The Market for Offense Might Be Overcorrecting

For a few decades now, the easiest way to get paid in MLB was to hit a bunch of home runs. Given the way bat-first outfielders and first baseman got compensated in free agency, the catchphrase actually should have been “General Mangers Dig The Longball.” The trend in free agency for quite a while has been that offense is expensive and defense is cheap.

Except, that seems to be changing.

Jason Heyward got quite a bit more than Justin Upton last winter, when both were on the market at the same time, as the market preferred his glove and youth over Upton’s power. And this winter, basically every defensively challenged slugger has found themselves wondering where their suitors are. Edwin Encarnacion turned down $80 million from Toronto at the start of the winter, then had to settle for $60 million from Cleveland a couple of months later. Jose Bautista hasn’t generated any interest that we can tell. Mark Trumbo is still hanging around, waiting for a contract, looking for a team that wants to pay a guy who hit 47 home runs last year. Chris Carter, who hit 41 home runs in 2016, got non-tendered, because the Brewers didn’t even want to pay him his arbitration raise.

And over the last few days, we’ve seen the effects of the cratering of the market for bat-first players on even low-cost alternatives. From Ken Rosenthal’s piece on the Mariners re-making their roster to fit a speed-and-defense model.

The Mariners’ original plan was to clear Smith’s $7 million by trading him for a middling prospect, then redirect his money to say, free-agent righty Jason Hammel. But with left-handed hitters such as Michael Saunders and Brandon Moss still available in free agency, a Smith deal became problematic. Why would a club take on Smith’s $7 million when a Saunders or Moss is available for considerably less, and at no cost in talent?

I’ve heard the same thing; the Mariners would have given Smith away to anyone who wanted to take his salary, but couldn’t find someone to take the $7 million he was owed in 2017, so they pivoted to swapping him for a negative-value player in Gallardo instead. $7 million is now too rich for teams to take on a left-handed bat with a career 112 wRC+, who put up a 110 mark last year, and has been worth +5.2 WAR over the last three years.

But Rosenthal’s right; no real reason to trade for Smith when you’ve got free agents who will sign for even less. Like, say, Colby Rasmus, who signed with the Rays yesterday, taking just $5 million on a one year deal. Here’s the section we wrote about Rasmus back when we ranked him as the 38th best free agent in this class.

38. Colby Rasmus, OF
Contract Estimate
Type Years AAV Total
Dave Cameron 1 $11.0 M $11.0 M
Avg Crowdsource 2 $10.9 M $25.1 M
Median Crowdsource 2 $10.0 M $20.0 M
2017 Steamer Forecast
30 525 9.4% 29.7% .223 .299 .402 .304 87 -7.1 -1.3 0.9

At the end of April, Rasmus had a 164 wRC+. From that point on? 49. 49! 49? 49! A team building for the future can afford to give him 300 at-bats to see if there’s anything left, then trade him in July if there is, but I don’t know how a contender takes a shot on him at this point.

I projected that Rasmus would get $11 million for one year, while the crowd’s average guess put him at $25 million over two years; even the median crowdsourced projection was 2/$20M. Instead, he got 1/$5M, with incentives that could push it to 1/$7M. As the projection shows, Rasmus isn’t any kind of great player, with a +1 WAR forecast for 2017, but $5 million for a guy who you can play most days without having him crush your line-up is still kind of shocking.

And we probably haven’t seen the last of deals like this. If Rasmus can only get $5 million, and no one would take Seth Smith at $7 million, how does Brandon Moss ask for significantly more? What kind of offers are Carter and Pedro Alvarez going to get in a world where similar hitters with better defensive abilities are settling for cut-rate contracts just to land a job.

On the one hand, we could look at deals like this and think that perhaps the market has decided to pay less than the roughly $8 million per win rate for marginal starters, preferring to save their money for better players overall. But this downturn in spending on +1 WAR veterans only shows up when we look at bat-first 1B/OF/DH types.

Jon Jay, a different type of +1 WAR outfielder, got $8 million from the Cubs to share center field with Albert Almora. Part-time role players like Sean Rodriguez, Steve Pearce, and Matt Joyce got $12 million over two years, while old fifth starter types got between $8 million (R.A. Dickey) and $13 million (Bartolo Colon), with younger-but-frustrating Andrew Cashner landing right between them at $10 million. Relievers are still getting paid, with okay middle guys like Mike Dunn getting $19 million, Junichi Tazawa getting $12 million, and Daniel Hudson getting $11 million.

It isn’t that the market for platoon guys has crashed, or that teams aren’t paying for depth pieces to round out their roster anymore; they are specifically just not paying for 1B/OF types whose value is mostly tied up in their offensive performance.

Now, granted, some of this is just natural economics, as there happens to be a lot of supply of these kinds of players this winter. But the way you get a big supply of free agents or players available in trade at one spot is to have a lot of teams losing a player at that spot, so if the demand was there to replace the skillset, price shouldn’t be impacted all that heavily. But what we have now is supply without demand, as there just aren’t that many teams looking to add bat-first players to their rosters this winter, and teams like the Mariners actively looking to dump guys like Smith despite contracts that seem perfectly reasonable.

This is all good news for teams like the Blue Jays, who need two new corner outfielders, and are likely going to get bargains on whoever they bring in. And the rumors make it sound likely that the Phillies will sign one of these guys, using some of their available cash to upgrade their line-up. These guys won’t remain unemployed forever. Someone will eventually realize that Bautista is still a valuable player, and that Trumbo is probably worth giving up a draft pick for if he takes a two or three year deal and agrees to play first base only.

But there are plenty of teams out there who could really use a player of exactly this ilk, and they don’t seem to be all that interested in jumping into the market. Seth Smith would have been a perfect fit for the Nationals, for instance, who have aging, injury-prone right-handed hitters at both 1B and LF, and are in win-now mode. And when contenders are looking for this kind of useful part-time player to fill out their roster at the trade deadline, there won’t be this supply of discounted +1 WAR veterans just looking for jobs. For a team that thinks they’re likely going to be a buyer in July, there’s a good chance that ponying up a few million now could save them a real prospect this summer.

The market has long overpaid one-dimensional power hitters. This, though, feels like more than just a simple market correction. When perfectly useful players on one year deals for $7 million can’t get moved for even a non-prospect, it feels like the pendulum has swung too far the other way. It’s time to jump on this, contenders; these bargains won’t last forever.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

There were 63 OFs with more than 400 PA in 2016. Ranked by wOBA:

63. Jason Heyward (.281)
62. Colby Rasmus (.283)