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When Bad Teams Sign Good Free Agents

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Jon Lester

Teams coming off losing seasons occasionally wade into the expensive end of the free agent pool, but generally the marquee players in each free agent class gravitate to the top teams. This is only natural given top teams have the most to gain from purchasing a few extra wins in the marketplace.

Using top free agents from the 2017 class as an example, Yu Darvish signed with the 92-win Cubs, J.D. Martinez signed with the 93-win Red Sox and Lorenzo Cain signed with the 86-win Brewers. Others such as Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Mike Moustakas remain unsigned but could land with contenders.

The same is not true for two other prominent free agents. The 28-year-old Eric Hosmer signed for the most years (eight) and most total dollars ($144 million) in his free agent class, but he did so with the 91-loss Padres. Carlos Santana signed for three years and $60 million—eclipsing Hosmer in terms of average annual value—but did so with the 96-loss Phillies.

As one would expect, those instances of "bad" teams signing "good" free agents have produced mixed results. In this piece we will examine some of the most notable precedents from the past 20 years.

AAV refers to the average annual value of each player's contract, with that total compared with the major league average salary—as reported by the players' union—for the first year of the deal.


Success Stories

1. Jon Lester | 2015 Cubs
Terms: 6 years, $155 million.
Losses Year Prior: 89. | Three-Year Average: 95.
AAV: $25.8MM ($22MM above average).

The Theo Epstein-led Cubs scored future MVP Kris Bryant in the 2013 draft and entered 2015 with the No. 1 farm system in the game. In that context, they committed $155 million to Lester, which was the second-highest free agent payout of that offseason. The plan worked. Chicago advanced to the NL Championship Series each year from 2015 to 2017—with Lester averaging 32 starts and a 123 ERA+—and famously won the 2016 World Series. Not to be overlooked: the Cubs’ pro scouting department, which helped them round out their rotation with Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks.

2. Jayson Werth | 2011 Nationals
Terms: 7 years, $126 million.
Losses Year Prior: 93. | Three-Year Average: 99.
AAV: $18MM ($15MM above average).

Averaging 99 losses in a three-year period helped fortify the Nationals for half a decade or more. Washington used prime draft position to select Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon in successive drafts from 2009 to 2011. Strasburg had already reached the majors—and had Tommy John surgery—by the time the Nationals signed Werth, but Harper and Rendon gave the organization the No. 1 farm system in baseball heading into 2012. Werth stumbled in his Washington debut but delivered a 120 OPS+ from 2012 to 2016, a period encompassing three Nats playoff teams.

3. Carlos Beltran | 2005 Mets
Terms: 7 years, $119 million.
Losses Year Prior: 91. | Three-Year Average: 91.
AAV: $17MM ($14.7MM above average).

The 2005 Mets also committed $53 million over four years to sign a 33-year-old Pedro Martinez. While Pedro gave them only one good year, Beltran actually compiled a higher OPS+ (129) for the Mets than he did for any of his other six teams. The Mets advanced to the NL Championship Series in 2006, then narrowly missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 after late-season collapses. The Mets of this period had two homegrown stars in David Wright and Jose Reyes, but had they hit on top 10 overall draft picks in 2004 (Phil Humber) and 2005 (Mike Pelfrey), they might be remembered differently today.

4. Magglio Ordonez | 2005 Tigers
Terms: 5 years, $75 million.
Losses Year Prior: 90. | Three-Year Average: 105.
AAV: $15MM ($12.7MM above average).

The Tigers of the 1990s and early 2000s weren’t necessarily tanking in the way we understand the concept today. They just more or less bumbled their way through 12 consecutive losing seasons from 1994 to 2005, when they approached .500 just twice. The tide began to turn for the franchise when Dave Dombrowski took the wheel in 2002, and by 2006 they were AL champions. The Detroit pennant winners benefited from the signing of free agent Ordonez and also Ivan Rodriguez (see No. 6 below) as well as strong draft picks such as Justin Verlander (second overall in 2004) and Curtis Granderson plus shrewd trades for Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen and Jeremy Bonderman.

5. Randy Johnson | 1999 Diamondbacks
Terms: 4 years, $53.4 million.
Losses Year Prior: 97.
AAV: $13.35MM ($12MM above average).

