MLB Free Agency 2022-23: Top Players Most Likely to Be Overpaid

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVDecember 5, 2022

MLB Free Agency 2022-23: Top Players Most Likely to Be Overpaid

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    Justin Verlander might be the highest-paid player in baseball in 2023, but will he be worth it?
    Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

    Though we're still waiting on the biggest, Aaron Judge-sized domino to fall, there have already been quite a few lucrative deals handed out in this year's MLB free-agency cycle. Eleven players have agreed to contracts worth at least $10 million per year, and there could be as many as 40 more at that price point when all is said and done.

    Not all of them will be worth it, though, and we've pinpointed a few of the likeliest candidates to be overpaid in free agency.

    To be clear, "overpaid" doesn't mean "worthless."

    For example, Justin Verlander would probably be a bargain at $30 million per year, but will he really be worth the $40 million-plus per year that he's likely to receive?

    In some cases, players were chosen because of age and/or declining production. In others, it's positional scarcity or supply and demand working in favor of the player.

    But the first player we'll address is simply a colossal question mark who hasn't played in over a year.

    Players are presented in no particular order.

Michael Conforto, OF

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    NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 12: Michael Conforto #30 of the New York Mets in action against the New York Yankees during a game at Citi Field on September 12, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: Did not play (shoulder)

    Michael Conforto was an All-Star in 2017. From 2017-19, he batted .257 with 88 home runs and was quietly the 24th-most valuable hitter in baseball, per FanGraphs WAR.

    The 29-year-old missed the entire 2022 season after suffering a shoulder injury in January, this after sputtering through a disappointing 2021 campaign in which he batted .232 with 14 dingers. His .384 slugging percentage in 2021 was the worst of his seven-year career.

    But with demand far outweighing supply when it comes to outfielders in this year's free-agency cycle, Conforto might still be able to find a team willing to pay him like they would have if he had become available three Novembers ago.

    Per SNY's Andy Martino, the Mets offered Conforto a nine-figure extension prior to 2021, presumably a five-year, $100 million type of deal. And while we probably shouldn't expect to see anything close to a $100 million offer, he might get a "prove it" contract with a similar salary.

    Perhaps it'll be on par with the deal Carlos Rodón signed with the Giants last offseason—one year for $21.5 million with a $22.5 million player option for a second year—albeit with a club option instead of a player option.

    Even that would be a risky investment, though, for a guy who hasn't played in over a year and who hasn't been good since late in the abridged 2020 season.

    Frankly, anything over $10 million feels like it would be an overpay, but one of the teams that misses out on Aaron Judge is inevitably going to spend big on Conforto.

Brandon Nimmo, OF

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    ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 30: Brandon Nimmo #9 of the New York Mets reacts as a ball goes foul during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on September 30, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
    Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: .274/.367/.433, 16 HR, 64 RBI, 5.1 bWAR

    While we're on the subject of former New York Mets outfielders who are going to benefit from the lack of quality players available at their position this offseason, let's talk about Brandon Nimmo.

    Unlike Michael Conforto, Nimmo played in 2022, and he played quite well. He wasn't an All-Star, a Silver Slugger or a Gold Glove recipient, but it was the best and healthiest season of his seven-year career.

    Nimmo also logged more innings in center field (1282.1) than every other player except for Cleveland's Myles Straw (1309), and he did so without committing a single error.

    That is a huge plus in his negotiations with teams, because while the overall outfield market is dry, the center field market is downright arid.

    The Dodgers non-tendering Cody Bellinger did at least add an intriguing name to the pool of options, but it's Nimmo, then Bellinger, then a steep drop to Kevin Kiermaier, who turns 33 in April and who has not been able to stay healthy.

    And that's how you end up with Nimmo potentially getting paid like a multi-time All-Star, even though the 29-year-old has never partaken in the Midsummer Classic.

    ESPN's Jeff Passan said in mid-November that he thinks Nimmo will fetch something in the vicinity of a six-year, $130 million deal. That's basically Trevor Story money, which seems mighty aggressive.

