Each year, free agency is a teaching experience. We find out what teams think of themselves, which team likes which free agent, who is into whom, and there's always a surprise or two lurking along the way. Really, it sounds like the plot of a bad movie*. But it's not a movie. In fact, it's compelling theater, and if we're being truthful, one of the most fun parts of the MLB season.
* The 25-Year-Old Japanese Rookie; Jacoby Ellsbury: Shadow Recruit; or Gravity (the story of Yuniesky Betancourt's rate stats).
Yes, free-agent shopping season is fun, and we learn things, but there are things we can't know because they haven't happened yet. For example, what teams should have thought of themselves, or how much teams should have paid for that player. Also, another multi-year deal for a reliever? Really? Hindsight tells us how free-agent deals turned out, which players took the steps forward we thought they might, and who didn't. What we learn can be used to inform our opinions on this year's market. In the meantime, let's take a look back at a free-agent market from nearly a decade ago to see if there's any education to be had.
The top free-agent hitters following the '04 season were 28-year-old Carlos Beltran, 26-year-old Adrian Beltre and 29-year-old J.D. Drew. There was also Edgar Renteria and Troy Glaus. Also Carlos Delgado. Oh, and Jermaine Dye. You could even throw Moises Alou in there too. The group was kind of stacked. As for pitchers, the pickings were slimmer. You had your Roger Clemens, your Pedro Martinez and your David Wells. Those guys were all excellent pitchers, but they were also old, and in Clemens' and Wells' case, super old. Like with a cape and everything. What is 42 years old in pitcher years? It's basically a billion. So Wells and Clemens were a billion and Pedro was 33.
By modern standards it was quite the list of talent. So, how'd it turn out? Come with me to a strange time, a time where the Red Sox just beat an excellent Cardinals team to win the World Series, Alex Rodriguez was a pariah, and the Mariners, despite employing a massive star, were hopelessly irrelevant. Here are some take-away points from 2004.
1. Young players are better
This class of free agents was remarkable in that three of the best players in baseball over the previous five seasons (or six, or four) were not only available, but were very young by the standards of free agency. Most players are at or near 30 when they become free agents, but Beltre, Beltran and Drew were all in their 20s and Beltre was entering his age-26 season. He was also coming off a 48-homer year that saw him hit .334/.388/.629 while playing incredible defense. Teams paid about $3 million for a win on the free-agent market in 2004, so by that measure, you'd have expected Beltre to break any and all banks in the tri-county area with a jackhammer. According to fWAR, Beltre's 2003 season was worth just under 10 wins, so if he was expected to repeat that performance (he wasn't), he could have commanded about $30 million per season in 2004 money. That he was so good and so young made the five-year, $64 million contract he signed surprising to me now. His years in Seattle were not his best, but despite the reputation he garnered there, he was quite good, if not quite the power threat that Mariners fans expected.
Beltran's seven-year, $119 million deal with the Mets and Drew's five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers were two of the biggest contracts signed that off-season, and both turned out quite well. Drew left L.A. for Boston after two seasons due to an opt-out clause, while Beltran made it through six-and-a-half seasons in New York before the Mets dealt him to San Francisco. In both cases, it's easy to say that the teams got their money's worth. Considering their age, this shouldn't be so surprising, as the best players tend to age more gracefully. They also tend to hit free agency sooner. This helps explain the recent tendency of teams to sign their young stars to long-term deals that buy up free-agent seasons as soon as they can.
2. Old players are dangerous but generational players are worth the money (sometimes)
Roger Clemens was coming off a very good season as a 41-year-old in 2004. He had just thrown 214.1 innings while striking out 218. Still, the smart money was on Clemens getting worse. He was going to be 42, after all. Except, nope, he got better. That's not to say that betting on Clemens was the smart thing to do either. But the Astros did and they got their money's worth and then some, and I say that knowing the Astros paid him $18 million in 2005. It's nice that it worked out for Houston, but unless Walter Johnson comes back from the dead and decides to pitch at 127 years old, Clemens isn't someone from whom you can draw a lot of applicable conclusions.
3. Desperately grasping at straws leaves you with a handful of straws and as everyone knows straws are lousy pitchers (Carl Pavano/Jaret Wright)
The Yankees maybe overreacted. Coming off an ALCS loss to Boston, the Yankees did what the Yankees always seem to do. They pulled out all the stops and went for it. They picked an excellent off-season to spend, too. So how'd it go so wrong? Their mistake, it seems clear in retrospect, was in spending on players with short track records of success. That winter the Yankees signed Jaret Wright (three years, $21 million) and Carl Pavano (four years, $39.95 million). Both had had success, but neither had had much of it. Both were disasters. Wright started 40 games for the Yankees and posted an ERA of 4.99 over parts of two seasons. When he was healthy, Pavano was just as ineffective as Wright. His ERA in New York over parts of two seasons was an even 5.00.
