GMs Assess Free Agent Class

Leading up to the current offseason, MLB executives and analysts often described the 2012-13 free agent class as thin, weak, or top-heavy. Looking ahead to next year’s class inspires similar reactions. These free agent classes are not overwhelmingly deep. 

Might it be time for teams and their fans to adjust expectations regarding free agency? MLB general managers told MLBTR it’s prudent to maintain modest expectations for future free agent classes.

Zack Greinke - Angels (PW)

Jack Zduriencik of the Mariners acknowledged that there’s less impact talent on the market this winter than in past years. But he said there’s not necessarily a pattern to be deciphered when it comes to the quality of free agent classes.

“Every year is different,” the GM said. “Next year might be a terrific year depending on what happens. Two years from now might be a great year also. You don’t know what clubs are going to do. Even when you’re sitting here thinking you know what’s going to happen, someone inks a guy to an extension and it changes the future.”

An abundance of extensions for star and superstar caliber players has definitely affected the quantity of elite talent available on the open market. For example, the Reds signed Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips to long-term contracts this spring, ensuring that they won’t hit free agency in the prime of their careers.

“I think you’re going to see probably less and less of the top quality guys because clubs are signing them long-term,” GM Walt Jocketty told MLBTR in Indian Wells, California. “I think that’s a trend that we’ll continue to see going forward.”

In other words teams saving up to spend on David Wright or Robinson Cano when they’re scheduled to hit free agency a year from now might be disappointed. As MLBTR's Extension Tracker shows, 51 players have already signed multiyear extensions in 2012 — that’s two full active rosters of players signed in the past ten months alone. Still, Jocketty made it clear that he believes quality players are available in this free agent class.

“I wouldn’t say it’s weak,” he said. “I think there’s not a lot of depth.”

Indeed, it’d be tough to match the combination of Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke in any year. Still, after the first 20 or so players, the list of top available free agents starts to feature more and more players with significant questions about health, age or performance.

Like Jocketty, Frank Wren of the Braves has had multiple GM jobs dating back to the 1990s. Over the years he has completed some shrewd signings (Billy Wagner) and some regrettable ones (Albert Belle). Wren has also noticed some diminishment of the quantity of star players in free agency. 

“I think it’s due by and large to the strategies teams are taking of tying up their core young players,” he said. “I think we are seeing that where it’s a little tougher to fill some of your needs through that market.”

This change heightens the importance of other avenues for acquiring and developing players. The Padres, for example, enter the offseason with the intention of relying on trades and internal development along with free agency.

Probably a little bit of all, but probably not as much in free agency as some people think,” GM Josh Byrnes said, adding that free agency ranks as a relatively low priority for the small-market Padres.

Last winter serves as a warning for teams flirting with the notion of spending big to accelerate toward the postseason. The Marlins had a disastrous season despite an offseason that included three major free agent additions: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. The Angels missed the playoffs after spending aggressively on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. While the team spent on quality players, the additions weren’t enough. Meanwhile, the Athletics ($53MM), Orioles ($26MM) and Nationals ($16MM) made the postseason in 2012 after relatively quiet winters on the free agent market. Sometimes there's a disproportionate amount of attention placed on free agency.

“A lot of times when you refer to free agency, most people would say ‘oh we’re going to get a free agent who’s going to change our ballclub,’” Zduriencik said. “Well, that’s not always the case.”

For some especially aggressive teams, free agency offers the chance to sign elite players. But for most clubs free agency represents a way to supplement a team — not a way to radically alter the club’s complexion.

Photo courtesy of US Presswire.


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23 Comments on "GMs Assess Free Agent Class"


HobokenMetsFan
2 years 8 months ago

Great post, folks. Very curious to see how the economics of baseball change (if they do at all), over the next coming years with the new CBA, etc.

Shaun Newkirk
2 years 8 months ago

They are about to and drastically. The price per WAR is going to go from a reasonable $5ish million to maybe up to $7-8 per win. And with all the TV revenue coming on an MLB level and clubs signing local market TV contracts (ala Dodgers) a 5 year $100,000,000 contract isn’t going to be so eye popping like it was the past few years. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but it might create a bigger hole in parity between the smaller revenue teams and the big spenders.

