The Bargains of the 2016 Free Agent Class

While the early off-season has mostly been driven by trades — with Jerry Dipoto seemingly involved in about 80% of them — we’re reaching the point of the winter where we should expect to start seeing some free agents come off the board. Teams have had a few weeks to negotiate with various options, narrow down who might actually be a viable acquisition, and pick a direction in which to head. While there’s often a lot of activity at the winter meetings, a number of significant free agents likely won’t wait three more weeks before they pick their next home, and so I’d expect a few big dominos to start falling into place relatively soon.

So, with that background, it’s time for my annual list of free agent recommendations. For the last few years I’ve picked through the crop of free agents and selected a handful of players I think would be good values at the prices that we expect players to sign for, and as you’d expect, looking back at those recommendations is a pretty mixed bag. Teams following my suggestions maybe would have landed some bargains in Francisco Liriano, Scott Kazmir, and Russell Martin, but they also would have been stuck with Omar Infante, Nick Swisher, and Melvin Upton. Picking free agents is fraught with risk, and it’s not like we have it all figured out over here.

But as is the case every year, there are some guys that I think would be worth pursuing, as my perception of their value is higher than what we think the market is going to give them. In some cases, MLB teams might agree with me and drive up the bidding to a reasonable point — Brian McCann a few years ago, for instance, when the crowd’s estimate proved way too low — but some of these guys will likely sign a diminished price due to some flaws that teams discount more heavily than I do. In my view, these are the guys who are present the best opportunity for upside value in this free agent class.

#5: Wei-Yin Chen, LHP
Crowd’s Estimate: 4 years, $52 million
Dave’s Estimate: 4 years, $64 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +2.9 WAR

For any team interested in signing Jordan Zimmermann, consider Chen instead. While the stuff isn’t as visually impressive, Chen and Zimmermann had very similar walk years, and their overall profile — strike-thrower with average strikeout rate and a brief history of outperforming their peripherals — is quite similar. For the same price, I’d definitely take Zimmerman, but both the crowd and I expect Zimmermann to sign for roughly double the total guaranteed dollars, primarily because he’s expected to get a longer deal.

Going forward, though, I’m not sure there is going to be a sizable difference between the two, and given that Chen appears to be ticketed for the middle-tier of this pitching class, he could end up being a really nice value. The fact that he’s never thrown 200 innings will likely drive his value down some, and teams historically don’t like paying a lot of money for pitch-to-contact guys with mediocre fastballs, but Chen’s stuff has seemingly been ticking up since he got to MLB, and his improved command makes him a valuable mid-rotation starter. You aren’t getting an ace or the allure of a high velocity arm, but for a team that wants to stabilize their rotation, Chen might be the most cost effective option on the market.

#4: Rich Hill, LHP
Crowd’s Estimate: 1 year, $6 million
Dave’s Estimate: 1 year, $7 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +2.5 WAR

Probably the hardest guy on the market to value, Hill went from a non-roster invite to a fascinating test case in extreme performance in small samples with his dominating September run for the Red Sox. His success came out of nowhere, and it would be irresponsible to expect those four starts to represent some kind of new level of ability that he reached at the age of 35, but at the same time, we also don’t want to entirely ignore the fact that he put together a 29 inning stretch of Kershawian performance.

Over that four start stretch, hitters made contact on only 75% of their swings at his pitches in the strike zone, which is the kind of number that tends to identify skill more quickly than a lot of others. He’s not going to sustain that number — Max Scherzer led all MLB starters at 79% last year — but given that his lack of a track record is going to keep the commitment short, I think it’s worth betting a decent amount of 2016 salary on the chance that there Hill’s crazy finish to 2015 suggests that he’s figured something out.

No one should expect ace-like performance, and you’re basically buying a lottery ticket, but we’ve seen enough Cliff Lee transformations to not entirely discount the idea that Hill could be a quality arm for the team that takes the risk. Maybe he won’t be able to stay healthy; maybe it will turn out to be a colossal fluke. But for the kind of dollars that get you a mediocre bench player with some clubhouse chemistry voodoo, I’d take a flyer on Hill and just see what I get. If there’s even a 20% chance he’s a quality starting pitcher next year, throwing $5 to $10 million his way is a worthwhile use of funds for a team that needs to buy upside on the cheap.

#3: Steve Pearce, 1B/OF
Crowd’s Estimate: 2 years, $12 million
Dave’s Estimate: 1 year, $8 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +2.0 WAR

Speaking of cheap upside, Pearce represents something pretty unique in the free agent class; a chance to buy power without paying through the nose to get it. It’s the most overpriced tool in the game, and everyone agrees that Pearce has it, but still, no one expects him to get paid this winter. But given that he’s going into his age-33 season and followed up his monstrous 2014 season with a mediocre year that saw him remain a part-time player in Baltimore, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to see Pearce as a guy they can stick in the line-up on a daily basis, and teams have historically not paid a lot of money for platoon guys.

