15 MLB Stars Whose Upcoming Free Agent Stock Has Plummeted
The time has come to debunk the myth that players always step up their game in the final year before becoming a free agent.
For every Ervin Santana who rebounds from a rough season to post upper echelon numbers, there are at least two or three players like Josh Johnson who will enter free agency with stats that are among both the worst in the league and the worst in their career.
In total, I count 15 high-profile players making at least $2 million in 2013 who are likely headed for a pay cut in their offseason contract negotiations because of a significant drop off in performance since last year.
Josh Johnson 2012: 191.1 IP, 3.81 ERA, 3.40 FIP, 7.76 K/9, 3.5 WAR, $13.75 million salary
Josh Johnson 2013: 81.1 IP, 6.20 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 9.18 K/9, 0.6 WAR, $13.75 million salary
Johnson turns 30 in January. With a healthy and successful 2013 season, he likely would have been given the largest and longest contract this winter—I'm thinking something in the five-year, $85 million range.
But he hasn't been healthy or successful. Save for a nice strikeout rate, this has easily been the worst season of his career.
Nothing has gone right for him, and that $13.75 million salary could soon be a luxury of the past. Even if someone truly believes he'll return to form, is anyone really going to risk giving a Josh Beckett-type of contract to the pitcher with the second-worst ERA in 2013?
The Blue Jays refused to move Johnson at the non-waiver trade deadline, instead hoping they can re-sign him before he hits free agency. They could be looking at quite the bargain.
Though, it wouldn't even begin to make up for the $31.25 million they owe R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle next season.
Jim Johnson 2012: 68.2 IP, 51 saves, 2.49 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 5.37 K/9, 1.2 WAR, $2.625 million salary
Jim Johnson 2013: 56.1 IP, 40 saves, 3.51 ERA, 3.94 FIP, 6.87 K/9, 0.3 WAR, $6.5 million salary
From one struggling Johnson to another, the relief version is doing everything he can to pitch his way out of a job.
Most of them occurred back in late-May, but he righted the ship just in time to save 12 consecutive games before his next slip-up. However, he's up to his old tricks again, blowing three straight save chances in mid-August.
As the other side of Delmarva has also been experiencing this with Rafael Soriano, it's difficult to rely on a closer who doesn't average at least a strikeout per inning. Allow enough balls to be put in play, and BABIP can bite you in the butt without a moment's notice. When it happens in consecutive ninth-inning appearances, people start to lose faith in you in a hurry.
Though he leads the league in blown saves, he also leads the American League in successful saves, so it's not all bad news. But Baltimore inevitably has a lot of high leverage situations left in its playoff chase, and he's only three blown saves away from matching Ambiorix Burgos (who?!) for the most blown saves in a single season in the past decade.
A few more tough luck outings over the next five weeks could lead to a tough luck 2014 salary as a middle reliever.
Fernando Rodney 2012: 74.2 IP, 48 saves, 0.60 ERA, 2.13 FIP, 5.07 K/BB, 2.3 WAR, $1.75 million salary
Fernando Rodney 2013: 53.2 IP, 30 saves, 3.69 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 2.23 K/BB, 0.8 WAR, $2.5 million salary
Speaking of AL East closers who are desperately trying to lose their job, Rodney is only two blown saves behind Jim Johnson for the not-so-prestigious honor of most blown saves in the league. And actually, factoring in the number of save opportunities, Rodney has blown 18.9 percent of his chances as opposed to Johnson's 18.4 percent.
Coupled with his almost MLB-worst BB/9 ratio, one could really make a compelling argument that Rodney has been the worst closer in baseball in 2013—just one year after having arguably the best single season of any closer in baseball history.
I hate to bring him up in consecutive slides, but considering the Nationals paid $28 million this past offseason for two years of Rafael Soriano's services, can you imagine what Rodney would have been worth on the open market last December?
Instead, he hits free agency this winter with a lot of question marks. His ERA and WAR are far from stellar, but take out 2012 and they're each the best that he has posted in the past seven years. The more you look at Rodney's career numbers, the more that 2012 starts to look like a misprint.
