The 25 Best – and Five Worst – Free Agent Values

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Free Agency officially starts tomorrow, as the kinda-sorta-but-not-really-exclusive negotiating period comes to an end today, and players who haven’t re-signed with their former teams are free to sign with anyone they choose. Well, that’s not really true. They can sign with any team that makes them an offer. I’m pretty sure Jose Valverde couldn’t re-sign with the Tigers no matter how much he wanted to.

With free agency starting up, you’re also about to get inundated with lists of the top free agents. 50 seems to have been the agreed upon number, as Tim Dierkes already has his Top 50 up at MLBTradeRumors, while Keith Law has said that his list goes up on ESPN Insider when the clock strikes midnight. I’m sure there will be others, and some of them will probably ask you to view their list in a slideshow. Those people are the Jose Valverde of list makers. Don’t be one of those people. Slideshows are the worst.

Here at FanGraphs, we’re not giving you a slideshow. We’re not giving you a Top 50 Free Agent list either, because, to be honest, my list would have looked an awful lot like Tim’s, and probably an awful lot like Keith’s. I just didn’t see a lot of usefulness in telling you that I agree that Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton are the two best free agents on the market, nor was I super interested in trying to draw a distinction between Carlos Lee and Carlos Pena. They’re both not good anymore. Does anyone really want to read about those guys today? Me either.

So, instead of producing our own list of 50 best free agents on the market in some order, we’re going to provide a different slant – using the Contract Crowdsourcing results that went up in full this morning, I’m going to provide a list of the 25 players that I would be most interested in signing at those given prices. And, for extra fun, the five players who I would not go anywhere near at the prices you guys projected them to sign for.

You’ll see bigger contracts at the top than at the bottom, even though you can get a better ROI on a smaller deal if the guy goes bananas, as Aaron Hill did last year. That said, those kinds of years are tough to predict, and in general, I think teams are better off getting a good player at a good price rather than a role player at a great price, even if in retrospect, some of those players will turn into good players and provide a lot of value beyond what they’re being paid. The goal here isn’t to provide the best value in terms of $/WAR, but to identify — at least, in my view — which contracts are likely to have the biggest magnitude of effect on a team’s chances of winning going forward. And, on the flip side, the contracts that could do the most harm to a team’s ability to contend over the life of the deal.

So, without further ado, here are my Top 25 Free Agent Values, followed by the Five Free Agent Landmines to avoid this winter.

1. Nick Swisher, OF: 4 years, $56 million

Back at the end of August, I wrote up Swisher’s potential value in response to a report that he was hoping for “a Jayson Werth contract”, and found that to be unlikely at best. In the couple of months since that post was written, Swisher had another awful postseason, and now reports suggest that the Yankees aren’t even going to attempt to re-sign him, which can’t be good for his market value. So, even the 6/90 to 7/100 suggestions of late August seem inflated, but there’s no reason Swisher should have to settle for 4/56.

Swisher’s been a +4 win player for each of the last three years, mixing in consistent offensive performance with solid defense and durability. He’s not sexy, but he’s rock solid across the board, with no obvious flaws or red flags to be found. He’s the safest bet in the entire class, and a four year deal would only take him through age 35. If a team can actually get Swisher for 4/56, they should jump on it before the rest of the league realizes that they’re skipping out on a bargain.

2. B.J. Upton, OF: 4 years, $52 million

Upton hasn’t been as good or as consistent as Swisher, but he’s also four years younger, and a four year deal would barely even extend into his decline phase. Upton’s probably never going to develop into what he was projected to be as a prospect, but there aren’t that many guys who can play center field and post a wRC+ of 107, as Upton has throughout his career in Tampa Bay. For a team that needs a center fielder, Upton’s the best bet on the market, especially at a deflated price like this.

3. Anibal Sanchez, SP: 4 years, $52 million

Sanchez has flown under the radar to some extent, overshadowed by Josh Johnson in Miami and Justin Verlander in Detroit, but he’s a legitimately good starter who has seemingly put his health problems behind him, throwing nearly 600 innings over the last three years. His stuff is good, his results are good, and his durability problems are probably overstated at this point. For essentially the same deal that Mark Buehrle got last winter, this would be a nice addition for any team looking to bolster their rotation.

4. Zack Greinke, SP: 6 years, $114 million

Greinke’s the best pitcher on the market and will almost certainly command the biggest paycheck, especially if Texas, Anaheim, and Los Angeles engage in a bidding war for his services, which could push his final contract quite a bit higher than this. If 6/114 was going to get it done, my guess is he’d already be an Angel. Despite his inconsistencies, he has a chance to be a difference maker, and he’s hitting the market in a year where there aren’t many others who can say the same.

