Why MLB Teams Should Be Saving Blank Checks for Next Year's Free-Agent Class

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Why MLB Teams Should Be Saving Blank Checks for Next Year's Free-Agent Class
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Right about now, just about every club in Major League Baseball could use a reminder of one of life's most important bits of advice:

Don't go spend all your money at once.

Courtesy of the new national TV deals set to go into effect in 2014, all clubs will have an extra $25 million per year. As expected, this money is finding its way into the winter's free-agent market.

The transaction tracker at MLB Trade Rumors returns 17 contracts signed since the first of November. If we strip away the deal signed by the still-under-control Martin Perez and add in the five-year, $85 million deal agreed to by Brian McCann, the four-year, $53 million deal agreed to by Jhonny Peralta and the one-year, $10 million deal agreed to by Dan Haren, and the contracts agreed to by Joe Smith and Jose Molina, we get 21 contracts for an average of 2.1 years and $16.44 million in value.

Or, if you prefer, an average of $7.83 million per year. 

I crunched the numbers recently and found that an average free-agent contract for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 went for about $7.5 million per year. This year's market is already stronger than that, and we haven't even seen Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo sign a monster contract yet.

Clubs shouldn't get too carried away this winter. Because if there's a free-agent market worthy of big spending, it's next year's market that teams should be excited about.

We're going to dig into why in just a moment. But first, we have to pause for a couple of necessary acknowledgements.

One is that next year's free-agent crop is far from finalized. MLB Trade Rumors has a list of players slated to hit the open market—we'll ignore players with options for nowbut extensions have been known to happen.

It must also be acknowledged that we have no idea what's going to happen in 2014. Some players are going to rise. Others are going to fall. In other words: Baseball is going to happen.

But if we venture to compare this winter's free agents to next winter's free agents looking only at recent history and players' ages, it's hard to ignore the appeal of next year's crop.

 

The Position Player Market

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

There's no denying the top-heaviness of this winter's position player market. Most notably, out there to be had are Cano and Ellsbury. Per FanGraphs' custom free-agent leaderboard, the two of them have both compiled more than 16 WAR over the last three seasons.

There's not a position player set to hit the market next year who has rocked that hard over the last three seasons. Between 2011 and 2013, Chase Headley leads the way with a little over 13 WAR.

But while next year's market can't match the top-heaviness of this year's market, it's hardly lacking in stars who should be in line for long-term, big-money contracts. Next year's market also has a thing that's just as important: depth.

If we do some quick number-crunching, we get the following averages:

2013-2014 and 2014-2015 Position Players
FA Class Avg. 2011-2013 wRC+ Avg. 2011-2013 WAR Average Post-Winter Age
2013-2014 93 2.9 33.8
2014-2015 102 5.0 33.4

FanGraphs

On average, players slated to hit the free-agent market next winter have been better offensive producers (wRC+) and better overall players (WAR) than players hitting the market this winter. And on average, they're set to be a bit younger in the ensuing season.

To be sure, next year's class inevitably will be watered down a bit once teams clean their rosters and fill the market with scrubs, has-beens and scrubby has-beens. But even with that in the future, next year's market is still poised to have more WAR heroes than this year's market.

For FanGraphs WAR, the absolute baseline for a solid everyday player is two WAR. The 2014-2015 class boasts 17 players who have compiled 6.0-plus WAR from 2011 and 2013, or two WAR per season. This year's class of free agents only boasts 14 such players.

Now, it can't be argued that the cream of the 2014-2015 crop is as appealing as the cream of the 2013-2014 crop. The presence of Cano and Ellsbury counts for a lot. Brian McCann is one of the game's top offensive and defensive catchers. Shin-Soo Choo is an on-base machine with power and speed.

However, the cream of next year's crop does have its merits. 

Hanley Ramirez, for example, is an abundant source of something that's rare these days: right-handed power. Despite playing half his games at a notorious pitchers' park, he posted a .293 ISO in 2013. He'll also be young enough (31) in 2015 to attract a long-term deal.

Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Though his power outburst in 2012 proved to be a tease, Chase Headley still ranked as one of the top third basemen in the league in 2013. He packs an above-average bat and a well-above-average glove, and will only be 31 in 2015.

Pablo Sandoval obviously comes with weight concerns. But he was one of the league's elite third basemen when he was in shape in 2011, and the 2013 season saw him finish on a .338/.420/.535 note over his final 41 games. That coincided with him turning a corner with his weight. He could be in for a huge walk year (productivity-speaking), and will only be 28 in 2015.

Colby Rasmus is another guy who will only be 28 in 2015. He did so quietly, but he was worth almost as much WAR as Shin-Soo Choo in 2013. He strikes out a lot, but he packs a ton of power for an up-the-middle-player and was one of the league's top defenders in center field in 2013.

That the 2014-2015 class has two upper-level players who will only be heading toward their age-28 seasons is one significant edge it has on the 2013-2014 class. It has only two players headed to their age-28 seasons: Delmon Young and Jesus Flores. Neither is "upper-level," to say the least.

The 2014-2015 free-agent class also boasts a solid collection of next-level players. Such as:

  • Brett Gardner: He's an above-average offensive and defensive outfielder who will be 31 in 2015.
  • Jed Lowrie: He may be a below-average defensive shortstop, but he's a switch-hitter with a career 106 wRC+ who will also be 31 in 2015.
  • J.J. Hardy: He's not much for getting on base, but he'll hit you 20 homers while playing outstanding defense at short. He'll be 32 in 2015.
  • Russell Martin: He's one of the best defensive catchers in the business, and his wRC+ has been at the 100 mark in two of the last three seasons.
  • Norichika Aoki: He's a very good defensive right fielder with a 109 wRC+ in two seasons. He'll be 33 in 2015.

The collection of intriguing players has the potential to grow beyond these players. Chris Young will be a top target on the center field market if he bounces back with full-time duty awaiting him this season with the New York Mets. Asdrubal Cabrera will be a hot shortstop target if he reclaims his All-Star form of 2011 and 2012. Melky Cabrera could be a big target again after a tumor in his back caused problems in his first season in Toronto in 2013.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

There's also going to be a solid collection of veteran hitters. Whereas this year's veteran hitter market basically consists of Carlos Beltran, next year's market will feature Victor Martinez, Josh Willingham and 2013 NL batting champion Michael Cuddyer. After hitting 22 home runs in 2013, Coco Crisp now stands out as more than just a speed and defense guy.

Then there are the veteran veteran hitters. If they want to keep playing, David Ortiz, Torii Hunter and Alfonso Soriano will be out there.

So while it may not be poised to boast a Cano or an Ellsbury, there are going to be plenty of avenues for teams that need skilled position players to go in next winter. There will be some legit candidates for long-term contracts, and the next level is going to include its share of talent.

By comparison, next year's collection of starting pitchers isn't poised to be as deep. One thing it's going to have in relative abundance, however, is starters worthy of big piles of cash.

 

The Starting Pitcher Market

Rob Carr/Getty Images

What does it tell you about this year's starting pitching market that, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Ervin Santana is looking for $100 million and Ricky Nolasco is looking for $80 million?

About what you're thinking: Yeah, it's a pretty weak market.

It looks even weaker if we focus on what the numbers make of the cream of the crop. Using 2011-2013 fWAR, here's a look at the 10 most accomplished pitchers of this winter's market:

Top 2013-2014 Starting Pitchers
Player 2011-2013 WAR 2014 Age
Roy Halladay 9.7 37
Hiroki Kuroda 9.7 39
Dan Haren 9.4 33
Bartolo Colon 9.1 41
Ricky Nolasco 8.7 31
Matt Garza 8.3 30
A.J. Burnett 8.1 37
Tim Hudson 7.2 38
Ubaldo Jimenez 6.6 30
Shaun Marcum 5.8 32

FanGraphs

*This is excluding Tim Lincecum, whom the San Francisco Giants signed before free agency kicked off.