Maybe he signs a one-year deal in the vicinity of $4 million with someone, but I can't imagine anyone would be foolhardy enough to commit to multiple years of the pitcher with the ninth-worst walk rate since the start of 2008.
Chase Headley 2012: 699 PA, .286/.376/.498, 31 HR, 17 SB, 7.2 WAR, $3.475 million salary
Chase Headley 2013: 495 PA, .238/.331/.368, 8 HR, 6 SB, 2.5 WAR, $8.575 million salary
Headley's drop in slugging is beyond alarming.
He had an All-Star caliber season in 2012, even though Petco Park was the third-most difficult stadium in which to hit home runs. They moved the fences in a bit this past offseason, and now it's smack dab in the middle of the league in what I'm going to call "homerability."
And yet, Headley's slugging percentage has dropped from 31st among 143 qualified batters in 2012 to a tie for 128th among the 149 qualified batters this season. He went from slightly better than Carlos Beltran to slightly worse than Erick Aybar, despite the beneficial adjustments to his home park.
Unless his preseason thumb injury is still lingering, I have quite literally no idea what has caused the power outage—his plate discipline numbers aren't all that different from last year, and his line drive rate is actually improved from 2012.
What I do know, though, is that a sub-.250 batting average with maybe 10 home runs isn't going to be worth anywhere near as much as his 2012 numbers would have been.
The Padres can still retain him next season via arbitration, but he likely would have had the chance to seek top dollar elsewhere if 2013 had treated him as kindly as 2012.
Paul Konerko and Carlos Ruiz
Paul Konerko 2012: 598 PA, .298/.371/.486, 26 HR, 2.0 WAR, $12 million salary
Paul Konerko 2013: 406 PA, .236/.303/.345, 9 HR, -1.7 WAR, $13.5 million salary
Carlos Ruiz 2012: 421 PA, .325/.394/.540, 16 HR, 5.2 WAR, $3.7 million salary
Carlos Ruiz 2013: 246 PA, .284/.326/.382, 4 HR, 1.5 WAR, $4.5 million salary
We're lumping these two guys together into one slide because they're both approaching retirement age. I have no idea whether either guy is considering retiring after this season, but I suspect GMs will take one look at their age and declining stats since last season and immediately start looking elsewhere.
Konerko will turn 38 during spring training, and isn't even a shell of his former self. His home run totals were already on the decline over the past two years, and he still needs four home runs to even reach half of last year's total. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances this season, his WAR is the worst in the majors.
His 2013 salary is eighth-highest among first basemen. If he does come back for one more year, I would guess his paycheck would put him around 25th on that list.
Ruiz, on the other hand, is battling both age and the shadows of a 25-game suspension for use of a banned substance.
He turns 35 this offseason, which is more like 40 in catcher years. There have only been 14 catchers in the past 20 years that have reached at least 400 plate appearances in a season after turning 35—and only two of them have posted a WAR north of 2.5.
His power and on-base percentage have absolutely plummeted from last year to this year, and whether it is due to age or the lack of PEDs, there's at least a reasonable fear that it will only get worse in 2014.
Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz
Jhonny Peralta 2012: 585 PA, .239/.305/.384, 13 HR, 2.5 WAR, $5.5 million salary
Jhonny Peralta 2013: 436 PA, .305/.361/.461, 11 HR, 3.7 WAR, $6.0 million salary
Nelson Cruz 2012: 642 PA, .260/.319/.460, 24 HR, 1.1 WAR, $6.25 million salary
Nelson Cruz 2013: 452 PA, .269/.330/.511, 27 HR, 1.5 WAR, $10.75 million salary
Aside from Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, the two biggest names involved in the Biogenesis suspensions are both up for free agency after this season.
If not for the PEDs revelation, they'd both be headed toward massive pay days. Even though they only played for roughly two-thirds of the season, they each had a WAR that was at least 35 percent better than 2012.
Instead, they'll probably now be viewed as liabilities in their early 30s who either might not play as well without PEDs or might get busted a second time for trying to cheat the system.
