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November 20, 2013

The Lineup Card

10 Free Agents Who Are Likely to Be Overpaid

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Roy Halladay
While Halladay is a famous person with an excellent track record, he's also an older pitcher with a bum shoulder. His final few appearances last season were tough to watch, and there's no indication that an offseason of rest will help fix what ails him. Someone is going to invite him to camp, perhaps on a guaranteed deal, based on his name value alone. But, based on what we know right now, he's probably not going to live up to the expectations. —R.J. Anderson

2. Fernando Rodney
Don’t get me wrong, he was absolutely unbelievable in 2012, but Fernando Rodney is bound to be overpaid this winter. He fully deserved to make the All-Star team and earned his down ballot Cy Young recognition in 2012. The same shiny 0.60 ERA in 74 2/3 IP that garnered all the positive attention in 2012 is likely to entice some contenders into paying him like an Elite Closer [TM]. He looks to have improved materially while pitching in Tampa, but a savvy front office will notice that he’s only had one studly season amidst a career that features a slew of seasons around a 4.40 ERA and less swing and miss.

In other words, I’m expecting at least $7 million a year on the back of that one awesome season in 2012, a strong enough 2013 that nobody thinks he’s done yet, and a collection of 152 saves since 2008 when Detroit gave him the chance to close. In fact, the Tigers are a likely suitor and willing victim, given their failing in the playoffs, their ongoing bullpen issues, and their proclivity to solving holes with free agent deals. Keep your eyes out for a three-year deal paying out about $25 million and hope your favorite team’s owner isn’t the one signing the front of the checks. —Ben Murphy

3. Edward Mujica
Here's the thing. It's not that Edward Mujica is a bad pitcher. He rarely walks anyone and even though he's not a strikeout specialist, he's not a bad option to have hanging out in your favorite team's bullpen. You could do worse. But, you know that someone's going to sign him for much more than he's worth because OH-EM-GEE, he had 37 saves last year and that makes him a (cue pixie dust and rainbows) "Proven Closer." Mujica ended up in the closers role for the Cardinals primarily because the Cardinals had no idea whom they should stick in the closer's role and his save total reflects when he pitched (the ninth inning), rather than how he pitched (well enough). It's like any bad habit. Baseball teams keep swearing that they won't make the same mistake again, but in a panic, they'll make the same mistake again. Even if Mujica pitches well enough to justify the salary, the point is that teams, with a little creativity could probably find someone cheaper to do the same thing.

By the way, has anyone seen Mujica? He was last seen hanging out with Shelby Miller. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Jacoby Ellsbury
I chose my topic this week on impulse. "You don't contribute to the Lineup Card enough," I sez to me. I pondered for a few minutes, tried to figure out which middle reliever will get a three-year deal and dismissed that as a fool's errand. (With apologies to any of my fellow fools in this very Lineup Cardwho decided to take that exact tack.) So I went top-of-the-market. "Who's probably going to get hurt and completely blow up the last three years of a megadeal like Eric Chavez or Mike Hampton? Oh, I know!" The problem with my choice is that Jacoby Ellsbury's upside is irresistible and undeniable—there aren't enough legitimate center fielders who can hit and steal bases and make you swoon with a smile—and teams aren't as ill-informed as they once were, so nobody's going to pay him as if they're expecting 4.0 WARP a year for the next six years. Depending on how you do the math and whether you read Russell Carleton's articles and how much inflation you want to factor in, that might be something like $175 to $200 million over six years. Compared to those figures, the contract Ellsbury winds up getting is likely to be very reasonable. So I guess where I am is rather than asking who is going to sign the "bad from the get-go" deal, I'm taking a stab at who we're going to look back on in 2020 and say "that was a reasonable contract that understood his likely talent level and factored in the odds of injury and it just so did not work out because the coin flips came up the wrong way" and I land on Ellsbury.

Of course, if I landed on Ellsbury, I'd probably break his tibia. —Jason Wojciechowski

5. Ubaldo Jimenez
Jimenez came to Cleveland in a deal with the Rockies at the 2011 trade deadline, and he was an ugly disaster with the Tribe during his first two full years with the club. But he could be in for a huge payday based largely on a six-week span of success at the end of this past season; at least Jimenez is banking on it, given that he declined the Indians' qualifying offer of $14.1 million.

