Last man standing

It is a standard scene in pop culture, often told in flashback as an illustration of how cruel life can be: the kid, often an outsider of some sort, getting picked last to be on a sports team. The major league baseball equivalent of that rite of passage is nearly upon us. There now remain about six dozen or so major league free agents left on the market. Of course, there won’t actually be a last player selected as some of them are bound to go unwanted and will choose the honorable path of announcing their retirements. Still, though, this is as close as big leaguers come to that iconic playground moment when they are the last man standing. Many of them will end up on one of the 30 big league rosters come Opening Day, however, the deserving along with the questionable.

As an enterprise, baseball is a strange bird. While other types of businesses do everything in their power to find cheaper labor, baseball teams seemingly go out of their way to get more expensive help when cheaper alternatives exist. There are any number of free agents who will land with teams in the coming months whose skill set would be easily duplicated by youngsters hanging around ballparks in minor league cities, not to mention by players already on the roster. This is the case with the Pirates signing of Jeromy Burnitz, a move that is going to cost Craig Wilson, a younger, cheaper player, significant playing time. Their recent records:

           Adjusted EqA
Year   Wilson   Burnitz
2003    .293      .263
2004    .287      .284
2005    .290      .259

Given the age of most free agents most of them will not come as cheaply as kids fresh off the farm. The approximate average age of the remaining freemen is 35, so these are players used to making salaries of a certain elevated nature. There are only four free agents under the age of 30 still out there, however. Because they are a relative novelty, let’s look at them:

  • Byung-Hyun Kim: The youngest player on the free agent market but, ironically, one of those with the most accumulated baggage. It seems like forever ago that he was arguably the best reliever in baseball. That was in 2002. He held his own in Coors Field last year. In fact, he pitched better there than he did on the road. Can he hope to better his $6.5 million 2005 salary? One wouldn’t think so.
  • Alex Gonzalez: Both Alex Gonzali are free agents this winter. This is the younger one who spent his career to this point with the Marlins. If he could somehow guarantee that he would play at his 2003 level (WARP3 of 5.6) he’d be worth a shot. Otherwise, what’s the point? His career adjusted FRAA is -56, so it’s not like you’d even want him for a defensive sub.
  • Gary Glover: He was beaten like a wayward schoolboy on the road last year, but it was a relatively small sample size. He’ll come cheaply, though, as anything above ML minimum would signify a lifestyle upgrade.
  • Jeff Weaver: What’s the going rate for a pitcher with a league average DERA who can eat 215 innings per year? Kris Benson got $7 million a year from the Mets and he’s yet to pitch that many innings in a season. That sounds like a reasonable sum for Weaver but as his agent is Scott Boras the word “reasonable” is probably a poor choice.

To know them is to fear them

One of the arguments for signing the veteran as opposed to going with youth is that the older player is a known commodity. True enough, but, unfortunately, one of the things we know about veteran players, especially those in their late 30s as many of these free agents are, is that one of their known commodities is that they are going to break down more often than their younger counterparts.

There are two types of free agents and it’s important for teams on the hunt to differentiate between them. There are those who are there by choice and those who are there because they were disinvited from a roster. Making a fuss over the latter group can lead to heartbreak and misery. Actually, making a fuss over certain members of the former group can have the same effect. Does it make sense to drop a safe full of money on the head of a player who has been found wanting by another team? Also, there is the double-edged sword of going after the popular players. If a team is bidding against itself for a player then it must pause and ask itself, what is it we see in him that others don’t? Are we clever where the others are blind or are we completely crazy?

Ironically, given all this discussion of age, the single most valuable free agent still on the market happens to be the oldest, Roger Clemens. How “on the market” Clemens is, though, is debatable. If he does return for another season, the number of teams for whom he would pitch can be counted on an animated cartoon character’s hand. Coming off arguably the second-best season of his 21-year career (after 1997 in Toronto), Clemens heads a remaining free agent class that, conversely, also contains the pitcher who had the worst season last year, Jose Lima. Clemens 2005 VORP of 80.6 almost exactly matches the combined VORP of all the other remaining free agent pitchers, among whom Al Reyes, Jeff Weaver, the excitable Ugueth Urbina and Julian Tavarez are coming off the best seasons.

Put the “free” back in free agency

Often, free agents seem enticing simply because they’re on the market. It doesn’t have to be this way. Just because a player is out there doesn’t mean he has to be signed. The Angels did a curious thing with Hector Carrasco. They signed him as a free agent for two years at over $3 million per. General manager Bill Stoneman then told the Associated Press, “We envision Hector as having a shot at our rotation. All that will be determined in spring training. Our scouts had good reports on him and they suggested him, in particular as a starter.”

You’re going to see me write again once the camps open next month, so get used to it: nobody should ever win a job based on what they do in spring training. What spring training is for is to make sure everyone still has as many limbs as they did at the end of the previous season and to make sure all their moving parts work. As for that 31-year old with the career .246 EqA who is suddenly mashing the ball in Arizona, what are you going to believe about him? That he made a New Year’s resolution to be great and the evidence from 12 years of professional play is faulty or that he happens to be having a good month against pitchers who will be reassigned as soon as their names can be sewn on the uniform of the club’s Double-A affiliate?

I will make one exception to this rule. Perhaps a pitcher has developed a new pitch in the offseason and he is not the same man he was the year before. If he has truly mastered the pitch and is getting out big leaguers with it, then slack may be cut. Aside from that–what’s the point?

What’s left and who should risk it?

How much risk should teams take on with older players? Don’t they invest enough in risky propositions with their youngest players? Baseball teams pour millions of dollars into youngsters who never see the light of day. It’s the price of doing business and it is how amateurs will continue to get sorted into major leaguers until somebody comes up with a better idea.

Should ballclubs still be taking risks on players 12 to 20 years older than these young money pits, though? At what point does the burden of risk shift to the players? In the case of top-line talent, never. With lesser lights, though, they must and do assume some or all of the risk themselves. The team that truly errs is one that takes on the risk by guaranteeing the contract of an older player who is at the stage in his career where he should be assuming the risk himself.

Aside from Clemens, these are the only five remaining free agents who managed a VORP of better than 20.0 last season:

VORP: Player, position (age)
28.9: Bengie Molina, Catcher (31)
28.4: Jeff Weaver, Starter (29)
26.1: Rich Aurilia, Shortstop (34)
25.1: Mike Piazza, Catcher (37)
23.3: Al Reyes, Reliever (35)

Naturally, the financial risk on these five is going to be higher than on fellow remaining freeroamers such as Eddie Perez or Tino Martinez. These are all players that could help a team but who could well end up costing more than their contributions would dictate.

That, though, is the continuing legacy of free agency writ large.