Sheehan: Stay Out Of The Middle Lane
One didn’t have to look far this October to see the value of spending in free agency.
J.D. Martinez, signed to a five-year deal last winter, was the missing piece for the Red Sox offense, a top-five MVP finisher and Silver Slugger winner for a World Series champion. Lorenzo Cain, also the recipient of a five-year contract, was one of the best players for a Brewers team that led the National League in wins and nearly reached the World Series. David Stearns and Dave Dombrowski took risks, Mark Attanasio and John Henry wrote checks, and the resulting wins were critical.
For many front offices and ownership groups, though, free agency is an exercise in risk avoidance. Whatever the wealth of owners, the money from TV deals, the growth in franchise values, many teams treat the winter talent market as a field of land mines.
They’re not wrong. Most high-end free agents have produced more value prior to hitting the market than they will afterwards. The structure of six-year free agency means that the market is filled with players near the end of their primes, or even past them. This is why the likes of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper create such demand. It is rare for great players to become available in their mid-20s, and when they do, they bring to market the rare possibility of upside in a high-salaried free agent deal.
The fact is, though, that there are more mistakes to be made in free agency than there are successes to be had. If you’re a team trying to stay below the luxury-tax threshold, or even an arbitrary budget number, the fastest way to go wrong is to sign a middling player to superstar money. The mistakes in free agency are rarely at the top of the market, but rather, when Dexter Fowler or Jordan Zimmermann or Pablo Sandoval gets a contract they don’t come close to meeting on the field.
This winter, here are your potential land mines.
PATRICK CORBIN, LHP
Note: Corbin reportedly agreed to a deal with the Washington Nationals on Tuesday.
Corbin is listed by most as the top starting pitcher available, off a season in which, at 28, he posted a 3.15 ERA with a whopping 246 strikeouts, finishing fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. Those votes were the first Corbin had ever received, and his 2018 season was just the third full season of his career. Of most concern is his repertoire; Corbin leaned in hard on his slider last year, throwing it more than 40 percent of the time. The recent track record of pitchers who throw sliders than often is littered with injury cases: Tyson Ross, his brother Joe Ross, and Michael Pineda have all missed seasons to injury. Dinelson Lamet will miss most of 2019. Only Chris Archer has thrown his slider has often as Corbin did last year and stayed healthy, but his performance has been diminished the last two years. There’s both performance and health risk in signing Corbin.
CRAIG KIMBREL, RHP
Kimbrel saved six of Boston’s 11 postseason wins, but he was hardly effective, allowing runs in four of the six saves and running a 5.91 ERA with 10 strikeouts and eight walks in the playoffs. Kimbrel has had a wonderful career as a closer with 333 saves and a 1.91 ERA. Most of his dominance, though, came with the Braves (1.43 ERA). Since being traded away, he’s been more good than great, with a 2.47 mark and two seasons in the last three where his control was a problem. Throw in a drop in fastball velocity last year (from 98.7 mph to 97.5), and the red flags are everywhere.
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NATHAN EOVALDI, RHP
As long as we’re picking on World Series heroes, let’s use Eovaldi to illustrate a principle: You should never sign a player to a contract longer than the number of good years he’s had in his career. Gary Matthews Jr. is the canonical example here, but most free agent mistakes boil down to getting overexcited about a walk year than was wholly disconnected from a player’s full career.
In Eovaldi’s case, it was a walk month. At 29, Eovaldi has qualified for the ERA title only once in his career, and hasn’t thrown even 150 innings since 2015, missing all of 2017 to a second Tommy John surgery. Adding a cut fastball last year made him more effective, as we saw in October, but he threw just 111 regular-season innings in his platform season. In his career, Eovaldi has two seasons with at least two wins above replacement, and no three-WAR seasons. How much, and for how long, can you offer to pay a player who has yet to be a star performer?
D.J. LEMAHIEU, 2B
It would be easy to just list a bunch of pitchers and call it a day. LeMahieu represents a different sort of problem, a player whose home park creates an illusion of value that won’t be there if he leaves it. In an eight-year career spent mostly with the Rockies, LeMahieu has hit .264/.311/.362 away from home in more than 1,800 plate appearances. There are good reasons to not take road numbers for Rockies players at face value, so it’s fair to consider LeMahieu perhaps better than that, but nothing like his career .290/.350/.406 line. As a good contact hitter in the very best environment in baseball for a contact hitter, LeMahieu has thrived, with a .376 batting average on balls in play at home. That figure is .307 on the road. LeMahieu’s strong defense will help his free agent case, but away from Coors Field he’s likely to be a bottom-of-the-order hitter, and as such, a disappointing signing.
Sometimes, you sign a superstar knowing the deal will eventually bring some pain. We’re watching the back end of the Albert Pujols deal play out as expected. Land mines, though, are players who will almost immediately make you regret the contract. Avoid them, and you’re halfway home in the free agent market.