The Most Player-Friendly Free-Agent Deals of the Winter

With the arrival of Opening Day on Thursday (!), a look back at the best and worst free-agent contracts of the winter would seem long overdue — except for the fact that dozens of free agents still haven’t signed and the ink is barely dry on several other deals. Just last week, Alex Cobb, whom Dave Cameron ranked 10th on his Top 50 Free Agents list, inked a four-year, $57 million deal with the Orioles. Five other players from among Cameron’s top 15 — Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Moustakas, and Neil Walker — have signed since March 10. Prior to that wave, any attempt at an overarching analysis would have felt premature.

On the free-agent front, it was a weird winter of discontent, the slowest of the millennium when it came to free-agent signings. True, this year’s class was a relatively weak one, with the top free agents almost uniformly dealing with recent performance regression, injuries, and/or short track records of success.

The bigger story is the way in which the ramifications of the most recent collective bargaining agreement rose up to bite the players in the derriere. None of the five teams that paid the luxury tax for 2017 — the Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, Tigers and Nationals — signed anyone to a deal worth more than $10 million in total salary. The Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, and Nationals were particularly cautious about shimmying under the $197 million threshold so as to reset their marginal tax rates, while the Tigers were among several teams who used their status as rebuilders to justify meager expenditures in the market.

(The Cubs and Red Sox were initially reported by USA Today as having paid the tax, an error that was repeated here.)

Mid-market players who turned down qualifying offers and had the drag of a lost draft pick attached to their services were hit particularly hard, in part because an increasingly analytics-driven industry has gotten wise to the perils of paying aging ballplayers for past production.

Given that perfect storm, it feels unseemly simply to celebrate, for example, the Royals’ bargain in retaining Moustakas for $6.5 million when a deal worth 10 times that was still less than the crowdsourced expectation. Yes, the man will make a salary above the MLB average in 2018, one far beyond what most Americans earn, but calling him a “loser” (or the Royals “winners”) for retaining him at that price — when he could have quite reasonably expected a much larger payday — isn’t right.

Accordingly, instead of sorting the winter’s free agents by “best” and “worst,” I’ll use a different framework for this column and the one that follows. I’ll examine the winter’s most player- and team-friendly deals, sticking with apples-to-apples comparisons by considering the one-year, two-year, and three-year deals in their own separate categories — acknowledging that shorter deals are inherently more team-friendly — and grouping together those of four years or more. Here, price and expected WAR aren’t the only considerations: player age, fit with a team’s roster, and competitive situation are among the additional factors to weigh.

Four Years or More

Eric Hosmer, Padres: eight years, $144 million

Including Cobb, just five players signed contracts of at least four years this offseason. Via the MLB Trade Rumors Free Agent Tracker, that’s down from nine such deals in the winter of 2016-17, 16 in the winter of 2015-16, and 15 in the winter of 2014-15. While we’re on the subject, here’s a graphic breaking down major-league free-agent deals by contract length over the past six winters, using data from the MLB Trade Rumors tracker. I’ve omitted minor-league deals as well as those signed by international players.

The contract estimates published by Cameron, the FanGraphs crowd, FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman,’s Jim Duquette, and the MLB Trade Rumors crew almost uniformly called for Arrieta, Lynn, Moustakas, and Wade Davis to receive deals of at least four years. (Cameron’s three-year projection for Lynn represented the only exception.) The various dings, dents, and general shortcomings of those four players knocked them off this tier, though.

Hosmer signed both the longest contract of the offseason and the biggest one, outdistancing Yu Darvish on both fronts — by two years and $18 million total. Ol Hos’ netted just the third deal of seven-plus years in the past six winters, with Robinson Cano‘s 10-year contract from the 2013-14 offseason and Jason Heyward’s eight-year deal from 2015-16 representing the two relevant cases. If the length and total dollar amount weren’t enough, the contract is frontloaded, with an average of $21 million over the first five years, leading up to an opt-out, after which he’ll receive an average of $13 million over the final three campaigns. He’s also got full no-trade protection through 2020 and after 2022 (when he’ll have 10-and-5 rights), with limited no-trade protection in between.

Hosmer is a player who’s never put together strong back-to-back seasons as a hitter, and the defensive metrics don’t love him either. That said, it’s hard to hate this deal too much. The Padres, who are rebuilding, don’t have anything else in the way of long-term obligations besides that of Wil Myers, who’s better deployed in an outfield corner rather than first base, anyway. Hosmer is relatively young (28 last October) and coming off his best season — and his best two seasons within the last three years. His bilinguality and Hispanic heritage makes him a good fit for the San Diego market, and his experience as part of two World Series teams in Kansas City will give him some credibility in a young clubhouse. Plus, we’ll always have the cognitive dissonance of this now that Cameron is the Padres’ head of research and development.

Three Years

Wade Davis, Rockies: three years, $52 million

Ten players signed three-year deals this winter, matching the highest total from the previous three offseasons (the winter of 2015-16 also had 10) and ahead of the average of 8.3 for that three-year period. Arrieta and Davis were bumped down to here from longer expected deals, while one consensus pick to wind up on this tier, Todd Frazier, slipped to two years.

Two new Phillies, Arrieta ($25 million AAV) and Carlos Santana ($20 million AAV), were the only players to receive a three-year deal at a higher annual value than Davis, but both project to create considerably more on-field production and also possess stronger track records of health. Davis’s 2014-15 peak, with its postseason heroics thrown in along side the video-game numbers (0.97 ERA, 1.72 FIP, and a homerless streak of 125.2 innings), was about as good as any reliever you’ll ever see. That said, a recurrent flexor strain limited him to 43.1 innings in 2016, none after July 27; last year, meanwhile, he looked out of gas by the time the postseason rolled around. His average fastball velocity has receded by about 1 mph in each of the past two seasons.

