A Brief History of Late-Winter Signees

This offseason has been so full of thrills and spills it’s been easy to forget that two of the FanGraphs Crowd’s four most-valued free agents went unsigned well into 2015, with Max Scherzer waiting to become a Washington National until January 19. We don’t yet know why Scherzer waited so long to sign, or why the almost-as-valuable James Shields has waited even longer. Perhaps they have been sitting with fingers crossed in hopes that they would receive a substantial offer from a team other than the Houston Astros. Maybe they just want to take their time making such a big life decision.

Regardless of their reasons for remaining on the free agent market for so long, we’re just about reaching that point in the offseason when Pitchers & Catchers Reporting is visible on the horizon’s crest. One of the perks of being a phenomenal major league player on the level of Scherzer and Shields is that you are afforded comparatively ironclad job security, especially compared to their journeymen peers, many of whom have to annually shuttle their families to new locales across the nation.

I would think that, given the presumed long-term nature of the contracts that Scherzer signed and Shields is presumably about to, players of this caliber would want as much time as possible now, in the winter, to move in and acclimate to their new city before it’s off to Spring Training and then, boom, the 6-month whirlwind of the 2015 season. Maybe a period of acclimation time doesn’t matter to them at all. But one could see how, depending on a given ballplayer’s personality, time to adjust to a new city could matter as much or more as a few extra million dollars paid due in some distant year.

So I wanted to know who received the largest free agent contracts (in terms of cumulative dollars) that were signed on or after January 15 in each of the recent offseasons, because January 15 is the day I thought of doing this exercise, and it’s a pretty nice, round number towards the end of winter. I used a combination of Spotrac, Pro Sports Transactions, Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs’ own contract information to put this brief and amusing list together. It would appear that the marquee free agent signing after New Years’ is a pretty darn new phenomenon. And, yes, Scott Boras is quite intimately involved:

Masahiro Tanaka – NYY – Signed on 1/22 – 7 years, $155M

Year before/year after statistics:

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
2013 Rakuten 212 7.8 1.4 0.3
2014 NYY 136.1 9.3 1.3 0.9 3.04 3.2

So, okay, not your conventional negotiation scenario here. Looking at the recent history of bigger-name Japanese players, it would appear that Tanaka simply fell in line with the tendency for NPB veterans/MLB rookies to sign later and later in the winter. A sampling of marquee Japanese free agents:

Ichiro Suzuki signed November 30, 2000
Hideki Matsui signed December 19, 2002
Daisuke Matsuzaka signed December 14, 2006
Kosuke Fukudome signed December 12, 2007
Hiroki Kuroda signed December 16, 2007
Koji Uehara signed January 13, 2009
Hisashi Iwakuma signed January 5, 2012
Nori Aoki signed January 17, 2012
Yu Darvish signed January 18, 2012

Despite the enormity of pressure and expectations that Tanaka faced in big-market New York, he had — when healthy — a sterling rookie season.

If you want to stick with players already in the MLB, Matt Garza (1/26) and Ubaldo Jimenez (2/19) both signed 4-year/$50M contracts near the dawn of Spring Training.

Michael Bourn – CLE – 2/11 – 4 years, $48M

2012 ATL 703 .271 .348 .391 104 6.1
2013 CLE 575 .263 .316 .360 90 1.9

A Boras client, Bourn was not able to cash in on his tremendous 6-WAR season, nor was he able to allow the Indians to feel as if they had engineered a coup. The size and timing of this deal was perhaps a function of Boras & Co. flailing in battle against teams’ hype-immune internal projection systems. Earlier in this same winter, mega-bucks free agents B.J. Upton, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, and Anibal Sanchez all signed before Christmas.

Prince Fielder – DET – 1/24 – 9 years, $214M

2011 MIL 692 .299 .415 .566 160 4.9
2012 DET 690 .313 .412 .528 153 4.8

Here’s another Boras client, and it would appear that the flashy agent indeed did a whole lot of good by his client for waiting so long into the winter. Three seasons and one trade later, and Fielder has so far earned $70M American dollars, while contributing a comparatively slight $31.8M in value over the same time span.

It should be noted that the Tigers, under the leadership of notably elderly owner Mike Illitch, just love to bust out that checkbook as late in the offseason as possible. Justin Verlander signed his now-questionable contract extension on 2/4/10, and Miguel Cabrera signed his then-and-now-questionable contract extension on 3/28 last year. Perhaps Detroit has finally found the bottom of Illitch’s cavernous pockets — or perhaps this is all just set-up for bringing Shields aboard.

Carl Pavano – MIN – 1/19 – 2 years, $16.5M

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
2010 MIN 221 4.76 1.51 0.98 4.02 3
2011 MIN 222 4.14 1.62 0.93 4.1 2.7

Fielder’s contract, it turns out, was something of a genre-creating deal. In the years immediately preceding Fielder, the largest contracts signed after 1/15 could only be called minor deals. Here, Pavano returns back to the Twins after a few months of free agency, and posts consecutive seasons that are remarkable for their similarities to one another.

Joel Pineiro – LAA – 1/20 – 2 years, $16M

Year Team IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 FIP WAR
2009 STL 214 4.42 1.14 0.46 3.27 4.3
2010 LAA 152.1 5.44 2.01 0.89 3.84 1.9

As it turns out, Pavano’s contract followed the exact same format as the previous year’s largest post-1/15 contract. Maybe the Angels weren’t too pleased with the efficiency of this contract at the time, but boy would $8M for a league-average starting pitcher be a bargain in this era.

Manny Ramirez – LAD – 3/4 – 2 years, $42.4M

2008 BOS/LAD 654 .332 .430 .601 165 5.8
2009 LAD 431 .290 .418 .531 147 2.3

Manny is just going to be Manny. This contract might be messing up our attempt to look at late-offseason contracts because, in all likelihood, the dude just didn’t want to deal with the early, drab parts of Spring Training. This would be the last time Manny would earn non-near-minimum dollars (…so far?!).

I think the increased number of large free agent contracts signed later into the winter is a function of MLB teams being more proactive about extending their young stars. More extensions means fewer marquee players on the free agent market, and fewer marquee players on the free agent market means that agents feel newly empowered to drum up bidding for their clients deep into the winter. Even last year’s deals to Jimenez and Garza were significantly larger than your largest post-1/15 deal even five years ago.

Or: in baseball’s previous generation (like, 2011 and earlier), teams had a bounty of options on the free agent market, and could be more particular about which free agents they wanted to pursue. But now, the rare star who does sneak out into free agency is more empowered to dictate the terms: they know that they just cost a team money (and not prospects) to acquire.

If Shields don’t sign this week, though, we will be blazing an even deeper trail into the wild wilderness of the hot stove season.

Miles Wray contributes sports commentary to McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Ploughshares, The Classical and Hardwood Paroxysm. Follow him on Twitter @mileswray or email him here.

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Kyle Lohse
9 years ago

I signed on March 25.

Will Hannonmember
9 years ago
Reply to  Kyle Lohse

For less than Bourn.