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

After examining the most player-friendly free-agent contracts of the 2017-18 offseason, here I turn to the winter’s most team-friendly deals. As I explained previously, given the perfect storm of factors that suppressed free-agent spending relative to past winters, it feels unseemly simply to celebrate “winners” and pick on “losers.” I’m not here to punch down at a player such as Mike Moustakas, whose one-year, $6.5 million deal was less than one-tenth the value of estimates projected by Dave Cameron, the FanGraphs crowd, the MLB Trade Rumors crew, FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, and MLB.com’s Jim Duquette back in November.

Instead, I think it’s more appropriate to view the free-agent contracts in terms of team- and player-friendliness. While acknowledging that shorter deals are inherently more team-friendly, I’ve stuck with apples-to-apples comparisons for this column and the previous one by considering the one-year, two-year, and three-year deals in their own separate categories — and grouping those of four years or more together due to the small sample size. 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.

As a refresher, here’s a graphic breaking down major-league free-agent deals by contract length over each of the past six winters, using data from the MLB Trade Rumors Free Agent Tracker. I’ve omitted minor-league deals as well as those signed by international players, including Shohei Ohtani.

Four Years or More

Lorenzo Cain, Brewers: five years, $80 million

Of the winter’s five deals that offer four years or more, only those signed by Cain and Alex Cobb (four years, $57 million from the Orioles) feature a total value under $100 million. Between those two players, Cain (who turns 32 on April 13) has the longer track record for productivity than Cobb, having averaged more than four wins per season over the past four years. He recorded 4.1 WAR in 2017, his last in Kansas City. Cobb was worth 2.4 WAR last year and hasn’t been above 3.0 in any of his four seasons with at least 100 innings pitched, plus he lost most of 2015-16 to Tommy John surgery and (checks roster) remains a pitcher.

Cain is a particularly good fit for a team that intends to contend, shoring up a glaring weakness. Last year with the Royals, he hit .300/.363/.440, good for a 115 wRC+, backing that with above-average defense in center field (+5 DRS, +2 UZR). That’s a massive upgrade over the 82 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR the Brewers got from their center fielders, primarily Keon Broxton.

Should Cain have gotten more money? I’ll spare you the tables, but using his 2018 Steamer forecast (2.8 WAR) and assuming $9 million per win — a figure over which it’s fair to quibble at this point in the winter — he projects to produce $87.1 million worth of value over the next five seasons. Drop that to $8.5 million per win and the value falls to $82.3 million.

In my What’s He Really Worth series of contract estimates for SI.com in January, for I used a methodology not unlike FanGraphs’ estimates except with Tom Tango’s WARcel methodology, I estimated Cain to be worth over $100 million for a five-year deal. That was via rWAR, which favors Cain more than fWAR because the DRS system generally views his glovework more favorably than UZR. Using FanGraphs’ WAR with that methodology, Cain crunches out to be worth $78.3 million at the $9 million per win figure, and $73.9 million at $8.5 million per win. In all, it’s more of a fair deal than outlandish one.

Three Years

Jake Arrieta, Phillies: three years, $75 million

Honestly, I don’t entirely know what to do with this one given a structure that’s unprecedented within the industry. Arrieta’s AAV is the highest of any of the winter’s 10 three-year deals, and he has an opt-out after the first two years, which are front-loaded at $30 million and $25 million. All of those are facets that would typically be considered player-friendly. However, there’s a catch: the Phillies can void the opt-out clause by exercising a two-year option for 2021 and 2022, valued initially at $20 million per year, with escalators to $25 million annually based on his 2018-19 innings-pitched total and to $30 million annually based on his finishes in the Cy Young voting during those two seasons. The thresholds themselves have not been revealed publicly, which clouds the waters a bit.

While Arrieta’s deal could reach a maximum of five years and $135 million, the Phillies appear to hold most of the cards here — or, at least, more of the cards than a team typically gets when dealing with a top-of-the-rotation free agent. Arrieta entered the winter as either the best or second-best starting pitcher on the market, depending upon how you evaluate him relative to Yu Darvish.

Based on recent free-agent history, there was every reason to believe that he would come away with a deal of at least four years, and possibly six or seven. Darvish, with a Tommy John surgery and considerably more mileage on his arm, got six years from Arrieta’s former team, the Cubs. Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke (twice), Jon Lester, David Price, and Max Scherzer all got free-agent deals of either six or seven years. Whether it was because agent Scott Boras misread Arrieta’s market or teams were concerned about the 32-year-old righty’s downward performance trend, such offers either didn’t materialize at all or weren’t at a dollar level that the pitcher and his agent were willing to accept.

If Arrieta pitches to the level of his 2015 NL Cy Young-winning season (7.3 WAR) or even his good-not-great 2016 season (3.8 WAR) and opts out after 2019, the Phillies — a rebuilding team whose young nucleus is now largely in place — will have gotten a very good return on a two-year, $55 million deal. At that point, they can decide whether to lock in the services of a 34-year-old pitcher for three more years at a maximum AAV of $26.7 million ($20 million plus two times $30 million), still south of the $30 million-plus of Greinke, Kershaw, et al.

If Arrieta pitches all the way through the contract, he’ll be on the market again at 35, which has to be less appealing than being out there at 34. If Arrieta isn’t up to his previous level but opts out, the Phils will send extra help to pack his bags, secure in the knowledge that they dodged a bullet by avoiding a longer deal. In a worst-case scenario, if Arrieta blows out his arm in April 2018, the Phillies are off the hook after 2020 instead of somewhere in the 2022-24 range, which would be the case for a five- to seven-year deal. This could all still work out well for the pitcher, but there’s not much risk for Philadelphia.

