The 2017 Free Agent Landmines

Yesterday, we looked at the five players I think have the best chance to outperform their expected contracts among this class of free agents. Today, we’re going the other direction, looking at the five players I think represent the biggest chances to be regrettable contracts.

Last year, this was an easier task. With a pretty deep free agent class, it wasn’t that hard to find five guys who looked like overpay candidates, and so I tagged Dexter Fowler, Yovani Gallardo, Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and Chris Davis as the five guys to avoid. Fowler, of course, was also treated as something of a landmine by the league, and ended up being one of the best bargains of the off-season after re-signing with the Cubs for one year. The other four, though, lived up to landmine status, combining for a grand total of about +6 WAR despite making about $75 million between them.

This year, finding five guys to fit here was tougher. The diminished free agent class means there are just fewer guys who are going to command big deals, and fewer guys getting big contracts means there are fewer guys who will sign albatross deals. So, while we’re still naming five guys to avoid, the magnitude of the problem if a team signs one of these players will likely be a lot smaller; we’re mostly talking overpays of $10 or $20 million or something, not $50 million like some of the guys last year. These guys are probably inefficient signings, but not franchise-killing disasters.

With that said, let’s get to the guys I’d suggest avoiding this winter.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $14.0 M $28.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 3 $12.7 M $40.3 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $12.0 M $36.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
31 416 7.1% 19.9% .245 .302 .407 .306 88 -7.1 12.0 1.9

If you just look at the numbers in that table, the production for the price looks just fine. Almost +2 WAR for $13 million per year, without a super long commitment? What’s wrong with that? Well, Wieters is the exact kind of player our current version of WAR does the worst job valuing. And yes, we’re working on fixing that, but right now, this forecast ignores the impact of framing, and Wieters consistently ranks as one of the worst catchers at getting marginal calls to go his team’s way.

Realistically, Wieters limitations in helping his pitchers means that he probably shouldn’t be your everyday catcher, as he doesn’t hit enough to offset the defensive issues. He’s something like a +1 WAR catcher, good enough to be a part-time guy, but not valuable enough to be the primary catcher for a team trying to win. And heading into his age-31 season, he’s headed for the end of his career, and might not even be able to stick behind the plate for the length of the contract he’ll get this winter. And if he ends up as a 1B/DH by the time the deal is done, based on what he’s done at the plate in his career, he may not even be worth rostering. Of all the free agents this winter, Wieters looks like the one most likely to get released during the deal he’s about to sign, and there isn’t a lot of short-term value either.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 2 $11.0 M $22.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2 $9.7 M $17.3 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $10.0 M $20.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
34 595 8.1% 19.9% .265 .331 .470 .341 112 4.7 -14.6 1.1

This landmine has already been stepped on, as the Blue Jays signed Morales to a three year, $33 million contract on Friday. As I noted in the write-up of that signing, Morales is close to an average offensive player because of his inability to run, making his hits less valuable since they don’t lead to runs at the same rate as players with more athleticism. An average-offense 34-year-old DH isn’t a particularly valuable thing, and while I know the Jays wanted some balance with another left-handed bat in their line-up, they probably should have done better than Morales, or at this level of production, not had to pay so much.

In a bunch of ways, this reminds me of the Billy Butler deal with the A’s. $30 million for a guy who has had some good offensive years doesn’t sound like a bad deal, but there’s an offensively-challenged Royals team let both of these guys go. Morales might be decent enough to keep his spot in the line-up for 2017, but the last two years on the deal, the Jays will be on the hook for $11 million salaries to a guy probably not good enough to start, and it’s not easy to roster a backup DH who can’t run.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $21.0 M $84.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $21.4 M $90.4 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $22.0 M $88.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
34 630 12.2% 18.7% .255 .351 .493 .360 125 18.0 -15.8 2.3

For Jays fans who wish they would have just re-signed Encarnacion instead of signing Morales, though, that might not have worked out much better. Encarnacion is definitely still better than Morales, but he probably wasn’t going to be any kind of bargain either. Paying one-dimensional power hitters in their mid-30s is a big risk, because any real decrease in power makes the rest of the package not work very well. And no one should be that confident that Encarnacion will maintain elite power through his mid-30s.