Much has been made of his 1.84 ERA during the second half, but his remarkable numbers didn't really start until late August—consider that he walked 5.2 batters per nine innings (13.2 percent of batters faced) in his first five starts following the All-Star break, in which nearly 20 percent of his runs allowed were of the unearned variety (his RA/9 was 3.34 during the span). Jimenez certainly turned things around for the final six weeks, including five games of nine or more strikeouts (he had one such outing in his first 24 starts of the season) and a mere 10 walks across 54 1/3 innings (only 1.7 BB/9, or 4.7 percent of batters). His velocity crept up a tick above his seasonal rate, averaging 93.6 mph during the home stretch, and he was able to repeat his delivery with better-than-usual consistency.

His shiny performance at the end of the season for a team with playoff aspirations drew attention on the baseball radar. Combine that well-timed run with his memorable 2010 season in the Colorado sun, and sprinkle in some four-year old radar readings in the high-90s, and you have the recipe for a player to be vastly overpaid. Even during his best stretch of 2013, Ubaldo's velocity was down three mph from his masthead 2010 season, and his average velo of 2013 reflected a continuation of his downward overall trend. His mechanics are a lesson in what not to do, and his saloon-door stride pattern contributes to haphazard positioning that adds to his complete inconsistency of timing and mechanical sequencing (explained in more detail here). Expecting him to showcase the same delivery that marked his brief stretch of dominance is a fool's errand, given such erratic mechanical baselines as well as a long-standing history of shaky deliveries. The more likely result is that Jimenez performs along the same downhill slope of his career-to-date, and whoever buys is in for a frustrating few years that are loaded with walks. —Doug Thorburn

6. Curtis Granderson
Good guy. Neat guy. Extremely charitable guy. Probably a generous tipper. Also a very good outfielder. There are a hundred reasons to like him, which is why he should earn a decent amount of change this offseason from a team needing a highly marketable outfielder.

But take away the claustrophobic Yankee Stadium fences that helped him ding 40 homers a season and he's a 33-year-old center fielder coming off multiple injuries who rejected a qualifying offer and therefore will cost his new team a draft pick in addition to the $15 million or so per year he'll reap. He still has viable years left, but probably not at that list price. —Matt Sussman

7. Matt Garza
Garza is arguably the most attractive starting pitcher on the market this offseason (until/unless Masahiro Tanaka enters the picture) because he was traded midseason, and thus does not come attached to a draft pick. This is a sound argument for gambling on him instead of Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, who are generally viewed as his biggest free agent competitors.

That being said, there’s plenty working against Garza and the prospect of giving him a five-year deal is downright scary. Garza has seen his K/9 fall in each of the past two seasons, has only been worth 2.0-plus WARP three times in his career, and hasn’t surpassed 200 innings since 2010 (although he missed that mark by just two innings in 2011). Garza has a history with arm issues and is seeing a modest decline in velocity, and he’s generally pitched more as a middle-of-the-rotation type rather than the frontline starter we saw in 2011.

Garza certainly might be productive on the front end of this deal, but there’s not much reason to assume he’ll regain velocity or stay healthier on the wrong side of 30. A five-year pact has the potential to look ugly halfway through the deal. —Ben Carsley

8. Corey Hart
There are two ways to look at Corey Hart, the free agent. On the glass-half-full side, he's a slugger who has hit at least 20 homers in five of his last six seasons, including 25 in his last three healthy seasons. He's also a career .276 hitter, so it's not like he's solely a power threat. On the glass-half-empty side, he's a poor defensive outfielder coming off missing a full season due to microfracture surgery on his knee (read: he's only a realistic option at first base, and he's been a below average one thus far). He also has seen his contact rate drop each of his last five seasons and is coming off a career high strikeout rate. Oh, and all those high home run totals were aided by playing in one of the top parks for power--his career slugging percentage is .539 at Miller Park and .446 everywhere else.

