Not Every Free Agent Is Expensive

This offseason, it seems like everyone is coming at a premium price. Pablo Sandoval, Russell Martin, Victor Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Billy Butler all smashed their crowdsourcing projections. Zach Duke got $15 million and we didn’t even bother crowdsourcing him! And we haven’t even reached the Winter Meetings. Yet not every free agent has been uber-expensive — relievers in particular. Sure, Andrew Miller is poised to break the bank, but there have been a number of budget reliever signings. Let’s take a tour through some of them, shall we?

Andrew Bailey — one year, $200,000 minor league contract with the Yankees

There aren’t a lot of black marks on Ben Cherington’s tenure as the Red Sox general manager, but this is definitely one of them. In one of his first moves as GM, Cherington shipped off Josh Reddick for Bailey and Ryan Sweeney. That trade, uh, didn’t work out too well. Through the fog of Bailey’s misery, you could still see a productive pitcher — he struck out 53 hitters in 44 innings in Boston, and his 81 xFIP- in 2013 painted him as quite unlucky with the long ball. But after posting 69 shutdowns against 18 meltdowns in three years in Oakland, Bailey posted just 19 SD and nine MD in two years in Boston. The team let him leave for the Yankees last year, but he never pitched, as his shoulder injury kept him out of action.

This new deal for 2015 represents the Yankees is nothing more than a “just in case.” As in, “just in case he makes it back, we don’t want to miss the boat.” He’ll still be just 31, so it’s too soon to put the final nails in his playing career coffin, but no one should be expecting anything from Bailey.

Ernesto Frieri — one year, $800,000 contract with the Rays

I have to admit, this one caught me off guard. This deal represents a three-million dollar paycut for Frieri. He can earn most of that back in performance incentives, but it’s probably not too often that you see a pitcher with double-digit saves in three consecutive seasons bank less than one million dollars guaranteed. On the other hand, Frieri hasn’t been more flash than substance during his career. He is good at striking out batters, and not much else. On a third hand, most likely of some other person, if you are only going to be good at one thing, it should be that.

I’m tempted to say that this move smacks of the next Fernando Rodney waiting to happen for the Rays, but Heath Bell, Juan Oviedo and Grant Balfour part deux all didn’t work out, so it’s not like they have a 100 percent track record with this sort of thing. For the price tag though, this is a nice little gamble.

Joel Hanrahan — one year, $1 million minor league contract with the Tigers

Andrew Bailey doesn’t have the “bad Ben Cherington relief acquisitions who didn’t pitch last season” category all to himself. Hanrahan’s trouble has been in his elbow, not his shoulder, and right now he counts as a Tommy John failure. The Tigers are hopeful that he’ll overcome that and contribute to their bullpen in 2015, and boy could they use a healthy Joel Hanrahan. The Tigers probably don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their budget, and they may need to fill out their ‘pen with pitchers from the island of misfit toys.

Jim Johnson — one year, $1.6 million contract with the Braves

The Braves have had a head-scratching offseason to be sure, and this move is right in that vein. While it’s a modest deal, it’s a deal that makes more sense if the team is planning on contending. Steamer likes Johnson for a modest bounceback, but nothing dramatic. The team believes they can help him tap into more than though, as pitching coach Roger McDowell is noted here as having helped pitchers gain confidence with their sinker, which is Johnson’s main pitch.

And certainly we can point to pitchers like Tim Hudson, Eric O’Flaherty, Peter Moylan and Jonny Venters who had success with the sinker during McDowell’s tenure, so perhaps Johnson will be the next. If not, it shouldn’t be too troublesome, as the Braves have a deep ‘pen. Though I won’t fault you if Johnson’s signing leads you to believe that the team is actively shopping Craig Kimbrel. It almost certainly doesn’t mean that, but it’d be interesting if it did.

Jason Frasor — one year, $1.2 million contract with Royals, with 2016 club option

As Jeff pointed out in his post about Andrew Miller, some of the volatility with relievers probably has a lot to do with small sample size. At this point, we can say that the sample size on Frasor is big enough to call this deal a big win for Kansas City. Frasor has tossed at least 40 innings in all 11 seasons of his career, and has never been worse than five percent below league average according to FIP-. During the past two seasons, he’s been better than that, as he has re-upped his groundball quotient. He was at his best down the stretch with the Royals, and it is no surprise that they brought him back.

He was definitely underutilized though, as KC’s bullpen is loaded. Frasor has a career 1.20 gmLI and was at 1.27 with the Rangers last year, but with KC that dropped down to 0.88, his second-lowest mark of his career and lowest since 2008. Frasor can do more, in other words, and if the Royals are more comfortable trading some of their bullpen surplus now that they have Frasor (and Luke Hochevar) back, this deal could end up paying dividends far beyond its modest dollar figure.

Matt Belisle — one year, $3.5 million contract with the Cardinals

First thing first — this is the move that freed Carlos Martinez! If nothing else, that is good news, though you could make the argument that they would have signed someone else to reach that goal. Nevertheless, Belisle’s signing gets credit.

