It is often said (frequently by the kind of people who write blog posts on sites just like this one) that free agency is a fool’s errand. That the kind of money required it takes to lock up talent on the free market is better spent elsewhere, that the long-term nature of many big time contracts means paying through the nose down the road for a decent return in the present.
Such is the price for locking up premium talent on the free agent market. When players like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and C.J. Wilson are offering up their services, the contracts will get long and the risk substantial.
The next tier below this elite talent is where a smart GM can really punch up his/her lineup. There is a lot of value offered in a more manageable price range and, so far in 2012, it looks like a lot of GMs did a lot of good work with more modest deals.
If the one-year flyer deals are Old Navy and the Fielder/Pujols/Darvish contracts are Banana Republic, baseball GMs made a killing at the Gap this offseason. The ongoing success of Jason Kubel, pictured above, got me thinking about other deals of his ilk. Kubel hit the free agent pool as an above-average hitter and below-average defender at an outfield corner going into his age-30 season. His 113 wRC+ is nice but his career -14 UZR/150 is not nice. The Diamondbacks inked Kubel to a two-year deal worth $15 million bucks, a deal that drew mostly yawns and derisive comments at the time of its signing.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing as Kubel has put together a career season in the hot desert air. His 133 wRC+ equals his career high and his 25 home runs put him just three shy of his career best. His defense in left has been as expected but Kubel is already on his way to a 2.5-3 WAR season, which should just about cover the second year of his deal, leaving the mutual option for a third year in Arizona the best kind of insurance policy for both player and team.
Kubel’s deal was modest and his strong play — combined with the injuries/ineffectiveness of Chris Young which rendered Gerrardo Parra magically unblocked — makes the deal a win for the Snakes. Not the only one, as Arizona also chose to re-up with free agent Aaron Hill, a two-year deal with $11 million bucks which also looks pretty good here in the sober light of day.
Hill refound the form that made him a 4 fWAR player in 2009, making better contact and riding a higher-than-normal BABIP to 3+ Wins Above Replacement. Like Kubel, if you believe in the dollars to Wins model, Aaron Hill is on a freeroll in 2013.
Using MLB Trade Rumors transaction tracker, we can dig up all the deals of this type signed last offseason. Multi-year deals worth more than $10 million but less than $40 million. No deal lasts longer than three years and, frankly, they look pretty good on the balance.
Ten position players (Kubel, Hill, Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran, A.Ramirez, J.Rollins, C.Crisp, Cuddyer, DeJesus, Barmes) account for more than 22 fWAR, which is pretty not bad at all. Especially when we consider Barmes is a shortstop for which there is no offensive expectation yet he is still badly underperforming.
Only DeJesus can be considered a legitimate disappointment but, c’mon, he plays for the Cubs. Crisp has battled injuries, lost his job to better players and was considered a dubious signing at the time anyway. Six of the 10 players are already league-average or better (by WAR), with Beltran, Kubel, Ramirez, and Willingham all providing significantly above-average offensive production in the first year of their deals. Not bad, not bad at all.
While the pitchers on the list are more of a mixed bag, the results are pretty solid. By WAR, the three relievers and three starters run the gamut. For the overwhelming excellence of Joe Nathan (1.2 fWAR, notoriously tough on relievers, there is a Heath Bell. Bell has been awful as has Frank Francisco in his own way. Both Francisco and Bell have 19 saves to their respective names, with Francisco owning a 12/5 shutdown/meltdown ratio compared to Bell’s 18/11 ratio.
Of the starters, Capuano has been pretty great, as has international free agent Wei-Yin Chen. Both starters provide their upstart clubs (the Dodgers and Orioles) with 2 Wins Above Replacement, providing/eating valuable innings. The Dodgers also signed Aaron Harang to provide that very same service and he has done just that, pitching 130 innings of basically league-average baseball, putting the Haranguatang at 1.1 fWAR.
There isn’t a stinker among this group of 16 names. The Pirates knew exactly what they were getting in Barmes so they can’t be too upset that he hasn’t hit even a little bit. Dejesus looks like the only regrettable deal but, at $10 million over two years with a club option, no banks are broken.
In a vaccum and with hindsight, these signings look smart. The Diamondbacks shored up a weak position for them offensively, it is not the fault of Jason Kubel (or Aaron Hill) that Justin Upton, Chris Young, Daniel Hudson and Ryan Roberts all decided to be awful/hurt/traded this year. The A’s signed Crisp before they were able to secure the services of Yoenis Cespedes. Health concerns drove down the price of Beltran and Nathan but both gambles look good after 100-odd games.
There is value in them there hills. Shorter deals prevent teams from getting burnt on the back end of lengthy contracts. Not premium talent (aside from Joe Nathan) but were league-average production so easy to find, wouldn’t everybody have it?