But for a team looking for a right-handed hitter who can play first base or the outfield, signing Pearce at a bench player price and giving him a shot at a regular job might be a risk worth taking. The underlying skills suggest that he’s better than a lot of other guys who have picked up the everyday player label, and unlike a lot of sluggers, he’s not just a one trick pony. He makes contact at league average rates, draws enough walks to be a decent on-base guy, is an above average runner on the bases, and defensive metrics have graded him out as an asset at first base and average in the outfield. When you combine those skills with a guy that has hit 36 homers in his last 682 plate appearances, that’s a player who is worth putting in the line-up most days.

And yet, the crowd expects him to sign for 75% of what Michael Morse — an inferior player in just about every way — got last winter. Even my slightly higher estimated AAV only came with one guaranteed year, but in reality, if I was running a club, I’d probably bid up to 3/$24M or something. I wouldn’t expect Pearce to still be an everyday guy by the end of that deal, but he looks like he could be an average contributor next year, and then maybe revert back to being a decent part-time player as the skills fade. His age makes him a fit for a win-now team on a budget that is willing overlook his career as a bench piece and give him a real shot even as he heads towards his age-33 season.

#2: Ben Zobrist, 2B
Crowd’s Estimate: 3 years, $42 million
Dave’s Estimate: 4 years, $76 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +3.0 WAR

The player the crowd and I had the biggest disagreement on, I think Zobrist would be a crazy steal at 3/$42M, which is why I expect the market to give him a fourth year and push him much higher. I haven’t talked with anyone in the game who thinks my $76 million guess was realistic, though, with most people still expecting something in the $50 to $60 million range; for me, if I was running a contender, giving Zobrist 4/$60M right now would be the easiest decision of the winter.

Yes, he’s going to be 35 next year, so yes, giving him a four year deal means that you’ll have a very expensive utility infielder on your hands in 2018. But almost every free agent contract ends badly, and at something close to $15 million per year, Zobrist should provide enough value at the front of the deal to make an overpay down the line worth it.

Even while playing on a bad knee last year — which tanked his defensive performance — he still hit well enough to be an average player, and his offensive skills have shown no real signs of diminishing with age. At a time when strikeouts are at an all-time high, he just posted the lowest strikeout rate of his career, and ran a .173 ISO at the same time. Even as he was unable to do the things that made him so good during his prime, he was still a productive player because he remains an excellent hitter.

And unless his early season knee problems become chronic — a legitimate risk at his age, certainly — there’s no real reason to think that he’s going to have negative defensive and baserunning value going forward. With even moderate positive regression in those categories, Zobrist’s hitting abilities make him one of the best second baseman in baseball, and he’s probably going to be worth something more like $25 million in value in 2016. You’d have to subtract a full win per season — assuming you agree that he’s likely to put up a +3 WAR season in 2016 — to put him in the $50 million range of value, and in my view, that’s way too aggressive of an aging curve for a guy who just had one of the best offensive seasons of his career. My $76 million guess might have been an overshoot, but if he signs for less than $60 million, I think his new team will be quite happy with the deal.

#1: Jason Heyward, OF
Crowd’s Estimate: 8 years, $184 million
Dave’s Estimate: 9 years, $195 million
2016 Steamer Projection: +4.7 WAR

One of the most intriguing free agents in recent history, Heyward is likely to be held up as a litmus test for a variety of somewhat controversial ideas within the game. How important is corner outfield defense? How much weight should be put on age when a player has stagnated offensively? Is a guy who hits 15 home runs a year really worth $200 million?

From my perspective, there’s not a lot of question that Heyward is legitimately one of the very best players in baseball today. He might not be a star in the most conventional way, but the Royals just won a World Series based around players like Jason Heyward, and there’s simply too much evidence that the things he specializes in actually do matter for us to cling to this outdated notion that only #1 starters and 40 home run hitters are worth this kind of money.

Heyward is a very good hitter — his 118 wRC+ is nearly a match for the 121 career mark of Yoenis Cespedes, for comparison — while also being a very good baserunner and one of the best defensive players on the planet. This notion that he’s not a true star because he doesn’t hit enough dingers for his position is the kind of thinking that should be discarded, and Heyward should be paid like one of the game’s most valuable players, because that’s what he is.

If Heyward was a different kind of equally valuable player, he’d probably be pushing $250 million. Prince Fielder got $216 million four years ago, when he projected as a +4 to +5 WAR player heading into his age-28 season, and salaries have only gone up since then. The idea that we’re pondering whether Heyward is worth $20 million less than what Fielder got on the open market fours ago is kind of crazy, given that Heyward is at least as good as Fielder was then, and also hitting free agency after his age-25 season, rather than age-27, like Fielder.

