What’s happening to this year’s crop of free agents? This is December 27, and out of the top 50 MLB TradeRumors free agent predictions, only 19 have signed new contracts, and one decided not to opt out (Masahiro Tanaka). Of the 30 unsigned players, none of the top 11 have signed new contracts (excluding Tanaka not opting out), and 15 of the top 20 are still unsigned.
Of the 20 that have signed, half are relief pitchers, and the two elite closers are still unsigned. The Cubs would rather sign a high leverage setup than re-sign their closer for 2017 (Morrow over Davis). Maybe they come back and sign Davis, but not without him coming down on his salary expectations. The Rockies had thought they had Holland re-signed, but not unless he comes down on his expectations.
There were also 6 back of the rotation starting pitchers signed. None of the top of the rotation or mid rotation pitchers have been signed. Two first baseman not named Eric Hosmer, and one All-Star SS moving to 3B rather than the All Star 3B also signed.
Rumors for any of the top free agents near signing are non-existent. One of the problems I am sure the Players Union is observing is that of the 9 free agents who received qualifying offers, only one has signed (Carlos Santana). Five teams will pay luxury tax, and therefore will lose a 2nd and 5th draft choice and $1M in International Pool money if they signed any of the players that were given qualifying offers. Those that contribute to revenue sharing but do not exceed luxury tax would lose a 2nd round pick and $500K International Pool money. In addition, the luxury tax is getting very punitive, and teams are pushing to get below the luxury tax threshold. Therefore, the teams willing to pay salaries for the high level free agents are not going to be bidding, driving the bids lower. The Players Union said no to a salary cap, and yet that is really what we have. Right now, both Boston and the Nationals are the only teams above the 2018 luxury tax threshold, and they are two of the big spenders. The other big spenders (Dodgers and Yankees) are not likely to spend big. Scott Boras especially likes the Nationals and they are not budging on Arrieta. If Boston was not really concerned with luxury tax, JD Martinez would be a Red Sox.
With the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, and Nationals out of the excessive bidding due to luxury tax, the top tiered free agents may need to scale down their expectations as teams with less revenues will be the bidding teams. The Giants are also on the brink of luxury tax for 2018, so they are not going to take on a $15M AAV Free Agent. The Cubs have the ability to sign a big salaried free agent, but I bet they regret signing Jason Heyward. Do you think they are re-thinking $100M contracts with $20M+ AAV? Luxury tax penalties will be reviewed and scrutinized heavily in the next CBA.
One additional area of review might also be giving front offices pause to sign the big free agents; the history of high priced free agents. I thought I would go back and look at the top 21 free agents in 2015/2016:
David Price – 7 years $217M with opt out after 2018 (unlikely)
Jason Heyward – 8 years $184M with opt out after 2018 (very unlikely)
Zack Greinke – 6 years $206.5M
Justin Upton – 6 years $132.75 M with opt out after 2017 (exercised – re-signed with Angels 5 years $106M
Chris Davis – 7 years $161M
Yoenis Cespedes – 3 years $75M with opt out after 2016 (exercised – re-signed with Mets 4 years $110M
Jordan Zimmerman – 5 years $110M
Johnny Cueto – 6 years $130M with opt out after 2017 (not exercised)
Alex Gordon – 4 years $72M
Ian Desmond – 1 year $8M. Signed 5 years for $70M in 2017 with Rockies
Jeff Samardzija – 5 years $90M
Mike Leake – 5 years $80M
Wei-yin Chen – 5 years $80M
Kenta Maeda – 8 years $25M (Heavy Incentives)
Matt Wieters – Accepted QO – 1 year $15.8M. Signed 2 year $21.5M in 2017.
Dexter Fowler – 1 year $13M. Signed 5 years $82.5M in 2017.
Daniel Murphy – 3 years $37.5M
Scott Kazmir – 3 years $48M
Ian Kennedy – 5 years $70M
Yovani Gallardo – 2 years $22M
Ben Zobrist – 4 years $56M
Of the seven $100M+ contracts – 2 had a good 2017 after a less than stellar 2016 (Upton and Greinke). I like Upton’s chances of performing thru the remainder of the contract much more than Greinke. Cespedes was okay but did not perform equal to the contract using WAR values. Cueto obviously did not perform or he would have opted out. Price, Heyward, Davis and Zimmerman probably epitomize BUST so far.
