2007 Free Agent Landmines
Every year, teams wander into free agency with money to spend and a desire to improve a specific area of their teams. Every year, a few teams end up giving huge amounts of money to the best guy available that winter because, well, he was available, and their goal for the winter was to get the best player they could for that position. It’s short-sighted thinking and almost always ends in disaster, but this kind of roster building will exist until the end of time.
This crop of players are the group I would consider Free Agent Landmines – players with enough value to appear to be an asset, but who are extremely unlikely to live up to the contracts they’re going to get this winter. Previous landmines include Carlos Lee, Barry Zito, Richie Sexson, Mike Hampton, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Delgado, Pedro Martinez, and Jason Varitek. All good players in their primes, but not good enough to justify the salaries they demand on the open market.
Here are the guys that fit into the mold this winter. Teams who sign one of these players will be quite likely to experience significant buyers remorse a year from now.
1. Torii Hunter, Center Field
Torii Hunter just had a terrific year at the right time, and he’s going to be paid for what he was in 2007, not for what he’s likely to be in 2008 and beyond. From 2004 to 2006, Hunter’s offense was worth about 15 runs above an average hitter – combined. He had settled in as a pretty consistent +5 offensive player, which as a center fielder with some defensive value, made him a borderline star, but not anything like a franchise player.
In 2007 alone, he was worth about 17 runs more than an average hitter, his best offensive season since 2002, and only the second time in his career that he’s been better than +10 runs with the bat. There’s no change in skillset to indicate that he actually improved as a hitter – he’s still the same aggressive free-swinger that he’s always been.
However, there’s this belief that Torii Hunter is a perennial all-star type of player, and he’s going to get paid like a premium talent. Part of that belief is predicated on his defensive reputation, which hasn’t matched his actual abilities in the field for several years, and will only continue to decline as he ages. Whoever spends $100 million on Torii Hunter is going to get themselves a solid player for the next 2-3 years, but certainly nothing like the value they’re going to pay for.
2. Carlos Silva, Right-Handed Starter
Despite the fact that he’s posted seasonal ERAs the last three seasons of 3.44, 5.91, and 4.19, I’d call Carlos Silva one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball. He does the exact same thing every single start – throw 90 MPH sinkers down the middle of the plate and let hitters put the ball in play. He has terrific command and refuses to walk anyone, so his results are almost entirely dependant upon the defenders he has behind him and the abilities of the hitters he’s facing. And, as you can see, those results can change wildly, even if Silva himself stays the same.
However, because Silva’s healthy, has a track record of throwing 180+ innings every year, and has gotten outs with his strikes, strikes, and more strikes approach, he’s going to get a multiyear deal for $10 million + per season. In reality, he’s basically just this year’s Jeff Suppan – a back-end starter with one skill that isn’t even really that hard to find. For all the whining about the scarcity of pitching in major league baseball, the minor leagues are littered with guys who have a very similar skillset to Carlos Silva. Ever heard of Nick Blackburn? I’m guessing not. He’s one of the candidates to replace Silva in Minnesota next year, because he’s basically the exact same pitcher. Blackburn’s just been putting his strikes and groundballs skillset to use in the minors the last few years.
There is almost no difference between Nick Blackburn and Carlos Silva, however. Silva has the name recognition and the track record, so he’ll get the big payday, but from this point forward, it’s a coin-flip to who has a better major league career. And it’s not like Nick Blackburn is a highly valued commodity throughout the game.
The strike throwing, no outpitch hurler is just a very easy skillset to find in a pitcher. Throwing a huge amount of money at Carlos Silva simply because he’s proven is a gigantic waste of resources.
3. Kyle Lohse, Right-Handed Starter
Completing the trifecta of former Twins, we have the most inexplicable somewhat coveted free agent in recent history. It’s essentially assumed that Lohse is going to get a contract in the $25 million range over 3 years. Why? I have absolutely no idea.
Lohse is what you would have if you took Carlos Silva, gave him mediocre command, and took away his sinker. He has below average stuff, average control, no outpitch, and was drummed out of the American League 18 months ago after posting a 7.07 ERA in 2006 before the Twins dumped him on the Reds. The move to the National League helped, as it would any pitcher, and made him appear simply not good instead of terrible.
The Reds sent him to the Phillies in a meaningless deadline deal this summer, and after pitching like the mediocre #5 starter he is in Philadelphia, even Pat Gillick doesn’t particularly want him back (quick sidenote – Gillick stole Brad Lidge from Ed Wade yesterday, and since I never say anything nice about him, here you go Pat – way to rip off one of the few GMs worse at trading than yourself). Lohse doesn’t have a strong track record of success. He doesn’t have good stuff. He doesn’t pound the strike zone. But, because he currently has a pulse, he’s a valued asset?
Every single 2008 Triple-A rotation will have at least one guy who could give you 95% of Kyle Lohse’s production for 3% of the cost. In an efficient market where major league teams understood how to evalute pitchers, Lohse would be lucky to get more than a few million dollars on a one year deal. However, he’ll stand as the new example of how badly teams misread pitchers, and he’s going to steal money from some unlucky franchise for the next few years.