Realistically, I think Heyward’s on-field value over the next decade probably makes him worth something like the Robinson Cano contract. The fact that he’s likely going to ask for an opt-out clause means I wouldn’t give him $240 million, but if he’s willing to backload a greater share of the money until after the opt-out, I’d probably go to $225 million, or something in that range. But because he doesn’t hit enough balls over the wall, he probably still won’t get that. And so if I was a team looking for a franchise cornerstone, and had the budget to afford a market-level star, I’d happily take Heyward at the price we’re expecting him to get.

Maybe someone will step up and value Heyward’s skills at market rates, and he’ll clear the $200 million barrier. But if he goes for less than $225 million, or gets something in that range without an opt-out, I think it will be money well spent for the team that recognizes that Jason Heyward as a legitimately great player.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Noah Baronmember
8 years ago

While I agree wholeheartedly on Zobrist and Heyward, I’m thinking that Chen will wind up massively overpaid. He’s just not very good from a peripheral standpoint, and has benefited massively from playing in front of an excellent Baltimore defense over the years.

Ian Kennedy and Hisashi Iwakuma seem like good free agent starting pitching values to me.

Noah Baronmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

I think you’re post on Chen simply laid out the argument for why Zimmerman is overrated (which I agree with), rather than why Chen is a free agent bargain (which I disagree with strongly).

8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Chen has been almost compulsively average in each of the past four years, and pretty healthy as well. A healthy starting pitcher with an average FIP- is actually an above-average player. That price is a pretty good deal for that. But, the draft compensation really makes it look different.

Mr Big Swingin' D
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Dave, I’m not sure how you take one ill-advised contract (e.g., Fielder) and say “Well, because Fielder got X then Heyward should get more than X because he is better than Fielder.”

I’m just not sure that makes sense logically.

Put a slightly different way, you are identifying one guy who was a free agent in a prior year (and I think we can agree was overpaid by the signing team) and then saying that a current free agent necessarily deserves more than that one guy who was overpaid…it’s flawed logic. You proceed to write:

“The idea that we’re pondering whether Heyward is worth $20 million less than what Fielder got on the open market fours ago is kind of crazy, given that Heyward is at least as good as Fielder was then, and also hitting free agency after his age-25 season, rather than age-27, like Fielder.”

But again…why is Fielder the primary determinant of Heyward’s value? Because Boras convinced Illitch to sign Fielder to an ill-advised contract four years ago that is a driver of Heyward’s value / contract four years later? That is just one of many large contracts that have been signed, and it doesn’t make sense to hang your hat on the Fielder one. Sure, in a market like MLB, past contracts affect the value of future free agents. But are relatively isolated overpays like Fielder the primary driver of a subsequent free agent’s value four years later?

Let me do something similar here:

On February 3, 2009 the Mets signed Oliver Perez to a 3 year, $36 million dollar deal. Since salaries have only gone up since 2009 and Trevor Cahill is better than Oliver Perez, Trevor Cahill deserves more than a 3 year, $36 million deal. The idea that we’re pondering whether Cahill is worth $[10] million less than what Perez got on the open market seven years ago is kind of crazy, given that Cahill is at least as good as Perez was then, and also hitting free agency after his age-25 season, rather than age-27, like Perez.

Note that for purposes of this example, I changed Cahill’s age to 25 years old rather than his current age of 27. I would have liked to search around a bit for a current free agent who was younger than Perez’s 2009 free agency age of 27, but I need to get back to work and, in any case, you understand the point I am trying to make without having a guy younger than Perez in this example.

That Guy
8 years ago

Change the input factors and you’ll get differing outputs. Thanks.

8 years ago

But, the flip is also true. It only takes one to overpay as you call. At least one team is willing to do that each offseason. Either way, Heyward will be worth it.

Mr Big Swingin' D
8 years ago
Reply to  Minty

Yes, agreed it only take one guy to overpay.

But that is not what Cameron is saying.

What he is saying is that Heyward is better than Fielder, so Heyward deserves more money than Fielder.

That doesn’t make sense.

8 years ago
Reply to  Minty

“What he is saying is that Heyward is better than Fielder, so Heyward deserves more money than Fielder.”

No he’s not. He’s saying it’s absurd to think Heyward is today worth $20 million less than Fielder was four years ago. He never said Heyward deserves more than Fielder. He said Heyward is two years younger, four years have passed, salaries have gone up, and Heyward is projected to be at least as good as Fielder.

Mr Big Swingin' D
8 years ago
Reply to  Minty

Minty, look at what Kershawshank Redemption wrote below – it is exactly on point.

What's going on in my head
8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

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8 years ago

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8 years ago
Reply to  Noah Baron

Buck Showalter crushes any big stats for pitchers and innings. The Orioles had no complete games last year and I’ve seen him yank starters in the 8th and 9th inning with 5 run leads. I expect big stats for Chen if he goes to the NL.