The Free Agent Conundrum

The Free Agent Conundrum


With all of the free agent signings this offseason, from small contracts to large ones, I have been following them with curiosity to see how the so called “expert” sports writers weigh in on the signings. What I find most interesting is that there is very little consistency among the opinions on whether the signing in question will have a positive or negative impact on the ballclub.




Take for instance the Vernon Wells contract of 7 years and 126 million dollars.  Jays GM JP Ricciardi has been praised for locking up Wells early to avoid a bidding war that could have brought Wells a 10 year 100+ million contract on the open market.  He provides stability in the outfield for 7 years (presumably) and sends a message inadvertantly that the Jays are serious about trying to compete with the Sox/Yankee tandem.  Others will point out  Wells’ track record of inconsistency as far as OPS is concerned, and as our own writer Kman mentioned, the slowing of his batspeed.  This could be another albatross contract paying $20+ million to a 35 year old outfielder who can’t hit a fastball anymore.


As another example, take Barry Zito. He received a contract very similar to Vernon Wells of 7 years 126 million dollars with additional incentives.  As I wrote here in a previous column, I was very critical of the length and amount of the contract for what I perceived to be a slightly above average pitcher.  Naysayers will point to his increased era, the degeneration of his fastball, his walk rate increasing, his K rate decreasing and his inability to win in the postseason.  They will say he is getting paid for the Cy Young he won 5 years ago and the fact he hasn’t missed a start in the last 6 years.  Supporters of the deal point to the fact he hasn’t missed a start in the last 6 years so logically he will be pitching every start in San Fran for the next 7. He plays in a great pitchers park at AT&T and plays in the same division as the Dodgers and Padres who both possess flyball friendly ball parks for Zito’s mistakes to get gobbled up in. He also gets to pitch against the pitcher which is always a big attraction for AL pitchers to jump ship.


What does this all mean? How does one sort through all of the kerfuffle to find out if these signings are any good or not? The answer is simply that you can’t.  There is no use in evaluating free agent signings until the end of the contracts.  Noone can predict the future and any attempt to is foolish. Sure Vernon’s batspeed may decrease, but it also may not. Julio Franco is still able to turn around a fastball in his late 40’s.  Just because Zito hasn’t missed a start in 6 years doesn’t mean he won’t shred his shoulder with a cheese grater his first start in a Giants uniform and never pitch again. Or he could be the next Jamie Moyer.  Sure Mike Hampton, Chan Ho and Kevin Brown never panned out and neither did Darren Dreifort or Denny Neagle.  But Mike Mussina’s 6 year deal didn’t turn out too badly. J-Schmidt, Pedro and Derek Lowe also had fairly successful 4 year deals. The Astros didn’t have a problem signing Oswalt to a 5 year 73 million deal and I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same.  Why? Because in the cutthroat world of a Baseball GM, if there is a chance to make your team better, you go ahead and do it because if you don’t someone else will. 


Past injuries are irrelevant as long as the player passes a physical. Frank Thomas has had an injury riddled past 3 years. Last year he was a shade below 40HR and 120 RBI. Do I feel he can help the Jays in the next 2 years? If the answer is yes (which it is) then I do the deal. I would rather take the chance that he repeats those numbers then be afraid of him getting hurt and sign an Aubrey Huff instead – who has as much a chance of getting hurt as the Big one.


Another thing to consider is the value in dollars of the contract.  We on mopupduty are fond of throwing down the phrase “who cares how much the owner spends on the player, it makes no difference to me!” And it shouldn’t – if you are a Yankees or Red Sox fan. But it does matter if you are a Jays fan and the Canadian dollar plummets to the 65 cent range in the 5th year of Vernon Wells’ contract and attendance doesn’t increase. Let’s also say that Vernon’s bat speed is as slow as my deceased Grandmother and his production is negligible.  This is going to be a big problem for the Jays GM (and it won’t be JP – trust) who will have a much smaller payroll and a single player probably making 30-40% of a team’s overall payroll. Vernon also has that no-trade clause so he can kibosh a trade to the Yanks if they even wanted him which probably wouldn’t be the case.  In the case of Zito it probably won’t be as big a deal with a payroll that is consistently 8 or 9th in the league but it is something to think about when trying to create sustainable success, the goal of any ballclub. Again, a GM shouldn’t be chastised for this consideration until that point is reached. Noone can predict the future!


