How to Know When a Big-Name MLB Free Agent Is Not Worth the Cash

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterOctober 31, 2013

B.J. Upton was one of last offseason's big free-agent flops, but there have been plenty more in recent years.
B.J. Upton was one of last offseason's big free-agent flops, but there have been plenty more in recent years.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Now that the 2013 Major League Baseball season officially has come to a close with the Boston Red Sox's third championship in 10 years, attention around the sport turns from October's drama to November's decisions.

It's bound to be another busy winter around baseball as free agency kicks into gear in the coming weeks. There are 29 other teams trying to pull off what the Red Sox did this year by winning it all, a process that advanced quite a lot this time last year, when Boston's decision-makers added several impact players via the free market.

But in bringing in names like Koji Uehara, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster, general manager Ben Cherington didn't exactly go all out chasing big names or spending big bucks (like the previous regime had).

The lesson? Sometimes it pays to spread the wealth.

This year, there are a fair amount of big-name free agents, from Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann to Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and potentially Japan's Masahiro Tanaka. And no doubt, teams are going to pony up for those top talents.

Will Matt Garza's next team wind up regretting signing him to a multi-year deal worth tens of millions?
Will Matt Garza's next team wind up regretting signing him to a multi-year deal worth tens of millions?Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The decision to do so, then, becomes a matter of identifying which enticing free agents are actually the ones to avoid, the ones who won't be worth the money.

To get a better idea of if there is a certain profile or any trends, we reviewed all major signings from the five offseasons—so 2007-08 through 2011-12—prior to last year's with the help of MLB Trade Rumors' trusty Transaction Tracker tool. (We'll put the 2012-13 class aside for now, because it's still a bit too soon to evaluate, although Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton's signings, for example, don't look particularly promising after only one year).

In order for a signing to be considered, the player had to have received a contract with at least a $10 million average annual value (AAV) over four-plus seasons. So, the baseline here is a four-year, $40 million deal, but many of the pacts to follow will be much more than that.

To help evaluate whether each of the contracts below has proved to be worth it or not, we'll use FanGraphs' WAR. It's generally accepted that the market price for wins in free agency is in the neighborhood of $5 million per win, as Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote this time last year, while also acknowledging that figure likely is headed closer to $6 million per win.

In other words, for a big-name free agent to be worth, say, $100 million over five years—that's $20 million in AAV—he would have to be about a 4-WAR player per year over the life of his deal.

That will come into play below, but as you'll see, there aren't many examples where we'll even need to consider the math. The worth-it-or-not question is usually pretty obvious at first sight.

 

2007-08 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2007-2008
PLAYERPOSITIONAGE IN 1ST YEARSIGNING TEAMCONTRACT TERMSWAR/YEAR DURING DEALVERDICT
Alex Rodriguez3B32Yankees10 for $275 M3.4Not Worth It
Torii HunterOF32Angels5 for $90 M3.4Worth It
Aaron RowandOF30Giants5 for $60 M1.1Not Worth It
Jorge PosadaC/DH36Yankees4 for $52.4 M0.8Not Worth It
Carlos SilvaRHP29Mariners4 for $48 M0.8Not Worth It
Francisco CorderoRHP33Reds4 for $46 M0.6Not Worth It
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Of these six, only Torii Hunter proved to be a quality signing by the Angels, who may have overpaid but only very slightly.

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees reacts after he was called out on strikes looking in the eighth inning during MLB game action as Josh Thole #30 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on on September 17, 2013 at Rogers C
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The other five turned out to be downright atrocious moves in just about every way, including Alex Rodriguez's massive albatross of a contract—which still runs through 2017. At least the Giants, Mariners and Reds are no longer paying Aaron Rowand, Carlos Silva and Francisco Cordero.

 

2008-09 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2008-2009
PLAYERPOSITIONAGE IN 1ST YEARSIGNING TEAMCONTRACT TERMSWAR/YEAR DURING DEALVERDICT
Mark Teixeira1B29Yankees8 for $180 M2.9Not Worth It
CC SabathiaLHP28Yankees7 for $161 M5.0Worth It
A.J. BurnettRHP32Yankees5 for $82.5 M2.5Not Worth It
Derek LoweRHP36Braves4 for $60 M1.8Not Worth It
Ryan DempsterRHP32Cubs4 for $52 M3.1Worth It
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

A pair of pitchers, CC Sabathia and Ryan Dempster, worked out well enough for the Yankees and Cubs, respectively. Although, we'll have to see how the declining Sabathia, whose production-per-dollar is propped up by his first four years, holds up through the rest of his extension.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 25: Ryan Dempster #46 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates on July 25, 2012 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The other two Yankees, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, started off nicely and even helped New York to its 2009 title. But the first baseman lost more or less all of 2013 to a wrist injury, leaving what's left of his contract—$22.5 million per year through 2016—looking like a loss. And even with Burnett's resurgence upon being traded back to the National League, he obviously didn't turn out for the best for the Yanks.