A one-year deal for Hart is reasonable for both sides, as it's a way for a team to minimize its risk and Hart to try and rehabilitate his value in order to get that One Last Big Contract. Unfortunately, there's probably a team or two out there willing to give him a multi-year deal, and with the amount of money likely to be involved, it's bound to be full of buyer's remorse by the time it's over. Life is tough for an tall, aging slugger and one team is about to find that out the hard way. —Bret Sayre

9. Joe Nathan
What’s wrong with Joe Nathan, you might be asking yourself, and why would Mike be so daft as to include him on this list of potential free agent busts (and why is he subjecting us to the awful “start your article asking hypothetical questions format?)? The answer is that there’s nothing wrong with Joe Nathan. After struggling from his return from Tommy John surgery in 2011, Nathan was a terrific two-year deal for the Rangers in 2012-2013, posting a 2.09 ERA in 129 innings, striking out 151 batters, and saving 80 games over the last two years.

The problem isn’t with what Nathan has done, but rather with what he might do going forward. Nathan will be 39 years old on Opening Day 2014. Conventional wisdom is pointing to a two-year deal for Nathan with a handful of analysts speculating that a three-year pact is possible. Since 1975, only five relievers have saved 50 or more games at age 39 or older:

Top 10 Relievers by Saves since 1975, Ages 39+

Name

Years Pitched Post Age 39

Saves

ERA Through Age 38*

ERA, Age 39-41*

Mariano Rivera

2009-2013

170

2.29

1.82

Trevor Hoffman

2007-2010

119

2.71

2.81

Dennis Ecklersley

1994-1998

115

3.45

4.07

Doug Jones

1996-2000

64

3.12

3.57

Todd Jones

2005-2006

56

3.91

4.54

Woodie Fryman

1979-1983

46

3.87

2.34

Ron Reed

1982-1984

34

3.51

3.07

Jose Mesa

2005-2007

29

4.27

5.06

Mike Timlin

2005-2008

24

3.61

3.25

Gene Garber

1987-1988

24

3.29

3.95

*Yes, I know, pitcher ERA is a terrible way to measure pitcher value, and reliever ERA is even worse.

While four relievers on the list saw their ERAs drop, two of these relievers (Fryman, Reed) were converted starters who were experiencing a lighter workload in the twilight of their careers. The other eight pitchers come closer to the modern definition of a closer and of those eight only Rivera excelled, while Hoffman and Timlin were very good. For the most part though, these pitchers declined. Even elite, Hall of Famer Eckersley ran out of gas.

The lack of data points to analyze bothers me more than the actual data. Maybe Nathan will become another one of the limited examples that continues to shine into his 40s. It’s possible, though, that he has one more good year in him and then falls off of the map. He’s also a reliever, and while good relievers are valuable, spending over $10 million per season to purchase the proven closer tag is a risky proposition. Unless you’re obtaining the rights to the one and only Mariano, you’re better off shifting your free agent dollars elsewhere. A one-year deal for Nathan is okay. But anything past that is chancy, and it’s highly unlikely that Nathan will sign for anything less than two years. —Mike Gianella

10. Raul Ibanez
Historically, forecasting the end of the road for Raul Ibanez has been a bad idea. Roughly replacement level through his age-29 season, he’s been worth close to 30 wins after age 30, so we’re well past the point where we’d expect his decline to look anything like the typical player’s. And Ibanez looked anything but done during the first half of last season, when he slugged .578 with a homer every 11.5 at-bats despite playing half his games in Seattle.

Still: Ibanez will turn 42 in June, and he finished last season with a .203/.295/.345 second half. Barring an undisclosed injury, it’s hard to see how he could have gone from being one of baseball’s best power hitters to an easy out over the All-Star break, but a sudden decline in skill wouldn’t be much more mystifying than his lack of decline for a decade before that. (Maybe he should have left that painting alone.) Given that he was already a low-average/OBP guy, a liability against left-handers, and a GIF factory in the outfield, the disappearance of his power would remove most of his remaining value. Signing him won’t be anywhere near the worst mistake the market will make this winter—one-year deals don’t do that much damage, and Ibanez does have a reputation for being a positive clubhouse presence—but a team that pays for last year’s full-season stats won’t get its money’s worth. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Free Agents,  Free Agency

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The Lineup Card: 12 Fr... (11/13)
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