More importantly, the move should be a great one for the Cardinals. The Rockies couldn’t be faulted too much for declining Belisle’s $4.25 million club option — they have limited payroll flexibility and bigger fish to fry — but reports of Belisle’s demise were greatly exaggerated. His “down” 2014 season saw him post an 87 FIP-. Yes, that is a supbar season for him, given that he had posted a FIP- between 59 and 69 in each season from 2010-2013, but what he did last year wasn’t exactly cause for alarm. Belisle’s velocity and contact percentage were in line with his previous seasons when he had more pronounced success. Belisle was definitely not clutch last season — his Clutch score was easily the worst of his career, as was his WPA and RE24 — but he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

If there is one thing to watch for, it is that his zone percentage was at a career low last year. The drop in zone percentage was coupled with a drop in O-Swing%, which is how you end up with a five percent drop in K rate. This seems somewhat deliberate, as his first-strike percentage was at an all-time high, and perhaps can be chalked up to poor strategy, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

The Cardinals lost Pat Neshek in free agency, and it seems likely that some team will give him more than what Belisle will get. Yet their projections are the same — 0.4 WAR for Belisle, 0.3 for Neshek. Hanrahan, if healthy, has the same 0.3 figure, as do Frasor and Frieri. Johnson is projected at 0.1, but he has been better before, and if the Braves can unlock his sinker… Compare that to what the crowd has Sergio Romo pegged at, or even the $5 million per season that Hochevar and Duke got. Those two are projected to be better, but the difference is so minute that it probably makes sense to go with the cheaper option.

Andrew Miller and David Robertson could be real game changers for the right bullpen, and are going to command a high salary. But if you don’t sign one of those guys, these are the deals that work out best for teams. And for the teams that snapped up these relievers, they may work out doubly well, because now they have settled roster spots not only cheaply but also early, giving them peace of mind to allocate more dollars elsewhere knowing that they have solid pieces lined up for their bullpens, health permitting.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Free_AEC
7 years ago

Why do you think free agents are expensive?

14 years ago when A-Rod signed his 10yr $252 million deal with the Rangers the highest two payrolls in MLB were less than half what they are now. Do you see any $550 million contracts in MLB?

Free agents are cheap.

The owners of MLB teams have never had it so good. That’s why the smallest media market in MLB – Cincinnati – could sign both Joey Votto and Homer Bailey to the type of contracts they did.

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Tim
7 years ago
Reply to  Free_AEC

This would imply that top-tier free agents are cheaper, but that your average free agent is more expensive — no? If stars as a percentage of payroll are lower today but payrolls are growing, money must be going somewhere.

That’s not to comment on the labor dynamics of Major League Baseball, only to say that your example doesn’t quite back up “free agents are cheap.”

Free_AEC
7 years ago
Reply to  Tim

“money must be going somewhere”

Into the bank accounts of MLB team owners.

Number of MLB writers who write about this?

ZERO.

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Samuel P Sumner
7 years ago
Reply to  Free_AEC

No…that’s not what he’s saying.

If the TOTAL payroll (not money that the owners are getting, but what they are PAYING) increases, that money must be allocated somewhere on the PAYROLL.

Since the highest paid-free agents have seen fairly modest increases (e.g. from around 20-25 to around 30 million/yr) but high-end team payrolls have seen a large increase (from around 100-125 to around 200-235), that money is going somewhere. Probably, as Tim said to mid-tier free-agents (especially since middle tier players are often the most overvalued).

Examples (some rounding to the nearest million):
Highest paid salary in 2001 was A-Rod, with $22 million
Highest paid team in 2001 was the Yankees, with $110 million
Highest AAV of a contract was A-Rods’ 2001 contract, at $25 million

Highest paid salary in 2014 was Ryan Howard, with 25.7 million
Highest paid team in 2014 was the Dodgers, with $235 million
Highest AAV of a contract was Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 contract, at $31 million

That’s about a 24% increase in peak AAV for the highest paid free-agents, but about a 114% increase in highest team salary.

Iron
7 years ago
Reply to  Free_AEC

I think it’s also worth noting that AAV can be a bad way to evaluate contracts. Teams have shown greater willingness to inflate contracts with years than with AAV, essentially deferring payment on the desired productive years. If I sign a 31 year-old to a 6 year $240M contract ($40M AAV) or a 10 year $240M ($24M AAV) it comes out to much the same in terms of what I expect to get out of him for my money.

pft
7 years ago
Reply to  Tim

Payrolls on the whole as a percentage of revenue is dropping, so yeah, the money is going somewhere, in the owners pockets

dmgetz
7 years ago
Reply to  Free_AEC

Rodriguez’s contract was an outlier that represented a massive increase over what was considered normal in both AAV and total commitment. In the years immediately preceding that deal, the highest paid player was in the 12-15 million dollar range, and the biggest total commitment was, I believe, Kevin Brown’s $108M deal that he signed a couple of years before Rodriguez.

So, no, no one has committed to $500+ million dollars because no one wants to make the kind of foolish jump the Rangers did, but at the same time the number of contacts in nine figures and AAVs in the 20M+ band have increased pretty significantly.

http://sabr.org/research/mlbs-annual-salary-leaders-1874-2012
http://sabr.org/research/baseball-s-major-salary-milestones

pft
7 years ago
Reply to  dmgetz

In the same year, 2001, Manny Ramirez signed a 160 million deal that by todays standards would be worth 40 million AAV.

Shortly thereafter, in 2003 I believe after noting collusive activities in 2002-2003, MLBPA filed a grievance over collusion as owners struggled to control themselves, MLB admitted no wrong doing but paid 12 million. Since then player payroll inflation has dropped well below revenue growth and not tested double digit growth again

Free_AEC
7 years ago
Reply to  pft

That’s correct – Manny Ramirez – and let’s not forget Derek Jeter’s 10 year $189 million deal.

The writers talk about Elvis Andrus contract being huge and untradable.

I keep wondering when the players are going to start speaking out or boycotting the media for perpetrating this fraud that is costing them a lot of millions.

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frivoflava29
7 years ago
Reply to  Free_AEC

This isn’t even worth replying to. Wait. Oh god