5. Angel Pagan, OF – 3 years, $30 million

Pagan probably earned himself some extra cash with his postseason performance, as the switch-hitter showed he can play center field and provide some offense at the top of a championship batting order as well. Two months ago, I called him the most underrated player in the game. This winter, he’ll get some real money, but even at 3/30, he’s got value potential, and could be a great fit on a number of contending teams.

6. Melky Cabrera, OF – 2 years, $16 million

First off, I don’t think Melky would even want a two year deal at this kind of price. He’s the classic “pillow contract” guy, and a one year deal both limits the signing team’s risk and gives Cabrera the chance to re-enter the market next year if he proves he can hit and pass drug tests at the same time. So, my guess is he signs for something more like $6-$8 million on a one year deal, but either way, whoever lands him could get a real steal, as even pre-2012 Melky was worth this kind of contract, and if you believe that any of his improvement will carry over to 2013, he could end up being one of the better performers of the entire class.

7. Josh Hamilton, OF – 5 years, $100 million

You can’t talk about Hamilton’s value without mentioning the long list of risks, but value is a combination of risk and reward, and focusing on one without the other is short sighted. And, of course, the reward for bringing in Hamilton could be quite high, as he’s one of the game’s best players when he’s healthy. He’s basically this year’s Jose Reyes, who many wanted to shy away from at a similar price last year due to injury concerns, but Reyes proved to be a legitimate value in year one of his deal, and Hamilton could easily do the same for whoever takes a shot on his potential without being scared away by the risks.

8. Hiroki Kuroda, SP: 2 years, $24 million

The latest reports indicate that Kuroda will probably accept another one year deal, so even this estimate will probably prove to be a bit too high. Kuroda was a steal for the Yankees last year and remains a quality starter, and any time you can get a quality free agent starter without the risk of a long term deal, that’s a nice addition.

9. David Ortiz, DH – 2 years, $26 million

Why no one wanted to give Ortiz a two year deal last winter is beyond me, but it seems like everyone has realized the error of their ways, and recognize that he’s still got a lot to offer an AL team who needs an offensive upgrade in a hurry. The age and injury concerns limit the length — and risk — of the deal, and at $13 million per year, Ortiz is a bargain. The lack of long term value is the only reason he’s this low.

10. Torii Hunter, OF: 2 years, $20 million

While pretty much everything about Hunter’s career year screams “fluke!” and the stats that measure his core skills are going the wrong way, we can’t ignore the fact that Hunter has put up +11.6 WAR over the last three years, and certainly didn’t look like he was getting old in 2012. On a short term deal at a price that essentially pays him like a league average player, Hunter could provide a nice value buy for any team who wants an short term outfield patch.

11. Ryan Dempster, SP: 3 years, $36 million

Fun fact: Over the last three years, Zack Greinke has a 23% K%, while Ryan Dempster has a 22% K%. Greinke has an ERA- of 96, while Dempster has an ERA- of 99. Sure, Greinke’s better, and he’s younger, but is he that much better than Dempster, to the point where there’s a bidding war for his services while Dempster is basically being seen as a back-end starter near the end of his career? I’d happily take both. At 3/36, Dempster’s basically this year’s Jimmy Rollins – a good player in his thirties who seems to be taking too big of a hit for his age and not getting enough credit for his performance.

12. Brandon McCarthy, SP: 2 years, $20 million

With McCarthy, you can’t talk about him without talking about the fact that his season ended due to brain surgery, and there’s just no way to know if that’s going to have any kind of long lasting effect, either physically or mentally. Juan Nicasio came back from a similarly scary situation, and McCarthy seems like a guy who wants to keep pitching, so but that incident probably is going to keep the offers to short term deals, especially given his arm problems that seem to recur every season. Still, when he’s on the mound, he’s quite good, and I’d imagine most teams in baseball would have to evaluate his medicals if he was available for this price, because 2/20 for a pitcher of McCarthy’s abilities is quite the nice buy.

13. Shane Victorino, OF: 3 years, $30 million

Angel Pagan with a little more speed and a little more fame. They’re very similar players, though Victorino’s reliance on power as a part of his game scares me a little bit, as that seems like a thing that could go away pretty quickly for a little guy in his thirties. Still, at $10 million a year, Victorino would be a nice value for the first year and probably two, and the cost isn’t so high that the third year would be a sinkhole. Any team wanting Pagan that doesn’t get him should look Victorino’s direction.

14. Edwin Jackson, SP: 3 years, $36 million

Jackson hasn’t really changed at all since hitting the market last winter, but the sense is that he’ll get his three year deal this time around, given that he’s still going to be just 29-years-old next year, and he put another quality season on his resume in 2012. He’s not an ace, but he’s a durable innings eater who keeps runs off the board at an above average rate, and there are a lot of teams who could use 200 above average innings at a reasonable price.