In the end a GM should not be evaluated on his signings until they have run their course. It would be like giving a student an F or an A on their final exam before they set foot in a classroom. The past is far not always a predictor of the future. And as long as a GM does everything in his power to make his team better then I give him an A for effort.


Giants' GM Brian Sabean

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13 replies on “The Free Agent Conundrum”
  1. says: Kman

    Surprise, surprise, but I gotta disagree.

    I look at today’s market like I kinda look at the Tech bubble a few years back. Everyone is looking for the big play, and attempting to keep up with everyone else in the market. So venture capital & aquisition costs go through the roof (in the stock market). But with this example, we already know the outcome but I think it’s still valid.

    Regardless of how something turns out, current market & individual cities economics, payroll, revenue, etc still should be accounted for. Let’s say Iwamura crashes & burns and Soriano goes on to hit 35 – 40 each season for the next few years. Soriano will end up being considered the success, but I think in current time & contract valuation, a safer, more sane deal is one that provides opportunity & fills needs at a decent valuation.

    Digression: Billy Beane, for example, has been quite content to sit on the sidelines (for the most part, Piazza). I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come in with some value plays in the free agent market or trading into some decent, pre-arb talent.

    But back to my earlier thoughts, I just think everyone is attempting to “keep up with the Jones'” in today’s market. Value going forward is in, of course, pre-arbitration extensions like Jeff Francis’, and increased scouting & minor league development.

  2. says: Callum

    It is difficult to compare the Iwamura signing to the Soriano since the difference is about $100 million and Soriano’s contract is almost twice as long. The Cubs are in a position to make a play for the WS and need to strike while the iron is hot. TB (arguably) is not in that same position.

    If you want to base success on value for money, sure Jeff Francis and Grady Sizemore could be considered successes. However Grady has only played a little over 2 seasons, same with Francis. The same risk is there that unproven (somewhat) Grady will suck for 5 seasons for $23 million as Thomas sucking for 2 seasons at $20 million. The reward potential is greater though, but we won’t know the true value of the deal until the end of the contract.

  3. says: Kman

    The Cubs were in last place. They had no need to strike while the iron is hot, but as with both NY teams + Boston, money isn’t too much of an issue. They just over-payed, that’s all.

    Well, the difference between a Sizemore & a Frank Thomas is this:

    Thomas: past prime currently & at the end of contract
    Sizemore: Impoving & hitting prime during contract

    T: $9 million per season
    S: $4.5 million per season

    T: DH
    S: Good CF

    T: History of injury + age
    S: Injury free + youth

    T: Medium 2004 (72 games), poor 2005 (34 games), good 2006 (137 games, .926 OPS, yet only 77 runs scored due to inability to run-77runs – 39 HR= 48 non self scoring runs)
    S: poor 2005 (43 games, .739 OPS), medium 2005 (.832 OPS, higher than Vernon Wells), good 2006 (.908 OPS, 134 runs scored)

    Sizemore is FAR less of a gamble than Frank Thomas, based upon history, production, age, etc.

    Controling a contract is the new key in today’s market. Even if a Sizemore type flames out, the VALUE is what is key when your not one of the big spenders (which most teams aren’t). By using the overall production over the contract, it leaves open too many loopholes. If Gil Meche turns around and wins 18 games with a 3.15 ERA next season, I’ll still consider it a poor move because no one could really forecast that type of success. Luck does play a role, but attempting to extract the maximum (production) from the minimum (FA cash) is what all GM’s should be aiming for, unless they’re a Theo or Cashman.

  4. says: Callum

    I agree that controlling a contract is the key in today’s market. However, I feel that is a different issue for a different article that has already been written. For the Cubs, there are no Sorianos coming up in the system. For the Giants, other than Cain, there are no Zitos ready to be signed to long term deals for a low expenditure. They have a chance to compete in a wide open division. The holes need to be filled and the GMs are doing what they can to fill them.

    The Cubs are in last but they have money to burn to turn themselves into a contendor. TB does not. Where we differ in opinion then is calling Gil Meche’s deal a poor move if he wins 18 games and has a 3.15 ERA. Noone could have forecasted that type of success, but it makes no difference to me. He wins the 18 games and gets results. If Tampa Bay wins the World Series next year and Iwamura jacks 50 and plays gold glove defense, are you going to call it a poor move because noone would have forecasted it? A poor World Series championship because noone expected them to win? None of those things matter. It is a good move if the player produces and helps the team win. But I do agree with you that GMs should be extractng the maximum production from the minimum cash.

