How Much Are Last Year’s Free Agents Worth Now?

The 2015-16 free-agent class was big, full of talent and ultimately resulted in seven $100 million contracts — along with another seven worth $50 million or more. This offseason led to more contracts (a total of eight, precisely) in the $50 million to $100 million range; however, among the entire class, only Yoenis Cespedes received more than $100 million.

As Cespedes himself could tell you, a player’s value can change significantly in a season. Despite having aged a year, Cespedes received $35 million more in guarantees this winter than he did last. While Cespedes had a strong 2016, though, many of his free-agent peers who signed big contracts last offseason have proven to be big disappointments.

First, let’s take a quick look at the contracts signed last year. The table below includes not only the actual amounts of the contacts themselves, but also an estimate of the value said player would have been expected to provide starting with the time he signed. To calculate this estimated value, I began with each player’s WAR forecast from last year’s FanGraphs Depth chart projections, started with $8 million per win with 5% inflation, and applied a standard aging curve. The rightmost column indicates whether the player in question was expected to outperform or underperform the cost of his contract.

2016 Free-Agent Signings
Contract (Years, $M) Contract Value at Time Surplus/Deficit
David Price 7/217 $218.4 M $1.4 M
Zack Greinke 6/206.5 $177.4 M -$29.1 M
Jason Heyward 8/184 $302.7 M $118.7 M
Chris Davis 7/161 $139.7 M -$21.3 M
Justin Upton 6/133 $159.8 M $26.8 M
Johnny Cueto 6/130 $134.3 M $4.3 M
Jordan Zimmermann 5/110 $68.6 M -$41.4 M
Jeff Samardzija 5/90 $103.9 M $13.9 M
Wei-Yin Chen 5/80 $90.7 M $10.7 M
Mike Leake 5/80 $87.3 M $7.3 M
Yoenis Cespedes 3/75 $82.8 M $7.8 M
Alex Gordon 4/72 $97.2 M $20.2 M
Ian Kennedy 5/70 $23.3 M -$46.7 M
Ben Zobrist 4/56 $77.7 M $21.7 M

There’s about a $94 million surplus among these deal. That said, there were also nine qualifying offers made to the players — which attached draft-pick compensation to the signings — while seven of the contracts included opt-out clauses. Those two factors might wipe out any surplus value.

At this time last year, the numbers indicated that Jason Heyward was a colossal bargain, a four-win player just entering his age-26 season. Heyward, as well as Ben Zobrist and Wei-Yin Chen, made Dave Cameron’s free-agent bargain list. Based on the projections, both Justin Upton and Alex Gordon seemed like decent bets to pay off. Cameron wasn’t buying on Upton, however, placing him among the free-agent landmines along with Jordan Zimmermann and Chris Davis.

The group mostly disappointed in 2016: only Cespedes, Cueto, Price, and Zobrist produced three wins or more in 2016. Here’s how the members of this group did relative to their salaries just for last season.

2016 Free-Agent Signings Performance
2016 WAR 2016 Value Surplus/Deficit ($M)
David Price 4.5 $36.0 M $6.0 M
Zack Greinke 2.2 $17.6 M -$16.8 M
Jason Heyward 1.6 12.8 M -$2.2 M
Chris Davis 2.7 $21.6 M -$1.4 M
Justin Upton 1.4 $11.2 M -$10.9 M
Johnny Cueto 5.5 $44.0 M $21.0 M
Jordan Zimmermann 1.3 $10.4 M -$7.6 M
Jeff Samardzija 2.6 $20.8 M $8.8 M
Wei-Yin Chen 0.8 $6.4 M -$7.6 M
Mike Leake 2.5 $20.0 M $8.0 M
Yoenis Cespedes 3.2 $25.6 M -$1.9 M
Alex Gordon 1.2 $9.6 M -$2.4 M
Ian Kennedy 1.7 $13.6 M $6.1 M
Ben Zobrist 4.0 $32.0 M $20.0 M

Cueto and Zobrist paid off handsomely for their clubs, while David Price lived up to his big salary. Zack Greinke was always going to have trouble living up to Arizona’s lofty investment and had difficulties right away. Justin Upton had troubles for much of the season. Wei-Yin Chen, Alex Gordon, and even Jason Heyward don’t appear to have cost their teams much in 2016, but those salaries are also somewhat backloaded, meaning there’s considerably more money owed to those players after disappointing seasons.

