The 2015 Free Agent Landmines by Dave Cameron November 11, 2014 Free agency is the land of false hopes and dreams. While nearly every major signing is heralded as good news for the organization making the commitment, they often turn quite poorly; note the very high number of overpaid veterans being shopped around the league at this moment. Signing the wrong free agent can actually do more damage than not signing any free agents at all, and especially for teams with average or below average budgets, payroll efficiency is a necessity. So, with that in mind, I’m going to present my annual list of free agent landmines, or players to be most actively avoided based on my expectations of what they’re going to produce versus what they’re going to get paid. Appearing on this list doesn’t make you a bad player, but just one where I think the market’s assessment of your value is too high for the actual production. For reference, here’s last year’s version of the list, which included some of the more notable free agent busts of last winter: Joe Nathan, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Curtis Granderson, as well as two of the three guys who got rejected by the market after turning down the qualifying offer: Kendrys Morales and Nelson Cruz. I don’t expect an 80% failure rate for the five players listed below, but I think there are enough warning signs that I probably wouldn’t pursue them this winter. For the expected signing cost, I’m going to list both the crowdsourced estimate as well as my own prediction, though the analysis will be based on what I think they’re going to get instead of what the crowd guessed. First a few honorable mentions, and then on to the list: Others I wouldn’t sign for the expected prices I think they’ll get this winter: Hanley Ramirez (7/$140M), James Shields (4/$80M), and Melky Cabrera (3/$39M). 5. Edinson Volquez, Starting Pitcher Crowd: 2 years, $16 million Dave: 3 years, $27 million In 2014, Edinson Volquez cut his ERA from 5.71 to 3.04, a pretty miraculous transformation in results, but his underlying numbers show that he was mostly the same pitcher; his xFIP actually went up slightly from 4.07 to 4.20. The Pirates know how to make groundball pitchers look effective through their use of shifts and the run suppressing impact of their home park, but if you sign Volquez, you’re not also signing the context that made him look good in 2014. A few years ago, I’d have been more convinced that Volquez was going to turn an artificially depressed ERA into a real paycheck, but teams have gotten smarter, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if he sat around for a while wondering when the offers were going to start rolling in, but eventually, someone will probably give him two or three years and hope that 2014 wasn’t a mirage. It probably was, though, and he’s the type of free agent that could end up as a total waste of cash. 4. Nelson Cruz, “Outfielder” Crowd: 3 years, $45 million Dave: 3 years, $45 million Yes, him again. I’m putting Cruz back on the list for the second year in a row, even though he made the pick look silly with his performance in 2014. Cruz may have eased concerns about whether he can hit for power outside of Texas, but he’s now also a year older and is coming off career bests in nearly every number you can imagine. Signing a 34 year old in the hopes that they can repeat a career year is generally a bad bet, and if Cruz returns to something closer to prior form, he’s an average player who is about to get paid like an impact hitter. Especially as he moves to DH on a more regular basis, the bat is going to have to carry his entire value, and Cruz’s career 118 wRC+ just isn’t all that special for a bat-only player. He’s going to get paid for what he did in 2014, but paying for that performance requires that we think the mid-30s version of Cruz is a significantly better hitter than what he’s been throughout his MLB career. Maybe he made some dramatic improvements last year that will stick around, but I wouldn’t bet big money on it. Someone probably will. 3. Nick Markakis, Outfielder Crowd: 3 years, $33 million Dave: 4 years, $40 million At this point, Markakis is essentially a lesser version of Nori Aoki, and I’ll be honest, I don’t understand why the market is apparently so bullish on the Orioles right fielder. He’s extremely durable, but he just doesn’t do enough to really impact a team in a significant way, and yet, it seems to be fait accompli that he’s going to land a four year contract for real money. Markakis is essentially an average offensive player, which is fine for a plus defender, but defensive metrics don’t think Markakis has been a big asset with the glove in years, and even if you think they’re wrong about him, he’s still heading into his age-31 season, so paying for glovework seems like a poor idea. Given his limited value, I’m not even sure I’d give Markakis a two year deal, much less than the three or four year contract he seems likely to land. He’s not entirely useless, but there certainly seem to be better ways to spend money than on locking up a below average player for his decline years. 2. Victor Martinez, Designated Hitter Crowd: 3 years, $45 million Dave: 4 years, $64 million As with Cruz, the bet on Martinez is that a mid-30s career year for a bat only player is real, but this time, the gap in between the track record and 2014 performance is even more extreme. Martinez hit more homers last year than he did in the previous two seasons combined, and he’s only an elite hitter if he’s driving the ball with regularity. Paying big money to Martinez is essentially a bet on his power, but he has 6,000 career plate appearances with an ISO of .168; his 2014 power surge just doesn’t fit with the rest of his career. The extreme contact skills put a fairly high floor in place, and Martinez is unlikely to be useless going forward, but if the power regresses back to 15-20 homers per year, he’s a good-not-great hitter who doesn’t do anything else of value. And we can’t ignore that he’s one of the game’s very worst baserunners, so he turns times on base into runs at a very low rate, making him overrated even by something as simple as on base percentage. At $10-$15 million per year for a couple of years, Martinez would likely be worth investing in, but he’s going to push towards $20 million per year for four years and cost the signing team a draft pick. The cost is just too high for a bet that, after a 10 year big league career, Martinez finally figured out how to hit for power. 1. Max Scherzer, Starting Pitcher Crowd: 7 years, $168 million Dave: 7 years, $175 million For the last two years, Max Scherzer has been one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball; only Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez rate better by FIP-. However, a big driver of both his low FIP and ERA has been his ability to prevent fly balls from going over the fence, as he’s posted the fifth lowest HR/FB rate among starters with 400 innings pitched over the last two seasons. His career HR/FB rate is significantly higher than his recent numbers, and HR/FB rate is one of the least predictive parts of a player’s performance, so some regression in this area would make Scherzer look like more of a good pitcher than a great one. And, of course, there’s the health question. Scherzer has made 30 or more starts in six straight years, but he’s still a pitcher, and guys like Matt Cain and Bronson Arroyo are reminders that even durable pitchers eventually break down. To justify something like the $175 million he’s likely to land this winter, he’s going to have to throw a lot of innings in the second half of his career, but history is not kind to free agent pitchers who change teams, especially when it comes to staying healthy. The fact that the Tigers preferred to trade Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson to acquire David Price and try to sign him to the deal they wouldn’t give Scherzer is another red flag. It doesn’t make that the correct decision, necessarily, but the Tigers know Scherzer’s arm better than any other team, and certainly put as much value on starting pitching as any team in baseball, and yet they don’t think Scherzer is worth what he’s going to get. For the next year or two, Scherzer’s signing probably looks just fine, provided he stays healthy. But the long-term cost here is probably just too high. At the rate at which pitchers break down, you have to get truly elite performance when the pitcher is healthy to make a contract this size work, and if Scherzer’s home run rate fluctuates, the top-end performance might not be good enough to justify the dead money that is basically guaranteed at the end of the deal.