The Bargains of the 2014 Free Agent Class

Free Agency starts today. Well, sort of. Teams and agents are now allowed to start fully negotiating with each other, though they’ve been flirting with each other ever since the World Series ended, and no one really comes close to signing with a new team at this point in the off-season anyway. It’s kind of a symbolic opening, but it does bring with it one reliable event: the release of Top X Free Agent lists and predictions. Everyone does them, even though we’re all basically the saying the same thing — Jacoby Ellsbury and Robinson Cano are good players — and our predictions are all mostly useless.

We presented our version a couple of weeks ago, ordered by the total guaranteed dollars expected by our readers in our crowdsourcing project. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the prices or the ordering of the players relative to each other, but rather than present another Top 50 Free Agent list, let’s try something a little different. Today and tomorrow, I’ll go through the crowdsourced expected prices and present the players that I think are worth significantly more and significantly less than the crowd expects them to sign for. Today, let’s start with the guys who I’d target as values, if their market price was their crowdsourced expected signing price.

We’ll go in reverse order, because why not.

5. Omar Infante, 2nd Base: 3 years, $27 million

Infante’s heading into his age-32 season and is coming off the best year of his career, which generally doesn’t add up to a huge bargain, but with the Tigers declining to make Infante a qualifying offer and the crowd apparently pricing his age and regression into their expected price, this looks like one of the best deals any team could sign this winter. 3/27, last year, got you Cody Ross, or Jeremy Guthrie, or Jonathan Broxton and some walking around money. I hope it’s not a huge stretch to point out that a quality second baseman who projects as a league average hitter is a better return on that kind of price than the guys who signed in this range last year, and that’s even before accounting for expected inflation that will come from teams getting infusions of cash from the national TV deals.

Infante’s not a star, and there’s not a lot of upside here, but there’s a lot of value in having a very steady everyday second baseman who will give you this kind of production. He’s been worth +8 WAR over the last three years and certainly isn’t trending the wrong way, so a baseline projection is going to come out to around +2 WAR or so, and putting more weight on more recent seasons pushes it closer to +2.5, most likely. For $9 million per year on a relatively short commitment and no draft pick compensation? This is a big win for any team that can land him at this price. If this is his asking price, the Royals should skip negotiations and just sign him tomorrow.

4. Scott Kazmir, Starting Pitcher: 2 years, $17 million

I understand being skeptical about a guy who spent time in independent ball the year before last, and Kazmir’s results were more solid than spectacular in his return to the big leagues, but $8.5 million per year on a short term deal for what Kazmir just did is too light. His velocity came roaring back, and he sat at 92, with his velocity even increasing as the year went on. He ran a K/BB ratio of 3.5 to 1. His xFIP- was 85.

His platoon splits will keep him from being an ace, but Kazmir was a legitimately good starting pitcher last year. Even if you just judge him by runs allowed (holding 100% of his .324 BABIP against him), he was roughly an average pitcher. By FIP or xFIP, he was much better than that. And the crowd is projecting him to get Joe Blanton’s contract from last winter. I don’t think you want to give Kazmir a long term deal based on one good rebound year, but the annual average value here is just too low. 3/33, or something in that range, is probably more justified based on what Kazmir showed for the Indians in 2013, and a team like the Orioles should be all over this.

3. Chris Young, Outfielder: 2 years, $14 million

It has become all too common to look at a player’s platoon splits and decide that they can’t handle an expanded role, because people simply don’t regress observed platoon splits enough when projecting future platoon splits. Chris Young has destroyed lefties and struggled against righties, but there’s still enough there to suggest that he’s worth giving regular at-bats to, even against right-handed pitching. And if his previously elite center field defense has only turned into solid above average center field defense now, well, his combination of glove, power, and walks still make him a pretty nifty role player.

For $7 million per year, you’re not expecting a superstar, and are just looking for a guy to avoid putting up a zero, and Young looks like a guy who could give you, at minimum, good defense and some thump against lefties. If his bat rebounds and he holds his own against righties, then he’s an average-ish player. This is a little less than Ryan Ludwick got last year, and Ludwick can’t play center field. 2/14 for Young could be a very nifty little pickup for a team that is looking for a center field upgrade, like the Seattle Mariners.

2. Roberto Hernandez, Starting Pitcher: 1 year, $3.6 million

The former Fausto Carmona went to Tampa Bay, bought into going after strikeouts for the first time in his career, and posted the lowest walk rate of his career. However, even with those improvements, the results were kind of terrible, as he allowed dingers like he was auditioning for a spot on Home Run Derby. 21% of his fly balls went over the fence, easily the highest mark of any pitcher who threw 150 innings last year. Of the other 95 pitchers to meet that mark, only Dallas Keuchel also had a HR/FB% over 15%. Even the most homer prone pitchers in baseball don’t regularly give up home runs at a 21% clip.

Betting on walks and strikeouts being predictive is a far better bet than betting on home run rate being predictive, and Hernandez is a decent home run rate away from being a pretty decent pitcher. Not an ace, certainly, but a reliable innings eater who can give you 30 perfectly decent starts. Kevin Correia got 2/10 from the Twins last winter in exchange for having a pulse, so getting Hernandez and a little bit of upside for $3.5 million on a one year deal would be a really nifty bargain for a team looking to fortify their pitching depth without a big commitment. He seems like a perfect fit for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their ground ball preferences.

1. Brian McCann, Catcher: 4 years, $59 million

We can make all the jokes about the Fun Police we want, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that McCann is still a pretty terrific baseball player. He was nearly a three win player last year despite spending a couple of months on the disabled list, and while he’ll turn 30 next year, limiting the commitment to $60 million over four years for a guy like McCann just seems to be pricing in way too much decline over the next few seasons.

McCann might not be able to stick behind the plate forever, but he’s not Victor Martinez or Ryan Doumit; McCann is a legitimate defender behind the plate, and the shift to first base or designated hitter will only come when he shows he can’t handle the workload of catching regularly anymore. For the next few years, there’s no reason why McCann couldn’t be expected to catch 100+ games, and the list of guys who can do that and hit like McCann is remarkably short. Usually, when you’re getting this kind of offensive production from a position where offense is scarce, you’re either making huge concessions on defense or you’re paying through the nose to get it. In this case, neither is really true.

The crowd is projecting McCann to get about what Nick Swisher got last year, except McCann is basically Nick Swisher’s offense in a package that can catch. And Swisher was generally considered a bargain after his original asking price scared off any interested parties; McCann is attracting the interest of nearly every big money team looking for a substantial upgrade this winter. With the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers in the mix, 4/60 seems like it’s not going to even get the conversation started, and really, it shouldn’t. He’s better than that price would indicate.

Everyone expects McCann to end up in Texas, but he seems like exactly what the Red Sox are looking for in a player, and the decision to not extend a qualifying offer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia probably indicates that they didn’t want to risk losing out on going after McCann. I’d imagine that Boston would love McCann at 4/60, but I’d expect the winner to have to go to at least five years and maybe six. He’s a premium player, and even if the last year or two is an overpay, there’s a ton of short term value that would still make 5/75 or 6/90 a worthwhile contract.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

Is Mac could be had for that price the Braves will keep him.

10 years ago
Reply to  Timothy

Still don’t think they would. McCann for the Braves isn’t a case of they can’t afford him, they can, it’s that they can’t afford him and expect to keep some of their other young talent under control.

Given that most of their young talent is just that, young, they will keep their cash to spend on their youth. The Heyward’s and Freeman’s of that team are going to become expensive, and quickly.