In past years, I’ve often compared shopping in free agency to shopping at Whole Foods, in that everything is just more expensive than it should be. But given that I’m currently writing this post at my local Whole Foods — their oatmeal is actually pretty good, and not too expensive for mornings when work-from-home writers just have to get out of the house — I feel like that would be a hypocritical analogy to make today.
So, Whole Foods, you get a one-day reprieve from being the example of an overpriced market. And to be fair, maybe it isn’t the best analogy anyway, given that Whole Foods does sell mostly high quality stuff, while the free agent market is full of things other teams didn’t really want anymore. Maybe free agency is more like a really expensive Craigslist?
Regardless, you get the point. Free agency is expensive. The winner’s curse often applies, as teams are initially happy with their purchases, but eventually realize that the shiny new thing they just bought isn’t shiny or new. The average age of free agents is going up, and aging curves appear to be getting steeper, and that combination leads to a lot of players selling the last few years of their decline phase, which is not a great time to be investing heavily in an asset.
But, occasionally, the market does undervalue a player. Often it’s health related, but sometimes a bad platform year performance can convince too many buyers that decline has already begun to set in, and teams can buy low on a player poised for a rebound. It does happen, so today, I’m going to try and identify five potential bargains in this class. Of course, I tried this last year too, and came away with Brian McCann, the short Chris Young, Roberto Hernandez, Scott Kazmir, and Omar Infante; a whopping 20% of those guys were worth their contract last year. So, you know, take these opinions with as many grains of salt as you think are necessary.
But let me take another stab at this. Here are five guys I think could prove to be decent buys this winter. For reference, I’m going to list both the expected contracts from our Contract Crowdsourcing project and my own expectations. On to the list.
5. Jason Hammel, Starting Pitcher
Crowd: 3 years, $27 million
Dave: 3 years, $30 million
Teams tend to value consistency, especially in veterans. They like to know what they’re paying for, and a nice long steady track record helps makes it easier to set expectations. Hammel doesn’t offer that, as his xFIP- over the last five years show: 92, 121, 83, 115, 96. And those are core skills that are supposed to be fairly steady. Hammel has vacillated between being pretty good and pretty lousy, which is very likely going to drive his price down.
But if you look at the package as a whole, Hammel looks essentially like a league average starting pitcher, and that’s basically what Steamer has him projected as, putting up +1.9 WAR per 200 iP. Of course, Hammel has never actually thrown 200 innings in a season, so perhaps he’s better projected as about a +1.5 WAR pitcher, and $9 or $10 million per year isn’t exactly a steal for that kind of performance.
But there’s also some pretty limited risk, given the short term he’ll likely command, and Hammel comes with a bit more upside than most of the average-innings-eater types. Like Jason Vargas last year, he won’t be a sexy addition, but he’s the kind of moderate cost acquisition who could provide some real value for a team in the regular season.
4. Francisco Liriano, Starting Pitcher
Crowd: 3 years, $36 million
Dave: 3 years, $39 million
Take everything I just said about Hammel’s inconsistency driving down his price and multiply it by a factor of 10. Liriano has occasionally been completely dominant and completely terrible, and he’s been regularly injured in between. He’s been very good for the Pirates for the last two years, but even in something like the best possible context for him as a pitcher, he still only managed 160 innings per year. If you sign Liriano, you’re hoping for quality, not quantity.
And it’s probably time to stop expecting him to perform at the level of his peripherals now, as he’s nearly 1,200 innings into his career and has an ERA (4.07) significantly higher than either his FIP (3.61) or xFIP (3.56). So, that +2.9 WAR per 200 IP Steamer projection? He’s probably going to underperform that both in innings and runs allowed. A more realistic forecast is around +2 WAR, probably, and that’s assuming he stays healthy, which he very well might not.
But, again, there’s upside here, and the corresponding price won’t be outrageous. There won’t be too many other guys who can perform at this level signing for what Liriano will sign for. $12 or $13 million per year buys you an average player these days, but Liriano gives some hope that he might be able to produce more than his price would infer. Especially if he finally gets around to pitching to his peripherals for once.
3. Russell Martin, Catcher
Crowd: 4 years, $56 million
Dave: 5 years, $75 million
I know: a five year deal for a 32 year old catcher is what passes for a top-three bargain these days? By the end of the deal, Martin probably won’t be a catcher anymore, even if the crowd is right about the length of the deal he ends up taking. This contract is almost certainly going to result in some dead money in the last year or two of the contract, so for it to be a bargain, Martin is going to have to produce significantly more than $15 million per year worth of value up front.