Dansby Swanson, SS

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    Atlanta Braves' Dansby Swanson looks on before a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    2022 Stats: .277/.329/.447, 25 HR, 96 RBI, 18 SB, 5.7 bWAR

    There has been a lot of talk over the past several months about the four big-name shortstops hitting free agency—namely Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson.

    They seem to be often mentioned together in a "we'd be happy to have any of the four" sort of way, as if there's really no difference between them.

    But with all due respect to Swanson, he's not on the same level as the other three.

    Since the start of 2017, Turner, Bogaerts and Correa have each batted at least .280, slugged at least .480 and accumulated at least 23.9 fWAR. Meanwhile, Swanson is at .253, .416 and 15.2, respectively, despite playing in 153 more games than Correa.

    Swanson did take some time to heat up and just had a career year. Shrink the data to just 2020-22 and it's a much fairer fight. Still, his career-best work in 2022 was pretty much an average year for the other three.

    The 28-year-old deserves a big contract, and he'll get it. Nine figures, for sure. But if Turner, Correa and Bogaerts each end up somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million per year and Swanson gets a five-year deal for $25 million annually, that would be an overpay.

Justin Verlander, RHP

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - NOVEMBER 03: Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the second inning in Game Five of the 2022 World Series at Citizens Bank Park on November 03, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: 18-4, 1.75 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 5.9 bWAR

    Age is just a number, but 40 is a pretty significant, rapidly-approaching-the-end-of-the-line number when talking about professional athletes.

    In related news, Justin Verlander will turn 40 in February.

    Since Randy Johnson retired at the age of 45 in 2009, there has only been one pitcher 40 or older to accumulate at least 3.0 fWAR in a single season: Bartolo Colon had a 4.0 fWAR season at the age of 40 in 2013.

    Verlander certainly could be the exception to the rule. The man just won his third Cy Young title on a surgically repaired elbow after missing all of 2021 and all but one start in 2020.

    But betting against Father Time rarely pans out, and the team that ends up signing Verlander is going to be betting an awful lot against that ticking clock.

    Spotrac puts Verlander's market value at a two-year deal worth $45.3 million...per year. This is derived largely from the $43.3 million annual salary that Max Scherzer got on his three-year contract last offseason, and Verlander is probably going to get close to that. At any rate, he turned down his $25 million player option for next season, knowing he could get much more than that on the open market.

    It used to be that one WAR was worth around $5 million. It's probably closer to $8 million now with salaries ballooning like they have over the past half-decade. And if $8 million is that break-even point, Verlander would need to be worth a combined 11 WAR over the course of his age-40 and age-41 seasons in order for his future employer to break even on that investment.

    Like watching Albert Pujols' chase for 700 home runs this past season, it would be fascinating to watch Verlander make a run at a top-five finish in career strikeouts. (He's in 12th place at 3,198 and needs 504 to bypass Burt Blyleven in fifth place.) But a team investing 15-30 percent of its 2023 and '24 budgets in a single pitcher in his 40s could be one heck of a disaster.

Willson Contreras, C

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    CINCINNATI, OHIO - OCTOBER 03: Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs looks on from the dugout in the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on October 03, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: .243/.349/.466, 22 HR, 55 RBI, 3.9 bWAR

    Of the many players hitting free agency this offseason, 14 were extended a one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer to stick around for one more season. Joc Pederson and Martín Pérez accepted, while the other 12—which includes now former Chicago Cub Willson Contreras—declined.

    For most of the decliners, no surprise. Aaron Judge, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Rodón and others are going to easily make north of $20 million per year, and for more than one year. (Jacob deGrom already did.)

    Contreras easily could have gone either way, but he chose the route that could result in a five-year or six-year deal worth north of $100 million.

    Will the 30-year-old be worth it, though?

    Since the beginning of 2020, Contreras has batted .241 with 50 home runs, darn near identical to both Wilmer Flores (.247 with 49 home runs) and Eduardo Escobar (.241 with 52 home runs), neither of whom is worth anywhere close to $20 million per year.