Three of the four most accomplished pitchers over the last three years are in their late 30s or early 40s. One of them (Roy Halladay) is broken. And while Dan Haren may only be headed for his age-33 season, he's fallen far from ace status with an 84 ERA+ over the last two seasons.

The only starting pitchers that fWAR and age say are in prime position for long-term, big-money deals are Nolasco, Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez. As for Santana, well, his fWAR over the last three seasons is lower than those of Bruce Chen, Chris Capuano, Jason Hammel and Jason Vargas.

These guys are going to get paid despite their iffy recent histories, of course. Starting pitching is ever in demand, and, hey, this is as good as it gets this winter. A couple of teams are going to be desperate enough to pay for the likes of Nolasco, Garza, Jimenez and/or Santana.

Holding off until next year to invest big dollars in a free-agent starter, however, is hardly the worst idea in the world. Given the starters who will be out there, it's indeed a fine idea.

Fair warning: Clayton Kershaw won't be one of them. We may be taking it for granted that players who are slated to hit free agency will hit free agency, but he's an exception. Given his age, his talent and the amount of money the Los Angeles Dodgers have to throw around, the odds of Kershaw not signing an extension at some point are about equal to those of Sideshow Bob not stepping on a rake in his immediate vicinity.

But even with Kershaw out of the equation, we still get a table highlighting the 2011-2013 fWAR of the 10 best starters on next year's market that looks pretty encouraging:

2014-2015 Starting Pitchers
Player 2011-2013 WAR 2015 Age
Max Scherzer 13.6 30
James Shields 12.9 33
Jon Lester 10.9 31
Jake Peavy 9.9 34
Justin Masterson 9.5 30
Brandon McCarthy 8.1 31
Homer Bailey 7.5 29
Ryan Dempster 6.9 38
Josh Beckett 6.3 35
Josh Johnson 5.7 31

FanGraphs

The four top pitchers up there have compiled more WAR over the last three seasons than any pitcher on the 2013-2014 market. And contrary to this year's market, five of the top seven starting pitchers slated to hit the open market after 2014 are going to be 31 years old or younger in 2015. 

The top three pitchers who will be available are legit aces. Max Scherzer just won the American League Cy Young on the strength of a 2.90 ERA. James Shields has a 3.15 ERA over more than 700 innings in the last three seasons. Jon Lester owns a 117 ERA+ and is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.57 ERA in the second half before pitching like a No. 1 in the postseason.

All three of them are more desirable than any of the starting pitchers on this year's market, and I'd put Justin Masterson and Homer Bailey in that discussion too.

Masterson may keep things simple with a sinker-slider approach, but he's logged at least 190 innings three years in a row and had a better strikeout rate in 2013 than any free agent on this year's market not named Jimenez or A.J. Burnett.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Bailey, meanwhile, has spent his last 39 regular-season starts making good on the hype that surrounded him as a prospect. In those, he's compiled a 3.18 ERA with a 23.9 K%, and has of course pitched two no-hitters.

Because he'll be 33 in 2015, Shields won't be in line for too long term of a deal next winter. Scherzer, Lester, Masterson and Bailey will be, and each of them is going to be in a position to benefit from the sure-to-be ridiculous deals given to Nolasco, Garza, Jimenez and Santana this winter. If they can make the big bucks this winter, one can only imagine what four superior pitchers will be worth next winter.

A handful of elite starters won't be the only thing next year's market will have to offer, mind you. Teams looking for an elite reliever or two will have options there as well. 

 

The Relief Pitcher Market

Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

There used to be no end to how much the nerd community could whine and complain about the amount teams were paying relievers based on their save totals.

Now it doesn't look like teams are doing that anymore. As Paul Swydan of FanGraphs recently noted, the salaries to top saves merchants have gone way down in the last couple of years.

This tells us that teams are more concerned with the actual performances of relievers. That's good because that's the right idea, but it's also tricky because reliever performances are a hard thing to figure. Holds are just as silly as saves, and ERA doesn't work as well for relievers as it does for starters.

