A Couple of Quick Notes on Free Agency
Yesterday, I published a piece over at FanGraphs that looked at the relationship in 2012 between opening day payroll and team winning percentage. This year, it’s at its lowest levels since the days of collusion, there is more parity in baseball this year (related to team salary, at least) than there has been in 20+ years. There are more teams currently in playoff position in the bottom half of team payroll than in the top half. The top five teams in winning percentage all rank outside the top five in opening day spending, and only one of the top five by winning percentage even ranks in the top 15 of spending.
So, yeah. This isn’t a normal year, and this probably isn’t the start of any kind of trend, but the data is pretty clear – you simply cannot make a judgment about a team’s ability to contend by looking at how much money they spend on their roster. The ROI on additional spending above league average this year was next to nothing. In general, teams that attempted to contend through lavish free agent spending fell on their faces, and teams that made smart investments on undervalued players are doing very well. The lesson, as always – there’s a right way and a wrong way to build a baseball team. Throwing a lot of money at the biggest names in free agency is the wrong way. Anyone who tells you differently is simply ignoring the facts.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean that teams shouldn’t spend money in free agency. They just need to spend it on the right players. Last year, I advocated for trading for Joey Votto, or if that wasn’t possible, signing guys like Edwin Jackson and trading for a guy like Angel Pagan. The Reds, Nationals, and Giants have reaped the rewards of making those smart moves this year. The team has room in the budget to make some upgrades this winter, and they should absolutely use it. The main question is always “who should they spend it on?”
I’ll be rolling out my usual Off-Season Plan post here in a few weeks, but if you’re interested in perusing the various options, we’ve also created a pretty great tool for you to use – the 2012 Free Agent Custom Leaderboard. From this page, you can filter and sort to your hearts content, looking at all the various options that will likely be available for purchase this winter, and because it’s a sweet FanGraphs Custom Leaderboard, you can filter by age, ranges of years, position, for certain minimum performances, or pretty much anything else you want to do.
When you click through that link, one thing will probably stand out immediately – there is an absurdly deep crop of available outfielders this winter. Of the top 13 position players in 2012 WAR set to hit the market, 10 of them are OFs. Teams looking for a CF can pick between Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton, Angel Pagan, or Shane Victorino, or teams more looking for a bat in the outfield can aim for Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Ludwick, Cody Ross, or Torii Hunter. And this doesn’t even include potential trade targets such as Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, or Jacoby Ellsbury.
Put simply, this is the deepest group of available outfielders we’ve seen in years, and the idea that this is a bad market to be a buyer doesn’t apply to teams looking for help in the outfield. You know, like the Mariners. In fact, given their organizational weaknesses and the types of players available, this is perhaps the best kind of free agent market the Mariners could hope for. They’ll have a ton of options available to pursue, many of whom should come at reasonable prices, and won’t have the kind of leverage to be able to say they don’t want to play in Seattle. The Mariners need at least one outfielder, and this free agent class is overflowing with outfielders, several of whom would be great fits for the team.
Don’t buy into this notion that the Mariners missed their opportunity to spend when Prince Fielder went to Detroit. There are better options available this winter, and the team has a great opportunity to be rewarded for their patience. With some smart off-season maneuvering, there’s no reason that the team can’t get a larger upgrade by spending a fraction of the money this winter than they would have gotten from throwing a huge sum of money at Fielder last winter.