When people talk about this group of upcoming free agents, they generally comment on the lack of high end talent available. With all due respect to Matt Holliday and John Lackey, they’re a clear step back from the likes of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran types that have populated the market in recent years. The general consensus is correct – this group is not very impressive at the top end.
But let’s accept this free agent class for what it is – full of interesting players with a real chance to outplay the contracts they receive. Most years, free agency is akin to shopping at Pottery Barn, where you’re paying full price for marketing, store overhead, and the comfort of a familiar brand. This year, it’s more like buying scratch-and-dent furniture from Ebay.
Let’s be honest – you get a better deal on Ebay than Pottery Barn. Sure, you have to accept some risk that what you see in the picture bears some resemblance to what you’re going to get, and the chances of getting nothing for your money is a bit higher, but those factors help drive down price as well. And when you actually get what you were hoping for at an Ebay price, you come out with a really good deal.
That’s this free agent class. Rich Harden can be one of the best pitchers in baseball when he’s on the mound and throwing strikes, but his long injury history is going to limit him to a short term deal. He’s far from the only talented starting pitcher with injury concerns – Ben Sheets, Erik Bedard, Kelvim Escobar, John Smoltz, Justin Duchscherer, Brett Myers, and Randy Johnson are all probably looking at one year deals at rates that will be a fraction of what they would get if they were coming off healthy seasons.
It isn’t just pitchers, either. There are several position players who will almost certainly sign for less than we’ll project them to be worth. Even with teams appreciating defensive value more, it has been so undervalued that we can’t expect a full correction yet. Thus, players who derive a significant chunk of their value from their play on the field will still likely be relative bargains. That’s Placido Polanco, Adrian Beltre, Adam Everett, Mike Cameron, and Randy Winn.
Defense hasn’t been the only thing that’s been going for a discount of late, either. Older players near the tail end of their career have been increasingly sent into forced retirement, as teams have moved towards younger players at a rate where they’ve probably over-corrected. Players like Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, and Carlos Delgado will probably find themselves in line for massive pay cuts, as they’re reaching the end of their usefulness as major league players. But they’re not there yet, and a team that can scoop up any of them on a one year deal could get a quality hitter without a long term commitment.
It’s a winter for bargain shopping. Maybe that’s not what the Yankees and Red Sox are into, but for the rest of baseball, this should actually be a nice change of pace.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.