Though he grew up in California, Johnson had settled in the Phoenix area by the time he became a free agent after the 1998 season. This helped swing negotiations in favor of the Diamondbacks rather than Johnson’s other suitors, the Angels, Dodgers and Rangers. The only problem was that the D-backs were a 1998 expansion franchise coming off a 97-loss opening salvo. In retrospect, Arizona was closer to contention than they appeared, thanks largely to an imminent breakout from trade pickup Luis Gonzalez and the signing of Johnson. The Big Unit reeled off four straight NL Cy Young Awards in his first four seasons for Arizona—the D-backs qualified for the playoffs in three of them—and famously starred alongside Curt Schilling for the 2001 World Series champions.

6. Ivan Rodriguez | 2004 Tigers
Terms: 4 years, $40 million.
Losses Year Prior: 119. | Three-Year Average: 107.
AAV: $10MM ($7.6MM above average).

The memory of the dismal 2003 Tigers has faded a bit with all the tanking undertakings of the 2010s. But that 2003 Detroit team lost 119 times—one fewer than the 1962 Mets, a hapless expansion franchise. The Tigers in 2003 had the worst offense and pitching staff in the AL by wide margins. They carried three Rule 5 picks all season, which was unheard of until the 2017 Padres did the same thing. That is the context into which Rodriguez, a World Series hero with the Marlins the year before, stepped. The future Hall of Fame catcher was 32 when he played his first game for the Tigers, and for at least his first three seasons in Detroit he looked like a bargain by compiling a 110 OPS+ and guiding the 2006 pitching staff to the best ERA in the AL and the league pennant.


Things Didn’t Go As Planned

1. Alex Rodriguez | 2001 Rangers
Terms: 10 years, $252 million.
Losses Year Prior: 91. | Three-Year Average: 77.
AAV: $25.2MM ($23MM above average).

The 2000 Rangers lost 91 times, but the franchise at this time could not accurately be described as "bad." After all, Texas won the AL West in 1998 and 1999 behind a hard-hitting offense that slumped to below-average in 2000. (That at least had the side effect of yielding Mark Teixeira in the 2001 draft.) After signing Rodriguez, the Rangers returned to the upper echelon of AL lineups in 2001, but the pitching staff allowed the most runs in baseball. The same general pattern held in 2002 and 2003, while the team averaged 90 losses per year. Defeated, the Rangers traded A-Rod to the Yankees in 2004.

2. Robinson Cano | 2014 Mariners
Terms: 10 years, $240 million.
Losses Year Prior: 91. | Three-Year Average: 91.
AAV: $24MM ($20.6MM above average).

While the book isn’t yet closed on Cano’s time in Seattle, he enters his age-35 season with nary a Mariners playoff appearance, though his teams overall have been perfectly mediocre. The Cano-Nelson Cruz-Felix Hernandez Mariners will make one more go at the promised land in 2018 as they try to snap the longest playoff drought in American pro spots. One can view Seattle’s string of high first-round picks from 2011 to 2014—Danny Hultzen, Mike Zunino, D.J. Peterson and Alex Jackson—and wonder what might have been.

3. Jose Reyes | 2012 Marlins
Terms: 6 years, $106 million.
Losses Year Prior: 90. | Three-Year Average: 82.
AAV: $17.7MM ($14.6MM above average).

The Marlins feigned an attempt at fielding a winning team when they moved into taxpayer-funded Marlins Park in 2012. In addition to signing Reyes for the third-largest payout of that offseason, they also invited free agents Mark Buehrle (four years, $58 million) and Heath Bell to the party. The Marlins certainly didn’t let their guests overstay their welcome. They traded all three after the 2012 season, and Miami fans are still waiting for the first winning Marlins team at the new ballpark. That timetable got pushed back indefinitely with the trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon after the 2017 season.

4. Chan Ho Park | 2002 Rangers
Terms: 5 years, $65 million.
Losses Year Prior: 89. | Three-Year Average: 82.
AAV: $13MM ($10.9MM above average).

