The 2016 Free Agent Landmines

On Tuesday, I looked at five free agents who I think have a chance to provide some positive value for the team that signs them, based on our expectations of what the market will pay out this winter. Today, we’re going to look at the flip side of that coin, and I’ll identify five players who I think pose the highest risk of ending up as expensive disappointments.

Of course, based on my recent suggestions, maybe teams should just sign all of these guys. Last year, I warned teams off of Max Scherzer, Nelson Cruz, and Edinson Volquez, all of whom went on to have one of the best years of their careers. At least I got Victor Martinez right, and I did a little better a couple of years ago, but even Curtis Granderson’s appearance on that list is a reminder that these guys aren’t fated for disaster. Or that I’m an idiot, depending on your interpretation.

But for various reasons, I’m still skeptical of the five players listed below, and wouldn’t want to approach their expected market price this winter.

#5: Dexter Fowler, CF
Crowd’s Estimate: 4 years, $56 million
Dave’s Estimate: 4 years, $56 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +1.7 WAR

Fowler is maybe one of the best current examples of an average Major League player; for his career, he’s at +51 OFF and -52 DEF, as his solid bat and baserunning have been offset by occasionally suspect defense in center field. Over his career, he’s been worth almost exactly +2 WAR per 600 plate appearances, and heading into his age-30 season, he should probably be expected to produce something close to that level next year before heading into his decline.

For a team with a lot of money to spend, $56 million for an average player isn’t a terrible use of resources, but Fowler actually costs more than that, since he’s attached to draft pick compensation after turning down a qualifying offer from the Cubs. Any team without a protected first round pick has to add roughly a $10 million tax to the calculation, since they’d be surrendering the ability to add a valuable asset to their farm system next summer. So now, Fowler’s real cost to a contender — the teams with protected first round picks are mostly teams that shouldn’t be paying market rates for league average 30 year olds — is probably more in the $65 million range, while a +2 WAR projection for 2016 with a standard half-war-per-season aging expectation would put his value around $42 million over four years.

And when you see what guys like Aaron Hicks and Leonys Martin are getting traded for, it just doesn’t seem that wise to spend north of $60 million on the decline phase of a player with similar overall value. Fowler could be a useful piece for a team at a lower price, and maybe he’ll be one of the guys who get most affected by the qualifying offer, sitting around on the market until his price comes down to justify the value. At the expected price and a first round pick, though? I’d pass.

#4: Yovani Gallardo, SP
Crowd’s Estimate: 4 years, $56 million
Dave’s Estimate: 4 years, $56 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +1.7 WAR

No, I didn’t forget to change the numbers from the Fowler entry; Gallardo has the exact same contract prediction from both the crowd and myself, as well as the same Steamer forecast for 2016. They’re even the same age, having been born a month apart in 1986. Gallardo is Fowler’s pitching equivalent in this free agent market.

Except, instead of a long career of average production, Gallardo actually used to be quite good, topping out as a +5 WAR pitcher in 2010. But age hasn’t been kind to his ability to miss bats, and his core metrics have been steadily trending downwards for five years, with his strikeout rate reaching a career low 15% mark after moving to the American League last year. Gallardo is now a run-of-the-mill pitch-to-contact innings eater, which isn’t a bad thing to have, but not something a team should be eager to pay a high price for. But thanks to a 3.42 ERA — built almost entirely on the back of a .239 BABIP with runners in scoring position — Gallardo is going to be looking for a nice payday this winter, and like Fowler, he turned down a qualifying offer, so his actual price is higher than just the salary he’ll be paid.

If Gallardo had a history of outperforming his peripherals, this might be a different story, but his career 3.66 ERA is a near match for 3.74 FIP, and there’s no real reason to think he can strand as many runners going forward as he did last year. Without the ability to get strikeouts, Gallardo should be seen as a back-end starter, but he’s probably going to get paid at a level that requires more production than that. He does enough things well to be useful, but I wouldn’t be all that interested in dropping $50+ million on a low-upside innings-sponge.

#3: Justin Upton, OF
Crowd’s Estimate: 6 years, $120 million
Dave’s Estimate: 7 years, $140 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +3.0 WAR

Upton is a weird player, a former elite prospect who is simultaneously valuable and disappointing. He’s a power hitter who doesn’t hit for as much power as his reputation suggests — he’s only cracked 30+ homers once — and strikes out too much to be an elite hitter in seasons when he only hits 25 home runs. But he’s actually a very underrated baserunner, so even though he doesn’t hit as well as people thought he would coming up through the minors, he remains a valuable part of a team’s line-up, and he’s good enough defensively in the outfield to not be a liability out there even as he gets older.

Given Upton’s age, he’s probably one of the safest bets in this class to not crater, and maybe has the highest floor of any of the guys who are expected to get $100 million deals this winter. But at $140 million or more — with all due respect to the crowd’s estimate, I can’t imagine a scenario where he takes less than Shin-Soo Choo got two years ago — he’d have to be a high-end performer for the next couple of years to justify the albatross the deal would almost certainly become by the end of the contract. And Upton just hasn’t been a star player since 2011, the one year he did manage to hit 31 homers. A seven year deal with at least a $20 million AAV is a bet on Upton turning back into that kind of hitter for at least a little while, and it’s likely that someone will pay for that perceived upside.

