MLB Metrics 101: Projecting Big-Money Contracts of Offseason's Top Free Agents

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 9, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: Projecting Big-Money Contracts of Offseason's Top Free Agents

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The time for playing in Major League Baseball is over. It's now time for spending.

    And, thus, a new challenge for Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101.

    Hello and welcome back. This week's topic is contract projections for the top stars on the 2017-18 free-agent market. Here are the ground rules:

    • All free agents were eligible for consideration...
    • But only those who figure to earn over $50 million were actually considered.

    There's room for argument regarding how many players belong under the umbrella covered by that second point. But in this space, the list extends to only eight players.

    Read on for more on how their free-agent earnings will be projected.

Methodology

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    Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

    Calculating free-agent contracts is an inexact science, but there are better ways to do it than simply plucking numbers out of the air.

    A good starting point is to calculate how much money players should actually be worth in coming seasons. Baseline components for this are WAR (wins above replacement), the cost per WAR and two assumptions:

    • One: Factors such as age and wear and tear will decrease a player's WAR over time.
    • Two: Inflation will increase the cost per WAR over time.

    The B/R MLB Metrics 101 has already settled on $8 million for the cost per WAR in 2017. A safe assumption for player regression is 0.5 WAR per year. A safe assumption for cost per WAR inflation is 5 percent per year.

    The latter two figures are cues taken from a Sports Illustrated method that was pioneered by Jay Jaffe and passed on to Cliff Corcoran. Another cue taken is a player's projected WAR for the first season of his new deal, which is the 5/4/3 weighted average of his last three WARs.

    Thus can a player's future worth be calculated. For the sake of consistency and clarity, all projections will be standardized to five seasons and rounded to the nearest multiple of five. Go here for full results.

    But, be warned.

    This isn't a one-size-fits-all model, so specific players will require specific tweaks. Also, their projected worth isn't the same as what suitors will deem them to be worth. Other factors to consider are qualifying offers, positional scarcity, skill scarcity and relevant comps.

    Ultimately, the projections are a jumping-off point that will lead to best guesses. Without further ado, let's get to it.

Wade Davis, RP

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    322.2$55M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    Wade Davis is set to be the top relief pitcher on the market just a year after said market rained $86 million on Aroldis Chapman, $80 million on Kenley Jansen and $62 million on Mark Melancon.

    Since both entered free agency off their age-31 seasons, Melancon is the best comp for Davis age-wise. That puts him in the market for a four-year deal rather than the five-year deals that Chapman and Jansen got.

    If Davis was still the same pitcher who posted a 0.97 ERA over 139.1 innings in 2014 and 2015, he'd be in line to blow the value of Melancon's four-year deal out of the water.

    However, the right-hander's relatively modest 2015-2017 weighted WAR covers a performance slip to a 2.12 ERA in 102.0 innings since 2016. He also comes with elbow concerns. And, unlike Melancon, he comes tied to a qualifying offer and the consequences it entails.

    As far as dollars go, however, that $55 million figure is reasonably reflective of the situation. It's likely that the only difference will be Davis getting that over four years rather than five.

    Prediction: 4 Years, $55 Million

Lance Lynn, SP

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    312.2$55M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    The elephant in this room is Lance Lynn's absence in 2016 following Tommy John surgery. Neither that nor his ties to qualifying offer penalties will help him find big riches this winter. 

    Fortunately for him, he should be able to convince suitors to take an optimistic viewpoint.

    Lynn showed no ill effects in his return from Tommy John in 2017, posting a 3.43 ERA over 186.1 innings. Those numbers are uncannily similar to the 3.38 ERA and 189.1 innings he averaged between 2012 and 2015.

    It's also of help to Lynn that good starting pitching was in shockingly short supply in 2017. He was one of only 23 starters to provide over 180 above-average innings, the lowest number of any non-strike year.

    Lynn was worth 3.1 WAR in 2017. If teams assume he'll pick up from there in 2018, his five-year projection jumps to $95 million. 

    Lynn's qualifying offer will likely put such a deal out of reach, but it's possible he'll split the difference between his high projection and low projection. If Ian Kennedy could get five years and $70 million in a 2015-16 market that had many more starting options, five years and $75 million isn't a stretch for Lynn.

    Prediction: 5 Years, $75 Million

Lorenzo Cain, CF

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    325.0$185M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    Cutting right to the chase: No, a nearly $200 million deal doesn't await Lorenzo Cain.

    He's certainly been a criminally overlooked talent in recent years. His last four seasons are punctuated by a .789 OPS and plentiful defensive and baserunning value. At least in terms of ability, he is to the 2017-18 market what Jason Heyward was to the 2015-16 market.

    But for Cain, that's not an inspiring comparison. Although Heyward projected to be a $300 million player in the long run, he got only $184 million from the Chicago Cubs. And despite being only 26 when he signed, he's already diminished into a massive bust.

    Other comps such as Dexter Fowler and Alex Gordon come with similar red flags. It's therefore likely that teams will err on the side of caution and assume a more aggressive decline awaits Cain.

    For example, consider a model that assumes an immediate 1-WAR dropoff in 2018 followed by subsequent 1-WAR dropoffs in following seasons. That would bring Cain's five-year projection down to $90 million.

    That's close to the average annual value of Fowler's five-year, $82.5 million deal and Gordon's four-year, $72 million deal. Since the latter is the better age comp for Cain, a sensible four-year proposal emerges.

    Prediction: 4 Years, $75 Million

Mike Moustakas, 3B

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    Adam Hunger/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    292.1$50M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    Mike Moustakas is coming off a season highlighted by a career-high 38 home runs, but those came with a characteristically low .314 on-base percentage. That sums up how he's a talented yet flawed hitter.

