Friday, December 11, 2015

The Five Best Free-Agent Signings Coming Out of the Winter Meetings

After a couple weeks of simmering, then scalding hot stove action, the Baseballot all-free-agent team is starting to take shape. Here's how the roster looks now:

The blue names are players we've "signed" so far this offseason. They've added $38,007,500 to our existing payroll of $122.1 million. That leaves us with $39,892,500 left to spend before we hit our self-imposed budget of $200 million.

Here's why we chose who we did, why we passed on some particularly tempting names, and who our targets will be in the coming weeks.

Starting Pitcher

We only had two open spots in the starting rotation, and with the depth of this year's free-agent crop at that position, I wanted to make them count. That's why I didn't even consider options like Marco Estrada, whose 3.13 ERA was an illusion, having been backed up by a 4.40 FIP, or Jeff Samardzija, who got $90 million over five years despite being pretty terrible in two of the last three years (I'm not at all convinced that his 2014 self was the real version, especially after his 4.18 SIERA in 2015).

Jordan Zimmermann has long been a favorite of mine—after years of going to Nats games in DC, I've probably seen him play more than any other pitcher. When he signed for what felt like the below-market rate of $110 million over five years, I thought about pulling the trigger. But luck of the draw already stuck us with two $20-plus-million-a-year starting pitchers (James Shields and CJ Wilson), and it felt like a luxury to grab a third. Plus, while basic projections by FanGraphs predict he'll be worth the deal just about exactly, there are undeniable risks like his replaced elbow ligament, velocity decrease last year, and high second-half ERA. The market also boasts two Zimmermann clones in strike-throwers Wei-Yin Chen and Hisashi Iwakuma, whose price tags are substantially cheaper. With sadness, I passed on bringing my old ballpark constant on board our little experiment.

Speaking of Iwakuma, he was near or at the top of my wish list from day one of this experiment. The quality of his pitching compares to the top-tier options at this position. His ERA− over the last three years, 84, is the same as Zimmermann's and not far off David Price's 78. His SIERA over that time frame is 3.21, better than Zack Greinke. He also has the best K/BB ratios of anyone on the market other than Price (5.29 last year, 5.36 over the last three years). Only on quantity does he not match up—he's pitched 179 and 129.2 innings the last two years. Because of this, plus his age (34), we knew he would get a much cheaper deal, and that was borne out when he signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Dodgers. In the friendly environment of Dodger Stadium and the National League, his ability to pitch to that value isn't in question, even if he misses up to a third of starts during that period.

John Lackey was in the same boat as Iwakuma. Lackey's 2.77 ERA, 3.30 K/BB, and 3.6 fWAR last year were comparable to elite free-agent starters, but his advanced age (36) kept him cheaper (two years, $32 million). But age hasn't slowed him down so far (he pitched 218 innings last year), so this feels like a low-risk bet. Essentially, for $31 million—the average annual value of a Price or Greinke—we got two almost-as-good starters who are just at different stages of their career. Although there remain lots of interesting names on the starting-pitcher market, our team's rotation is now full, and I think we're probably done at this position unless a crazy bargain presents itself.

Relief Pitcher

I have, apparently, an unusual outlook on building a bullpen: there's no need to spend money to do it. Sure, the absolute best relievers—Darren O'Day ($31 million over four years), Joakim Soria ($25 million over three years)—cost money, but what you're really paying for is their 100% reliability, not their stellar numbers. You can get stellar numbers elsewhere for much less cash thanks to the fact that relievers only throw 50 innings a year—a small sample in which anything can happen. The key is to sign guys who are likely, but not certain, to post stellar numbers for significantly cheaper. Guys like Ryan Webb (3.20 ERA in 2015), César Ramos (2.75), or Joe Blanton (2.84), clearly, are capable of excellence, but they will cost less because they're not sure things. When building a bullpen, it's smarter—or at least more cost-effective—to sign a boatload of these types. If three or four of them work out, you've got a good bullpen for almost nothing.

For that reason, although we have no less than five open bullpen spots, I'm not swimming in the deep end of the pool. And because there are over 100 free-agent relievers, we can afford to wait around for the bargains to surface. With most signings so far being the big fish of the market, I haven't seen a lot of these yet. I was tempted by Justin De Fratus ($750,000) and Ernesto Frieri ($850,000) because they were so cheap, but there are others I like better who will still come at an acceptable price (say, $3 million).