2 years 8 months ago

I think it might not actually hurt small markets as much as people believe. Prices for player contracts are going up, but even big market players like the Yankees and the Red Sox are starting to be more conservative and set theoretical caps on how high their budgets will go. As a consequence, these clubs like the Angels, Marlins, and Tigers are dedicating larger and larger percentages of their payroll to elite players on the FA market who almost never live up to their contracts. We’ve seen it with the current Yankees: they threw money around and made serious commitments to keep ARod, Teixiara, and Sabathia around, and they now realize after a few years that these players, while good, aren’t entirely worth the money and their contracts are constraining the club’s ability to make the team better. My guess is that you’ll see the same situation play out with the Dodgers, the Angels, and anyone else who adopts their spending habits. These long, expensive contracts are going to hurt them in 3-4 years, the same way the Yankees are now hurting, same way anyone who gives out large 4+ year contracts hurts.

So yeah, small market clubs won’t be able to compete for the top 3 FA in any given year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not being able to afford top free agents means you won’t foolishly tie up all your payroll in a few elite players, which can doom a team for years. It gives you the flexibility of striking when you see an opportunity to bring in solid talent. You don’t have to sit around hoping someone bails you out by taking on your aging, former superstars.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

This is like saying that if a person doesn’t have any money they won’t buy a fast car and get speeding tickets.

Teams go long on contracts in many cases because they trying to keep an elite player away from a competitor in their division. A team with the money to burn isn’t going to worry too much about the back end of the contract when the player is likely to be less productive, because they can afford to trade him for pennies on the dollar if a better opportunity comes along. At some point ARod will be dumped that way, you can bet on it, and the Yankees won’t be turning their pockets out and expressing regret, because they’ve still managed to keep him away from rivals for his most productive years.

This is the continuing rich man/poor man problem in MLB. The rich teams can afford to sign players for longer than they are likely to be productive, while the poor teams have trouble even keeping good players through their arbitration years.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

This is like saying that if a person doesn’t have any money they won’t buy a fast car and get speeding tickets.

Teams go long on contracts in many cases because they are trying to keep an elite player away from a competitor in their division. A team with the money to burn isn’t going to worry too much about the back end of the contract when the player is likely to be less productive, because they can afford to trade him for pennies on the dollar if a better opportunity comes along. At some point ARod will be traded that way, you can bet on it, and the Yankees won’t be turning their pockets out and expressing regret, because they’ve still managed to keep him away from rivals for his most productive years.

This is the continuing rich man/poor man problem in MLB. The rich teams can afford to sign players for longer than they are likely to be productive, while the poor teams have trouble even keeping good players through their arbitration years.

go_jays_go
2 years 8 months ago

There’s a small problem with what you said.

A players’ prime years are typically around 27 – 31. Most players don’t hit the FA market till around 30 – 31. GMs of small and mid-market teams need to be smart. They need to spend wisely, develop prospects, and know who to keep and who to let go.

Two good examples of mid-market teams are the Braves and Cardinals.

2) only 1 player is making more than $15m a year (Matt Holliday)
3) they both have lots of home-grown talent
4) they rarely splurge on the FA market, and typically target the 2nd tier free agents to avoid overpaying for top notch talent

The Rays are an example of a powerful small market team, and they operate similar to the Braves/Cards, but with more extremes on payroll limits, and greater emphasis on home-grown talent.

A ‘brainless’ GM will kill a franchise long before any rich/poor man problems.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

There’s a big problem with what you said. If I had the choice between being smart and rich, and just being smart, I’d go for the rich part too. You are making the assumption that rich teams aren’t as smart as poor teams, with the peculiar reasoning that the rich teams don’t have to be smart. The truth is, the rich teams can develop home-grown talent too. In fact they can afford to invest in more scouts, and more development camps outside of the U.S., and then they can afford to keep their home-grown talent through arbitration and beyond. A lot of the poor teams can’t afford to do either one. So it is still an unavoidable fact that the rich teams have a huge built-in advantage right across the board. Being a GM is not like being a member of the Supreme Court. It isn’t a job for life. No “brainless” GM will be spending hundreds of millions of a team’s money, at least not for long they won’t.

2 years 8 months ago

I think a variety of pressures keep rich teams from being smart with their money. First, your fan base expects you to fill any hole in your lineup with the best free agent available, and they’re disappointed when you don’t. The result is that every year you end up saddling yourself with another long, expensive contract until you can’t afford it anymore, and then you’ve got no chance to upgrade anywhere. Second, you do have more money to keep homegrown talent, but rich teams end up making the same mistake with them as they do with free agents: they give them too much money for too long (just went down with Ryan Howard and cole hamels, watch it happen with wright and dickey). They have to, otherwise the player won’t sign because they know someone else will pay. These contracts end up hurting teams in the same way free agent contracts do.