Now, as we enter the 2017 campaign, we can re-assess the contracts for last year’s free agents, considering both the money that remains owed to them and the projections for players who’ll receive that money. Then, as above, we can arrive at a projected surplus or deficit starting from the 2017 season.

2016 Free-Agent Signings Value Remaining
2017 Projection Remaining $ Owed (Year, $M) Remaining Value Surplus/Deficit
David Price 4.7 6/187 $194.2 M $7.2 M
Hurt David Price 0 6/187 $129.9 M -$57.1 M
Zack Greinke 3.3 5/172 $105.7 M -$66.3 M
Jason Heyward 2.9 7/169 $165.1 M -$3.9 M
Chris Davis 2.8 6/138 $85.4 M -$52.6 M
Justin Upton 2.5 5/111 $87.4 M -$23.6 M
Johnny Cueto 4.3 5/107 $152.7 M $45.7 M
Jordan Zimmermann 2.4 4/92 $59.3 M -$33.2 M
Jeff Samardzija 3.1 4/78 $85.0 M $8.0 M
Wei-Yin Chen 2.3 4/66 $55.7 M -$10.3 M
Mike Leake 2.3 4/68 $69.7 M $1.7 M
Yoenis Cespedes 3.1 NA NA NA
Alex Gordon 2.3 3/60 $55.7 M -$4.3 M
Ian Kennedy 2.2 4/62.5 $52.0 M -$10.5 M
Ben Zobrist 2.6 3/44 $53.5 M $9.5 M

As you can see, I’ve removed Yoenis Cespedes from consideration with this group. After opting out of last year’s deal, he’s now a member of the 2016-17 free-agent class. I’ve also added another player: injured David Price. If Price were healthy, he would be more or less at the same point as last year, expected to produce value commensurate with the cost of his contract. If Price misses the season, however, that changes the value on the contract considerably. As a result, I gave what might be considered a generous 3.7 projected WAR for Price in 2018 and subtracted half a win every year thereafter. Instead of producing even value on his contract, this version of Price is all of a sudden one of the worst of the bunch. After one season, only Johnny Cueto is expected to vastly outperform his contract going forward, although it really isn’t clear how far forward that contract will go, as he also has an opt-out at the end of this season.

If we add the surplus/deficit from 2016 to the projected one going forward, we can see how much value the contracts have gained or lost compared to last season.

2016 Free-Agent Signings, Change in Value
2016 Surplus/Deficit ($M) 2017- Surplus/Deficit Projected Total Surplus/Deficit Surplus/Deficit Projected Last Year Change from last year
$21.0 M $45.7 M $66.7 M $4.3 M $62.4 M
$6.1 M -$10.5 M -$4.4 M -$46.7 M $42.3 M
$6.0 M $7.2 M $13.2 M $1.4 M $11.8 M
$20.0 M $9.5 M $29.5 M $21.7 M $7.8 M
$8.8 M $8.0 M $16.8 M $13.9 M $2.9 M
$8.0 M $1.7 M $9.7 M $7.3 M $2.6 M
-$7.6 M -$33.2 M -$40.8 M -$41.4 M $0.6 M
-$2.4 M -$4.3 M -$6.7 M $20.2 M -$26.9 M
-$7.6 M -$10.3 M -$17.9 M $10.7 M -$28.6 M
-$1.4 M -$52.6 M -$54.0 M -$21.3 M -$32.7 M
David Price
$6.0 M -$57.1 M -$51.1 M $1.4 M -$52.5 M
-$16.8 M -$66.3 M -$83.1 M -$29.1 M -$54.0 M
-$10.9 M -$23.6 M -$34.5 M $26.8 M -$61.3 M
-$2.2 M -$3.9 M -$6.1 M $118.7 M -$124.8 M