  5. says: Callum

    I think what I am trying to get at is where does one draw the line? As a GM, it is a lose lose situation. Sign an older player and all his best years are behind him. Sign a young player and he is an unproven you-know-what. Who is to say the older player isn’t entering or still in the prime of his career (Kenny Rogers, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds*)? Sure, the young guy could turn out to be Angel Berroa or Eric Hinske, but there is also Vernon Wells and the Hudson/Mulder/Zito trio where the contracts turned in solid value. Don’t be a hater until the contract is done.

  6. says: Kman

    Complete, 100% disargreement on Meche, Iwamura, etc. I like the Iwamura deal because of the value involved, but anyways, calling Meche a success if he wins his 18 is almost a sympton of “throw something at the wall and hope it sticks.” There’s Lilly, Meche, Eaton, Padilla, Batista, etc that have signed for way more than there worth. If one of these interchangeable, 3rd (mostly 4th) guys breaks out and has a good year, than that GM will be labled as “smart”. Kinda like a lottery, there will be someone who “bought a lucky ticket” and a bunch of losers. Should I automatically praise the winner that purchased his over-priced ticket at the downtown Gas Station as “savy”? Nope. Same risk applies for a pre-arbitration guy but at a MUCH lower cost, he’s been around your personal so you know what you have skill & personality wise and added future potential, thus a smarter deal.

    If there are no players to develop, than instead of throwing around the cash, trade for some (difficult but can be done) or increase your developmental system.

    To showcase what JP is all about, he cancels the Rookie ball affiliate for 2007 & spends nearly $150 million in contracts. What does it cost to have a rookie league team? The Jays pay the salaries, but the affiliate itself pays for the stadium upkeep, trans, hotels, etc. Minimal cost for player development, but too much for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Outside of the big spenders, the Braves, Indians, Twins, A’s and Astros have had some great success post 1994 strike by building up, then adding pieces to fill things in. But trying to just add pieces, without having a decent number of cheaper options developed (like the Cubs this off-season) is a reciepe for disaster.

  7. says: Callum

    Increasing the developmental system is not going to yield me a stud player for a few years down the road. If I am a team like the Cubs that needs to win now (or Hendry gets the axe) that philosophy is not going to help me out any. You are preaching to the choir as far as JP is concerned. No trades can be made because the system is razor thin, containing only low ceiling college players. I am more interested in the evaluation of the contract rather than the GM, however you can’t have one without the other I guess. You can call JP a weasley snake oil salesman, but the contract he signed Vernon for was a good one (his original deal).

    Regarding the Iwamura deal, who is to say what the value is? Unlike Sizemore, Iwamura has not played a single inning in a Major League Game. However I am not going to pass judgement until he has played it out. Actually, I probably will 1 month into the season but thats just how I do.

  8. says: Early

    Great Article and good discussion,
    KMan- The Braves were big spenders in thier NL East runs.

    Calman – I didn’t know about the Jays cancelling the Rookie program. This doesn’t mean they don’t have players they just are not playing together. More and more teams are cutting back on minor leagues. Just look at how many MiL teams have folded in the last 10 years. So much movement nowadays in the high minors that bringing players up with teammates they will play with in the bigs seems futile to me. There is no more “Playing the Dodger Way” or “Being an Oriole type Player” former cliches that had the Dodgers winning in the 60s and O’s in the 1970s.

  9. says: Kman

    The Braves spent a large portion on in-house talent extensions, then added pieces around when the team was ready to compete. Attendance, etc was up, along with farm talent. It wasn’t like some teams, spending the cash with no foundation.

    Early, you incorrectly quote major league teams cutting back on minor league teams all of the time. Every team will have at least 6 affiliates come 2007, except the Jays with 5. I’m not counting the Ven Summer League, although this list does:

    Teams that fold are replaced or relocated.

  10. says: Early

    Kman, according to your link, the Jays have 6, like most teams, unless the Pulaski club has folded. If this isn’t up to date I see that the Yanks and Nats have their new affiliates in order. Also, the Rangers have only 5 teams plus and AFL team.

  11. says: Kman

    Yep, the list isn’t up to date but all teams will have 6 next season, except the Jays when they eliminate Pulaski.

    The Nats + Yanks will relocate, leaving them with 6+.

    Texas AZL is rookie, not an AFL affiliate, in-fact, the AFL teams are collectives of all teams. So Texas has 6.

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