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November 19, 2009
The Opening Bell
Come the morning, all six-year players who have declared free agency can sign with new teams. This isn't likely to trigger a wave of transactions-the players and their agents are technically not allowed to even talk to new teams until tomorrow-but it does begin the off-season feeding frenzy that will see hundreds of millions of dollars guaranteed to a group of players that, collectively, has nowhere to go but down.
Does that sound overly pessimistic? Perhaps, but gazing out upon a field of free agents led by two left fielders who are done with their twenties and a starting pitcher whose made 51 starts total the last two seasons, I'm reminded of what I wrote two years ago in advance of the Winter of Overpaid Outfielders:
There are no superstars in this market, none of the top 50 or even 75 players in baseball, and yet we'll see top 30 contracts signed, because these players are the ones available, and the money is available, and the two finding each other is as inevitable as strained metaphors at the end of a too-long paragraph.
All of that applies this year, with the possible exception of the "top 50" line, as I suppose Matt Holliday squeezes in under that line based on his peak, one that is likely behind him. Again, that may be pessimistic, because a glance at Holliday's three seasons leading up to free agency would seem to comfortably place him among the game's better players.
Year AVG OBP SLG EqA EqR +/- UZR 2007 .340 .405 .607 .317 121 +4 14.2 2008 .321 .409 .538 .316 104 +9 9.1 2009 .313 .394 .515 .311 112 +19 5.7
Since his MVP-caliber campaign of 2007, Holliday has remained one of the top 20 hitters in the game while playing above-average defense in left field. As Jay Jaffe wrote, it's Holliday's defense that makes him a better investment than Jason Bay, elevating him to the top ranking among this winter's free agents.
I mean, how much difference is there between Holliday and this guy?
Year AVG OBP SLG EqA EqR +/- UZR 2006 .282 .371 .514 .286 100 +2 -2.1 2007 .306 .400 .563 .322 101 -4 10.6 2008 .308 .410 .552 .328 124 +23 -3.7
That player signed an eight-year, $160 million contract last winter off of a launch year that wasn't far removed, maybe a win better, than what Holliday did in '09. His three-year performance was actually slightly better, with a few more runs produced at the bat and saved in the field. Mark Teixeira signed one of the biggest free-agent contracts ever, so why shouldn't Matt Holliday expect the same? (Fangraphs' David Cameron, it should be noted, addressed this comparison at that site last week.)
The biggest difference between the two players, who were born just three months apart in 1980, is that one reached the majors quickly enough to hit the market as a 29-year-old, while the other will be 30. That seems like a small difference, but in terms of buying an asset, it's a big one. In Teixeira, a suitor was paying for a player who was one year closer to his peak and one year further from his decline; a baseball player is more valuable from 29-36 than he is from 30-37. Holliday is two years removed from his best season, whereas Teixeira was coming off of his best season. This is also related to their ages. So, his 2007 season aside, Teixeira is clearly the better hitter, and perceived to be the better fielder relative to their positions. Given the difficulty UZR has with first-base defense, I'm inclined to take Plus/Minus most seriously there; both players are good defensively.
Holliday is a clearly inferior hitter to Teixeira. He is a comparable defender right now, playing a position where the aging process is likely to take a greater toll on his performance. He is a year older, essentially out of his peak, and at an age where you're buying more of the decline phase. It's not that Holliday shouldn't be paid what Teixeira was; it's that the two aren't even close as assets. Teixeira was perhaps the most attractive position-playing free agent since Carlos Beltran. Holliday is another corner outfielder in a market that has been pretty mean to them.
Mind you, Holliday is the choicest bit of meat in the window this winter. Jason Bay is Holliday minus a knee and plus 15 months. John Lackey is a very good pitcher who has a career 3.81 ERA, never had an ERA below 3.01, and has received Cy Young votes just once in his career. The comparisons to A.J. Burnett bring us back to the Holliday/Teixeira problem: Burnett hit the market off of one of just three full seasons in his career, while Lackey hits it coming off the second straight year in which he missed time early in the season to an injury.
Once you get past the top of the list, there's a massive falloff in value. Bobby Abreu might well have been the fourth-best free agent available had he not signed a contract with the Angels right after the World Series. It's hard to find any players who have been healthy and effective for two seasons running, which is why Randy Wolf and Johnny Damon, a mid-rotation starter and a left fielder with the worst arm in baseball, actually stand out in this crowd. Work down the list, and you find that guys like Ben Sheets, Justin Duchscherer, and Kelvim Escobar, who didn't even play in 2009, are some of the more attractive options. It's an absolutely brutal pool of players to be paying market salaries to acquire.
MLB teams feel the need to hide behind the economy to justify avoiding doing so, which is a ridiculous argument. Revenues are essentially flat over 2008, but that still means MLB had its second-best year ever in a time when payrolls as a percentage of revenues are near their free-agency era lows. For all the handwringing about the economy, the baseball industry is one of the healthiest in America, and any economic effects have to do with owners who may be losing money elsewhere turning to their cash-rich sports enterprise for cover. The best reasons to shun the free-agent market are baseball ones: the players available simply aren't good investments. They're old, or flawed, or fragile, or two of the three, and it makes more sense, baseball sense, to find other ways to fix a team. It makes more sense, economic sense, to hoard cash for better investments.
I'm as big a Scott Boras fan as anyone who writes for a living is allowed to be, but in this year, in this market, he has a tough sell. Last year, the top of the market included not just Teixeira, a great player hitting the market at 29 who happened to be an ungodly perfect fit for the team with the most money in the industry, but also a 28-year-old left-hander who had a case for being called the best pitcher in baseball. They got paid, but the market didn't develop for the back end of players who were too similar to one another-the clutch of relievers and the group of corner outfielders, or the guys who didn't warrant sacrificing a draft pick to sign. It didn't take collusion, just good sense. We're back there again this season, when not only is there no depth, there's no top end. Meanwhile, you can look 12 months down the road and see a market with Joe Mauer, and Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, and Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett. Two years out there's Felix Hernandez and Albert Pujols. Tying top-tier money up in players below that level is short-term thinking.
In the 2009 free-agent market, unlike that of 2008 or 2010, the only way to win is not to play.