutral PECOTA projection for 2009 is for a .319 OBP, which doesn't sound too good for a team that got a .326 OBP from its weak crew of leadoff options last year. The real pity is that the Reds could have instead run with a platoon that puts sophomore Chris Dickerson in center and leading off-Dickerson's projected to a park-neutral .331 OBP, which he'd surpass if his minor league splits held in the majors and he was limited to starting versus righties. And no, employing Dickerson wouldn't cost "only" $6.25 million the next two years-money that might have instead been spent on getting a left fielder who might actually help the Reds score some runs.

Honorable Mention: Aaron Miles, Cubs, $4.9 million. While Jim Hendry's desire to deal with his lineup's heavy lean to the right was commendable, did it really have to involve spending this kind of money for a mediocre defender who projects to "contribute" a .238 Equivalent Average, well below last year's position averages at short (.255) and second (.264)? Miles' replacement-level production is the sort of luxury item most teams should forgo, especially when there are utilitymen knocking around the minors who cost less, and especially when the Cubs could have simply stuck with the since-dealt Ronny Cedeño in the role for less, and gotten better glove work and more upside for their troubles.

Worst Three-Year Contract: Raul Ibañez, Phillies, $30 million

OK, now we're talking real money, the sort of cash that you might think gets Congress yammering about limiting executive pay in the boardrooms of baseball as well as banking. By striking early into his tenure and inking Ibañez a couple of weeks into December, newly minted Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro completely failed to anticipate the shape of this winter's market, as younger and arguably better players like Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, and-that's right, Phillies fans-Pat Burrell all got less money over shorter contracts, costing their employers just a combined $41 million for five player seasons. Amaro also radically overspent to bring a DH-to-be in his age-37 through age-39 seasons to the National League: PECOTA's long-term forecasting valued Ibañez's next three seasons at $13.5 million in marginal value over a replacement-level player (MORP), and that's without any special accounting for this winter's frozen market place. While the Phillies had to make a call one way or another, offering Burrell arbitration or a deal like the one he signed with the Rays, or waiting out the market to bring Ibañez's value down toward where Dunn and Abreu signed would have been the much smarter play than that early bit of headline-grabbing.

Honorable Mention: Milton Bradley, Cubs, $30 million. Technically, this could wind up being a two-year deal for $18 million, with 2011 being either a club option for $12 million or a $2 million buyout if Bradley's persistent health woes bite the Cubs in 2009 or 2010. This isn't to bang on Hendry overmuch-somebody was going to take the risk on Bradley's health, but like the Phillies with Ibañez, by buying earlier in the winter and spending top dollar for a down-ballot MVP-caliber DH, the Cubs have added a lot of risk with few guarantees. The relative expense of the Angels' bringing in Bobby Abreu (one year, $5 million) goes to show that balancing out the Cubs' righty-hitter-heavy lineup didn't have to go this steep for this long, and while the upside risk is pretty tasty, Bradley's history is such that it's a tough bet to take or make.

Worst Contract of the Winter: A.J. Burnett, Yankees, five years, $82.5 million

Without signing the occasionally healthy and occasionally valuable Burnett, the Yankees' rotation would feature CC Sabathia, Joba Chamberlain, Andy Pettitte, and Chien-Ming Wang. So why spend $16.5 million per year for the next five on a pitcher with Burnett's spotty track record? Well, because you can, I suppose, and because somebody else you're competing with might, but is investing this kind of money in a pitcher coming off of just his second full season in a big-league rotation in ten in The Show really where you want to wind up? Between Burnett's repeated problems with durability and consistency over the course of his career, the money alone for this kind of length was nuts. Add in that young pitching is the organization's great strength-Phil Hughes representing just the front end of the wave-and short-term deals like Pettitte's incentive-driven one-year contract look entirely sensible as an adaptation to the market and the team's immediate win-now needs; Burnett's deal, by comparison, does not. Consider this the white elephant that'll make Yankees fans forget Carl Pavano.

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

Related Content:  Worst Seasons,  The Who

46 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


As far as two-year deals go, Aaron Miles might be lamentable but it's light-years better than Kyle Farnsworth for two at $9.25 million. I might argue that in terms of GM incompetence the Farnsworth deal even beats the Taveras deal.

Feb 19, 2009 10:48 AM
rating: 4
Sky Kalkman

I agree. Farnsworth's posted FIPs over 5.00 the past two years, below replacement-level for a reliever. $4MM per year? For TWO YEARS!?

Feb 19, 2009 11:31 AM
rating: 1

Thirded. That was brutal.

