How to Know When a Big-Name MLB Free Agent Is Not Worth the Cash

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How to Know When a Big-Name MLB Free Agent Is Not Worth the Cash
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
B.J. Upton was one of last offseason's big free-agent flops, but there have been plenty more in recent years.

Now that the 2013 Major League Baseball season officially has come to a close with the Boston Red Sox's third championship in 10 years, attention around the sport turns from October's drama to November's decisions.

It's bound to be another busy winter around baseball as free agency kicks into gear in the coming weeks. There are 29 other teams trying to pull off what the Red Sox did this year by winning it all, a process that advanced quite a lot this time last year, when Boston's decision-makers added several impact players via the free market.

But in bringing in names like Koji Uehara, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster, general manager Ben Cherington didn't exactly go all out chasing big names or spending big bucks (like the previous regime had).

The lesson? Sometimes it pays to spread the wealth.

This year, there are a fair amount of big-name free agents, from Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann to Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and potentially Japan's Masahiro Tanaka. And no doubt, teams are going to pony up for those top talents.

Ed Zurga/Getty Images
Will Matt Garza's next team wind up regretting signing him to a multi-year deal worth tens of millions?

The decision to do so, then, becomes a matter of identifying which enticing free agents are actually the ones to avoid, the ones who won't be worth the money.

To get a better idea of if there is a certain profile or any trends, we reviewed all major signings from the five offseasons—so 2007-08 through 2011-12—prior to last year's with the help of MLB Trade Rumors' trusty Transaction Tracker tool. (We'll put the 2012-13 class aside for now, because it's still a bit too soon to evaluate, although Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton's signings, for example, don't look particularly promising after only one year).

In order for a signing to be considered, the player had to have received a contract with at least a $10 million average annual value (AAV) over four-plus seasons. So, the baseline here is a four-year, $40 million deal, but many of the pacts to follow will be much more than that.

To help evaluate whether each of the contracts below has proved to be worth it or not, we'll use FanGraphs' WAR. It's generally accepted that the market price for wins in free agency is in the neighborhood of $5 million per win, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote this time last year, while also acknowledging that figure likely is headed closer to $6 million per win.

In other words, for a big-name free agent to be worth, say, $100 million over five years—that's $20 million in AAV—he would have to be about a 4-WAR player per year over the life of his deal.

That will come into play below, but as you'll see, there aren't many examples where we'll even need to consider the math. The worth-it-or-not question is usually pretty obvious at first sight.

 

2007-08 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2007-2008
PLAYER POSITION AGE IN 1ST YEAR SIGNING TEAM CONTRACT TERMS WAR/YEAR DURING DEAL VERDICT
Alex Rodriguez 3B 32 Yankees 10 for $275 M 3.4 Not Worth It
Torii Hunter OF 32 Angels 5 for $90 M 3.4 Worth It
Aaron Rowand OF 30 Giants 5 for $60 M 1.1 Not Worth It
Jorge Posada C/DH 36 Yankees 4 for $52.4 M 0.8 Not Worth It
Carlos Silva RHP 29 Mariners 4 for $48 M 0.8 Not Worth It
Francisco Cordero RHP 33 Reds 4 for $46 M 0.6 Not Worth It

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Of these six, only Torii Hunter proved to be a quality signing by the Angels, who may have overpaid but only very slightly.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The other five turned out to be downright atrocious moves in just about every way, including Alex Rodriguez's massive albatross of a contract—which still runs through 2017. At least the Giants, Mariners and Reds are no longer paying Aaron Rowand, Carlos Silva and Francisco Cordero.

 

2008-09 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2008-2009
PLAYER POSITION AGE IN 1ST YEAR SIGNING TEAM CONTRACT TERMS WAR/YEAR DURING DEAL VERDICT
Mark Teixeira 1B 29 Yankees 8 for $180 M 2.9 Not Worth It
CC Sabathia LHP 28 Yankees 7 for $161 M 5.0 Worth It
A.J. Burnett RHP 32 Yankees 5 for $82.5 M 2.5 Not Worth It
Derek Lowe RHP 36 Braves 4 for $60 M 1.8 Not Worth It
Ryan Dempster RHP 32 Cubs 4 for $52 M 3.1 Worth It

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

A pair of pitchers, CC Sabathia and Ryan Dempster, worked out well enough for the Yankees and Cubs, respectively. Although, we'll have to see how the declining Sabathia, whose production-per-dollar is propped up by his first four years, holds up through the rest of his extension.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The other two Yankees, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, started off nicely and even helped New York to its 2009 title. But the first baseman lost more or less all of 2013 to a wrist injury, leaving what's left of his contract—$22.5 million per year through 2016—looking like a loss. And even with Burnett's resurgence upon being traded back to the National League, he obviously didn't turn out for the best for the Yanks.