I get what you’re saying: it’s better to be rich and smart than poor and smart. But I think market and other pressures keep rich teams from acting smart. I think the rangers are doing a pretty decent job (the darvish investment is scary, but they didn’t chase Wilson and don’t be seeming to be chasing Hamilton), but I think they’re the only big market team that isn’t screwing themselves.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

Agreed, except for the “price per WAR” theory. Since GMs don’t use WAR for determining who they sign or for how much, any correlation between the two is probably coincidental.

go_jays_go
2 years 8 months ago

Agreed.

There are also two points about $/WAR that people seems to forget:
1) $/WAR only applies to the free agent market.

Any comparisons made to a pre-arb or arb-eligible player is strictly a hypothetical analysis.

2) $/WAR is not necessarily linear.

A linear model works well for the majority of players, but it does not apply at the extremes levels. Top-Notch free agents are usually overpaid due to the high demand and low supply. Bargain basement free agents are usually underpaid because of their high supply and low demand.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

Top notch free agents are paid their market value. They get a lot because they are at the top of their class and consequently a very limited commodity. The same is true of the other kind of free agents. They are in good supply and not in great demand.

As far as I can see, WAR doesn’t apply to anything but fantasy leagues.

go_jays_go
2 years 8 months ago

Anyone in the free agent market is paid ‘market value’…..

Market value and actual value are not the same things.

What’s your point?

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

Market value is real value. It is the amount the market is prepared to pay for a player’s services. Any other number is merely a fantasy, as in league.

go_jays_go
2 years 8 months ago

That’s actually a misconception.

Actual value is what you’re worth.
Market value is what you can sell for.

Actual value is calculated by facts and figures
example: profits, losses

Market value is determined by consumer confidence
example: how will it grow in the future?

In context of baseball, comparisons are often made to determine a player’s actual value, but depending on the supply/demand and how well an agent can sell their player, the market value might be totally different.

Now people try using WAR to determine a player’s actual value, but my point still remains.

BlueSkyLA
BlueSkyLA
2 years 8 months ago

It is not a misconception, it is Econ 101. A thing is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

alan104
2 years 8 months ago

Signing young core players to multi-year deals, improved international scouting & development, trading away good players with value to fill needs are limiting the focus on free agency.

fireboss
2 years 8 months ago

Okay just a point, Wren has had 2 GM jobs. He lasted one year in Baltimore then was hired in Atlanta and was AGM until to quote Scheurholz (XM interview 2 years or so ago) all the other AGMs left Wren was next in line of succession. So while he’s been a front office type under Dombrowsky and JS and while 2 is a multiple of one, multiple implies more than that.

Heller
2 years 8 months ago

Nationals with a payroll of 16 million? Can that be right? Did they somehow backload Jason Werth’s 127 m contract?

dylanp5030
2 years 8 months ago

Pretty sure they meant what they spent in the offseason. Orioles spent it on Adam Jones and A’s on Cespedes. Nats didn’t do much spending because Gio was cheap and Edwin Jackson was a one year deal.

2 years 8 months ago

Just to clarify: the Padres aren’t going after free agents because the class is thin; it’s because they have the most pathetically frugal ownership in sports. The largest TOTAL contract they’ve ever given to a new player in free agency was the $11.5 million they gave Orlando Hudson (and that’s including his buyout).

Of course a team with that history won’t be signing a free agent.

padresgm
2 years 8 months ago

We just got new owners who invested quite a bit of money into Quentin and Street. Haren could be of interest. Expect a big deal.

LazerTown
2 years 8 months ago

I think it may even itself out. Sure right now more players are signing extensions, but if it leads to much higher free agent salaries. Then agents will start advising their clients not to sign these extensions.
Votto contract was great for him. Not team friendly at all, but Cano contract, he probably regrets it now.

Christopher Guzman
2 years 8 months ago

Washington was active on the Free Agency and Trade markets last year during the winter, not super active but active nonetheless. They didn’t sign a lot of high priced guys but they were active signing DeRosa, Michaels, Lidge, Durbin, Jackson, resigning Rick Ankiel and Wang, and trading for Gio Gonzalez