Feb 19, 2009 12:23 PM
rating: 1

As a Yankee fan, I was amazed when I saw that happen. I thought Moore was supposed to be smart? Farns is a bad pitcher. There is a mountain of data to prove it. The illusion of his usefulness is, if I recall correctly, 2-3 months of flukey goodness. And, of course, radar gun readings.

Feb 19, 2009 12:33 PM
rating: 1

I prefer to think that the Yankees signed Burnett with full knowledge that he'd end up being hurt half the time, in effect leaving a spot open for Hughes, Kennedy, or whoever to show their stuff without having to cement themselves as a permanent part of the rotation. He's also being paid $80 million because Cashman likes screwing with us Yankees fans.

At least this is what I tell myself at night.

Feb 19, 2009 10:54 AM
rating: 0

I'm a little surprised someone inking the ageless Doug Brocail (1 yr/$2.75 m) or Russ Springer (1 yr/$3.3 m) didn't make this list. Heck, they could just occupy the 40+ division with Amaro's puzzling decision to give Moyer two years.

Feb 19, 2009 11:15 AM
rating: 0
Erik Nagel

Did you check Hoffman's recent road stats?

Feb 19, 2009 11:17 AM
rating: 0
David Coonce

Ridiculously small sample size - Hoffman threw just 15 innings on the road last year.

As a Padres fan and a huge Trevor Hoffman booster, it's painful for me to say this, but Trevor's just not good anymore. I cringe watching him throw that 83 mph "fastball." He gave up a home run every 5 innings last year. That's bad.

And, really, can you justify paying a guy 6 million dollars a year for 45 innings pitched?

Feb 20, 2009 04:28 AM
rating: 2
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

Thanks David, you beat me to my point, which is part of the glory of having a Comments section. ;)

Don't get me wrong, if Hoffman pulls a Doug Jones on us in his Brewers incarnation and power-puffs his way to greatness, it'll be a fun thing to see. I just have my very strong doubts about it.

Feb 20, 2009 09:55 AM

PECOTA sure likes burnett next year...

Feb 19, 2009 11:24 AM
rating: 0

Christina nails the mark on her preferred targets, but what about "Aggregate Mediocrity Not Worth the Clubhouse Catering Bill"?

I nominate Ned COlletti, who brings to Dodger camp: C Brad Ausmus , SS Juan Castro, SP Shawn Estes, SP Charlie Haeger, INF Mark Loretta, RP Guillermo Mota, SP Claudio Vargas, SP Jeff Weaver, SP Randy Wolf.

Get yer tickets now.....

Feb 19, 2009 11:27 AM
rating: 1
Morris Greenberg

Just wondering as a Giants fan, how bad did you think the Renteria deal was? It's being criticized as the worst signing this year often.

Feb 19, 2009 11:31 AM
rating: 1
Matt Kory

The Renteria deal isn't good, but compared to who the Giants had at shortstop its not horrendous.

Feb 19, 2009 17:19 PM
rating: 0

Maybe not horrendous, but given that they brought back Aurilia in a minor league deal, couldn't they have just saved the cash on Renteria and used this season to see if other guys like Burriss or Bocock could make the grade?

Feb 24, 2009 21:46 PM
rating: 0
Sky Kalkman

Milton Bradley's not going to DH for the Cubs, for better or worse in regards to his health. But he's a pretty darn good fielder. Even if he's only good for 450 PAs per year, you're likely still looking at a 4 WAR player. Abreu, on the other hand, can't field a lick. Sure, he's going to DH, but that makes him only worth about what the Angels paid for him, maybe a couple million more.

Feb 19, 2009 11:34 AM
rating: 0
Fresh Hops

Ibanez actually cost is $30M over 3 years and a first round draft pick. Dunn and (GM mistake *I* wouldn't make) Burrell were not. Dunn wouldn't have cost the Phillies a first round draft pick, and if they'd at least offered Burrell arbitration at slightly less than Ibanez prices, they would at least have avoided the draft pick loss. Amaro's first moves were horribly clumsy, and that's putting it nicely.

Feb 19, 2009 11:35 AM
rating: 6
Al Skorupa

Im not sure I want to kill Amaro for it, but I agree that Ibanez was an awful idea and contract.

Rather than make it a referendum on Amaro and where the Phils are going Im inclined to chalk this up to "badly misinterpreting where the market was headed."

Feb 19, 2009 15:41 PM
rating: 1
Matt Kory

Even if it is badly misinterpreting where the market was headed and you discount the dollars, the fact that he gave Ibanez a three year deal to play terrible defense in a DH-less league is a head scratcher too. Plus its for his age 37-39 years. All in all just an awful deal.

