As we get into free agent season in MLB, we’ll talk a little more about specific players, teams, contracts, and the decision making process as the weather gets colder. But before we get there I’d like to establish some parameters within which I’ll operate as the discussions move forward. Basically, this will be our “guiding post” when determining whether or not a particular team made a good or bad decision when signing a particular player.
Because that nine figure salary that your favorite team is about to give to a player? It’s very unlikely to end well. On one hand, I don’t feel a modicum of sympathy for an owner of a baseball team. Baseball team owners have turned screwing players (and fans) over money into an art form for decades. But that doesn’t mean the fans aren’t going to be the ones to suffer. Fans in Chicago and Houston have been real happy lately, but they were miserable for a long time watching AA level baseball while the current administrations fixed the moronic decisions or the previous administrations.
So to avoid that pain, in no particular order, these are the factors that need to be considered when making decisions on free agency:
Use WAR. Wins Above Replacement is not the be all end all, nor is it perfect – no statistic is. But WAR is a pretty good one when determining a player’s value. Remember, it was originally developed as a financial equation – literally, what does it cost to replace something if it isn’t there anymore?
Because of age, it is highly likely the player’s performance is going to deteriorate over the course of the next contract. About 10% of available free agents are under 30 years old. It is extremely unlikely that a player’s seasons from age 30-37 are going to be better or equal to his age 23-29 seasons.
The premise that you’re losing a player and getting “nothing in return” is nonsense perpetuated by the sports talk radio crowd – don’t allow that to cloud your judgment. A draft pick and a chunk of salary off your books that can be allotted elsewhere is far from nothing. If you’re smart about it, those are very valuable assets. Which leads to…
You don’t have to replace any particular player you may lose to free agency. Players’ value can easily be replaced in other parts of the lineup. Let’s use Lorenzo Cain as a hypothetical example:
He was a 5 win player last year according to bWAR. Replacing him doesn’t mean you need to get another 5 win player and put him in center field. Slight upgrades at two or three other positions will replace the 5 wins you’re losing with Cain. Lower level trades, signings, and development of younger players (which only happens when you put them on the field instead of clogging your lineup with veterans who clearly aren’t helping) generally can get you those five wins back. And remember: It’s likely Cain isn’t going to be a 5 win player for much longer anyway. Think Moneyball: You can’t replace Giambi, but you can improve slightly in multiple other areas that can make up for the loss.
Where is your team? (Obviously, or maybe not…)
Once you’ve established a player’s WAR, ask yourself is that the difference between competing for a playoff spot or not? Is it the difference between being a fringe playoff team and a legit World Series threat? I.e., a significant increase in payroll for a five win player to go from 69 wins to 74 isn’t worth it. To go from 86 wins to 91, or from 93 to 98 might be. The only way to justify grossly over paying on the last few years of a contract is if the player made you a legitimate contender for the first 3 or 4 years of the contract.
Closers, 5th starters and ISO power…LOL…
The best closers in baseball are worth two or three wins per season, so are nowhere near worth an investment of 8 figures annually for multiple seasons. In fairness, this is more due to how they’re used than anything else. Throwing 20 pitches against the other team’s worst hitters with a three run lead a few times per week is literally a situation where most – yes, MOST – major league pitchers would thrive. Not sure if you noticed, but the Astros just won a World Series using starters as relievers instead of a “closer”. Keep in mind, the overwhelming majority of closers are failed starters who are moved to an easier job. And even then, they tend to have very short shelf lives – the list of failed starters turned closers who dominated for 1-3 seasons is endless. Factor in today’s environment, where guys who can throw 95MPH plus for an inning grow on trees, and investing free agent money on a closer is a very bad move.
And guys who hit Home Runs but do absolutely nothing else grow on trees in today’s game, no need to invest there.
There is someone in your minor league system that can do what any 4th or 5th starter in the majors can do – and they’ll get paid the league minimum to do it.
It’s not my money, but…
Here is a premise underlying all of this that can’t be forgotten: The concept that any Major League Baseball team doesn’t have all the money it wants to sign any player it wants to is nonsense. That is a myth perpetuated by Bud Selig and his cronies who were pissed that the Steinbrenners wouldn’t share their money, and the sports radio crowd fell for it. Consider:
The Miami Marlins, considered by very few to be an actual major league team, just sold for $1.2 billion. Billion, with a “B”.
Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick paid $2.8 million for a baseball CARD.
Stop buying the “We don’t have the money” bullshit.
That being said, good ole’ Bud’s plan worked (Did I mention he has a plaque in Cooperstown? Rolls eyes…). It’s now very expensive for teams to go over the luxury tax, and it’s something they’ll consider at length before throwing money down on a player.
So unfortunately we all have to go with the façade to a certain extent and discuss money as if it is an issue – because it is, but just not the one they’d have you believe.
PS: Brian Kenny’s book “Ahead of the Curve”is fantastic. It’s a great primer on analytics in baseball for those with an aversion to them. And I bring it up now specifically because there’s a great chapter on free agent signings – check it out.
Plug BK’s book.