Chad Qualls is a perfect example. Although he put up a 4.38 ERA last year, his SIERA was 2.60, and he has among the game's best walk (1.6 BB/9) and strikeout (8.4 K/9) rates. His deal this week, for $6 million over two years, would have been an excellent value—if it wasn't with the Rockies. Calling Coors Field home will be death to Qualls's ERA, limiting his value to our make-believe team. Going into this exercise, Qualls was my top pick for our vacant closer job, but this signing forced me to move on.

The only relief signing I liked enough to add was the Nationals' one-year, $3 million deal with Yusmeiro Petit. Petit was an average pitcher last year but has always been a strike-thrower, helping him to realize stretches of dominance in the past. His ability to mop up innings also increases his total value. He's on our team.


Colby Rasmus was a tempting target after he accepted his qualifying offer—after all, there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal. But ultimately the $15.8 million price was too big a percentage of our budget to justify on a player who is solid but not elite. At prices that high, we might as well aim for the best. Let's just say we'll be very competitive in the bidding for Jason Heyward...

Until Heyward signs, the outfield market isn't expected to budge much, but one notable early signing was Nori Aoki to the Mariners. There are lots of similar cheap-ish, solid outfield options to complement the Heyward/Justin Upton/Alex Gordon top tier, including Marlon Byrd, Gerardo Parra, and a dark horse pick of mine, Hyun Soo Kim. However, each comes with a red flag explaining why they're not more expensive. Byrd's is his age, and the fact that he has rapidly declined from an OPS+ of 137 to 109 to 101 the last three years. Parra's is the fact that his once-elite defense appears to be crumbling before our eyes. Aoki's is the concussion he suffered toward the end of last season. Ultimately, I chose to accept Aoki's risk as the least scary. The Mariners clearly believe he is over the injury, as they are planning to install him as their leadoff hitter, and his performance throughout his major-league career has been the model of consistency:

It seems pretty safe that Aoki can duplicate those numbers again in 2016, and that would certainly be worth his asking price of $5.5 million.


Ben Zobrist was the big signing during the Winter Meetings, but I'm going to take a pass. I love the player Zobrist is right now, but I don't know how long that player can last. At age 34, Zobrist's historically good defense collapsed to −12 Defensive Runs Saved, dropping his WAR to 2.1 from 5.5—despite his best offensive season (.809 OPS) in three years. Since defense tends to really degrade with age, I'm not sure he's going back to his slick-fielding ways, and the offense is likely to regress too. I don't want to make the $14-million-a-year gamble. I'd rather fill our infield hole the cheap way (Juan Uribe?) or the creative way (recent Cuban defector José Fernández, who has mad OBP skillz and is only 27).


The catcher market caught fire early in November, and by December 11 all the dust seems to have settled. AJ Pierzynski was the first domino to fall for $2 million, but his OBP has always been too low for my tastes. Chris Iannetta ($4.25 million), Geovany Soto ($2.8 million), and Alex Avila ($2.5 million) were also solid, affordable options, but I decided to hold out for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. None of the options on the catcher market are particularly outstanding, but Salty probably has the most upside. Over the last three years, he's averaged 1.9 WAR, tops among the free-agent class (like I said, it's a modest group). And the best part is that he'd be practically free. The Marlins are still paying his salary, so we'd only be on the hook for the major-league minimum ($507,500). Why spend any money at all on a catcher when you're probably not going to get anything other than a lottery ticket?

When Saltalamacchia did finally sign with the Tigers on Sunday, though, I wasn't thrilled with his landing place. Reports say that he'll "compete for the backup catcher job." If we're trying to build the team that will amass the most value/WAR (and we are), that's not great, since even awesome numbers can't make up for a lack of playing time. (Iannetta, by contrast, is expected to start for the Mariners, while Soto and Avila will get plenty of plate appearances as part of a platoon.) Plus, the big park in Detroit will probably not agree with his power stroke. At the league minimum salary, it's not a very costly mistake, but I did paint my way into a corner by passing over all my other options to get to Salty.

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