For 2017, Encarnacion will probably be fine, and help whatever team signs him. But the long-term cost of getting one or maybe two good years will be staggeringly high when all is said and done; it’s not just the $80 to $90 million in salary that we’re forecasting he’ll get, but the signing team will also have to pay an additional tax by surrendering a draft choice, potentially tacking another $5 to $10 million in price onto the cost of the deal. For Encarnacion to be worth something close to $100 million (once the draft pick tax is included), he’d have to essentially defy aging, and stay one of the game’s best sluggers for the next three or four years. That’s probably not going to happen, and instead, the team that winds up with Encarnacion will probably get a short boost that they regret down the line.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $15.0 M $60.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $13.6 M $47.0 M
Median Crowdsource 3 $14.0 M $42.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
32 65.0 6.0% 22.6% 53.0% 3.22 3.23 3.40 1.0 1.0

It’s no secret that relievers are in for some big paydays this winter, and Melancon will benefit from that rising tide, likely pushing over $50 million with his upcoming contract, and maybe getting well over that; I’ve heard guesses for his next deal as high as $70 million. And while Melancon has been an excellent reliever for the last four years, how long that will last is a little bit questionable.

Melancon’s core skill is generating weak contact; over the last four years, he’s held batters to a .266 BABIP and only 5.9% of his flyballs have gone for home runs. With excellent command of an elite cutter, Melancon has been able to dominate hitters without racking up that many strikeouts. But the margin of error for that kind of approach is pretty narrow, and as Jonathan Papelbon showed last year, you can go from high-quality closer to out of work pretty quickly with just a small downturn in command. Without a dominant strikeout pitch, there’s just not a lot to fall back on if the cutter loses effectiveness or the command takes a wrong turn, and Mariano Rivera aside, guys who succeed like this generally don’t have super long runs as high-end arms.

As long as Melancon can maintain pinpoint command and get batters to make weak contact, he’ll be a good reliever, but I don’t think I’d bet $50-$70 million on that skillset aging well.

Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 4 $16.5 M $66.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 4 $16.1 M $59.2 M
Median Crowdsource 4 $16.0 M $64.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
31 595 7.7% 25.1% .254 .314 .480 .337 109 5.3 -13.6 1.2

You knew this was coming. A year ago, Mark Trumbo’s market value wasn’t even high enough to be included in a one-for-one swap for Steve Clevenger, a journeyman minor leaguer; the Mariners had to throw in an extra player in order to make that deal. 47 home runs later, and Trumbo is now looking at a big paycheck this winter. Except he’s basically still Mark Trumbo.

The 2016 power spike was fun and all, but it is about as unsustainable as anything gets; 63% of Trumbo’s extra base hits went for home runs last year, which even the sluggiest sluggers who ever slugged can’t keep up over a long period of time. Some of those balls that went over the wall are going to naturally turn back into doubles, and without some late-career improvement in walk or strikeout rate, Trumbo will likely again resemble the decent-but-not-great hitter that he was before 2016.

And realistically, even with the 47 homers last year, he still wasn’t that great; his 123 wRC+ tied him with the Khris Davis, Jonathan Lucroy, Evan Longoria, and Ian Kinsler; how valuable would those guys be if they provided no value in the field? And that was his career year. Trumbo’s career 111 wRC+ puts him more in line with guys like Jay Bruce, or the 2016 version of Yasmany Tomas. And now Trumbo is selling his age 31-34/35 seasons. And you have to give up a draft pick for the right to bet on an aging complementary player whose career year made him a +2 WAR player. Yeah.

Trumbo’s a good enough defensive first baseman, and has enough power, that he’d be a useful player for a team with a hole at first base for a few years. But the right price for his value in that role is probably something like $30-40 million, not $60 million and a draft pick. Because MLB teams have gotten a lot better at valuing player performance, Trumbo won’t get a crazy overpay like he would have five years ago, but even in this market, he’s probably still not going to be a guy you want on your team next year.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

Draft pick on Melancon? Qualifying Offer guys are the only ones with draft pick comp, right?

output gap
7 years ago
Reply to  JG007

No draft pick for Melancon. He was traded from PIT to WAS mid-season.