Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.

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.

[As more teams prevent their superstars from hitting the market] the gap between the players who do become available and the true superstars grows, and the desperation of the teams who lack these talents to buy facsimiles grows, and the free-agent market goes from a tool to a trap.

Joshua had it right: the only way to win is not to play.

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.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
While I agree in theory with what you are saying regarding the depressed market for corner outfielders, I think the free agent market will go a bit wild this offseason based on the perception (but maybe not the reality) of how Abreu and Ibanez as well as all the Yankees free agent signings got their teams to the playoffs. Add in Tim McCarver's pontification and perceived value (and price) might be increased.
So when Brian Sabean spends tons of money on over-the-hill veterans, you're saying that's not a good idea? Darn.
Great articles Joe! While I think the wait till next year strategy is definitely sound for most teams, there is one team that stucks out in my mind: the Braves. I say this b/c there mix of veterans seems to have them built to be a win now team. Hanson, Heyward, and Jurrjens are building blocks for the future but the team is a contender right now and has many aging veterans. Getting Holliday or Jason Bay might be enough to ensure that they are at least highly competitive for the wild card the next year or two. There lineup tilts heavily toward being lefthanded and considering how abysmal Garrett Anderson in left even Jason Bay might even be a defenseive upgrade there. Thoughts?
You can definately make the case that the Bravos are one bat away from being a legit contender, and LF has been a problem for them.
All true, but Atlanta doesn't have the payroll to make a play for those two, nor should they. Rather, they'll look to move a SP to both clear up salary space and acquire a bat. A more realistic option on the FA market is a short-term deal for, say, Mike Cameron or Troy Glaus.
I dispute that they don't have enough payroll space: . Although looking at Mike Cameron does make a lot more sense as he does have that right handed power and would improve the defense significantly.
They're at $69M with their 2 best relievers being free agents, no first baseman signed, and with 5 arb-eligible players. Finding/resigning at least one reliever, a first baseman, and paying at least Moylan, Boone, and Diaz (assuming they non-tender Johnson and Church) will take them within $10M of their ~$95M payroll goal.
I think it depends on if GMs are beginning to approach player acquisition on rational approaches, like understanding what the marginal difference a player will make to their team, and if that margin puts them in a position to make the playoffs or not. If you over-performed last year, you might think you are one or two players away and fall into a trap.
Or you could have underperformed and fall into a trap. Jim Hendry still has a job.
"The industry's problem with elective low payrolls over a period of years can only reasonably be addressed through ownership change or a better revenue-sharing system that corrects for markets, not revenues, and properly incentivizes success. Neither side has been trying for that. Ever."

Joe, how would this system work? I'd love to see a full article about it. Would it bring each teams win/revenue curve into alignment? The Yankees spend huge because it is profitable to do so. Small revenue teams don't because they don't generate revenue equal to the cost of free agents. Sorry to place this here, but I couldn't comment on the chat.
This post has it exactly right. Unless MLB has: (a) a true free market where they can spend what they want but also relocate where they want or (b) a properly regulated market (e.g., salary cap or a higher luxury tax) within this industry that has long been exempt from antitrust laws, then the small market teams are going nowhere but behind the proverbial eight ball.

Right now, the current hybrid economic system -- in which each team's spending power is based upon local media revenue and thus the pure accident of geography -- is not designed for competitive balance. The Yankees spend 60% more than the team with the second highest payroll and baseball experts like Joe Sheehan simply shrug and tell readers to stop picking on Yankee fans. Doesn't the current system with its obvious inequities unfairly pick on the fans from the other 29 clubs? Or don't they count for anything?
"as big a Scott Boras fan as anyone". I puked in my mouth when I read that. When does BP just come out and admit they belong to the MLB player's union?
I agree wit adkbaseballchronicle- BP is MILITANTLY pro-MLBPA to the point where they are so predictable and blinded by their partisanship.

