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August 23, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Free Agent Alternate History

by Sam Miller

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You know what they say: The key to comedy is timing. Consider the following three jokes:

Joke 1. In December 2011, three men were wandering through the countryside in search of a place to sleep for the night. They came upon a large farm. The farmer said they were welcome to spend the night, so long as they didn’t touch his beautiful daughter. To make a long story short, one of them—the Angels—snuck out and signed Josh Hamilton for five years and $125 million, Hamilton went on to hit 43 home runs (including four in one game!) and drive in 128 for his new team, and he received multiple MVP votes after the season. The last four years didn’t work out as well after that, but that’s how these things go. The Angels, thanks to Hamilton’s contributions, made the postseason in 2012 for the first time in three years. The farmer's wife made pancakes for them all the next morning and the three men went on their way.

Joke 2. Two nuns are walking down the street, in December 2013. One of them sees Josh Hamilton, sitting sadly on a bench. “What is wrong,” one of the nuns asks him. Hamilton looks up and tells them that, on the brink of his free agency, he had the worst season of his career, and cost himself literally many tens of millions of dollars. “Well,” the second nun says, “at least teams will know what they are getting now. Your loss is another's gain, and we are all, after all, made by the same creator.” Hamilton nods. “Thank you, sister, that’s a good point.”

Joke 3. A man walks into a bar. It’s Jerry Dipoto. The bartender asks, “Why the long face?” Dipoto looks up. “Well, a year ago, in December 2012, I signed Josh Hamilton to a very long deal. It immediately went so poorly that somebody is going to lose his job over it. Maybe me, maybe not, but somebody. That’s quite the burden on my heart.” The bartender nods solemnly, knowing that in 75 years or so, everybody in the bar will be dead.

The first two jokes obviously aren’t funny, because the timing is all off. If Josh Hamilton had been a free agent after 2011, or after 2013, his contract would have been somewhere between a run-of-the-mill mistake and a fair reflection of his actual value, but not funny. The third one, on the other hand, is tragic, and you know what they say: Comedy equals Tragedy plus Time. El oh el oh el oh el.

The point is simply that GMs are constantly making moves that turn out terribly, or turn out great, and to a large degree these GMs are victims of timing, of circumstances that are conspiring to deceive us all. The players, too, are the victims (or beneficiaries) of timing’s same dastardly plots. Things change so fast! GMs should really all quit and go dig ditches for a living. You know what's predictable? A ditch. A ditch sucks, every time, all the time. Nobody ever gave $125 million to a ditch.

Anyway, let’s look at last year’s top free agents to see how differently things would be if each player had hit free agency 12 months later than he did.

B.J. Upton
We actually said: “All the talk about Upton’s potential misses a key point: Upton is already a productive player. His baseball skills sharpened in 2012, making him a better fundamental player, though there’s still room for growth.”
We would say: All the talk about Upton’s potential misses a key point: Upton might not only fail to live up to it, but get worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, until we’re so blinded by his potential that we fail to realize when he has become arguably the worst everyday player in the game. That’s more or less what happened in 2013. Perhaps he just needs a change of scenery, perhaps to the same team as his brother? He’s probably the preseason favorite to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2014, but that’s a backhanded compliment at best.
Got: Five years, $75 million (Braves)
Would get: One year, $9.5 million, a short contract by his own design (White Sox)

Nick Swisher
We actually said: “His devil-may-care attitude rubs some the wrong way, but there is no denying his offensive talents. He does it all at the plate: hitting for decent averages, drawing walks, and smacking home runs—he has at least 20 in each of his full big-league seasons. Add in that Swisher switch-hits and can play multiple positions, and teams with multiple holes like Boston should be interested.”
We would say: Swisher hits free agency after posting his lowest isolated power ever, though the difference showed up in doubles—not home runs—and accompanied a slight BABIP drop. The rest of his performance matched the past four years, and a GM will rarely get a chance to sign somebody who is more consistent. Sure, he’s got a killer clown’s smile tattooed on his face, but unless you’re a kid who doesn’t do what his parents tell him to do, you’ve probably got nothing to worry about.
Got: Four years, $56 million (Indians)
Would get: Four years, $56 million (Rangers)

Michael Bourn
We actually said: "A stellar defender, Bourn is also a capable leadoff hitter who can lead the league in stolen bases in any given year."
We would say: Once a stellar defender, Bourn now measures out as average or worse, according to most advanced metrics. You’d take a 23-run drop (by DRS) with plenty of skepticism, but its fits the rest of Bourn’s game: Once a capable leadoff hitter who could lead the leagues in stolen bases in any given year, he now carries only a league-average OBP and leads the league in caught stealing, while swiping just 25 or so bags successfully. It’s too bad he didn’t hit free agency one year earlier; coming off his career year, he’d have been in line to get at least five years and $75 million!
Got: Four years, $48 million (Indians)
Would get: Three years, $39 million (Red Sox)

Zack Greinke
We actually said: “Greinke may not consistently perform like an ace but he is a durable no. 2 starter with a deep arsenal, and an understanding of how to use it.”
We would say: Greinke posted his best ERA since 2009 and his worst FIP since 2008, challenging the narrative of a pitcher who could always rack up strikeouts without actually keeping runs off the board. He might not get as much attention as you would expect, since he’ll be overshadowed by legit aces Anibal Sanchez and Hiroki Kuroda.
Got: Six years, $159 million (Dodgers)
Would get: Six years, $160 million (Dodgers)

Josh Hamilton
We actually said: “He might be the best player available on talent and production. But ignoring the skeletons in Hamilton’s closest is an unwise decision for interested teams.”
We would say: Don’t sleep on this guy! Between his personal history, his sub-.300 OBP and a year of hovering around replacement level, plenty of teams will probably give up on him. But there’s no reason he can’t be a Raul Ibanez-type for some team.
Got: Five years, $125 million (Angels)
Would get: One year, $12 million (Mariners)

Bonus reassessments:

No. 8: (Angel) Pagan appeals to teams because he’s good at many things and poor at few not going to cost very much, like at all.

No. 16: (Melky Cabrera) is everyone’s favorite one-year deal candidate exactly who you think he is, girl who spent 2011 and most of 2012 in a coma until she heard an Adele song and miraculously woke up.

No. 24: (Shaun) Marcum is a middle-of-the-rotation starter with consistent performances Archie Andrews’ jalopy, and doggone if we aren’t living in Issue #237.

No. 31: If (Mariano) Rivera does pitch in 2013 2014, expect him to wear pinstripes be awesome, have some 'splaining to do

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

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