But more likely, I think I’d expect something like +3 WAR for the next couple of years before aging starts chipping away at his value, and for that, I’m probably not going much over $100 million. I don’t think Upton presents a lot of risk of total failure, but at the price he’s likely to get, I don’t see him performing at a level that justifies the expenditure.

#2: Jordan Zimmermann, SP
Crowd’s Estimate: 6 years, $126 million
Dave’s Estimate: 7 years, $140 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +2.8 WAR

A year ago, this kind of contract for Zimmermann would have looked perfectly rational, as Zimmermann had cut his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate at the same time, and looked like a frontline starting pitcher who might be a reasonable alternative to David Price as the best pitcher on the market. 2015, though, didn’t go so well; Zimmermann saw his fastball drop by nearly one mph, gave back most of his strikeout gains from the year before, and started giving up home runs for the first time since becoming a regular member of the Nationals rotation. The result was his worst performance since 2010, a year in which he was pitching with a bum elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

Of course, even Zimmermann’s worst performance in years was still quite good, as he was a +3 WAR pitcher by either FIP or RA9, so it’s not like he imploded, but the regression does rain some concerns about what Zimmermann is going to be long-term. A significant part of Zimmermann’s prior success was based on not allowing home runs, and as examples like Matt Cain show, very good pitchers can fall apart if and when their home run prevention skills erode.

Without home run suppression, Zimmermann is merely an above average starter headed into his 30s, with an already-repaired UCL that has five years of wear on it. Given that some data shows that the repaired ligaments have a shelf life of roughly five years, there’s some significant injury risk in play as well. At $120 to $140 million, Zimmermann would need to start out at around a +4.0 WAR level and stay healthy for the duration of his contract to return value for the signing team. A year ago, that might have been a solid bet, but coming off a bit of a down year — by his lofty standards — I’d be wary of going too far north of $100 million for his services. As noted in the bargains post, if the goal is to add a strike-thrower with an average strikeout rate, just sign Wei-Yin Chen for half the price instead.

#1: Chris Davis, 1B
Crowd’s Estimate: 5 years, $100 million
Dave’s Estimate: 5 years, $130 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +2.4 WAR

Note: I’ll take the over on Steamer’s projection here, as it looks quite pessimistic to me, projecting Davis to hit worse than his career average, despite the fact that he’s been significantly better than those totals over the last four years. So this skepticism isn’t based on Steamer’s very bearish number, but instead, on the historically poor aging curve demonstrated by players with Davis’ particular skillset.

Davis has basically one elite major league tool; legitimate 80 power. When he makes contact, he does as much damage as anyone not named Giancarlo Stanton. The rest of his game is mediocre at best, as he’s an average defensive first baseman with no baserunning value, so all of his value is derived at the plate, but he also happens to swing and miss about as much as anyone else in baseball. Without power, Davis is a replacement level player, but he has so much power that his carrying tool has made him a quality player for the Orioles.

As that skill erodes, though, Davis’ entire value will go with it. And history suggests that his power is probably going to erode fairly soon.

That is a pretty stark downwards drop, and if Davis’ ISO goes, he doesn’t really have anything left. The scary scenario is that Davis follows Josh Hamilton’s career arc, as Hamilton went from a +4 WAR player with 43 homers in 2012 to putting up +3.3 WAR and 39 homers over the next three seasons combined. One trick ponies aren’t so much fun when the trick stops working, and so while Davis can be an impact player as long as he retains top-shelf power, the end could come quickly once he loses that skill.

I think there’s enough short-term upside that a high-AAV contract for four years could probably work out just fine, but with Scott Boras publicly proclaiming that Davis is the best position player on the free agent market, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. At anything more than five years without a serious AAV discount, I’d be a hard pass, and even at five years, I don’t know that I’d be in for more than $25 million per season. There’s just way too much risk here to put out anything close to $30 million per year for six years, so if predictions of a $180 million contract prove anywhere near correct, I wouldn’t be surprised if the signing team ended up with an extreme case of buyer’s remorse.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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#6 org
6 years ago

Your Nelson Cruz landmine was well off last season.

6 years ago
Reply to  #6 org

One good year does not mean the whole thing’s gonna be good though.

That said, he probably did just about provide the whole contract’s value in that one year.

BBWAA Writer
6 years ago
Reply to  Justin

Pfft. The Mariners didn’t even make the playoffs, how could Cruz have provided any value at all?

6 years ago
Reply to  BBWAA Writer

Except the one guy who ranked Cruz ahead of Trout on his MVP ballot.

good job, internet
6 years ago
Reply to  BBWAA Writer

Good job not understanding the sarcastic reference.

Nathaniel Dawson
6 years ago
Reply to  BBWAA Writer

Good job not understanding the sarcastic reference

Exactly. Good job not understanding the sarcastic reference.

6 years ago
Reply to  BBWAA Writer

Youre kidding right? One player, in particular a DH, isnt going to carry the whole team on his back. They have a new GM & Coach & theyve made a few trades, what does that tell you? That they were disfunctional!

I can cherry pick, too!
6 years ago
Reply to  #6 org

Victor Martinez looks like a good pick for a landmine.
So does Markakis.

6 years ago
Reply to  #6 org

As he acknowledged in the second paragraph.

John Salek
6 years ago
Reply to  #6 org

I am really surprised Cueto was not on this list…really think he is a high risk of blowing up