Feb 19, 2009 17:22 PM
rating: 3

CK, I think you may be being slightly unfair to Burnett given the health track record of the Blue Jays organization with regards to pitchers. Will Carroll is on the record multiple times that there is a systematic issue at work in the organization and the Jays indeed do break pitchers.

As a fan, I think Burnett's injury issues in the middle of 2007 were clearly attributable to being overworked to the point of negligence rather than a durability issue.

Feb 19, 2009 11:50 AM
rating: 1

I do think the Jays could've handled Burnett better, but that contract is still likely to suck. I hated it when it was first announced, and I still dislike it (the hate was due to my fear that it meant no Teixiera, which thankfully was not the case). He's 32, he's got a spotty health history, and they just signed him for 5 years.

That said, I'm hoping for the upside to shine through.

Feb 19, 2009 12:30 PM
rating: 0
James Martin Cole

Yeah, but it doesn't really matter whose fault it is; he's still got a messed up arm. It's not like all of his old issues go away when he changes teams. Maybe the Yankees can handle him better (although their pitchers don't really have a sterling track record of health as of late), but even if they do he's still got all of his past issues waiting to pop back up.

Feb 19, 2009 13:07 PM
rating: 2

Burnett had health problems in Florida long before he got to Toronto.

Feb 19, 2009 17:07 PM
rating: 3

How about locking up Nick Punto? It will essentially be a 2 year 8.5 mill deal after they buy out his 3rd year. He's been handed the starting SS job this year. PECOTA thinks he will hit .244/.310/.318 with below average defense.

Shoot me now please.

Feb 19, 2009 12:29 PM
rating: 3
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Grading the Free Agent signings as the "worst" or "best" before a single pitch is thrown is akin to grading the MLB Player draft as soon as it's over. In short, a pretty worthless exercise in futility.

Feb 19, 2009 13:30 PM
rating: -8
James Martin Cole


Let's all never try to predict anything, ever.

Feb 19, 2009 15:48 PM
rating: 10

You think its unreasonable to judge decisions based on the information available at the time they were made?

That's the only way to judge decisions. Waiting until we have the benefit of hindsight criticises people for being unlucky, and applauds people who made bad bets but won.

This is the best time to evaluate those contracts.

Feb 19, 2009 18:56 PM
rating: 10

Burnett has pitched at least 21 games the last three years. If you expand that to include 4 years, he manage 32 starts in 2005. He's been putting up solid numbers in the very tough AL East. It's a big gamble and a bit too much money but one the Yankees could afford, and they had already given up their 1st and second-round picks. The Ibanez deal was much worse.

Feb 19, 2009 13:33 PM
rating: 0

Also, when they signed Burnett, Pettitte's status was still in limbo and two of the pitchers mentioned had been injured much of 2008, though Wang's was a flukey injury. They needed the depth to avoid Chase Wright and Ian Kennedy making starts.

Feb 19, 2009 13:37 PM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

It's hard to defend the Ibanez deal, but the Burnett deal is for almost three times the money and almost twice the years. Burnett has to pitch really well for a really long time just to be worth what the Yankees gave him.

Feb 19, 2009 17:28 PM
rating: 2

"Alex, can I buy a 'C' for $5 million? "
Wrong host.
Pat Sajak hosts Wheel of Fortune.

Feb 19, 2009 13:59 PM
rating: 7
G. Guest

..and you can't "buy" consonants in Wheel either. So maybe Christina *was* actually channeling Jeopardy! and providing to a Question to a clue?

Feb 19, 2009 14:38 PM
rating: 2
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

Actually, I was just funning with youse guys, to see who got worked up over it. I can't really say this rises to the level of calling "punk'd!", but then again, I'm just really not that cool or contemporary.

Feb 20, 2009 09:47 AM

Burnett averaged about 121 IP over his 7 years with the Marlins, and you're trying to rationalize the signing by saying his injury troubles were because of the Jays? He has had 3 seasons of 200+ IP out of 10, and they were all mysteriously when he was due for a big raise the next year. I definitely agree, this one will make the Yankees forget about Pavano and Igawa.

Feb 19, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 3

...not in a good way

Feb 19, 2009 16:08 PM
rating: 1
Nick J

Nick Punto sucks. I played on a team with him in Pony league and he wasn't even the best player on the team... just a kid with overly protective parents that acted like a primadonna. 8.5 from a team that lets almost everyone walk post arbitration?

Feb 19, 2009 16:20 PM
rating: -1

This comment becomes infinitely funnier if this is actually Nick Johnson of the Washington Nationals...let's at least pretend it is...