    To an extent, Contreras gets a boost because he does it from the catcher position. But it's not like he's an above-average defensive catcher, and there has been talk about him potentially playing left field if he signs with the Houston Astros.

    If that's the case, you kind of need to recalculate what he's worth, because a corner outfielder with career marks in batting average and OPS of .256 and .808, respectively, isn't worth $20 million per year unless he's an elite baserunner or fielder, which Contreras is not.

Jordan Lyles, RHP

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 30: Jordan Lyles #28 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on September 30, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: 12-11, 4.42 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.0 bWAR

    No offense to Jordan Lyles, but if he gets a deal on par with where Spotrac projects his market value, it could be one of the worst several-year contracts in MLB history.

    That projected market value is three years for $51.8 million.

    For a 32-year-old pitcher with a career ERA of 5.10 and a career bWAR of negative-1.4.

    That has to be a joke, right?

    Per FanGraphs, 88 pitchers have logged at least 1,000 innings since the beginning of 2011, and Lyles' WAR ranks dead last among them.

    The Orioles had an $11 million 2023 club option for Lyles and turned it down, so it would be just plain ridiculous if ends up with a three-year deal worth over $17 million per season.

    Frankly, anything more than the one-year, $3.5 million deal that José Ureña already signed with the Rockies would feel like an overpay here, especially given the sheer volume of starting pitchers available this year who might actually be worthy of an eight-figure salary.

Trey Mancini, 1B/OF/DH

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    Houston Astros' Trey Mancini at bat in a baseball game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
    AP Photo/Gail Burton

    2022 Stats: .239/.319/.391, 18 HR, 63 RBI, 1.4 bWAR

    Much like Jordan Lyles, Spotrac's projected market value for Trey Mancini doesn't seem to match reality.

    They have Mancini at five years for $90.6 million, which is a little over $18 million per season. But Houston declined its side of the $10 million mutual option for 2023, so that can't be right.

    Hard to blame the Astros, though. After arriving in Houston at the trade deadline, Mancini hit .176 over his final 51 games of the regular season and then went 1-for-21 at the dish during the postseason. Paying José Abreu $19.5 million per year for three years arguably made more sense than trying to pay Mancini $10 million for one year.

    But after both Abreu and Anthony Rizzo (two years, $40 million to stay with the Yankees) signed for substantial salaries, both the pool of available first basemen has shrunk and the going rate for a good one has been established.

    Josh Bell, Yuli Gurriel, Brandon Belt and Miguel Sanó are still out there as options, but Mancini might be the best one left and might actually get something close to $18 million per year for it.

    And that's just way too much for a 30-year-old who has provided minimal value with his glove in his career and who has a .735 OPS since the beginning of 2021.

Kenley Jansen, RHP

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    PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 15: Kenley Jansen #74 of the Atlanta Braves throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in game four of the National League Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 15, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
    Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    2022 Stats: 5-2, 41 saves, 3.38 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 12.0 K/9, 0.9 bWAR

    Kenley Jansen used to be the best reliever in the business. From 2010-17, he had a 2.08 ERA and an 0.87 WHIP while striking out 40.1 percent of batters faced. Per FanGraphs, he was slightly more valuable than both Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman atop the upper echelon of relief pitchers.

    In the five seasons since then, however, he has felt more like a closer being held together by duct tape.

    His ERA has ballooned to 3.08 since the beginning of 2018, and with a 3.42 FIP that suggests things should be going even worse for him. He also has a 1.05 WHIP and has struck out only 30.7 percent of batters faced.

    And yet, he led the NL in saves this past season and is very likely going to be the second-highest paid reliever in free agency, behind only the five-year, $102 million deal that Edwin Díaz has already signed with the Mets.

    The 35-year-old Jansen surely won't be getting a five-year deal, but a two-year, $30 million contract is well within the realm of possibility. He might even get more than that, which is a frightening proposition, given both his recent performance and the way that the similarly aged and similarly successful-in-their-careers Chapman and Kimbrel have fallen apart over the past few years.