2008 Free Agent Landmines

Over the last few years, I’ve written an annual piece for USSMariner detailing “free agent landmines”, the guys who might tempt you into giving them a contract that will almost immediately blow up in your face. Among the players that we’ve identified ahead of time as disasters-in-waiting have been Carlos Silva, Barry Zito, Matt Morris, and Jarrod Washburn, all of whom signed regrettable contracts that looked bad from the get go. Of course, in both 2005 and 2007, the Mariners picked a pitcher off the list of guys I tried to convince them to avoid and gave him huge money, so I’ve been given a front row seat to just how badly these contracts can screw up your franchise.

So, who are the free agent landmines this winter – the guys who may look appealing but are simply not going to be worth the money they’ll command? Here’s the top candidates.

Kyle Lohse, RHP, Cardinals – signed for 4 years, $41 million

Okay, I’m cheating a bit, because the Cardinals already stepped on this mine, getting fooled by his legitimately good 2008 performance into thinking that Lohse might actually repeat his home run prevention, which is just a really bad bet. Rather than learning that pitchers are wildly inconsistent and you can get 200 good innings without making a long term commitment to a mid-rotation starter, the Cardinals took Lohse’s 2008 season as evidence that he had improved his talent level dramatically and that he was worth keeping. Not a good idea.

Orlando Cabrera, SS, White Sox

Cabrera’s one of those interesting guys that is simultaneously overrated and underrated – he’s not as good as his reputation with casual fans and teams who value batting average and clutch reputations, but he’s better than what the statistical community has generally noticed, combining just slightly below average offense with a solid glove at shortstop and staying remarkably healthy.

However, Cabrera turns 34 in a few weeks, and his power has been eroding for three years running. His ISO of .096 in 2007 was the lowest of his career until 2008 came along, where he posted a .089 – these are the only two seasons in his career where he’s posted an ISO under .100. During his heyday with the Expos/Red Sox/Angels, O-Cab had above average power for a middle infielder, and his combination of high average and gap power allowed him to be a fairly productive hitter, even with the low on base rates. Now, with the power eroding, he’s turning into a singles-only hitter, and that makes him a pretty volatile offensive player.

For a contender who needed a one or two year stopgap at shortstop, Cabrera could be a decent fit, but his reputation as a winner and clutch performer, plus the fact that he has the skills that are most often overvalued, will lead to him looking for a 3-4 year deal that will be an absolute killer by the end.

Manny Ramirez, OF, Los Angeles

I know, Manny’s the hero who saved the Dodgers, spending the last two months of the season doing a pretty good Babe Ruth impression. He carried Los Angeles to the playoffs, and showed that his bat is still alive and kicking, that Manny Being Manny can still be quite valuable. That doesn’t change the facts, however, that Manny turns 37 next summer and he’s already such a terrible defender that he deserves to be a full time DH. 2008 was also his best season since 2002, so if you’re re-signing him expecting to get that kind of performance again, you’re going to be disappointed.

The Marcel projections for 2009 have Ramirez being worth about 15 runs above an average hitter, based on a .305/.419/.548 line in 527 PA. Notice the plate appearance total – at Manny’s age, and with his history of knee problems (real or not), you can’t expect him to play a full season. You have to adjust for the fact that he’s occasionally not going to be available, and that hurts his real value. If we put Ramirez’s +15 runs compared to an average hitter into context, that makes him an above average DH, but not a superstar – more of a +3 win player, not that different in real value from guys like Mark Ellis or Orlando Hudson.

Of course, Manny’s got name value and the slugger tag going for him, and those guys always get overpaid. Scott Boras is making noise about a six year contract at something like $20 million per year, but you’d have to believe that Manny was a +4 win player and wouldn’t decline at all in his late-30s/early-40s for that to make any kind of sense. He’s not even a +4 win player right now, and he’s not likely to get better with age. A fair offer for Manny’s value is more like 3 years/$45 million, but he’s going to get way, way more than that, making him one of the biggest landmines out there.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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F-Rod strikes just about everyone as the other choice for you list.