What MLB Teams Are Getting the Most Bang for Their Buck in Wild Offseason?
In free agency, the name of the game is value.
Of course, when there are a limited supply of players and a number of teams bidding for their services, it's hard to find value. Instead, loads of cash tend to get stuffed into players' pockets with teams hoping that they'll be worth it—or at least close to worth it—in the end.
That doesn't mean, though, that it's impossible to unearth a cheap option (relatively speaking) that could pay off handsomely. Nor does it mean that teams can't still do a quality job of getting bang for their buck, even when it comes to some bigger names—and even bigger money.
That in mind, let's take a look at a handful of clubs who have done well in either respect (or both) this offseason.
Keep in mind, as pointed out in an earlier iteration of this bang-for-buck evaluation: In general, the market price for a win is considered to be about $5-6 million in free agency, although that number surely is trending higher. In fact, it may be closer to $7 million per win on the open market this year when all is said and done.
Before we get started with the teams, a reminder: The focus here is only on free agency, meaning trades aren't considered (even though the financials are often a motivating factor in a swap). Also, the idea is to evaluate teams as a whole rather than an individual contract, so this will be skewed toward clubs who have signed multiple free agents.
Lastly, teams are listed in order of least money spent to most spent on such transactions.
*All wins above replacement statistics come from FanGraphs (fWAR).
OF David Murphy ($12 M for 2 years)
RHP John Axford ($4.5 M for 1 year)
Let's start off slow. A year after splurging on free agents like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the Indians have been much more frugal this year. Still, it's hard to argue that either of their two signings won't be worth their price of acquisition.
Murphy had a dreadful 2013, in large part due to a career-low .227 BABIP per FanGraphs, but prior to that, he'd actually been a rather productive platoon corner outfielder. To wit, he was worth nearly two wins above replacement (fWAR) from 2008 through 2012, when he averaged a line of .283/.346/.449. If he can even approach that level again—and at 32, he should—Murphy could earn his $12 million total salary in 2014 alone.
As for Axford, he's more of a shot-in-the-dark type following last season's 4.02 ERA and seven blown saves—without a single actual save—but for $4.5 million, he would have to be that bad again to be a poor pickup. The Indians may not want to entrust him with the closer's job 100 percent, but if he can work himself into that role, or even be a setup man, Axford will be worth the risk.
RHP Joe Nathan ($20 M for 2 years)
OF Rajai Davis ($10 M for 2 years)
RHP Joba Chamberlain ($2.5 M for 1 year)
Typically, signing a 39-year-old reliever with major reconstructive surgery in his recent-enough history for $10 million per over multiple years isn't recommended. In the case of the Tigers and Nathan, though, it's reasonable. The bullpen has been Detroit's biggest issue the past two years—which has been exposed at the worst of times in the postseason—and Nathan, who proved he can remain incredibly effective in his late-30s last year, will address that. Plus, he's the first big name mentioned here.
Davis fills another specific area of need for the Tigers—two, in fact. The first is speed, as Davis, 33, has averaged 43 steals per since 2009 in a part-time role. The second is defense, as he's a quality corner outfielder who should make a nice left field platoon with lefty-hitting Andy Dirks. Davis isn't a full-timer, which makes him risky, but $5 million a year is hardly a lot to spend for upgrades in a couple key aspects.
As for Chamberlain, well, the jury's out. He could be a one-time superstar-in-the-making who flamed out early, or he could be an intriguing change-of-scenery candidate who is another power arm in a bullpen that could use some of those. Even if he winds up being the former, it's probably worth the $2.5 million just in case he turns out to be the latter.
Los Angeles Dodgers
3B Juan Uribe ($15 M for 2 years)
RHP Dan Haren ($10 M for 1 year)
RHP Brian Wilson ($10 M for 1 year)
Two of these three are re-signings, so the Dodgers liked what they saw in Uribe and Wilson last year enough to bring them back.
Uribe, in particular, is a surprisingly solid value, given that he produced a 5-fWAR season in 2013 (which would be something like $25-30 million by open-market valuations). Of course, it's extremely unlikely that the 34-year-old will repeat that performance next year; in fact, he could have trouble reaching even half of that, considering how streaky and unpredictable he's been in the past. That said, it's not all that much money or years to invest in a guy who knows the team, the players and handles a position that the contending Dodgers sorely needed to fill.
Haren is in very similar standing as he was this time a year ago, when he signed a one-year pact with the Washington Nationals for $13 million. The veteran right-hander didn't turn in a good season, mainly because of a rough first half (5.61 ERA, 1.42 WHIP), and so he comes more cheaply this time around. If the 33-year-old can pitch more like he did after the break (3.52, 1.02), then he'll have a good chance to earn his $10 million—and then some.
Those two signings help make the $10 million splurge on Wilson—as the setup man who may throw no more than 60 innings—a little more palatable. Although, remember, the Dodgers are operating within a whole different financial landscape than most other teams. So $10 mill to them might be $4 or $5 mill to a small- or mid-market team.
Boston Red Sox
1B Mike Napoli ($32 for 2 years)
RHP Edward Mujica ($9.5 for 2 years)
C A.J. Pierzynski ($8.25 for 1 year)
By itself, Napoli's beard might be worth this contract. OK, seriously, the 32-year-old slugger settled for a below-market deal to stay in a city that appreciated his hard-nose style of play and all-around production. That's right: In addition to his 23 homers and 38 doubles, Napoli made himself into an above-average defensive first baseman, too. In all, he posted a 3.9-WAR season, and if he can stay around three wins per year, the $16 million will be well spent. And if he falters or falls off in his mid-30s, he's only inked for two years.
A pair of new faces, Mujica and Pierzynski aren't as impactful as Napoli, but they also addressed team needs and are proven players. Neither is likely to produce much surplus value at their respective prices, but they're good bets to pay off, barring injury.
San Francisco Giants
OF Hunter Pence ($90 M for 5 years)
RHP Tim Lincecum ($35 M for 2 years)
RHP Tim Hudson ($23 M for 2 years)
LHP Javier Lopez ($13 M for 3 years)
1B/OF Mike Morse ($6 M for 1 year)
RHP Ryan Vogelsong ($5 M for 1 year)
And here's the big spender of the bunch. While some of the Giants' individual moves have been questioned—and rightly so—it's better to view their decisions as a whole.
First, it's worth pointing out that their overpays (either in years or money) aren't egregious. Take Pence, who certainly would have landed a bigger deal than he did had he not signed early on (technically, prior to free agency). By re-upping a veteran outfielder who had a 5.4-win 2013 when they did, the Giants beat—and helped set—the market for others big-namers like Robinson Cano ($240 million for 10 years), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million for seven) and Brian McCann ($85 million for five).
As for the other moves, it would have been wiser to present Lincecum a qualifying offer for $14.1 million if they'd intended to keep him. But there's a strong possibility that one or two of the cheaper pickups or re-signings will produce surplus value to the point where paying Lincecum $17.5 million per might look more like $12 million per.
For instance, it's not hard to see a scenario where a healthy Hudson gives the Giants 180 solid innings worth 2-3 WAR, or where Vogelsong bounces back and pitches well enough to be worth close to $10 million in value.
And despite the often-regrettable idea of giving a reliever a three-year deal, spending only $13 million total to keep the proven Lopez was much better than, say, giving $16.5 million to Boone Logan. Like the NL West-rival Rockies just did.
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