 

2009-10 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2009-2010
PLAYER POSITION AGE IN 1ST YEAR SIGNING TEAM CONTRACT TERMS WAR/YEAR DURING DEAL VERDICT
Matt Holliday OF 30 Cardinals 7 for $120 M 5.1 Worth It
John Lackey RHP 31 Red Sox 5 for $82.5 M 2.2 Not Worth It
Jason Bay OF 31 Mets 4 for $66 M 0.2 Not Worth It

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Matt Holliday just keeps on ticking, huh? He's getting about $17 million AAV, and he's averaging more than five WAR per season, so he's actually been—gasp—a bargain at $120 mill overall. That's hard to do.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

The other two? Well, John Lackey redeemed himself quite a bit this year—and this month—but he's unlikely to prove worth it in the end after missing too much time to injury. And Jason Bay, just ew.

 

2010-11 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2010-2011
PLAYER POSITION AGE IN 1ST YEAR SIGNING TEAM CONTRACT TERMS WAR/YEAR DURING DEAL VERDICT
Carl Crawford OF 29 Red Sox 7 for $142 M 1.0 Not Worth It
Cliff Lee LHP 32 Phillies 5 for $120 M 5.5 Worth It
Jayson Werth OF 32 Nationals 7 for $126 M 2.5 Not Worth It
Adrian Beltre 3B 32 Rangers 6 for $96 M 5.6 Worth It
Adam Dunn 1B/DH 31 White Sox 4 for $56 M -0.5 Not Worth It
Victor Martinez DH 32 Tigers 4 for $50 M 1.1 Not Worth It

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre were big-time hits by the Phillies and Rangers, respectively, as both have continued to post stellar seasons since signing. They're both now in their mid-30s, but since they've shown little signs of slowing down, there's a good chance their inkings could turn out to be expensive success stories.

Jayson Werth and Victor Martinez have been hurt by, well, being hurt and missing chunks of time (including all of 2012 in Martinez's case). Neither has been bad, but they're more fine than good or great. And at those prices, especially Werth's nine-figure amount, fine doesn't cut it.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Red Sox had to unload Carl Crawford's salary after the outfielder magnificently underperformed and then got hurt. Meanwhile, it looks like Adam Dunn and his negative WAR per season should be paying the White Sox to let him play.

 

2011-12 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2011-2012
PLAYER POSITION AGE IN 1ST YEAR SIGNING TEAM CONTRACT TERMS WAR/YEAR DURING DEAL VERDICT
Albert Pujols 1B 32 Angels 10 for $240 M 2.2 Not Worth It
Prince Fielder 1B 28 Tigers 9 for $214 M 3.5 Not Worth It
Jose Reyes SS 29 Marlins 6 for $106 M 3.2 Not Worth It
C.J. Wilson LHP 31 Angels 5 for $77.5 M 2.7 Not Worth It
Yu Darvish RHP 25 Rangers 6 for $60 M 5.0 Worth It
Mark Buehrle LHP 33 Marlins 4 for $58 M 2.2 Not Worth It
Jonathan Papelbon RHP 31 Phillies 4 for $50 M 1.2 Not Worth It

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

The Rangers hit it big with Yu Darvish, who wasn't your typical free agent as a star posted by his professional Japanese club. Even when factoring in the $51.7 million posting fee, Texas essentially landed a ready-made ace in the middle of his prime at a discount.

From a dollar-per-win perspective, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle are close to being worth it. Except it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt to continue producing three-plus WAR per season over the second halves of their deals, which is about what they'd need to do to come close. Plus, we can't really count Reyes or Buehrle as "worth it" to the Marlins, who jettisoned both after one season (although not for any fault of their own).

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

It's not worth spending any time on Jonathan Papelbon's crazy deal, other than to remind folks that it's example No. 3,248 why relievers, even closers, shouldn't be given large, multi-year contracts.

As for those first two, it's tempting to say that the Tigers look to be in a better place with Prince Fielder than the Angels do with Albert Pujols, but considering that neither player is likely to come close to the 4.5-5.0 WAR per season they'd need to average over the life of their $200 million deals, well, you do the math.

 

Breakdown

Overall, from the offseason of 2007-2008 through 2011-2012, there were 27 big-money deals handed out to big-name free agents that met our definition ($10 million AAV for at least four years). Of those 27, here's the quick breakdown of those who proved worth it and those who didn't:

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings Breakdown
OVERALL
WORTH IT 7
NOT WORTH IT 20

Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Not exactly promising, is it?

And that's more or less the point in trying to answer the question posed above: When is a big-name free agent not worth the cash? Usually, about 75 percent of the time, going by the recent past.

All of which is to say, there's not really any trick or pattern or trend to identifying which players won't be worth it. There are simply too many factors and variables to consider, from age to position to injuries to switching leagues to park factors, among others.

Perhaps, then, instead of dropping dough on one big-name free agent and hoping with fingers crossed that it will pay off, what teams should be trying to do is plugging multiple holes or shoring up their rosters in a few places. That way, not only does a team put more horses in the race, but it also can avoid tying up too much money and too many years in just one player.

Just ask the Red Sox.

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