Ian Kennedy looked to be a pretty terrible signing last season, but just by virtue of being mediocre last year, he has exceeded expectations and turned his contract from a big waste to something pretty close to value. The only other player to see a big increase in value was Cueto, who put up a 5.5-WAR season. After that, a David Price who might not exist anymore — plus Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ben Zobrist — all remain pretty similar in value relative to last year. That isn’t necessarily a good thing for Zimmermann, as he wasn’t expected to be a great value to begin with. After that, Gordon might still approximate something close to value if he meets his projections and, surprisingly, if Jason Heyward remains a three-win player like he is projected this season, he will still come pretty close to paying off the contract, even if he is no longer a great bargain.

In signing players to big free-agent deals, we expect the most production at the front end of the contract, before a player suffers age-related decline. When players don’t perform, like many of the top free agents last season, we see the value of the contracts take a drastic dip. Poor performance like with Chen, Davis, Greinke, and Upton has caused the value of those contracts to decline greatly. An injury to David Price has likely done the same to his contract. No team can afford to skip free agency entirely, but those players are the most expensive, have the greatest risk and produce the least value compared to their cost. The winner’s curse is real.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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6 years ago

Under the tables “2016 Free-Agent Signings Value Remaining” & “2016 Free-Agent Signings, Change in Value” you listed “David Price” & “Hurt David Price” with an updated 0 WAR.

Can you please also list “4th Outfielder/Defensive Replacement Jason Heyward” with an updated WAR?


BTW, J. Heyward hitless in 11 AB this spring training, so much for those tweaks to the swing…no way in hell Joe Maddon lets him have 530 AB again

6 years ago

Did you know that in his career, Ted Williams never went 11 at bats without recording a hit. Not once! His highest number of consecutive hitless at bats was only 10.

Wait, no, that’s not true. I just made it up.

6 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Ha, now I got curious. I couldn’t easily see consecutive hitless at bats or plate appearances, but from 1939 through 1955, he went 5 games in a row without a hit just once.

It was 1941 of all years, when he hit .406.

No hits from July 11 through July 19, though 3 of those were pinch hitting appearances. So that’s 11 plate appearances or 10 at bats in a row (not considering the games on either end where he did get a hit).

Still, that’s pretty amazing. When he did go hitless in 5 games in a row again, in 1956 (twice), they were all 1-plate appearance pinch hitting games.

Other than his final season, 1960, when he was 42 years old, those are the only 3 times in his entire career that he went hitless 5 games in a row, and never 6 (until 1960).

Ryan DCmember
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

This is why I read the comments

formerly matt w
6 years ago
Reply to  dl80

For what it’s worth, I think we can be fairly confident that Williams made an out in his last at-bat in the game before the streak, on July 6 (before the All-Star break). He batted 3 for 4 that day, with two doubles, two runs scored, and two RBIs. The Red Sox scored four runs, one in the first inning, one in the fourth, and two in the fifth. Since Williams was involved in every run that scored, it is highly probable that he got his three hits by the fifth inning, and so must have made an out sometime in the sixth, seventh, or eighth.

(I suppose there’s a possibility that in one of those innings he hit into a fielder’s choice and then scored a run; it’s less likely that he drove in a run with an out, since the batters ahead of him only got on base by walking and so probably would not have been on third base when Williams was at bat.)

So Williams likely did go eleven consecutive at-bats without a hit in that period. The game after the streak he had one pinch-hit appearance and hit a three-run home run, so it’s just eleven.

Oh, and on a scan of his game logs there are some times when he went three straight games hitless with 4 ABs in each game, but that’s boring.

6 years ago

“4th Outfielder/Defensive Replacement Jason Heyward”

Should be a live update on this at the top of the Fangraphs home page along with updated odds of Heyward exercising that OPT-OUT.

This is going to be a fun seven years.

6 years ago

End your life.

6 years ago
Reply to  CM52

last time you posted a similar comment fan-graphs deleted from the comment string.

6 years ago