But as it usually does, WAR makes for a handy way to put relief pitchers under one umbrella. And for FanGraphs WAR, it doesn't take much for a relief pitcher to have a great season. Anything over 1.0 WAR in a given year is considered "superb."

It's with this in mind that we're going to take a look at the relievers of this year's market who have averaged at least one WAR over the last three seasons (combining FanGraphs' custom lists for right-handed and left-handed relievers):

2013-2014 Relievers
Player 2011-2013 WAR 2014 Age
Matt Belisle 4.5 34
Joe Nathan 4.3 39
Jesse Crain 3.7 32
Rafael Betancourt 3.7 39
Fernando Rodney 3.2 37
Joaquin Benoit 3.0 36

FanGraphs

We know Joe Nathan is terrific. And while you may be surprised to see Matt Belisle up there after he posted an ERA over 4.00 in 2013, he actually had a fairly typical year in most other respects. The same can be said about Joaquin Benoit, except he did his usual thing as a closer rather than as a setup man.

But while the three of them are good, the other three have their red flags.

Jesse Crain and Rafael Betancourt had their 2013 seasons ruined by injuries. Fernando Rodney had a good season but was nowhere near the force that he was in 2012 when he saved 48 games with a 0.60 ERA and a 5.3 walk percentage. That control disappeared in 2013 to the tune of a 12.4 walk percentage.

Now, if we turn away from these guys and take a look at the top free-agent relievers poised to hit the market next year:

2014-2015 Relievers
Player 2011-2013 WAR 2015 Age
David Robertson 5.9 30
Koji Uehara 5.5 40
Matt Belisle 4.5 34
Sergio Romo 4.1 34
Casey Janssen 3.6 33
Jim Johnson 3.6 32
J.J. Putz 3.2 38
Jason Grilli 3.0 38

FanGraphs

Belisle's going to be out there again after fulfilling his mutual option with the Rockies in 2014. In addition to him will be two of the best the relief pitching game has to offer in David Robertson and Koji Uehara.

The only two relievers with higher WARs than Robertson over the last three seasons are Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland. After being criminally underrated for several years, he should get the credit he deserves in 2014 if he does his thing in place of Mariano Rivera as the Yankees closer.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

As for Uehara, he certainly is going to be safely on the "old" side next winter. But since his game isn't based on blowing hitters away with velocity, he'll be a candidate for a huge one- or two-year contract if he has a season even remotely as good as his 2013 season (11.2 K/BB ratio and 0.57 WHIP).

Sergio Romo is another guy whose game isn't based on blowing hitters away. If his outstanding fastball command and other-worldly slider are as effective in 2014 as they've been for several years now, he'll do well in free agency. Ditto Case Janssen if his control and cutter-heavy approach hold up. Jim Johnson had maybe the worst 50-save season ever in 2013, but his sinker is always good for a ground-ball rate in the neighborhood of 60 percent.

It's harder to say kind things about J.J. Putz and Jason Grilli. Putz is past his prime, and Grilli's excellent 2013 season was eventually unhinged by an elbow injury. At his age, that might not be the last of his injury woes.

Putz and Grilli aside, however, next year's free-agent market is set to boast six elite relievers who are viable options for high-leverage work. That's twice as many as this year's three.

 

Parting Thoughts

Way back when, I noted that there are two main complications with looking ahead to next year's free-agent market.

One is that next year's crop of free agents is far, far from being set in stone. The amount of money being tossed around this winter is sure to make free agency more attractive for players than it has been for some time, but there's just no way of knowing who's going to accept a market-value extension. There are no stone-cold locks other than Kershaw, but, well, who knows?

The other complication is that much is going to be shaped by what happens out on the field in 2014. A whole season's worth of data is enough to change things in itself. A whole season's worth of injuries will change things even more.

Based on what we know right now at this point in time, however, next year's free-agent market is going to have more elite talent available on the starter and reliever markets. And while the position player market isn't set to be as top-heavy, there will be some legit talent available and quite a bit of desirable talent underneath that talent.

So if your favorite club largely stands pat this winter, fret not. Perhaps it has a big spending spree in mind for next winter.

 

Note: Stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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