The mistake wasn't in signing both pitchers, it was in signing both to long-term deals and depending on both to be effective. Sometimes those are the chances that you have to take, and considering their options on the market, maybe the Yankees were stuck. Or maybe they should have made some trades and plowed their free-agent budget into signing Beltre or Beltran or Drew. Likely there were better if not great options available.
4. Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't
While the Yankees were flailing about in their search for starting pitching, the Red Sox were playing shortstop-switch-a-roo, a dangerous game played with knives, vodka, blindfolds and Bengal tigers. After trading Nomar Garciaparra mid-season and acquiring Orlando Cabrera, Boston won the World Series, but the Red Sox felt they could still upgrade the position and let Cabrera walk in favor of signing World Series opponent Edgar Renteria. In 2005 Renteria replicated his 2004 season and the Red Sox hated it. They hated it enough that they dealt him and the three years remaining on his contract to Atlanta. Orlando Cabrera went on to have an acceptably mediocre time in Anaheim replete with creative handshakes. It's hard to kill the Red Sox given the information they had at the time, but looking back, if they'd simply re-signed Cabrera they would probably have been better off.
5. Investing in pitchers should always be terrifying (Pedro; Clement; Wells; Lowe)
The most volatile position on the field is pitcher, and investing in pitchers should always be done with a clear-headed understanding of the risks involved. After winning the World Series with Boston, Pedro Martinez left for big money from the Mets. The Red Sox replaced him (or attempted to) by signing Matt Clement away from the Cubs and David Wells from the Padres. All three didn't work out. Pedro had one excellent season for New York before injuries set in, for which the Mets paid him $50 million. In all, he threw just over half of the innings the Mets were hoping he'd throw. Clement pitched well for half a season before taking a line drive off his head. That didn't help, but the real culprit came shortly after when his shoulder gave out. He was done as an effective big league pitcher. Wells lasted a year and a half in Boston before he was dealt back to San Diego. He wasn't awful, but he wasn't what scientists call 'good' either.
Conversely, Derek Lowe was allowed to leave Boston. He signed a four-year deal with the Dodgers. For their $36 million, the Dodgers got 850 innings of above-average pitching, making Lowe's deal one of the best signed that off-season. One bargain and three mistakes; that's life on the free-agent pitching market.
6. Investing in relievers is borderline suicidal
Consider these four relievers who were available following the '04 season: Armando Benitez, Troy Percival, Bob Wickman and Steve Kline. Benitez got three years, $21 million from the Giants and alternated between mediocrity and lousiness. Percival got two years, $12 million from Detroit and posted a 5.79 ERA. Kline got a one-year deal at $2.5 million from Baltimore and gave them a 4.28 ERA, but walked 30 guys while only striking out 36 in 61 innings. Wickman got $2.7 million to stay in Cleveland and, 45 saves later, made the All-Star team. He even received a (misguided) MVP vote. Who would you have signed? Who should you have signed? Who knows? It already happened and I'm not sure there's a correct answer.
7. Even 10 years later, giving a 35-year-old Tony Womack a three-year contract is still as crazy as it was at the time
No further notes necessary here.
What does all this tell us about this year's free-agent class? This year's class doesn't have the youth that the class of '04 did. Among the prime guys, barely a single one is under 30. Going by ESPN's Top 50 free-agent player rankings, no one will be under 30 next season until we get to Jarrod Saltalamacchia at number 14. And he'll be 29. The next player who will play next season under 30 is Joba Chamberlain and he's ranked 44. This is what makes this year's free-agent list so risky. It's not that Jacoby Ellsbury doesn't have numerous good seasons left, it's that he's going to be 30 and he got a seven-year deal. The same goes for Cano, who will 31 and got a 10-year deal. For the record, I like both those deals in context, but both are begging for a large drop-off in performance by the end.
Further, there are three big-name pitching free agents still on the market in Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and Ervin Santana. All three seem like good bets for above-average production, but history tells us that that number is likely too high. One or two or possibly even all three will probably suffer downturns in performance due to injury, age or something else, making whichever team they end up with regret their signing.
The promise of the market is what drives teams and interests fans, but we know that the free-agent market is as much about limiting risk as it is about adding star power. The best deals aren't necessarily the ones that return the most on-field production, but the ones that return consistent value and fit within the context of the team. That's a take-away point here: covet safety. And that's one thing the 2014 free-agent class doesn't have much of.
One more: Stay far, far away from Tony Womack.