On any issue from steroids to labor- everything is written from their extreme pro-mlbpa bias. And ALL of them here carry the same agenda. No "diversity" on the staff.

And the minions fall in line- witness the negative ratings when anyone critizes dear leader joe or points out BP parroting MLBPA talking points.

LOL, give it an hour (or two) and this post will be hidden under the negative ratings.

First, there are plenty of people who are saying they don't like the current MLB economy, and they seem to be treated civilly. On the other hand, the one who said Sheehan doesn't have his own opinions, that he's owned by the MLBPA who got downvoted to hell. See if you can figure out the difference.

Second, preemptively saying "Downvoting me just means you're scared of my opinions!" doesn't make it true.
I'll equate owners and players when Alex Rodriguez tells me he made $7.75 an hour last year, but won't show me the pay stubs.
Joe, are you serious?

Convicted Tax Cheats, who lied about their income to avoid paying their fair share- Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Darryl Strawberry, Willie McCovey, Jose Canseco, Denny McLain and Jerry Koosman all say HELLO! (and that is just off the top of my head).

How about we "equate players with owners" when you can submit a list of owners who have broked and been convicted of FEDERAL laws?
Silly me, I thought your previous comment was meant in jest since it was so outrageous.

As far as convicted owners go, Geogre Steinbrenner comes to mind... but the answer to the true heart of your question is that some business owners buy a team for the tax writeoff then sell it in a few years once they can't write it off anymore. They beg for tax breaks and public subsidies to build ballparks then pocket the money from revenue sharing. Sure its legal, but its not like owners pay "their fair share" either. Walk a mile from pretty much any urban ballpark and you can see how much an owner is "contributing" to the slums in their community.
Oh and don't forget the real estate deal the Rangers did while Bush owned the team. You can check out a great writeup of that in the BP annual, 2008 I believe.
No, the answer to the true heart of the question is that the players (roids, tax evasion, etc) have no moral high ground to stand on vs the owners.

But, I know that goes against the MLBPA/BP "template" where anything under the sun that has to do with players and agents = GOOD!
Anything Bud Selig/Owners = evil.

Life is so simple when everything is so cut and dry, huh?
Last I checked, the owners hired more people from BP than the MLBPA did, so if anything, I'd guess that BP would skew things towards the owners so they get increased access, better insider info, and additional job opportunities.

But then again, if you had been paying attention that closely, you would've noticed criticism of the MLBPA for keeping the steroid issue festering by being wishy-washy on who was informed they were on the list, not cooperating with the Mitchell Report, resistance to the newest version of safer helmets, discussing a salary cap, recapping some of Fehr's mistakes as he stepped down, etc.
jdtk99 asks, "Joe, how would this system work?"

I've always been a fan of the approach Woolner described here:

It may not be perfect, but it's a great place to start the discussion.
Joe, you mentioned in the beginning how the availability of top tier talent on the free agent market is becoming scarce. Considering that, how many of the future potential top tier talent players the next two years do you think realistically wind up on the market?:
-Joe Mauer: We're talking Twins here, but new park with mvp home grown talent winds up available?
-Roy Halladay: What are the odds that he gets traded pre-season and doesn't sign a long term deal?
-Cliff Lee: Are the Phillies, with a projectable championship core talent, going to let their ace walk?
-Carl Crawford: If the Rays revenues don't increase enough to keep him, then isn't their m.o. to trade him early to get the most value back? Read Roy Halladay above then?
-Josh Beckett: Out of all of these guys this seems the most likely considering the Red Sox depth and tendencies towards youth. He'll be hitting 30 at this point. Of course, if they win again and he plays a big role, then this would change since they have shown a predilection for appeasing the fans from time to time.
-Felix Hernandez: I suppose the Mariners could walk away from shelling it out for the King. He could be the next greatest pitching contract handed out if so at that age.
-Albert Pujols: I know the Cards are stingy, but would they really let the franchise walk?