 

2009-10 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2009-2010
PLAYERPOSITIONAGE IN 1ST YEARSIGNING TEAMCONTRACT TERMSWAR/YEAR DURING DEALVERDICT
Matt HollidayOF30Cardinals7 for $120 M5.1Worth It
John LackeyRHP31Red Sox5 for $82.5 M2.2Not Worth It
Jason BayOF31Mets4 for $66 M0.2Not Worth It
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Matt Holliday just keeps on ticking, huh? He's getting about $17 million AAV, and he's averaging more than five WAR per season, so he's actually been—gasp—a bargain at $120 mill overall. That's hard to do.

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 28:  Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox during Game Five of the 2013 World Series at Busch Stadium on October 28, 2013 in St Louis
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The other two? Well, John Lackey redeemed himself quite a bit this year—and this month—but he's unlikely to prove worth it in the end after missing too much time to injury. And Jason Bay, just ew.

 

2010-11 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2010-2011
PLAYERPOSITIONAGE IN 1ST YEARSIGNING TEAMCONTRACT TERMSWAR/YEAR DURING DEALVERDICT
Carl CrawfordOF29Red Sox7 for $142 M1.0Not Worth It
Cliff LeeLHP32Phillies5 for $120 M5.5Worth It
Jayson WerthOF32Nationals7 for $126 M2.5Not Worth It
Adrian Beltre3B32Rangers6 for $96 M5.6Worth It
Adam Dunn1B/DH31White Sox4 for $56 M-0.5Not Worth It
Victor MartinezDH32Tigers4 for $50 M1.1Not Worth It
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Cliff Lee and Adrian Beltre were big-time hits by the Phillies and Rangers, respectively, as both have continued to post stellar seasons since signing. They're both now in their mid-30s, but since they've shown little signs of slowing down, there's a good chance their inkings could turn out to be expensive success stories.

Jayson Werth and Victor Martinez have been hurt by, well, being hurt and missing chunks of time (including all of 2012 in Martinez's case). Neither has been bad, but they're more fine than good or great. And at those prices, especially Werth's nine-figure amount, fine doesn't cut it.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 16:  Carl Crawford #25 of the Los Angeles Dodgers hits a solo home run in the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Five of the National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium on October 16, 2013 in Los Angel
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The Red Sox had to unload Carl Crawford's salary after the outfielder magnificently underperformed and then got hurt. Meanwhile, it looks like Adam Dunn and his negative WAR per season should be paying the White Sox to let him play.

 

2011-12 Offseason

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings of 2011-2012
PLAYERPOSITIONAGE IN 1ST YEARSIGNING TEAMCONTRACT TERMSWAR/YEAR DURING DEALVERDICT
Albert Pujols1B32Angels10 for $240 M2.2Not Worth It
Prince Fielder1B28Tigers9 for $214 M3.5Not Worth It
Jose ReyesSS29Marlins6 for $106 M3.2Not Worth It
C.J. WilsonLHP31Angels5 for $77.5 M2.7Not Worth It
Yu DarvishRHP25Rangers6 for $60 M5.0Worth It
Mark BuehrleLHP33Marlins4 for $58 M2.2Not Worth It
Jonathan PapelbonRHP31Phillies4 for $50 M1.2Not Worth It
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

The Rangers hit it big with Yu Darvish, who wasn't your typical free agent as a star posted by his professional Japanese club. Even when factoring in the $51.7 million posting fee, Texas essentially landed a ready-made ace in the middle of his prime at a discount.

From a dollar-per-win perspective, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle are close to being worth it. Except it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt to continue producing three-plus WAR per season over the second halves of their deals, which is about what they'd need to do to come close. Plus, we can't really count Reyes or Buehrle as "worth it" to the Marlins, who jettisoned both after one season (although not for any fault of their own).

ANAHEIM, CA - AUGUST 21:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim looks on from the dugout during the game against the Cleveland Indians at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 21, 2013 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

It's not worth spending any time on Jonathan Papelbon's crazy deal, other than to remind folks that it's example No. 3,248 why relievers, even closers, shouldn't be given large, multi-year contracts.

As for those first two, it's tempting to say that the Tigers look to be in a better place with Prince Fielder than the Angels do with Albert Pujols, but considering that neither player is likely to come close to the 4.5-5.0 WAR per season they'd need to average over the life of their $200 million deals, well, you do the math.

 

Breakdown

Overall, from the offseason of 2007-2008 through 2011-2012, there were 27 big-money deals handed out to big-name free agents that met our definition ($10 million AAV for at least four years). Of those 27, here's the quick breakdown of those who proved worth it and those who didn't:

Big-Name Free-Agent Signings Breakdown
OVERALL
WORTH IT7
NOT WORTH IT20
Baseball Reference, Cot's Contracts, FanGraphs

Not exactly promising, is it?

And that's more or less the point in trying to answer the question posed above: When is a big-name free agent not worth the cash? Usually, about 75 percent of the time, going by the recent past.

All of which is to say, there's not really any trick or pattern or trend to identifying which players won't be worth it. There are simply too many factors and variables to consider, from age to position to injuries to switching leagues to park factors, among others.

Perhaps, then, instead of dropping dough on one big-name free agent and hoping with fingers crossed that it will pay off, what teams should be trying to do is plugging multiple holes or shoring up their rosters in a few places. That way, not only does a team put more horses in the race, but it also can avoid tying up too much money and too many years in just one player.

Just ask the Red Sox.