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February 27, 2014
Painting the Black
Lessons from the Top 50 Free Agents List
Last March, I compared my free-agent rankings to the market. Since failure is a better teacher than success, and because the rankings were formed with each player's average annual value in mind, the exercise provided an idea of how to improve by identifying which players were incorrectly evaluated.
There were three takeaways from last year's recap. The most trivial concerned the list format and its tendency to understate the gap between the top free agents and the rest of the class. The other lessons dealt with the information asymmetry between teams and outsiders—namely when it comes to medicals, mechanical adjustments, or other tweaks that could lead to improved performance. Of course those additional insights don't grant teams infallibility: Brandon League and Jonathan Broxton, two pitchers used to make the point, went on to have poor seasons despite altering their mechanics and arsenals with their new teams.
Still, the health and sweat equity factors were considered when crafting this year's rankings*. Players with known injury concerns were debited points, while those who performed well due to a seeming change in profile were credited. In some cases (see Garza, Matt), the delta wasn't enough to reflect the real-world impact. But Joel Hanrahan, Paul Maholm, and others came in worse than otherwise expected—both on my list and how teams valued them this winter. On the flip side, James Loney, Mike Napoli, and Juan Uribe were treated like new men by their old teams, who put faith in their 2013 seasons. (Brian Sabean, never afraid of bringing his free agents back, deserves special mention, as he re-signed Tim Lincecum before the market doors opened, and later reunited with Javier Lopez and Ryan Vogelsong.)
*It's worth noting a few of the ranked free agents remain on the open market: no. 5 Ervin Santana, no. 10 Kendrys Morales, no. 19 Stephen Drew, and no. 40 Joel Hanrahan.
While last year's free-agent class reinforced those somewhat obvious notions, this year's class highlighted a few player types who might otherwise be underrated in these exercises. The same backward-looking methodology was used as last season. Long story short: an expected AAV was formulated using the ranks and actual AAV. Here are the players who most exceeded their expected AAV—or, in other words, the players I undervalued—with the difference in parentheses:
Cano, Ellsbury, and Choo fell victim to the format, as they were the top ranked players. None of Granderson, Kazmir, or Wilson's injury concerns scared teams from paying a little more than expected. Likewise, Peralta's involvement in the Biogenesis case didn't cause his market to chill. The other three players involved were back-of-the-rotation starters: Vargas signed early, Arroyo signed late, and Feldman signed with a team that needed to pay a sin tax for being the worst in baseball the past three years. The common thread here is an underappreciation for back-end starters.
Now let's look at the players I was higher on than the market proved to be:
Health explains Balfour, Mujica, Benoit, and Maholm to some degrees, while age might have impacted Ruiz and Ellis more than anticipated. Cruz's limitations combined with the draft-pick compensation limited his market. Infante and Saltalamacchia are tougher to explain, as neither necessitated a draft pick or ridiculous commitment to sign. Saltalamacchia even signed with a bad team, though perhaps he just wanted to go home. Who could blame him for that? Beyond the health aspect, there's no clear string attaching these players.
Unlike last year, I wanted to address the snubs—the players who weren't ranked in the top-50, but received deals that suggest they should have been. Note that I'm excluding Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka since neither qualified for the first list (I only rank players I've seen in some fashion or another):
Morneau was a wild card, one who battled injuries and inconsistencies too much for my taste. The other four seem to fit into two bins. Logan and Smith are useful middle-to-late-game relievers without the chops to close. Hughes and Young, on the other hand, are sort of deep post-hype sleepers: players who can help a team win now, but never lived up to their once-considerable upside.
In addition to last year's lessons, it appears there are three classes of players who were particularly underrated by me: back-end starters, middle relievers slash set-up men, and veterans with perceivable upside remaining. As a result, it's not hard to look forward to the 2014-2015 free-agent collection and wonder if Luke Gregerson and Joe Thatcher might become the new Smith-Logan combo. Or if Asdrubal Cabrera and Chad Billingsley (he of the $14 million team option) could position themselves as the new Peralta and Kazmir. There's a sea of games between now and then, but if history is any indication then don't be surprised if those players make more than anticipated.
R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @r_j_anderson
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I could see Cabrera going to the pirates next year if the price is right, with Barmes coming off the books they'll have a hole to fill. Of course this all depends on how Jordy Mercer shakes out.