After signing A-Rod for the 2001 season and making no progress, the Rangers doubled down on their free agent gambit by addressing the team’s weakest area—the rotation—on the open market. Unfortunately, the top free agent starter available for 2002 was Park, a 28-year-old righthander coming off an all-star season with the Dodgers. The flyball pitcher with a modest strikeout rate was a bad match for Arlington, and he never again had an above-average season as a starter. That same offseason the Rangers also signed old friend Juan Gonzalez for two years and $24 million, and he contributed a 112 OPS+ in two injury-plagued seasons.

5. Adrian Beltre | 2005 Mariners
Terms: 5 years, $64 million.
Losses Year Prior: 99. | Three-Year Average: 79.
AAV: $12.8MM ($10.5MM above average).

The fact that the Rangers and Mariners make two appearances on this list is indicative of the struggles they face when courting premier free agents. Those clubs’ owners have shown a willingness to spend, but to lure the the big fish—A-Rod, Cano, Park, Beltre—to their markets, they have to overpay. Beltre had finished runner-up in the 2004 NL MVP race when the Mariners signed him, and in Seattle his teams featured Ichiro Suzuki and Felix Hernandez as co-headliners. However, the front office never supplied a playoff-worthy supporting cast during this era, thus Seattle averaged 76 wins per season from 2005 to 2009. Of course, the minute Beltre left the Mariners he began to establish himself as a future Hall of Famer.

6. Miguel Tejada | 2004 Orioles
Terms: 6 years, $72 million.
Losses Year Prior: 91. | Three-Year Average: 95.
AAV: $12MM ($9.6MM above average).

Tejada went mainstream with an MVP season for the 2002 Athletics, and he continued to produce at the plate after signing his megadeal with Baltimore. He played almost literally every day and compiled a 119 OPS+ in four years with the Orioles before the club traded him to the Astros after the 2007 season for, well, nothing in particular. Poor run prevention combined with poor drafting and player development—with the notable exception of 2003 first-rounder Nick Markakis—thwarted Baltimore’s intention to be competitive during Tejada's residency.

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Two-Timers

Some teams exit bad seasons with the belief that signing a few key free agents can remedy their situation. Here are a trio of teams of recent vintage that, despite signing two high-end free agents, fell short of their goal.

2013 Indians

The 2012 Indians lost 94 games but had been mediocre the year before. They must have sensed that a young core than included Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber was about to break through. That’s because Cleveland invested heavily in a pair of 30-something free agent outfielders for 2013, signing Nick Swisher ($56 million) and Michael Bourn ($48 million) to four-year pacts.

The Indians reached the AL Wild Card Game in 2013—thanks to the young core—and ultimately wound up footing the bill for the decline phases of the two free agents' careers. Of course, that didn’t prevent the Indians from averaging 91 wins per season from 2013 to 2017 and winning the 2016 AL pennant.

2015 Red Sox

Smarting from a 91-loss season in 2014, but with the 2013 World Series title still fresh in mind, the Red Sox splurged on free agents Pablo Sandoval (five years, $95 million) and Hanley Ramirez (four years, $88 million) by showering them with the third- and fourth-most lucrative outlays of that offseason. The plan was sound, but the free agents weren’t willing.

Not only did Sandoval and Ramirez immediately begin to show signs of decline—Ramirez’s 2016 campaign is the only above-average season by either player—but Boston’s strategy was almost immediately nullified when batters with above-average power began to grow on trees. The free agents didn't pan out, but the Red Sox have soldiered on, and in 2016 and 2017 they strung together successive 93-win seasons with accompanying AL East titles.

2016 Tigers

The Tigers appeared in the AL Championship Series each year from 2011 to 2013, led by a rotation that featured at various points Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Doug Fister. The offense was keyed by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. So while a Scherzer-less Detroit club lost 87 games in 2015, they didn’t view their window of contention as closed. Verlander and Cabrera remained majors assets, and new stars such as J.D. Martinez and Michael Fulmer were set to assume prominent roles.

This helps explain why Detroit signed Justin Upton (six years, $133 million) and Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million) to lucrative contracts for 2016. The plan nearly worked, but the Tigers fell 2.5 games shy of a wild card in what proved to be a last hurrah. The franchise bottomed out in 2017 with a worst-in-baseball 98 losses, spurred by the trades of Verlander, Upton and J.D. Martinez.

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