2017 MLB Free Agency: Worst Values Sure to Be Overpaid
Thrifty spenders rarely enjoy shopping in MLB's free agency.
The top options will cost a premium, forcing buyers to stomach a low return on investment. Low-risk fliers with low success rates instead often blossom into the offseason's biggest bargains.
A player is worth as much as the top bidder offers. As in the case of Ian Desmond last year, that occasionally spurs an out-of-nowhere overpay. Yet a rise in offense and muted midseason trade interest in position players makes pitchers more likely to receive larger contracts than justified this winter.
Before assuming the worst, let's give some credit to major league front offices. Mark Reynolds is unlikely to parlay a 30-homer campaign into a major payday since everyone knows he benefited from playing in Coors Field. It's why the Colorado Rockies retained him for $1.5 million after he sported an .806 OPS in 2016.
Most teams will also pursue the best relievers regardless of the inning in which they typically enter the game. Fernando Rodney won't get $15 million because he tallied 39 saves.
Logic, however, tends to fall out the window with regard to serviceable starting pitchers. It's also difficult to resist a career year, even if buyers are purchasing the pending decline rather than the rise.
Let's take a look at the MLB free agents likely to provide negative value on bloated contracts.
Andrew Cashner, SP, Texas Rangers
Andrew Cashner received a $10 million contract after he notched a 5.25 ERA in 2016. How will the market respond to this season's 3.40 ERA?
Anyone would be foolish to award him a considerable raise. Despite his improvements during a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers, the 31-year-old righty registered the worst strikeout percentage, swinging-strike percentage and opposing contact rate among all qualified starters. Only fellow free agent Jeremy Hellickson donned a worse expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), which measures a pitcher's performance with normalized defense and a league-average ratio of home runs to fly balls, than his 5.30.
He also had MLB's third-lowest home run rate behind Stephen Strasburg and Michael Fulmer without a major dip in fly balls generated.
These red flags are hardly secrets to any MLB front office, but there's nevertheless a low supply of durable pitchers to meet the high demand. Somebody will settle for a placeholder it can trust to take the ball every fifth game, and Cashner threw 166.2 frames in 28 starts.
As a starter with a healthy arm, he's likely to exceed last year's salary. The true danger would come in awarding his unsustainable run prevention with a multiyear deal. Perhaps a rebuilding squad with money to spend (i.e. the Philadelphia Phillies) could live with his ERA rising over a full run as long as he eats innings for a year, but nobody will want to stay attached to Cashner following 2018's inevitable regression.
Eduardo Nunez, INF, Boston Red Sox
Based on his last two seasons, Eduardo Nunez justifies a life-changing check.
The infielder followed a breakout 2016 with an even better 2017, during which he batted .313/.341/.460 with 2.2 WAR in 114 games. It unfortunately ended with him aggravating a knee injury during the postseason, but that won't override his .321/.353/.539 slash line with the Boston Red Sox.
Having increased his slugging percentage in each of the last four seasons—albeit by one point in 2016—Nunez could inspire confidence in continued power gains. Yet even if he keeps belting double-digit home runs, poor plate discipline will force him to running and hit for contact at an elite level.
Speed is one of the first skills to evaporate, and he's a 30-year-old now dealing with knee issues. A suitor should at least assume regression to his career .282 batting average, which means an on-base percentage also dipping to his middling .320 norm.
Anything worse would make him a below-average hitter, as he posted a 101 weighted runs created plus—a measure of offensive utility where 100 is considered average—while hitting .288/.325/.432 in 2016. Baseball Savant's Statcast data suggest a steeper deterioration is possible, as it calculated a .246 expected batting average this season.
Nunez offers more defensive versatility than his free-agent peers and joins Jose Reyes as the only available infielder who stole at least 20 bags during his walk year. There are enough positives for one team to overlook the negatives, but paying for his prime will bear repercussions.
Wade Davis, RP, Chicago Cubs
Although the free-agent class features many strong relievers, Wade Davis stands out as the top-shelf closer with the best chance of capturing a huge payday.
He should not approach the record-setting $86 million Aroldis Chapman received last offseason. However, the 32-year-old can use Mark Melancon's four-year, $62 million deal as a baseline, even if the San Francisco Giants want a do-over after their well-compensated addition posted a 4.50 ERA.
Awarding any reliever big money is hazardous. That risk multiplies when remembering Davis went on the disabled list twice in 2016 because of forearm strains. After his second strain, ESPN.com's Stephania Bell warned about the ailment possibly serving as a precursor to UCL problems.
Davis quelled those fears by avoiding a lengthy absence. Traded to the Chicago Cubs, he converted all 32 save opportunities with a 2.30 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 58.2 innings. The righty set personal bests in contact (67.5) and swinging-strike (15.4) percentage.
He also, however, issued a career-high 11.6 walk percentage with 28 base on balls. Declining command becomes particularly cumbersome since his average fastball, cutter and curveball velocity all decreased for the second straight year.
After relinquishing three combined home runs over the previous three seasons, he served up six in 2017.
Another noteworthy postseason from Davis—who allowed one run during the Kansas City Royals' 2014 and 2015 playoff runs—may compel the Cubs or another team need craving a shutdown closer to shell out that fourth year. Such a contract is unlikely to end well.
Pat Neshek, RP, Colorado Rockies
Pat Neshek's season is an inspiring tale of a cast-aside pitcher posting the highest WAR of any reliever who operated outside the ninth inning. It's also a reminder of the position's volatility.