The fly in this theory's ointment is that Melky Cabrera was suspended for the final 45 games of the 2012 season and still ended up signing a two-year, $16 million contract with the Blue Jays. If a team thinks either Cruz or Peralta is worth signing, it doesn't seem likely that they'll let the final two months of this season impact that decision.
However, Cabrera has played pretty terribly this year, putting up numbers not much unlike those he posted in 2010 with the Braves—arguably the last time he was clean, considering his huge spike in production the following season. Teams may at least be skeptical about how much return they can expect on such an investment.
Not only is the fallout of Biogenesis likely going to affect their value on the open market, but how they're paid this offseason could legitimately impact the future of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.
If Cruz and Peralta still get their millions, would the threat of a 50-game suspension really keep up-and-coming players from doing whatever it takes to get ahead? If they are instead effectively boycotted and only able to make a small fraction of their previous salaries, perhaps that would be more of a deterrent for the future.
Colby Lewis and Corey Hart
Colby Lewis 2012: 105.0 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.88 FIP, 7.97 K/9, 2.2 WAR, $3.25 million salary
Corey Hart 2012: 622 PA, .270/.334/.507, 30 HR, 2.2 WAR, $9.33 million salary
At the start of next season, Hart will be 32 years old and Lewis will be a few months away from turning 35.
Neither has played in a single major league game this season, and neither of them will. Hart was ruled out for the rest of the season when it was determined in late-June that he needed knee surgery. And while Lewis was hoping to return from back surgery, he instead needed hip surgery that ended his dreams of a 2013 comeback.
I'm not entirely sure how either will pan out on the open market, but perhaps Brian Wilson's recent signing with the Dodgers is a good barometer for what we can expect to see. Wilson signed a two-year, $15 million extension with the Giants before the 2011 season, but was signed at the non-waiver trading deadline for just $1 million for the rest of this season.
My guess is that Hart will get something in the range of a one-year, $4 million deal, which is about one-third the salary and one-fourth the length of what he would've gotten if he had played and hit 25 home runs for a fourth consecutive season.
I won't even venture a guess on Lewis. It's a big risk to invest in someone in their mid-30s coming back from two significant surgeries.
Paul Maholm 2012: 189.0 IP, 3.67 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 6.67 K/9, 2.2 WAR, $4.25 million salary
Paul Maholm 2013: 123.2 IP, 4.51 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 6.26 K/9, 0.7 WAR, $6.5 million salary
Back in early May, I had Maholm ranked as the fourth-most valuable free agent.
In retrospect, that was a bit of an overstatement, but the rationale remains the same: there are no great left-handed starting pitchers becoming free agents. Maholm is probably still the best of the bunch—as it's arguably Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders jockeying for second place—but he's nowhere near as glamorous as he was after the first month of the season.
Maholm has given up at least four earned runs in six of his last eight starts, and has only recorded more than four strikeouts in one of his last 14 outings.
It's sad, really, that that's about as good as it gets among available southpaws. If he could have just posted a sub-3.70 ERA for a third consecutive season, he might have been slated for a huge contract. After all, when there's only one "prize" available, it only takes two bidders to drive up the cost.
There's still plenty of time for him to turn things around—a strong showing in the playoffs certainly wouldn't hurt—but if things don't change considerably in the next two months, he'll only have himself to blame for the low offers he receives this winter.
David Murphy 2012: 521 PA, .304/.380/.479, 15 HR, 3.9 WAR, $3.625 million salary
David Murphy 2013: 424 PA, .221/.281/.377, 12 HR, 0.5 WAR, $5.775 million salary
For years, we begged to see what Murphy could do as an everyday player. As a fourth outfielder and regular pinch hitter, Murphy routinely batted around .280 with double digit home runs.
In 2012, he finally got something close to a full-time job. His 521 plate appearances ranked 133rd among all players. It was seven more than Allen Craig received, who didn't appear in a game until May 1 and later spent 15 days on the disabled list.
Despite the still-limited at-bats, Murphy ranked 25th in the majors in OPS and finally earned himself an everyday spot in the 2013 lineup.
