Soon-to-Be Free Agents That MLB Teams Should Be Wary of Giving Long-Term Deals
Each offseason, teams make huge investments on free-agent players who all come with their share of risk factors. Whether it be a potential decline in skills due to advancing age—most players don't hit free agency until after their 30th birthday—or injury concerns, there is always a chance a free-agent signing is a bust and ends up on a list like my "Worst Free-Agent Signings of the Last 10 Years".
Taking a cautious approach is absolutely necessary, although a team will ultimately be making a gamble. A player's market value is set by previous performance and it takes 30 teams to ignore that value if the player is going to make any less. And it takes just two interested teams to start a bidding war and boost that value.
The Red Sox took the chance that they'd lose free-agent Mike Napoli last winter, pulling a three-year, $39 million deal off the table after tests revealed avascular necrosis, a degenerative hip condition that made a multi-year deal risky. Ultimately, the 31-year-old decided to sign with the Sox, taking a one-year deal with a guaranteed $5 million and a chance to earn another $8 million if he can avoid the disabled list.
It's worked out for Napoli and the Sox so far, as the player has remained healthy and has been productive. If not for 29 other teams that decided not to swoop in and sign him to a multi-year deal while the Red Sox were trying to re-negotiate a lesser deal, Napoli would likely be playing elsewhere.
This is just one example of how teams are wary of getting stuck with "dead money", meaning a guaranteed salary for a player who is producing very little or nothing at all.
Here are six soon-to-be free agents that have likely earned long-term deals but might not be great long-term investments.
Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red sox
Ellsbury's value has dropped significantly, but his one MVP-caliber season of 2011 (32 HR, 46 2B, 105 RBI) will ensure he's paid more than he probably deserves based on his other six seasons in the league.
His current pace of 30 doubles, 15 triples and 67 stolen bases to go along with a solid on-base percentage (currently at .348) will still put him at the top of the free-agent market.
He has just one homer though, which pushes his non-2011 total to 25 in 1,967 career at-bats. This is a concern for a guy expected to command a salary that would put him in line with some of the top sluggers in the league.
Homers aren't everything, but speed becomes increasingly more important when power is not a big part of a player's game. And speed tends to decrease once a player reaches his early-30s.
If Ellsbury can maintain his game-changing speed, on-base percentage and ability to hit doubles and triples throughout his next contract, which will likely be in the range of five-years (age 30-34 seasons) and $60-75 million, he could come close to living up to that deal. But that is a lot of money to pay for someone who isn't hitting the ball out of the park.
Phil Hughes, SP, New York Yankees
It's probably safe to say that Phil Hughes is not a top-of-the-rotation starter and probably won't be paid like one when he hits free agency after the season. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a nice payday coming to him.
A look at Phil Hughes' track record suggests that he's been inconsistent and injury-prone throughout his career. But he's also a former 18-game winner and AL All-Star who, on occasion, will look like a very good pitcher. He'll also be just 27 years old, which is extremely rare for a free agent.
All of those factors, even the injuries and inconsistency, work in his favor because teams won't have a clear read on who the real Phil Hughes is. They'll be gambling that he can be more like the guy who was brilliant over a four-start span earlier this season (28 IP, 6 ER, 23 H, 5 BB, 30 K) and not the guy who allowed 13 earned runs in 6.1 innings over his next two starts.
It wouldn't be a huge surprise to see Hughes get a three-year, $30 million contract. It would be a surprise if his new team ends up being satisfied with the production they get out of him.
Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Yankees
If there's a silver lining in Granderson missing most of this season due to injuries, it's that his agent will have an excuse in case the 32-year-old struggles once he does return to the lineup. The focus will be on his previous two seasons, in which he's surpassed the 40-homer and 100-RBI mark.
While Yankee Stadium is very homer-friendly to left-handed hitters, it should be noted that Granderson hit 37 of his 84 homers on the road in those two seasons. Based on that info alone, Granderson had a ridiculous amount of money coming his way—barring a terrible season in 2013—once he hit free agency.
Since any terrible season can chalked up to Granderson not being at full strength after coming back from a fractured knuckle and/or fractured forearm, it's likely he'll still be in line for something in the range of four years (age 33-36 seasons) and $70-80 million.
That's a lot of money to pay for homers if it comes with the .319 on-base percentage and 195 strikeouts he accumulated in 2012, to go along with a decline in stolen bases and outfield range as he reaches his mid-30s.
Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants
Let me guess. You're not surprised that Lincecum made the list, right? The biggest enigma in baseball will be a free agent this offseason, and no will really have any sort of idea what kind of pitcher he'll be over the length of his next contract.
My best guess is that he'll continue to be unpredictable from start to start as he has been the past two seasons. But the fact remains that a 29-year-old who has two Cy Young awards and was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball for a four-year period (2008-2011) will be a free agent. It only takes one team to believe that he can be that guy again.
The good news for that team is that they'll be able to sign him for much less than he would've cost if he had continued to pitch well. Now, it'll be just one very expensive gamble on a guy who might eventually need to move to the bullpen.
James Loney, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays
As terrible as he was in 2012, Loney still ended up with a $2 million major league deal with the Rays this season. Now that he's having one of his best big league seasons, what kind of contract will he land?
On pace for 18 homers, 38 doubles and 80 runs batted in to go along with a current slash line of .299/.357/.469, the 29-year-old Loney could command at least three years and $33 million on the open market. But as he's reminding the baseball world at the moment (14 for last 66, 1 HR), he's still very capable of reverting back to "bad" James Loney.
If this were to happen during Year 1 of his contract, some general manager will have likely made the biggest and most costly mistake of his career.
Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies
Utley returns to the lineup today after a stint on the disabled list with an oblique injury, but it's the health of his knees that will be a huge focus of teams looking for second base help next season and beyond.
The knees appeared to be holding up fine early in the season as the 34-year-old Utley posted an .814 OPS with seven homers, seven doubles, two triples and five stolen bases in 44 games.
If he continues to put up similar numbers when he returns to the lineup and avoids missing any time due to any knee issues, he should be in line for a two, or possibly even three-year contract after the season.
For a second baseman with Utley's track record, there would likely be several teams willing to give him a one-year deal for as much as $10-12 million. But there will very likely be at least one team that is willing to offer multiple years in order to land the five-time All-Star.
With no assurance that Utley's knee conditions, patella tendinitis and Chrondomalacia patella, will ever go away completely, his next team will be taking a huge risk that it doesn't get to the point where he spends more time on the disabled list than in the starting lineup.