With the Philadelphia Phillies showing this much interest in Michael Cuddyer, the probable has become inevitable: Cuddyer will be among the four or five most overpaid free agents of this winter. The Colorado Rockies started that ball rolling when they showed extreme interest in Cuddyer to kick off the offseason.
A three-year contract now seems a certainty. It will go to a 33-year-old power-oriented player whose value is tied to old-player skills, and who is probably coming out of the best years of his career.
This is the problem with a thin free-agent market. Sooner or later, a second-tier talent like Cuddyer was bound to get overpaid. It now looks like it will be Cuddyer himself, but he will not be alone. Here are 10 free agents who will be overvalued in this market.
Casey Kotchman had the fourth-highest ground-ball rate on batted balls of any hitter in the game in 2011. The men ahead of him were Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Yunel Escobar. The ones immediately behind him were Elvis Andrus, Cameron Maybin, Jon Jay, Alcides Escobar, Emilio Bonifacio and Juan Pierre.
What do those players have in common? Two things:
- All are, or were at some point, up-the-middle players, and
- They have speed.
Speed determines the value of a ground ball. That's why most guys as slow-footed as Casey Kotchman have the good sense to hit the ball in the air as often as possible. Kotchman, though, remains stubborn.
He hits the ball on the ground, focuses on making contact and tries to get by on good luck and good defense. The latter has little value, sine Kotchman plays only first base. He is a glorified Doug Mientkiewicz.
Yet, while Mientkiewicz made $3.75 million at his peak, Kotchman could get $6 million or more somewhere this winter.
Part of Kotchman's illusory 2011 success was the product of playing his home games on artificial turf in Tampa Bay, speeding up his ground balls. Just so, Bruce Chen posted a 3.77 ERA utterly unsupported by the numbers that strip away the impacts of his defense and ballpark.
Kauffman Stadium forcefully depresses home runs. Chen is an extreme fly-ball pitcher. That alone provided a major boost for Chen. Add to it the value of having an excellent outfield defense behind him, and you have a pitcher set up uniquely to succeed.
It did not matter that Chen's stuff is tepid, nor that he cannot miss bats. He simply let his environment do the work in 2011, and it worked like a charm. If he goes elsewhere in 2012, he will be overpaid and will struggle.
Soft factors are going to make Furcal a lot of money. He will be brought in somewhere on the premise that he is a winning presence, having won a ring with the Cardinals after playing for playoff teams in Atlanta (2000-2005) and Los Angeles (2008-09). He will also be heralded for his rocket arm, and his high-upside bat.
The upside is running out of the bat in a hurry, though. Good batted-ball luck made Furcal look good offensively in 97 games a season ago, but the shortstop was last healthy and effective at the same time in 2006.
Meanwhile, that legendary arm is still there... in a way. Yet Furcal now needs a full-body load to make that throw, slowing him down and adding injury risk.
By the way, that injury specter should not be forgotten in this case. He has played fewer than 100 games in three of the last four years, and he played 150 games just once in the last half-decade.
Sizemore did not earn his $9 million option with the Indians for 2012. He played only 104 games combined in 2010 and 2011, and was not good even then. The skills are still there, save the speed, but Sizemore is noticeably declining already. He might never bounce back at all.
Yet, someone will take the leap this winter. Whether it's the Red Sox or the Cubs or some other team, Sizemore is going to get more than $5 million for what could be nothing more than an encore of his 71 games, 10 homers and 0.2 WAR in 2011.
They will take the chance of reaping Sizemore's rewards but find the risks were not worth it.
This is no knock on Buehrle; he remains a solid pitcher. He's batted-ball neutral, walks virtually no one and delivers value through huge volume.
No, the problem with Buehrle is that he finds himself in the middle of a market that will reward that good (not great) production like near-elite performance.
At 33 in 2012, he is getting pretty old for a guy without good stuff, but Buehrle could get a two- or three-year deal with an easily eight-figure average value. That's more than he's worth.
Winning a second World Series ring. Bouncing back from a fractured wrist in 10 days. Playing third base a few times to cover for his team's terrible infield depth.
None of these things affect the kind of production Albert Pujols will provide to whichever team signs him for the next eight years. Yet, they're sure to come up over and over as Pujols prepares to make his choice.
Major-league executives are not dopes. They will not sign Pujols for more money simply because of those intangibles. They will, however, keep in mind the public-relations boost that comes from signing such a respected player.
They'll also account for the fact that Pujols has a pedigree built by achievement, and that they can market his upcoming career milestones aggressively.
Those are mistakes. Taking those things into account obscures the issue. Pujols' age is a mystery, he had his worst season in 2011 and he plays first base. He will still make huge money, and that's fine, but he's going to make a bit too much.
If there is one tenet of contract negotiation that MLB teams violate more often than any other, it is this: Pay for future performance, never past performance.
Not only do teams too often fall into the trap of expecting a player to sustain his most recent level of performance, but some actually view long-term deals as rewards for players who serve them well.
The Red Sox are too smart for that, but not everyone is. Ortiz is 36 years old. Some team will give him a two-year commitment this winter, totaling something close to $30 million.
Meanwhile, Ortiz gears up for a 2012 season in which he's far more likely to hit like his 2009 self than his 2011 self.
In 2010, great concern swelled about Papelbon as his walks continued to spiral upward and he became somewhat homer-vulnerable. In 2011, he quashed that worry by sharpening his command, posting a preposterous 8.70 strikeout-to-walk ratio and saving 31 of 34 chances.
Therein lies the rub.
Papelbon IS a risk. He COULD still burn out. It seems that too many have allowed 2011 to totally assuage the fears that 2010 stirred. Papelbon has great stuff, but between the natural fungibility of relief pitchers and the risk factors in play, he's overvalued.
That Cuddyer is in line for such a lavish deal is not dumb. It is not asinine. It's just a bit extravagant.
Cuddyer has power, and a rifle arm when he is assigned to the outfield. His hit tool is fair; he makes contact well for a guy with 30-homer upside and he draws walks at an average rate.
What Cuddyer does not have is a secondary skill set. He doesn't work counts; walks are a function of simply being pitched around occasionally. He bats right-handed. He is slow, and he has no true defensive position.
A one-dimensional player with only nominal versatility should not be in line for $25 million or more, but here stands Cuddyer.
Ramirez has measurably better power than Cuddyer, and though he draws few walks and ends up with a solid but unspectacular OBP most years, he is a terrific pure hitter.
He just isn't any good at anything else.
Ramirez is a woeful base-runner, and a worse defender. He consistently plays much too close to the bag at third base, and though his hands and arm are solid-average, his range is atrocious.
He's become a first baseman on the wrong side of the diamond, and as his bat ages and he relies more and more on fly balls, Ramirez is near a production breakdown. He will nonetheless get a handsome three-year deal this winter.