Gordon, Chen, Kazmir, Gallardo have been a big BUST, dare I say horrible. Desmond and Fowler both earned their 2016 contract but not 2017. Does this bode well for the next four years at $14M and $16.5M respectively? Of the non $100M free agents, only Daniel Murphy and Kenta Maeda are providing value for their salaries. Murphy and J.A. Happ were the best FA performers for 2015/2016. Don’t you think the 30 different MLB organizations are looking at these results? Doesn’t it give pause to big dollar contracts to the top four who are looking for $100+ and the next 7 looking for $70M+?
That is also why their might be more trades. Wouldn’t you rather have a Christian Yelich with a WAR of 4.5 and due $41.25M over the next four years or J.D. Martinez at 6-7 years at $150M to $200M with a WAR of 3.8? Or Marcell Ozuna and his 2 years of arbitration with a 4.8 WAR? Every team is going to try to pry Christian Yelich, Chris Archer, and Gerrit Cole from their teams rather than pay for the elite free agents.
I know many fans dislike sabermetrics, but the powers in baseball do value them when it comes to looking at value. FanGraphs has estimated that 1 WAR is equal to approximately $8M. Is it any wonder that the Dodgers are more comfortable developing home grown talent? Seager, Bellinger, and Taylor are three pre-arbitration players each with a WAR 4.0 or greater. Barnes and Kike’ also pre-arbitration had a 2.5 WAR and 1.3 WAR respectively. Wood in his 1st year arbitration had a 3.4 WAR. Kershaw’s 4.6 WAR was enough to cover his salary. Grandal (2.5), Forsythe (1.7), and Puig (2.9) all had WAR values greater than their salary.
Last year’s 3 free agents signed by the Dodgers, Jansen, JT, and Hill all earned WAR values greater than their salary. All three have $16M AAV and need a WAR value of 2.0 or greater to equal the value of the 2017 salary. JT at 5.5, Kenley at 3.6, and Hill at 2.6 all had WAR values greater than the 2.00 minimum WAR value to justify their salary. Even Utley (1.3) and McCarthy (2.4) had WAR values greater than their salary. Each of the relievers and Joc had WAR values that justified their salaries. Only A-Gon with a -1.1 WAR did not justify his salary.
One other point came to light when reviewing WAR for relievers. Some reliever 2017 WAR values:
Craig Kimbrel – 3.3
Robert Osuna – 3.0
Andrew Miller – 2.3
Brandon Morrow – 1.7
Wade Davis – 1.1
Greg Holland – 1.1
David Hernandez – 1.1
There were 12 relievers with a 2.0 or greater WAR and 29 with a 1.5 or greater WAR. Why pay Davis and Holland the money they are requesting when they have the same WAR value as David Hernandez? Brandon Morrow and his 1.7 WAR equates to a salary of $13.6M, which is less than he will be receiving from the Cubs, and if he closes, an even better WAR can be anticipated.
WAR for pitching, especially relievers, is skeptical and open for further review. But it is obvious that there is just not a lot of value placed on pitchers pitching 60 or so innings, unless they are lock down. You can expect the Dodgers to continue to look for values for their relievers. They will pay one reliever a lot, but not multiple. They will continue to push Baez, Fields, Cingrani, Stripling, Avilan, and hope for Stewart, Garcia, Koehler, Font, Liberatore, and Paredes to show better value.
It may not be a great free agent class, but there are a few elite talents, and the second/third tiers are still waiting for the market to emerge. There are only about 7 weeks before pitchers and catchers report, and by then most teams will be set, with a few adjustments, but no major transactions.
When can we expect to see 10 of the top 11 sign…Darvish, Martinez, Hosmer, Arrieta, Moustakas, Cain, Davis, Lynn, Holland, Cobb? Or the next five…Bruce, Morrison, Reed, Frazier, Lucroy?