After the first few signings of this offseason, it’s evident that MLB’s free agent landscape is changing. By agreeing with Mike Napoli for a three year, $39 million contract, the Boston Red Sox have signaled they understand the changing market.
B.J. Upton, a career .255/.336/.422 hitter, was awarded a five year, $75 million contract by the Atlanta Braves. Upton’s defense is slightly above average as measured by a three-year sample of UZR, and his baserunning, according to Fangraphs, was four runs better than the average player. But neither of those contributions is enough to make up for a .316 OBP over the past four years. Despite hitting a career high 28 home runs last season, Upton had the worst OBP of his career at .298.
To put his contract in perspective, the LA Angel’s Jered Weaver, who’s 38-13 with a 2.59 ERA over the past two seasons, is signed to a five-year, $85 million contract. Weaver might be worth $10 million more than Upton in a season, let alone in five years. But with a weak crop of players and newfound cash among MLB teams, suddenly the price for average to decent players has risen significantly.
Leave the free market alone and, for the most part, it performs the best. This is the case with Upton. The reason he received so much money, and why top ESPN writer Keith Law, as well as Fangraphs, called it a good deal, is because the price free agency teams will pay for a win has gone up.
There’s more money to be spent on free agents. Baseball’s revenue is at an all time high, as a new eight-year, $12.4 billion national TV deal gives each team millions more to spend each year. The LA Dodgers, who a few years ago were in the bottom half of payroll, have embraced their big market location and become Yankees West, while in the process bidding up the price for many players. 2012 marked the first year in which every team started the season with a payroll of at least $50 million, and this pattern will likely hold for next year.
So where do the Red Sox fit into this? They just traded away over $250 million in contracts last August. Two schools of thought came into play after the move. The first said the team didn’t want the contracts of those particular players, but would fill the salary gap this winter in free agency. The second surmised that these cost cutting measures would mean a permanent reduction in payroll, one that had started out at over $170 million last year.
I believe the latter, and also think this is the right path for the team. They’ve given out mammoth contracts over the past few years and none have worked out. Shelling out money this offseason for risky long-term contracts isn’t worth it. I’ve written about it before: the Sox should not go after Zach Greinke or Josh Hamilton.
What they should do, and just did with Mike Napoli, is sign a quality player for a solid price. The Sox aren’t going to be long-term players in the market. Greinke will sign his $150 million plus contract somewhere else.
By signing Napoli for only three years, they get him for his 31 to 33-year-old seasons. That may not be quite his prime, but it’s also not paying him well into his upper 30s, like the Dodgers will be with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
Napoli’s a natural fit with the Red Sox. His pull power is perfect for Fenway, he can play first base and also a bit of catcher, and will provide stability to a lineup that faded down the stretch last year. In a down year in 2012, he had a .343 OBP and .469 SLG, numbers that dwarf what Upton put up. In 2011, he hit .320/.414/.631. He should be just fine for the duration of the contract.
Some Sox fans may wonder if the price tag per season is a bit too high at $13 million. The fact is, at this point in free agency that’s how you find bargains in the market. A shorter deal with higher guaranteed money is what the Sox did with Napoli, and why Upton signed for five instead of seven years. It’s the way of the market, and instead of diving right back in to what go them into this mess by signing a Greinke or Hamilton, the Sox made a smart move by getting Napoli.
It’s been a slow and uneventful winter thus far for the Sox, as it should be. The team’s coming off its worst season since 1965, and needs to look toward the long-term. By signing Napoli, the Sox showed that they are committed to building to the future, and that’s good news for the fans that make up Red Sox Nation.