Thanks to high walk and homer rates, Davis’s 3.38 FIP last year ranked 47th among the 150 relievers with 50 or more innings; over a two-year span, his 2.92 FIP is 19th out of 109 relievers with 100 innings, his 2.4 WAR 26th among that same group. Yet his $17.3 million AAV surpassed Aroldis Chapman’s $17.2 million as the record for relievers thanks to its timing, the industry trend towards shorter starts, and, presumably, a premium that applies to any free-agent pitcher willing to toil at Coors Field. He got his, and not only in guaranteed money: Davis also has a $15 million mutual option for 2021, one that becomes a player option if he finishes 30 games in 2020 and is healthy enough to appear on the Opening Day roster in 2021. He’ll receive a $1 million assignment bonus if traded and a full no-trade clause that kicks in if he is dealt. Not too shabby.

Two Years

Brandon Morrow, Cubs: two years, $21 million
Yonder Alonso, Indians: two years, $16 million

According to the MLBTR tracker, a whopping 37 of the 53 multi-year free-agent contracts signed this winter are for two years. After the 2016 season, meanwhile, they represented just 18 of 36 multi-year deals. After 2015, it was 24 out of 51 and, after 2014, 16 of 41. For that three-year span, two-year deals previously represented just over 45% of the multi-year deals. This winter, however, that figure ascended to 70%.

With so many to choose from, I’ve chosen two deals to highlight here. The now-33-year-old Morrow has been an intermittently electrifying presence on the major-league scene since 2007, with emphasis on intermittent: in the five seasons during which all of his major-league appearances were starts, he qualified for one ERA title and surpassed 10 starts just three times. He hasn’t thrown 50 innings in a major-league season since 2013 and has averaged just 32 at that level since. But oh, last year’s 43.2 innings for the Dodgers were stellar: 2.06 ERA, 1.55 FIP, 29.4% K, 5.3% BB, and zero homers allowed. He was a postseason workhorse, pitching in 14 of 15 possible games, including all seven World Series games. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, he allowed four runs and two homers without retiring a hitter in the seventh inning of Game Five, when he was understandably on fumes.

Morrow has been under a multi-year deal during only one other stretch of his career, making $21 million on a three-year extension with the Blue Jays from 2012 (when he set a career high with 3.1 WAR) to 2014. He last had guaranteed money in 2015 ($2.5 million) but failed to reach any of the numerous incentives. It’s heartwarming to see him claw his way back to big-league prominence and get a little security, as well as a $12 million vesting option (whose terms are unspecified) for 2020.

As for Alonso, he’s here because he struck relatively early, with his two-year deal becoming official on December 23, and came away with a multi-year deal in a market crowded with inexpensive first-base options:

Low-Cost Free-Agent First Basemen
Player 2018 Age 2017 WAR Career wRC+ Deal Date
Yonder Alonso 31 2.4 107 2/$16M + vest. Opt. 12/23/17
Mitch Moreland 32 0.9 98 2/$13M + inc. 12/18/17
Logan Morrison 30 3.3 109 1/$6.5M + opt 2/28/18
Matt Adams 29 1.8 111 1/$4M + inc. 12/22/17
Lucas Duda 32 1.1 121 1/$3.5M + inc. 2/28/18
Mike Napoli 36 -0.5 119 Minor Lg. 2/28/18
Adam Lind 34 0.9 111 Minor Lg./Released 3/2/18
Mark Reynolds 34 0.8 104 Unsigned x
SOURCE: Cots Contracts

Alonso had a better 2017 campaign than all the players listed here except LoMo, setting career highs with 28 homers, a 132 wRC+, and 2.4 WAR — even if his membership among the launch-angle revolutionaries yielded diminishing returns as the season went on (.287 ISO in the first half, .166 in the second). And while both his 2017 UZR and DRS were in the red, his career numbers remain solidly above average, as does his reputation as a good defender. Not only did he get more security than aforementioned players (save for Moreland), he landed with a top contender. He also tacked on a $9 million club option that vests with 550 plate appearances in 2019 or 1,100 in 2018-19 combined, so long as he passes a post-2019 physical. Given his 1,053 PA over the past two years, that’s no sure thing, but continued production along his 2017 lines will probably get him there.

One Year

Lance Lynn, Twins: one year, $12 million

There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal, it’s often said. Lynn, who turned in a 3.43 ERA in 186.1 innings in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, understandably had his sights on a Cobb-like contract of three or four years at a higher AAV. Estimates from the aforementioned sources ranged from three years and $48 million to five years and $80 million. Beneath his strong traditional numbers, however — including his third runs-allowed WAR (RA9-WAR) of at least 3.6 in four years — are some less flattering metrics. He outdid his FIP by 1.39 runs, the NL’s largest gap among ERA qualifiers, with a league-low .244 BABIP papering over a K rate (19.7%) and K-BB% (9.7 percentage points) that both ranked among the NL’s bottom 10.

Lynn, whose free agency was further hampered by a qualifying offer, did score the winter’s largest one-year deal, with an additional $1 million in incentives for reaching 170- and 180-inning thresholds. He’s a good fit for a contending team that could use the innings, his stuff could benefit from being another year removed from surgery, and he can’t receive another qualifying offer. He made chicken salad out of a chicken**** situation.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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output gap
6 years ago

The Cubs did not pay the luxury tax last year. That was false and corrected.