15. Roy Oswalt, SP: 1 year, $6 million

2012 was basically a lost year for Oswalt, and he probably learned his lesson about trying to sit out half the season and then come in ready to pitch in a pennant race. I doubt he wants to end his career on that kind of low note, so expect him to be less picky about where he plays this winter, and with a full spring training in a better environment to pitch, he could be quite the nice bounce back option.

16. Joe Blanton, SP: 2 years, $14 million

Over the last three years, Blanton has an xFIP- of 90, which is the fourth best among free agent starting pitchers. The problem is his ERA- of 121 hasn’t come in a particularly small sample size, so we’re dealing with 400 innings where Blanton’s hits and home runs have basically undone all the good he’s accomplished by limiting walks and racking up strikeouts. You generally want to bet on guys with this kind of BB/K rate, and Blanton might turn out to be a steal in a big ballpark with good defensive teammates, but he’s definitely a risk. At this price, it’s a risk worth taking, but you have to know that you might end up with an overpaid BP thrower.

17. Marco Scutaro, IF: 2 years, $16 million

The hero of the Giants postseason is in line for a bit of a raise after his monstrous second half performance, but his age is going to keep the paycheck from getting too out of control. He’s still a slap-hitting 37-year-old with marginal power and some durability question marks, but as he showed for the Giants, contact skills and defense up the middle are a valuable package. The pixie dust will eventually wear off, but $8 million a year for an avearage-ish second baseman, even one at the end of his career, is a decent deal.

18. Maicer Izturis, IF: 2 years, $10 million

I’m pretty sure this is the only Top Free Agent list you’ll see Maicer Izturis on, since he’s an aging utility player coming off a poor season, but for a team that has 400 plate appearances and a weak starting infielder at either second or third, Izturis could be a valuable 10th guy. From 2009 to 2011, he was basically a league average hitter who could handle all three IF positions, and while everything got worse last year, we’re dealing with a half season’s worth of playing time. The larger sample of Izturis’ career peg him as a great part-time guy who won’t kill you if he has to play regularly. $5 million a year for roster flexibility and depth is worth it for a team with some resources.

19. Kevin Youkilis, 3B: 2 years, $18 million

Youkilis’ body seems to be breaking down in front of our eyes, so a two year commitment to a 34-year-old with health problems and regressing skills is a bit of a risk, but we should remember that a downgraded Youkilis is still a pretty decent player. His power is still hanging around and he’s always going to draw his walks, so as long as he can even play a respectable third base and stay in the line-up, he’s a value at this price. I’d rather have him on a one year deal, but if push came to shove, I wouldn’t be a afraid of 2/18.

20. Adam LaRoche, 1B: 3 years, $36 million

I endorse this price with some hesitation, as LaRoche is clearly coming off a career year at age 32, and this could look like a silly overreaction to recent performance if some of the improvement isn’t real. Still, the increased power and reduced K% (relative to league average) give some hope that there’s been sustainable changes made, and he doesn’t have to carry them over for that long to be worth $36 million. If he’s even a +3 win player in 2013 and then ages normally, this is a deal worth doing. If he goes back to being a +2 win guy, then it’s probably a bit of an overpay, but there’s enough potential there to make it worth a shot.

21. Stephen Drew, SS: 2 years, $16 million

Like with Izturis, you’re betting on 2012 not being overly predictive, and going more off his overall body of work than what he was last year. Injuries and the loss of power are concerning, but there aren’t a lot of good shortstops in Major League baseball anymore, and Drew has been one before. This might seem a bit rich for a bounce back guy, but given how thin SS is, he doesn’t have to hit much to be worth $8 million, and if his offense rebounds back to prior levels, there is some upside here.

22. Jeff Keppinger, IF: 2 years, $10 million

Keppinger is essentially Marco Scutaro with terrible defense. Like Scutaro, he almost never swings and misses, and while his offense is based on a quantity of singles, he can get enough of them to be a decent hitter. The problem is that he’s really probably best suited to DH, which isn’t exactly where you want a slap-hitting singles guy, but he can fake it at first and third well enough to be a backup corner infielder, and his skillset makes him an ideal pinch-hitter. He shouldn’t be an everyday guy, but like Izturis, he has value in a 10th man role.