The Houston Astros saw the veteran sidearmer as an unnecessary source of depth after he recorded a 3.62 ERA in 2015 and 3.06 ERA in 2016. A low-cost add turned into a major trade asset for the Phillies, who exchanged him to the Colorado Rockies after yielding five runs over 43 appearances.
Neshek finished the revelationary season with a 1.59 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 69 strikeouts and six walks. Now he's poised to capitalize on a strong season, which he also did when last available for hire.
After posting a 1.87 ERA in 2014, he signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with a $6.5 million club option. Along with salaries rising across the board, the market has since showed more generosity to middle relievers. Even after a middling 2016, Brett Cecil received a $30.5 million contract from the St. Louis Cardinals.
Despite the relatively modest cost, Houston overpaid Neshek for two years before cashing out too soon. Whichever franchise buys his latest breakout year will probably rue paying top dollar to a 37-year-old with a career 3.86 xFIP, especially if it signs him for more than two years.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
Eric Hosmer will get paid like a player entering free agency in his prime. He will receive an enormous contract after playing all 162 games and hitting .318/.385/.498 in his age-27 season.
He will not get paid like a first baseman with a career .781 OPS.
Living in the same parallel universe as the Giants, Hosmer has compiled minus-1.8 WAR in three even-numbered years and 11.8 WAR in four odd-numbered seasons. That's not to say he will struggle in 2018 because of some coincidental pattern, but it reveals alarming inconsistency for one of the winter's highly touted players.
His sporadic production does not appear to be hindering interest. According to FanRag Sports' Jon Heyman, the Royals want to retain the homegrown star and are prepared to present him a "serious offer" of "presumably $100 million plus." He also speculated that Kansas City might face big-market competition in the Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Whoever misses out on Hosmer will find cheaper alternatives. Lucas Duda wields a .796 OPS following the second 30-homer season of his career. With an ample supply of power, late bloomers Logan Morrison and Yonder Alonso may not require overpayment.
Unlike Hosmer, Carlos Santana will never bat .300. Yet his keen batting eye is a bankable skill that elevates his floor, diminishing the risk of offering the 31-year-old multiple years.
Age, health and a Royals squad afraid of losing all its marquee free agents will lead to Hosmer comfortably garnering the biggest contract of any first baseman, and perhaps infielder. Although he would be worth the expenditure if he matches 2017's returns, a nine-figure salary is a lot for someone yet to piece together two strong seasons in succession.
Jake Arrieta, SP, Chicago Cubs
Don't take it personally, Jake Arrieta. Teams often regret paying sticker price for top-shelf hurlers, and the market makes it nearly impossible for any ace to be a free-agent bargain.
While last year's class lacked impact starting pitchers, David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann all received long-term deals with average annual salaries over $20 million two years ago. Price is spending the postseason as MLB's most expensive reliever. Zimmermann posted a 6.08 ERA, and the Giants probably would not mind if Cueto opted out of his remaining four years after a shaky 2017.
The best of the bunch, Greinke caused panic with a 4.37 ERA in his first year with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Let's not forget Felix Hernandez, James Shields, Barry Zito, Johan Santana and Mike Hampton. The cost-benefit analysis rarely yields a profitable return for top-tier starters, and Arrieta is already trending the wrong way.
The Cubs righty, who will turn 32 next March, lost 1.7 mph on his fastball this season. As a result of his deteriorating velocity, his swinging-strike rate dropped from 10.5 to 8.7 percent. His hard-hit rate, meanwhile, soared to his highest clip (29.4 percent) since 2010's rookie season.
These metrics materialized in a 3.53 ERA and 4.11 xFIP, his highest marks in four full seasons with the Cubs.
Arrieta's final act will get ugly if attached to a massive salary. A reasonably optimistic scenario could entail his replicating CC Sabathia's career arc from workhorse ace to a steady, yet overpaid mid-tier starter.
Before the 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner suffered a leg injury in September, MLB.com's Jim Duquette envisioned Arrieta drawing a "four- or five-year deal worth upwards of $120 million to $130 million." A strong second half likely salvaged most of his free-agent stock anyway. Such a seismic contract could turn into a payroll albatross as soon as next year.
Lance Lynn, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
It's not only front-line starters who get overpaid. In the same 2015 offseason that turned David Price, Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann into some of the country's richest athletes, Wei-Yin Chen and Ian Kennedy respectively commanded $80 million and $70 million.
There aren't many high-quality alternatives to Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, another prime overpay candidate, which bodes well for Lance Lynn. He and Alex Cobb sit alone in the class's second tier of starters, making them expensive backup plans or the top targets for mid-market organizations unable to afford a true star.
Lynn should outearn Cobb because of his superior ERA in both 2017 (3.43) and his career (3.38). While both recently went under the knife, the St. Louis Cardinals righty has made over 30 appearances in five straight seasons (he missed all of 2016 while recovering from Tommy John surgery).
Jim Duquette of MLB.com said the 30-year-old could realistically collect $90 million over five years, which would match Jeff Samardzija's deal signed at the same age two years ago. Yet despite his maddening inning-by-inning inconsistency, only Max Scherzer—a rare successful marquee pitching signing—has worked more frames than "Shark" in the past five seasons.
Lynn, meanwhile, has a torn UCL on his ledger. He also labored down the stretch with 60 strikeouts to 40 walks over 84 subpar second-half innings, suffering regression's wrath when the Pittsburgh Pirates pounded him for eight runs in Sept. 23's opening inning.
Career-worst strikeout (19.7) and walk (10.1) percentages do not bode well for his second season removed from surgery. His pre-injury success and an otherwise hollow market will preserve his market value anyway, making Lynn someone to avoid.
All advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.