Two Years

Todd Frazier, Mets: two years, $17 million

There were 37 deals signed for two years this winter, ranging in value from reserve infielder Chase Utley‘s $2 million (that’s total!) to closer Brandon Morrow‘s $21 million, which I recognized as one of the most player-friendly deals. The other one that I recognized in that context was Yonder Alonso’s $16 million deal. So how can I choose a more expensive one than that here, one towards the upper end of the two-year class?

My choices in both cases are based on track records. Alonso is coming off a career year in terms of homers, wRC+, and WAR. Frazier’s year, which he split between the White Sox and Yankees, looks like the beginning of the end at first glance: .213/.344/.428 with 27 homers and 83 walks via a spiking walk rate (14.4%, up from 9.6%), which one might superficially read as a signal of a player who’s all too aware that his bat is slowing. But a closer look reveals that Frazier swung at far fewer pitches outside the strike zone than before and posted the highest contact rate of his career en route to a 108 wRC+, a four-point gain over 2016. Throw in defense that was well above average (+7 UZR, +10 DRS), and you’ve got a guy who put up a respectable 3.0 WAR, reaching that plateau for the fourth time in five years.

At the outset of the offseason, the aforementioned sources estimated Frazier’s to receive something between two to four years and $11 million to $13 million per season, totaling $26 million to $48 million overall. He got a fraction of that, in part because of a desire to stay close to home. (Recall that he starred for the Toms River, New Jersey, team that won the 1998 Little League World Series.) Yes, he could regress, but his power, batting eye, and defensive ability give him a pretty solid floor. If he had come away with the three years and $39 million Jay Bruce secured from the Mets while Bruce received Frazier’s deal, the world would make more sense.

One Year

Mike Moustakas, Royals: one year, $6.5 million

Players signed just 52 one-year deals this winter, down from 73 last year and an average of 80 over the past five years. Meanwhile. minor-league deals are picking up the slack, with 113 last year according to the MLBTR Tracker and 130 this year. I’m not analyzing those, but that still leaves a good handful of candidates for this category.

Just as you may have read my thoughts on Frazier on multiple occasions this winter, you might have already heard me sing the praises of Neil Walker, so I’ll spare you that one here — though, at $4 million plus incentives for a Yankees infield that has some moving parts, he’s a great choice thanks to his consistency and the floor he provides.

Mike Moustakas received less than a tenth of what industry sources projected.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Jonathan Lucroy ($6.5 million) offers some upside, too, just a year removed from a 4.6 WAR season, but two of his past three have featured sub-.400 slugging percentages, and Oakland isn’t exactly the best place to shore that up. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, his pitch-framing has declined considerably as well. Utilityman Eduardo Nunez is another candidate here after re-signing with the Red Sox for $6 million guaranteed.

In the end, though, I went with the Moose based upon his age (29), the assumption of an everyday job wire-to-wire, and the improvement he’s shown as a hitter. After batting .236/.290/.379 for an 82 wRC+ through 2014, he’s hit .275/.329/.496 for a 118 wRC+ since, including his 27-game, injury-shortened 2016 season. Prorated, he’s averaged 3.0 WAR per 600 PA over that span, and he’s got the best chance of the aforementioned players to reach that level this year. He set a franchise record with 38 homers last year, though his strikeout and walk rates did go the wrong direction — he swung at 40% of pitches outside the strike zone (!) — and his defense was in the red (-3 UZR, -8 DRS), but I believe distancing himself by another year from his torn ACL should help.

Via the aforementioned resources, the range of estimates for Moustakas’ total deal ran from $80 million to $100 million, for five or six years. Instead, his contract calls for a $5.5 million salary, another $2.2 million in incentives based upon PA increments, and a $15 million mutual option with a $1 million buyout. He took one for the team, the only team he’s ever known, but he should be an attractive trade piece at the deadline, if both he and the Royals want to go that direction, and he’ll be unencumbered by a qualifying offer next winter. Here’s hoping he gets that big payday.





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 @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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radiohead
6 years ago

I’m not buying Arrieta’s inclusion in this. I don’t think the Phillies got ripped off or anything, but I don’t think it was that team friendly for them.

Robert Cunningham
6 years ago
Reply to  radiohead

I would have expected to see Cozart’s deal here instead of Arrieta’s as an alternative example.

tb.25
6 years ago
Reply to  radiohead

On paper, Arrieta’s sounds less-team friendly than it actually is. “3 years $75 or 5 years $135.”

How it’s structured, however, greatly favors Philly, as mentioned in the article. They’re able to mitigate all the ‘long contract for declined SP’ risk by keeping the deal at 3 years while allowing them the ability to mitigate the ‘great SP who opts out’ risk. There is a small window in which Arrieta would opt out but Philly doesn’t activate their extension, but that would be dependent on Philly choosing to avoid him.

In essence, Philadelphia gets rid of Arrieta if he’s bad, and keeps him if he’s good. It’s all their choice, hence the favor.

I might favor Cozart over Arrieta, but to say Arrieta’s wasn’t team friendly is wrong.

member
6 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

Sure they get to get rid of him if he’s bad, but only after paying $75M to a bad pitcher. There’s still considerable risk in the contract. The option to unilaterally extend him after 2 years has value, but realistically Arrieta is a lot more likely to get hurt or bust than he is to return to being good enough for the Phillies to exercise that extension option.

Cozart is the same age, he’s a position player, he’s getting paid half as much over 3 years and he’s projected to be a lot better than Arrieta in 2018. His contract is way more team firendly than Jake’s.