23. Travis Hafner, DH: 1 year, $5 million

With Hafner, we have a DH who simply can’t play more than 100 games a year without something hurting. Last year, he only managed 66 games. Anyone signing Hafner is signing up for a half season of playing time, and maybe less. But, he’s worth having for what he can do when he does play. Last year, he posted a 119 wRC+ while his BABIP sunk to .233, which hasn’t been any kind of career trend for him. His BB/K/ISO were still at elite levels, and while you’d expect an old slow DH to have BABIP problems, even a modest return towards his career average sets him up as a pretty nifty hitter. For a team that can plan on replacing him in-season when he hits the DL but wants the upgrade when he’s healthy enough to play, a low risk one year deal is a nice way to improve the offense.

24. Carlos Villanueva, SP: 2 years, $12 million

Villanueva is this year’s Chris Capuano; a guy who misses more bats than his stuff would suggest and can be a good performer if you think the home run problem might fix itself after a change of scenery. His reputation for wearing down in the second half will likely keep his price down, but any team that wants a lower cost strikeout pitcher with some upside, Villanueva’s a nice fit.

25. Kelly Shoppach, C: 1 year, $3 million

Shoppach’s rising strikeout rate is a concern, and his time as a decent bat against lefties may be coming to an end, but a team looking for a nifty backup catcher who wouldn’t embarrass himself in full-time action could do a lot worse than Shoppach, especially at this price. Given the amount of lousy catchers in baseball right now, Shoppach should be able to do better than this.

And now, for the five crowdsourced contracts that I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near.

1. Delmon Young, DH: 2 years, $16 million

It’s not clear that Delmon Young should even get a Major League contract this winter. He definitely shouldn’t be anyone’s starting DH next year. He’s basically a platoon player at this point in his career, and as a right-handed bat, that means he should play a couple of times per week. Giving him $8 million a year is just lighting cash on fire. Giving him $8 million a year for two years would be one of the dumbest decisions in recent history. I think the game has gotten smarter than this, and I don’t see Young coming anywhere near this price. Which is good, becuase this price is nutso.

2. Kyle Lohse, SP: 4 years, $52 million

Who wants to pay $13 million per year for the age 34-37 years of a pitcher whose career year was based on a low BABIP? Not me. Lohse is a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter who can soak up innings and occasionally give you a strong season when things go right, but at his age, that’s worth $10 million a year for a couple of years, not $13 million for four. Run away, GMs, run away.

3. Mike Napoli, C/1B: 3 years, $36 million

If you think there’s a good chance that 2011 Napoli will re-emerge, this kind of deal would make sense, but 2012 Napoli should scare teams away from a three year deal. His strikeout went went up 50%, and while he still hit 24 home runs, the doubles went away entirely, so his distribution of extra base hits probably overstates his actual power levels now. He’s the classic old-player-skills type, so while he’ll be just 31, he’s also got a catcher’s wear and tear on his body. Just too many red flags for me here. I think he ends up in Boston on a one year deal that makes sense for everyone, but if the price is really three years, look elsewhere.

4. Michael Bourn, CF: 5 years, $70 million

I wrote about my concerns with Bourn’s future performance a month ago, as I just don’t see a lot of historical precedent for guys succeeding in their thirties with a high K/low power offensive skillset. Those things don’t go together, so if Bourn is going to remain an offensive threat, he’s going to be something of a trailblazer, which isn’t really what you’re looking for when giving out five year deals. As mentioned, there are quite a few average bat/decent glove CFs on the market this year, and most of them will come a lot cheaper than this. Given his contact problems and price tag, I’d rather go another direction.

5. Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP: 1 year, $4 million

Sure, it’s just a one year flier, so why not? How about becomes there’s no evidence that even a healthy Dice-K is any good, and he inflicts pain on everyone watching him pitch. The terrible command combined with 10 minutes between pitches make his starts torture for fans of both sides, and there’s just not enough potential here to justify sucking the life out of the game every five days. There are better, younger, cheaper pitchers who aren’t horrendous to watch. Sign one of them instead. Boycot Dice-K. Please.

So, there you have it – the 25 best and five worst values of the off-season, based on the crowdsourced projections and my best guess as to how these guys will perform going forward. Given that there are five times as many values as landmines, you can probably guess that I think the crowdsourced values are too low, and I expect prices to be higher across the board for most of these guys. But, even with that expectation, I still think there are going to be some decent buys in free agency, especially for a team looking for a center fielder or a back-end starting pitcher. This is a pretty deep free agent class, even if it’s not strong at the top, and an organization willing to wait until January will likely find themselves picking from some decent leftovers.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Madson not on the list? He should still be an elite reliever available on a fairly friendly deal. Some team is going to get a bargain.

11 years ago
Reply to  nik

2013’s Broxton.

11 years ago
Reply to  nik

These are relative to the crowd-sourced projections. Very possible both guys (though I don’t even remember Broxton) were projected at neither team or player advantaged deals.