He responded by playing dreadfully.
Murphy finished the month of April with a .176 batting average, and has batted .230 or worse in every month this season except for May. His 2013 average is nowhere near as bad as Dan Uggla's, but .222 makes him the seventh-worst hitter in the majors.
I'm sure most of it was due to the impending suspension of Nelson Cruz, but Murphy's struggles must have played at least a minor role in the decision to sign Manny Ramirez to a minor league contract and shift their second baseman of the future (Jurickson Profar) into the outfield for somewhat regular at-bats.
Maybe he'll get another shot at a starting job somewhere, but Murphy almost certainly won't be making $5.8 million in 2014—not without some sort of postseason magic, at any rate.
Eric O'Flaherty 2012: 57.1 IP, 1.73 ERA, 3.27 FIP, 7.22 K/9, 0.6 WAR, $2.49 million salary
Eric O'Flaherty 2013: 18.0 IP, 2.50 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 5.50 K/9, -0.1 WAR, $4.32 million salary
When it was revealed that Jonny Venters needed to have Tommy John surgery for the second time in his career, O'Flaherty suddenly became one of the most valuable set-up men in the league.
He posted a sub-1.00 ERA in 73.2 innings of work in 2011 and followed it up with another much-better-than-average season in 2012. Being thrust from a seventh-inning man to the eighth-inning cog not only increased his value, but could have been setting the stage for him to get some looks as a closer in 2014.
But then O'Flaherty's season was cut short by a Tommy John surgery of his own.
His recovery timetable will likely encompass the first two months of the 2014 season, which will understandably put quite the damper on his free agency stock.
The smart money is on him re-signing with the Braves on a one-year deal in the range of $1.5 million and then testing the open waters next offseason, but it's a real shame that the injury happened when it did. O'Flaherty was on his way to becoming one of the game's best left-handed relievers.
Michael Gonzalez 2012: 35.2 IP, 3.03 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 9.84 K/9, 0.6 WAR, $0.9 million salary
Michael Gonzalez 2013: 45.0 IP, 4.40 ERA, 4.74 FIP, 11.20 K/9, -0.5 WAR, $2.25 million salary
When Eric O'Flaherty went down for the count after Tommy John surgery, it opened the door for someone else to become the most sought after left-handed reliever this winter.
Quite a few southpaws have stepped up to fill that void. Scott Downs, J.P. Howell, Boone Logan and Javier Lopez could each be fetching a pretty penny.
Gonzalez is not one of those pitchers, and might have actually managed to fall behind O'Flaherty on most teams' wish lists. He played a pretty big role in the bullpen for the Nationals in 2012 and parlayed that into a multi-million dollar deal with the Brewers for this season.
Unfortunately, he has devolved into one of the least valuable relief pitchers in the league. Though none of them have lasted multiple innings, he has allowed at least one runner to reach base in 13 of his last 14 outings, and has been credited with 11 earned runs over the course of those 10.2 innings pitched.
Curtis Granderson 2012: 684 PA, .232/.319/.492, 43 HR, 2.3 WAR, $10.0 million salary
Curtis Granderson 2013: 119 PA, .273/.387/.444, 4 HR, 0.9 WAR, $15.0 million salary
Of all the names on the list, this is the one with the best chance of still minimizing the hit on his bank account.
The first few months of the season were incredibly unkind to Granderson.
Players get hit by pitches all the time without any sort of lasting effect. Shin-Soo Choo has been pegged a league-leading 23 times, yet has played through the bruises well enough to record more plate appearances than all National League players not named Joey Votto.
Fluke injuries happen all the time, but it's too bad for him that these happened during a contract year.
He has looked pretty good over the past three-plus weeks, though. Granderson's batting .282 in the second half and averaging nearly a walk per game—both of which are significantly better than his career averages. He also has three home runs and four stolen bases since his second return.
Still a far cry from the player who hit more than 40 home runs in each of the past two seasons, but if he can finish the season somewhere in the vicinity of 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases in just 60 games of work, there's a chance someone would still spend top dollar on him.
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