The 2015 Free Agent Landmines

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.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

All of these are true but also a stark reminder of how awful that Robinson Cano contract is going to look IMO.

Forrest Gumption
8 years ago
Reply to  southie

Contract is in no way as bad as Pujols’s deal due to Cano’s superior health and consistency at a difficult position like 2B – plus you have to take into account that there’s no way a player like him goes to a wasteland like Seattle if they don’t overpay. Strange deal to use as an example. $24M in 2022 isn’t going to even be that much.

8 years ago

But Cano will be 42 then and likely having produced multiple negative-WAR years by then.

He could easily be replacement-level by age 38 (if not sooner), meaning you’ve got 4-5 years of negative value. Not sure if that can make up for however much surplus he creates in the first 5 years.

Tim Eriksen
8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Cano will be 40 in his final season in Seattle not 42.

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

If we use Cano’s steamer projection for next season (5.1 WAR) and then reduce that by .5 each season (shown by Tom Tango to be a really good way to do it) we come up with Cano producing 33.2 WAR over the lifetime of the contract. At $240 million, that’s a $/WAR figure of about 7.2 million. If last offseason’s $/WAR rate was 6 million to 6.5 million, even a conservative estimate of inflation rate of 5 percent will make the contract somewhere between -5 million and +15 million in surplus value.

A more aggressive inflation projection or a higher starting point (and since I went with conservative numbers there’s a good chance of the true figures being higher with very little chance of them being lower) makes the contract a big win for Seattle. True, Cano will look way too expensive in his last couple of years. But he’s going to provide lots of excess value in the early years of the contract, which is exactly what Seattle expects to happen.

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Not quite with you on the math there, skippy. If you start him out at 5.1 WAR for 2015 @ $6.5M/WAR and add 5% annual inflation, and pay him $24M/year, he’s (very slightly) overpaid.

year WAR $/WAR value surplus
2015 5.1 $6.50 $33.15 $9.15
2016 4.6 $6.83 $31.40 $7.40
2017 4.1 $7.17 $29.38 $5.38
2018 3.6 $7.52 $27.09 $3.09
2019 3.1 $7.90 $24.49 $0.49
2020 2.6 $8.30 $21.57 -$2.43
2021 2.1 $8.71 $18.29 -$5.71
2022 1.6 $9.15 $14.63 -$9.37
2023 1.1 $9.60 $10.56 -$13.44

total surplus value: -$5.43M

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

@ Yirmiyahu – look at your calc again… anything missing?

Way to not include the 2014 (5.3 WAR) season in your calculation of the contract! Pretty sure the real total is right between skippys -5 mill and +15 mill.

Details, my friend, details!

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

I didn’t include 2014 because I thought we were having a discussion of whether the contract was an albatross going forward.

Anyway, it seems like about a fair contract no matter how you look at it.

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Given his position I can see a quick downturn in his overall production/health/PAs. I think one year from now this contract is starting to look worrisome. More so than only one year of aging would normally do.

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

You are really assuming a lot there. You act like turning 40 turns you into a potato.

Cano isn’t a crush homers, strike out 6,000 times type of player. He walks and he plays good defense. At age 40 I can still see him being at least a very good DH.

8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

Yirmiyahu – You can’t leave any years out when evaluating a contract. The whole point of contract backloading is to give teams value early that they pay for later. Almost all big free agent contracts are going to be really bad at the end; that is by design. It’s the total surplus that matters, not the surplus after a certain date.

Also, keep in mind that I used very conservative numbers in my calculations. The actual baseball inflation rate over the past few years has been closer to 10% than 5%. My point was that at a minimum this contract is a break-even expectation for Seattle, with the chance to be a huge surplus if the baseball economy continues to grow.

Jason B
8 years ago
Reply to  dl80

“You act like turning 40 turns you into a potato.”

No, but it does, very nearly without fail, turn you into a poor, injured, or retired baseball player. The number of productive age-40 (and 39, and 38…) seasons in the modern era is very short indeed.

Regardless of skill set or body type, age is heretofore undefeated, and I wouldn’t bet against it going forward.

8 years ago
Reply to  southie

Cano is worth $30 million per season right now. Sure, the last 3 years of that deal will suck but right now the Mariners are getting him on the cheap at $24 million.

7 years ago
Reply to  Johnny

If we’re being honest, I’d say Cano is worth well above $30M at the moment. All things considered, including the name value and everything associated with it he brings alongside his elite production, the actual amount he’s worth from (say…) 2014 until 2018 could clock in at a staggering number. That fact (err… opinion) combined with the WAR figures listed above would very easily cancel out any lagging performance at the end of the deal. And all of this is assuming he is never traded. They’d likely still have to send along money with him, but I could see a contender willing to eat salary for a year or two of a 38-year old Cano. Sort of like the Ichiro deal, although I think by then he was only making $6M or so.