Feb 21, 2009 18:49 PM
rating: 2

If Tavares was signed on a team with a good offense and could bat 8th or 9th, providing some speed and defense, this would be a good signing. However, the Reds don't really fit this profile.

Gagne's trouble wasn't his manager shaking his confidence- it was that (as the Mitchell report makes clear) he was only ever any good when he was juicing.

Feb 19, 2009 16:32 PM
rating: -1
Al Skorupa

Also, hilariously, Dusty plans on batting him lead off.

How does this guy keep getting jobs?

Feb 19, 2009 18:10 PM
rating: 2

Kyle Farnsworth. My god, Kyle Farnsworth! I'm going to assume that contract is sow awful that Christina simply refuses to believe it exists.

Feb 19, 2009 17:39 PM
rating: 3

Now, suppose Pavano turns in a respectable middle of the rotation performance for the Indians at $1.5m while Burnett milks the D.L. I love to watch Yankee fans cry.

Feb 19, 2009 18:54 PM
rating: 3

Cry no. Scream in fury, yes. I think that scenario is pretty unlikely, though. Not because I think Burnett will be particularly healthy, but because Pavano just isn't a good pitcher, and he's got 4 years of rust to shake off. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I just don't see him pulling a Contreras. If he does, enjoy your schadenfreude.

Feb 20, 2009 07:47 AM
rating: 0

> If he does, enjoy your schadenfreude.

Historically, that's kinda all we got.

Feb 20, 2009 08:25 AM
rating: 1

I know statistics deal with long run trends and expectations, but i think for the yankees hitting one out of the park is more valuable, so that taking a chance, a chance that they could suffer, is more sensible for them. Their imported pitchers in the last few years were not guys with immensely high ceilings mostly, they could feel that it is time to just aim higher and write off losses as acceptable risk.

Feb 20, 2009 09:55 AM
rating: 0

Uhhh....guys...about Burnett...Does anyone, fans, the BP staff, anyone, actually pay attention to BP's own stuff?

Burnett's PECOTA for this season from THE book: 13-9, 30 GS, 197 IP, 187 H, 73 BB, 178 K, 19 HR, WHIP 1.32, ERA 3.82, SNWL 4.82.

You know, in the AL East, that's uh...pretty good, and it's his 50% projection, isn't it? I mean, it's not really worth $16.5 million, I suppose, but it does reflect his last 3 seasons with reasonable accuracy. The Yanks do have the money to burn, and at least they picked a pitcher who can strike guys out at a nice rate this time; one with a fairly decent record over the last 5 years, not just 1 or 2.

And then there's the comparables: Jack Morris...now he was pretty good, I think... and Mike Scott, he was OK for a couple of years there...Roger Clemens had some unnatural assistance, but he was considered to be still decent in his 1st decline at age 31...and Joe Dobson wasn't great, but he was pretty darn good. All 4 of these guys were good at 31 for at least 2-3 more seasons.

And finally, there's the BICA percentages...Breakout: 33%, that's a 1/3 chance he'll be 20% or more BETTER than 2008; Improve 69%...I havn't checked thoroughly, but that's gotta be one of the highest Imp% numbers in the whole darn book...Collapse is 8%, and that seems pretty darn low for a starter, and Attrition is 12%...which is exactly the same number Johan Santana's at.

Now, if everyone's judging off his character, that's fine, but they better be right about that character.n His track record? He hasn't had one of those completely lost seasons since 2003. I mean, every comment I read about this contract from BP writers and subscribers says "Disaster of Biblical Proportions" and maybe they're right. But doesn't it give anyone pause that all the PECOTA tools point in the other direction?

Feb 21, 2009 02:03 AM
rating: 3
Sky Kalkman

$16MM at $4.5MM per marginal win is a 3.5 WAR player. PECOTA thinks he'll be a step above that, meaning he's making slightly less than the going rate for free agents.

Feb 21, 2009 18:40 PM
rating: 0

Just for funsies...here's the PECOTA line for Pavano for 2005:

28 GS, (No W-L record as part of PECOTA in 2005), 174.2 IP, 199 H, 42 BB, 109 K, 23 HR, 4.64 ERA, VORP 21.3 (Not sure how to translate that to SNWL)

Breakout: 12%, Improve 47%, Collapse 20% (No attrition or comps given.)

Look, I guess it's pretty much certain that Burnett's not going to be worth the money they're going to pay him, and there'll be at least one or two seasons of the 5 that he's going to bust on them, but I don't think it'll be Pavano II either. The K rate is the major difference, and the second important things is that Burnett isn't coming from the Florida park and the NL East. He already knows about how tough it is in that division.

Feb 21, 2009 02:11 AM
rating: 0
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