    Neither that nor his ties to qualifying-offer penalties will help him. Given that there were more home runs hit in 2017 than in any other season, it's also possible that most teams will shrug at the power he has to offer.

    But because Moustakas hit 10 more home runs (24) on the road than he did at the notoriously humongous Kauffman Stadium (14) in 2017, a few teams might be willing to bet that he only scratched the surface of his power potential.

    A back-of-the-envelope calculation posits that Moustakas might have gained a win from 1.8 WAR to 2.8 WAR if he'd played at a more power-friendly ballpark in 2017. If he were to pick up from there in 2018, his five-year projection would leap to $80 million.

    This is an admittedly shaky assumption, but it does get at how Moustakas is basically the Pablo Sandoval of this winter's market. If Sandoval could get five years and $95 million in an offensively challenged environment, five years and $80 million for Moustakas in an offensively charged environment is doable.

    Prediction: 5 Years, $80 Million

Jake Arrieta, SP

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    324.1$140M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    According to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, Jake Arrieta's goal in March was to seek a $200 million contract. That might have been realistic once upon a time, but not now.

    Arrieta won the National League Cy Young on the strength of a 1.77 ERA over 229 innings in 2015. But he regressed to a 3.10 ERA over 197.1 innings in 2016, and then to a 3.53 ERA over 168.1 innings in 2017. Punctuating his slide is a steep velocity decline.

    Like Johnny Cueto two winters ago, Arrieta is thus a pitcher with an ace reputation but an uncertain future. Cueto's six-year, $130 million contract reflected that, as it compromised between his upside and downside.

    How to find a similar compromise for Arrieta? Perhaps by assuming that, like Cueto has done, he'll manage one more ace-like year before falling back into a pattern of regression. Assume he'll lose 1 WAR per year after 2018 rather than half a WAR, for example, and his five-year projection slumps to $95 million.

    Split the difference between that and his optimistic projection, and you get $120 million. Another year would take that over Cueto's deal. But a multitude of factors—Arrieta is two years older and tied to a qualifying offer, but also has fewer health red flags and is in a pitching-needy market—suggest it's best left as is.

    Prediction: 5 Years, $120 Million

J.D. Martinez, OF

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    304.2$145M

    Qualifying Offer: No

    J.D. Martinez is set to capitalize on a 2017 season in which he tallied a 1.066 OPS and 45 homers in only 119 games. That's a 62-homer pace over a full season.

    This is merely an extreme case of the hitter he's been for a while now. He's averaged a .936 OPS and 32 home runs per year since 2014. By adjusted OPS+, he ranks as one of MLB's five best hitters in this span.

    “He’s a superstar talent,” said Scott Boras, Martinez's agent, per Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. “He’s done things that few players have done.”

    It will only help Martinez that he's not tied to a qualifying offer. What could hold him back, however, is his one-dimensional nature and his lack of durability. He has little to offer outside the batter's box and has been limited by injuries to 239 games over the last two seasons.

    There aren't many good comps for a player like this, but the durability questions are at least reminiscent of Yoenis Cespedes this past season. Since Martinez is a year younger and a better hitter, an upgraded version of Cespedes' four-year, $110 million deal is fair enough.

    As luck would have it, that comes out awfully close to what Martinez projects to be worth.

    Prediction: 5 Years, $145 Million

Eric Hosmer, 1B

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    Adam Hunger/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    282.9$85M

    Qualifying Offer: Yes

    Similar to Moustakas, his soon-to-be former teammate, Eric Hosmer is a player whose legend is greater than his reality.

    He's coming off a career-best season highlighted by an .882 OPS, 25 homers and his fourth Gold Glove, but his track record is mixed. He's been a merely average hitter in two of the last four seasons and, despite his Gold Gloves, actually rates as a below-average defender.

    Hosmer does have youth on his side, though. That's sure to force some teams to wonder if he's only just reaching his true talent level, as well as whether he might decline more slowly than his fellow free agents.

    He was worth 4 WAR in 2017. If it's assumed he can do that again in 2018, his five-year projection jumps to $135 million. If it's assumed he can do that both in 2018 and in 2019, his final season before the age-30 plateau, it jumps to $155 million.

    The whole gamut of possibilities averages out to $25 million per year. That sounds fair enough, and would look nice in a six-year deal that his age is likely to attract.

    Prediction: 6 Years, $150 Million

Yu Darvish, SP

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    Harry How/Getty Images
    2018 Age2015-2017 wWAR5-Year Value
    312.5$65M

    Qualifying Offer: No

    The elephant in this room is the same as the one in Lynn's: Yu Darvish sat out 2015 due to Tommy John surgery.

    But the bright side is that, like Lynn, Darvish has also had little trouble on the road back. In 48 starts since 2016, he's put up a 3.70 ERA and whiffed 10.7 batters per nine innings over 287 total innings.

    This performance isn't far removed from the Cy-Young-caliber numbers that Darvish averaged in his first three major league seasons. Throw in the best fastball velocity of his career in 2017, and it's almost as if his 2015 absence never happened.

    Pitching-needy teams can thus take the optimistic outlook that Darvish can pick up in 2018 where he left off. That would be a 3.9-WAR season that would bump his five-year projection up to $135 million.

    That would destroy Jordan Zimmermann's five-year, $110 million contract as the record sum for a Tommy John recipient. Then the question would be if Darvish's representatives could squeeze a sixth year out of somebody.

    His age makes that something of a challenge. His pitching ability, lack of ties to a qualifying offer and presence in a pitching-starved market, however, make it doable.

    Prediction: 6 Years, $160 Million

                    

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.