And I think he very well might. For one, his plate discipline isn’t going anywhere, so even if his power goes away, he’s got a decently high offensive floor, as declining down to the level of Ryan Hanigan wouldn’t make Martin useless. And Martin doesn’t even have to hit for that much power to be a very good player; his career ISO is only .141, and that’s been enough to help him post a 106 wRC+. Martin looks like a pretty good bet to be something like a league average hitter for the next few years, and a catcher who can hit at league average levels is pretty valuable.
Especially because we’re not capturing all of his defensive value. Per StatCorner, Martin’s value by framing runs, by season since 2007: +25, +31, +23, +10, +29, +24, +17, +12. Even if we don’t believe that the actual value of these runs is as high as the current estimates — I’m in that camp — and cut these values in half, Martin looks like about a +1 win framer, and this is another skill that has been show to age well. Steamer’s projection for Martin’s 2015 performance has him worth +3.6 WAR per 450 plate appearances, and that’s without any framing value; include it in the calculation, and Martin might just be the best free agent on the market this winter.
Of course, I made a very similar argument about McCann last year, and that didn’t work out so well in year one. But at $15 million per year for four or five years, Martin seems like a very reasonable bet to me, at least, relative to the other bets that free agency offers.
2. Brandon McCarthy, Starting Pitcher
Crowd: 3 years, $36 million
Dave: 3 years, $42 million
The winner of this bidding will likely be the one who puts the most emphasis on his most recent performance, as the 2014 version of McCarthy is quite interesting indeed. After 110 innings of a great xFIP/terrible ERA combination, the Yankees picked up McCarthy for a song and saw him immediately start pitching like his peripherals suggested, giving them 90 spectacular innings in the process. Even after switching from the NL to the AL, he sustained his increase in strikeouts, and even knocked it a few ticks higher, all while still avoiding walks to an extreme degree.
And there are plenty of reasons to think it wasn’t a fluke. His fastball averaged 92.9 last year, up two miles per hour from his 2013 velocity, and his breaking stuff was coming in harder as well. Velocity spikes and performance improvements often go together, and if he can keep throwing 93, McCarthy can likely sustain more of his recent performance than his career numbers would suggest.
The fact that it was just one year in which his ERA was abysmal for the first half of the season, along with his own injury history, will likely keep this deal short term. Even if he pushes up towards $15 million per year, there’s few players on the market who offer this kind of potential performance without carrying a hefty price tag. His long history of shoulder problems certainly aren’t something to just be ignored, but overall, I can’t see too many better options for a team looking for an impact player this winter.
1. Chase Headley, Third Base
Crowd: 4 years, $56 million
Dave: 4 years, $60 million
While analysis based on n of one is never a good idea, Headley’s situation reminds me an awful lot of mid-career Adrian Beltre. Solid player, monster breakout season based on a power spike, followed by a quick regression to career averages, and then hitting free agency coming off a down year in which his primary selling points were hot corner defense and the hope that a more hitter-friendly ballpark might give him a real boost.
Beltre, of course, went on to become a monster once he left Safeco Field, and his current contract with the Rangers — signed after his big bounce back in Boston — is maybe the best large free agent contract signed in the last decade. We can’t project the same kind of improvement from Headley, but there are reasons to think that he’s more than the average bat/good glove combination that his 2014 numbers would suggest, and you don’t have to expect him to repeat his +20 UZR from last year to think that he could be a valuable piece going forward.
As a pull-power hitter who most frequently bats from the left side, Petco Park was maybe the very worst environment for him to come up in. The fence adjustments of 2013 mitigated it’s extreme pitcher nature to some degree, but it’s still a west coast ballpark where the ball doesn’t fly, and for most his career, the right-center gap was cavernous. Like Beltre in Seattle, Headley’s skillset was just an awful fit for his home park.
And yet he still managed to be an above average hitter during his time in San Diego. His career wRC+ is 114, almost the equal of Pablo Sandoval’s career 122 wRC+, yet perhaps because of the up-and-more-recently-down nature of his offensive performances, the generally accepted view is that he’s a glove-first acquisition. But Headley’s track record is pretty solid, and if he gets to a park that inflates doubles or is generally friendly to left-handed pull hitters, Headley could be a nice offensive piece as well.
I’d probably take the under on Steamer’s +3.9 WAR per 600 PA forecast, but expecting +3 WAR with some hope for a bit of a boost isn’t unreasonable at all. I don’t think it’s completely insane to prefer Headley to Sandoval even without factoring cost in, and it seems quite likely that Headley will be the cheaper of the two. If you’re looking for power, you probably want to look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for overall value this winter, Headley might be the best target out there.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.