MLB Free Agent Market Becoming a Fool's Paradise at the Top
The 2012-13 MLB hot stove has finally started cooking in earnest, and things are starting to tilt toward crazy.
Mid-tier names flew off the board relatively quickly, but the top-tier held strong until the first domino dropped on November 20 in the form of the New York Yankees re-signing Hiroki Kuroda for one year at a modest $15 million.
B.J. Upton followed suit about a week later, signing on the Atlanta Braves' bottom line for five years and a grand total of $75.25 million. The Boston Red Sox then went ahead and paid a couple secondary options as if they were primaries—handing both Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino three-year deals worth $39 million. Dan Haren was next up, inking with the Washington Nationals for a single year and $13 million.
Before the baseball-conscious world could process just how insane those contracts were, the Los Angeles Dodgers cannonballed into the free agent waters with two huge deals.
The biggest move was the acquisition of Zack Greinke for $147 million over six years. The lesser move landed South Korean southpaw Hyun-Jin Ryu in Dodger blue for six years at $36 million plus a $25.7 million posting fee.
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With drool-inducing talent like Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Anibal Sanchez still there for the taking, the ludicrosity—is that a word? I don't think so, but I'm using it anyway—figures to get even deeper.
Typically, these deals are met with some cursory wow-that's-a-lot-of-money consternation, but it quickly subsides and is forgotten. Left in its place is the generally held wisdom that top talent costs what it costs, and those who consider themselves real contenders are best served by taking the incidental hit.
But a short trip back in time throws that consensus into serious doubt.
Check out the 20 biggest contracts handed out since the conclusion of the 2009 MLB season as measured by overall dollar value:
How many deals there would you consider good?
Albert Pujols didn't get off to a fantastic start in year one, posting career lows in almost every single offensive category that means anything. The Angels still got good production by mortal standards, but what about in five years when Prince Albert is 37 and earning $26 million with over $100 million still left on the books?
Speaking of princes, the Tigers already got a trip to the World Series out of the monstrous Prince Fielder signing, but again, that was year one...of a nine-year deal. The slugger is currently (and generously) listed at 275 pounds by Baseball Reference despite being only 5'11" and 28 years old.
Anybody out there know someone who's gotten thinner as he/she has gotten older?
The Red Sox offered the definitive referendum on the Carl Crawford abomination when they were so eager to ditch it that they sacrificed Adrian Gonzalez. Meanwhile, the only thing more infamous in Boston than John Lackey's involvement in the fried chicken episode is the putrid return on investment he's provided.
Others contracts look decent-to-good at the moment, but they're so long that they're almost certain to sour before they come off the books. Think Jayson Werth, Matt Holliday and Adrian Beltre.
The Jose Reyes and C.J. Wilson deals would be in that group except it might be an exaggeration to say the starts were decent.
By my count, there are five contracts on that list that can be considered good if we stretch the word's meaning to its extreme—the signings of Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins and Paul Konerko.
Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so whether you agree on those five or not is immaterial. What is material is the staggering dead weight on the board.
And really, it makes sense, doesn't it?
Why would a true franchise player, the kind around whom any franchise could build, hit the market at an opportune time?
If you have one of those—like, say, an Evan Longoria or a Matt Kemp or a (hint, hint) Buster Posey—you lock his prime years up before he ever hits free agency and then you extend him if he continues to produce.
That this is precisely what the Tampa Bay Rays did with Longoria shows that clubs in the smallest of markets can take the approach, and they already are. Even the moribund Miami Marlins seem intent on following the blueprint with Giancarlo Stanton since he is the last man standing in Little Havana.
Even if they don't, the team to which he is eventually traded will.
Logic dictates, then, that the vast majority of the players on the market have been deemed expendable by the franchises that are in the best positions to make such assessments accurately. In other words, they are not true franchise players.
Evaluators make mistakes, performances vary unpredictably and every rule has its exceptions so it's not a cut-and-dried situation, but look at the data.
There is a reason only three players on the list were shy of their 30th birthdays when they inked their deals. There are also reasons to explain why each of the "youngsters" was available.
Fielder and Reyes both had huge red flags (weight and injury issues) while Yu Darvish came over from Japan. That ain't happening every year.
Most years, you'll be left sifting through superstars with very real and often significant flaws, yet because every free agent market is essentially its own universe of supply and demand, the contracts continue to spiral out of control.
Look at the same chart, but re-sorted by the year the deal was signed:
The deals seem to be getting bigger and longer, and there seems to be more of them handed out.
Some of that is dictated by the number of premier assets on the market. For example, we're probably not going to see a $200 million contract this offseason or one approaching 10 years in duration.
However, take the Greinke deal.
Is he better than Cliff Lee? Because that's how he's getting paid. Is he the best right-hander in the game today? Because that's how he's getting paid. Is he dramatically better than John Lackey? Well...yes.
But so is this guy.
Nevertheless, the Bums needed a front-line starter, Greinke was the best available and he was in fierce demand. Under those circumstances, you can't necessarily worry about the bigger picture.
Talent costs what it costs, and those who consider themselves real contenders are best served by taking the incidental hit.
That's the conventional wisdom.
For another year, anyway.
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