Free Agency Often A Road Paved With Horse Apples
By John Verburg
After discussing the multitude of free agents and trade possibilities on this site, and there are likely to be more, I wanted to take a breather from that for a second, and talk about the value of signing free agents at all. There is certainly some utility in taking part in the practice. When you get it right, like the Tigers did last off-season with Victor Martinez, adding a top established free agent can pay substantial dividends. But when teams get it wrong, as was the case with many of the free agents last season, it can hurt a franchise for years to come.
Looking back at the off-season prior to 2011, it was pretty well established that there was 5 top tier free agents; Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford, Adam Dunn, Jayson Werth, and to some extent Victor Martinez. There was of course a plethora of 2nd tier free agents, but these five, were considered the cream of the crop. Cliff Lee, no doubt the biggest prize in free agency last season, worked out for the Phillies. At 17-8, with a 2.40 ERA, Lee was certainly worth a lot more than the 11M he made last season. But that salary jumps up considerably this upcoming season to 21.5M, and while Lee is a fantastic pitcher, there is a potential for the 5 year/120M dollar to be disaster on the backside as Lee gets older.
The other three top free agents to sign for 2011, simply put, were atrocious. In fact, all of them were so bad, Werth, Crawford and Dunn would have to outplay their salaries for the rest of their contracts, and that will be almost impossible for them to do. Their respective teams are on the hook for a lot of money for replacement player type production. They all could bounce back to some extent in 2012, and I expect them to, but the writing is on the wall. These organizations have to regret what they did already. In free agency, it’s a “Buyers Beware!” sort of world, and a GM can walk away thinking they’ve taken home the hottest girl in the bar, only to wake up the next day after being drugged and their pockets are empty.
It’s not just about the money either with free agency. It’s about baseball’s compensation system with free agents. Teams have to give up their first round picks for signing type “A” status players. You don’t think the Chicago White Sox would like their first round pick back? After all, they have the worst farm system in baseball. Do Tigers fans really want to give up a first round pick plus the money it would take to sign 2B Kelly Johnson? Especially considering Johnson is pretty inconsistent from year to year? The Tigers could be on the hook for 3 years and 25M dollars potentially for one good season of baseball.
It’s also about the age of the players they are signing. Let’s be honest, in the day and age where baseball is testing for steroid use, it is more difficult for players to bounce back daily from the grind of playing 162 games. Given that players don’t typically become free agents until they are starting to come out of their prime, it’s risky business signing aging veterans to long term deals. Does anyone really believe that the 33 year old Carl Crawford is going to use his greatest asset, his speed, to the same benefit as he did when he was 27?
Teams also have to take in the new environment the player is going to be in when signing a free agent. Victor Martinez worked out for the Tigers this past season in large part due to his fit on the team. Hitting behind Cabrera and in front of Peralta helped this season. Not to mention the clubhouse dynamic, with several fellow countrymen on the team. Now consider Jayson Werth or Adam Dunn. Werth went from being a cog in the machine in Philadelphia, and in a really nice hitters park, to being the man in Washington with a lineup that is less filled out. Dunn had to adjust to a new league, and we all saw he didn’t do so well in that regard. Carl Crawford went from a low pressure situation in Tampa, to a high pressure one in Boston. There are so many factors like these that can make free agency a gamble that doesn’t pay.
The other side of the coin is free agency, if used wisely, can help plug holes quickly for teams that are already good and looking to get better. It can also help bring some legitimacy to a young struggling franchise and send it in the right direction. The Tigers signing Ivan Rodriguez is a great example of this. Without the Pudge signing, I am not sure 2006 even happens. These are usually the mid-level moves, however, that don’t require compensation to sign. Now, teams can get burned on these as well, but the burn isn’t nearly felt as much when you sign a guy to a 2 yr/11M dollar deal as opposed to 5 years for 100M. Often, relievers in free agency can pay off pretty well, as can role players out on the diamond. It’s the biggest off-season deals that can be a crap shoot, and of course the biggest risk.
I’ve been on record as saying I believe that Carlos Beltran would be a good move, so I am guilty as the next guy as wanting the Tigers to sign a big-time free agent. However, I know that a move like that would come with incredible risk, and ultimately, I would like the Tigers to explore the trade market much more. More often than not, moving prospects for young, somewhat established big leaguers turns out successful, given the attrition rate of prospects. Take Milwaukee for example, they gave up the best of their farm system for Shawn Marcum and Zach Greinke this season. Even though Brett Lawrie may be an outstanding player, I doubt Milwaukee regrets for one second making the playoffs. Trading players usually ends up being a vastly superior method to improving a team, if you have a GM that has a talent for it. The Tigers have that in David Dombrowski.
Look, I am not saying in the least that signing free agents shouldn’t be part of building a roster, it absolutely should. It has helped the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees win some World Series titles. I think those teams often get overlooked for development because of their money though, some of their best players are homegrown. It obviously takes a combination of things to win; drafting, trades, free agency, and some luck.
All I am saying, when wishing for big time free agents like Jose Reyes to come here, make sure you know what you might be stepping in.