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Let’s look back on last year’s free agent class

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Were teams right to stay away?

Kansas City Royals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Last year’s off-season was one of the weirder winters in recent baseball history, as teams discovered newfound frugality in the free agent market, causing some stars to remain unsigned going into spring training and leading to some calls of collusion. Ultimately, all the major free agents eventually found homes, some of them still earning lucrative deals, however others felt forced to accept short-term deals far below market value. And some teams - the Braves, Marlins, Pirates and Rays, in particular - stayed completely out of free agency, not signing a single Major League free agent.

With the regular season now behind us, we can take an initial look at some of the deals signed last winter to determine if perhaps teams were wise to balk at the free agent market. Here I have catalogued every free agent that signed a Major League contract last winter. In all, teams signed 85 free agents, committing over $1.4 billion to them.

It was a down year for the quality of the free agent class, and many teams were anticipating this year’s free agent crop that will include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and possibly Clayton Kershaw. Here are how the top 20 free agents in contract size fared this year.

All WAR values are from Fangraphs.

Biggest free agent contracts from the 2017-2018 off-season

Player Team Years Contract AAV 2018 WAR
Player Team Years Contract AAV 2018 WAR
Eric Hosmer SDP 8 $144,000,000 $18,000,000 -0.1
Yu Darvish CHC 6 $126,000,000 $21,000,000 0.2
J.D. Martinez BOS 6 $110,000,000 $18,333,333 5.9
Lorenzo Cain MIL 5 $80,000,000 $16,000,000 5.7
Jake Arrieta PHI 4 $75,000,000 $18,750,000 2.0
Carlos Santana PHI 4 $60,000,000 $15,000,000 1.9
Alex Cobb BAL 4 $57,000,000 $14,250,000 1.3
Wade Davis COL 3 $52,000,000 $17,333,333 0.9
Jay Bruce NYM 3 $39,000,000 $13,000,000 0.1
Tyler Chatwood CHC 3 $38,000,000 $12,666,667 -0.5
Zack Cozart LAA 3 $38,000,000 $12,666,667 0.3
Mike Minor TEX 3 $28,000,000 $9,333,333 2.2
Jake McGee COL 3 $27,000,000 $9,000,000 -0.2
Bryan Shaw COL 3 $27,000,000 $9,000,000 -0.3
Brandon Morrow CHC 2 $21,000,000 $10,500,000 0.6
Tommy Hunter PHI 2 $18,000,000 $9,000,000 0.7
Todd Frazier NYM 2 $17,000,000 $8,500,000 1.5
Juan Nicasio SEA 2 $17,000,000 $8,500,000 0.8
Addison Reed MIN 2 $16,750,000 $8,375,000 -0.2
Pat Neshek PHI 2 $16,250,000 $8,125,000 0.3

That is pretty awful. Just 4 of the top 20 were even 2 WAR players, with more players - five - actually below replacement level. The worst value of all was the player with the biggest contract of all, former Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. Hos somehow got the Padres to outbid the Royals for his services, but then struggled much of the year, hitting .253/.322/.398 with a career-high 60% ground-ball rate.

If Hosmer wasn’t worth the money, who was? Here are the top-performing free agents from last year’s class.

Best free agents of 2017-2018

Player Team Years Contract AAV 2018 WAR
Player Team Years Contract AAV 2018 WAR
J.D. Martinez BOS 6 $110,000,000 $18,333,333 5.9
Lorenzo Cain MIL 5 $80,000,000 $16,000,000 5.7
Lance Lynn MIN 1 $12,000,000 $12,000,000 2.9
Jhoulys Chacin MIL 2 $15,500,000 $7,750,000 2.6
CC Sabathia NYY 1 $10,000,000 $10,000,000 2.5
Mike Moustakas KCR 1 $6,500,000 $6,500,000 2.4
Anibal Sanchez MIN 1 $2,500,000 $2,500,000 2.4
Leonys Martin DET 1 $1,750,000 $1,750,000 2.4
Craig Stammen SDP 2 $4,500,000 $2,250,000 2.3
Mike Minor TEX 3 $28,000,000 $9,333,333 2.2

Some big ticket players were certainly worth the money, at least for the first year. But two of the best free agents were unheralded low-ticket bargains. Leonys Martin signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with Cleveland and was worth 2.4 fWAR in just 84 games, getting flipped mid-season to the Indians for prospect Willi Castro before landing in the hospital with a life-threatening bacterial infection that ended his season prematurely. Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez signed a cheap deal with the Twins but was released a few weeks later, latching on with the Braves, reviving his career with a 2.83 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 136 2/3 innings.

Of the 82 free agents who played last year, 21 (25.6%) of them were worth at least 1.0 WAR or more. On the flip side, 23 of them (27.7%) were at replacement level or worse, including big ticket free agents like Hosmer, Tyler Chatwood and Bryan Shaw. Relievers Jake McGee, Brian Duensing, Matt Albers, and Anthony Swarzak were the only other players signed to multi-year deals who were below replacement level. It is almost like reliever performance varies wildly on a year-to-year basis!

In fact, relievers were nearly the worst investment teams could make last winter. Here is a breakdown by position.

2017-2018 free agent class, by position

Pos # of FA Average AAV Avg WAR $/WAR
Pos # of FA Average AAV Avg WAR $/WAR
C 6 $4,612,500 0.5 $9,225,000
1B 7 $8,785,714 0.5 $17,571,429
IF 9 $4,962,963 0.4 $12,407,408
OF 11 $7,371,212 1.4 $5,265,151
SP 17 $9,176,471 1.0 $9,176,471
RP 32 $5,453,385 0.4 $13,633,463

Note: I did not include Drew Smyly, Michael Pineda, or Tom Koehler, who all missed the entire season.

Only first basemen cost more dollars-per-win than relievers, and that was skewed due to Eric Hosmer (take him out and the dollars-per-WAR for first basemen drops to just over $12 million). Of the 32 relievers signed, 10 were below replacement level, and only six were 1.0 WAR or better.

Admittedly this is a very superficial overview of the free agent class, and WAR may be an imperfect measure to evaluate performance, particularly for relievers. Additionally, WAR is non-linear (two 3 WAR players are not worth a 6 WAR player) and teams signed players to contracts for future performance, which may necessitate an inflation bump to evaluate contract value.

This also may have been an unusually poor free agent class. Teams have committed many players to long-term deals while they are still under reserve, pushing free agency to a later date for many players. Many of the players eligible this year had red flags from J.D. Martinez (defensive concerns) to Hosmer (ground ball rate) to Lorenzo Cain (injuries).

However it is easy to see why teams are shying away from free agency. Teams were more likely to find a below-replacement level players than a 1+ WAR player last winter. Clubs spent over $10 million per win in 2018 on last year’s free agent class, which is supposed to be the best year of a contract, as the player declines over time.

What will this mean for teams and players? Teams almost certainly have a much more sophisticated analysis than this, but it really doesn’t even take much number-crunching to realize that free agency is not much of a bargain for teams. But players are already sacrificing so much surplus value in their pre-free agency years, it is hard to see how they will recoup that lost salary if teams continue to shun free agents.

Ultimately there may need to be a complete overhaul of how baseball handles free agency. The increased reliance on power and velocity may be forcing a lot of players out of the game by the time they reach their early-30s. Baseball needs to figure out a way to get players paid while they are still productive.

Perhaps this is just a temporary blip and next year’s class will show what a boon free agency can be for teams in contention. But the data seems to be mounting that teams realize free agency is a sucker’s bet for them.