First Pitch: Spending Money in Free Agency Isn’t Worth It

A few years ago I saw Pat Lackey at WHYGAVS write an article at the end of the year talking about what he learned about the game of baseball that year. I thought it was a good approach to take. It makes sense for anyone to embrace new lines of thinking, evaluate their old lines of thinking, and wonder if there is something new to focus on going forward.

One of the big things I’ve been evaluating this year is whether free agency is worth it. Last year I wrote an article talking about the realistic options for the Pirates. The team had four needs: catcher, shortstop, first base, and starting pitching. My suggestion was Ramon Hernandez at catcher, Clint Barmes at shortstop, Derrek Lee at first base, and Chris Capuano on the mound.

This year my suggestion might take a different tone: no one at all.

After Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas started struggling early in the year, I started evaluating my thoughts on free agency. My feeling prior to this year was that teams like the Pirates had no shot at the big free agents, leaving them with the lesser players to choose from. Some of those players still had value, and would be worth pursuing at lower costs.

The problem with that value is that the ceiling starts out lower, which means that if the player struggles, there’s no a lot of room between them and a replacement level player. So in the case of Rod Barajas, for example, you’ve got a catcher who has a -0.6 WAR and costs $4 M, which is about $3.5 M more than a replacement level player, all while getting half a win less than a replacement level player would bring.

I started thinking about how the Pirates might be better off avoiding the lesser players, and going for the “all their eggs in one basket” approach. That’s when I started paying attention to some of the higher priced free agents. And that’s when I noticed that most of those guys weren’t performing well either.

I have been meaning to take an overall look at free agency from this past off-season, trying to find which players produced value. I wanted to wait until the appropriate time to start talking about the off-season. Unfortunately, the late season slide has brought that discussion in to play prior to the end of the 2012 season. I was reminded of this topic yesterday in the comments section, and took a look today.

Below is a chart of every free agent from last year who signed with a new team for $1 M a year or more. The tables are sorted by value. I’ve included their 2012 WAR numbers to date (prior to the 9/23 games). Those numbers can still change over the final two weeks of the season, but they probably won’t change significantly. The final column is the value that the players produced this year. Value is measured as $4 M for each win above replacement, minus their contract. So if a player is paid $5 M, and is a 2.0 WAR player, it would be calculated as: (2.0 * $4 M) – $5 M = $3 M. The value in that case would be $3 M.

I used the $4 M per win figure because that’s where the contracts ended up this year. I will point out that in some cases the value isn’t the only thing to go by. I’ll get in to that  bit more later.

The chart is broken down in to four main tabs, with all of the free agents, then the free agents broken down by price range. What I found was a bit surprising. The average value for the $5 M and under group was $277,514 per player. Surprisingly that was the only group with a positive value. The $5-10 M group averaged -$579,167 in value per player, which means teams slightly over-paid. The $10+ M group averaged $3,471,607 per player, which means most teams really over-paid. Let’s take a closer look at each section.

$5 M and Under

This group had some of the biggest values, and the best success rate for players to provide positive value. 47.9% of the players in this group produced positive value, which isn’t really that strong. Basically if you’re signing two players from this category, one of them will work out and one will be a bust, on average. The Pirates had three players from this group: Barajas, Erik Bedard, and Nate McLouth. Bedard and McLouth have produced positive value, although both come with a disclaimer. Bedard’s value was $700,000, which isn’t a steal by any means. McLouth has positive value, but all of it has come with the Orioles.

Two of the best deals from this group came on the international market. Norichika Aoki has put up over $10 M in value for the Brewers, which is the second most valuable free agent contract of all of the deals I looked at. Wei-Yin Chen has given the Orioles $5 M in value.

$5-10 M

This group had five out of the 12 players provide positive value, hitting 41.7%. Again, the top value was an international deal, with Yu Darvish providing $9.6 M in value, despite his $10 M a year deal. That figure doesn’t include the posting fee for Darvish, which was $51.7 M. Even when you add in that value, Darvish is seeing a positive value of $983,333.

There was one thing I noticed in this group: most of the bad contracts are relievers. If you take out all of the relief pitching contracts, the average value of the rest of the players is $1,925,000. Also, five of the eight remaining players, or 62.5%, had positive value.

After noticing the relievers dragging down the values, I made a separate tab for relievers. You’ll note that out of 18 relievers signed for $1 M or more, only three of them produced positive value this year. All three were signed to one year deals for $4 M or less. Yet for some reason, teams still pay relievers big dollars.

$10+ M

This group ended up being very over-paid. The average value was -$3,471,607. Even if you took out Jonathan Papelbon and his -$7.3 M in value, you still get almost -$3 M from the rest of the players. Only one player provided positive value, and that was Aramis Ramirez, who was the most valuable contract out of everyone I looked at.

It makes sense that these guys are over-paid. They’re the most valuable guys on the market, and as a result, they’ve got the most bidders and the attention of the teams with the most money. That drives up the price to the point where they can’t possibly put up the numbers needed to justify their deals.

Some of these deals aren’t bad deals, even if they come with negative value. The big example would be Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals saw Albert Pujols walk for an average of $25 M a year, which has led to -$9.8 M in value this year. Meanwhile, Beltran was signed for $13 M a year, has produced almost the same results as Pujols, and while he’s at -$1 M in value, that’s a discount compared to Pujols. Add in the playoffs, and Beltran will probably even out the value of his contract, which combined with the savings from Pujols signing elsewhere, makes his deal a great move.

Who Should the Pirates Target?

The Pirates have been in a difficult situation when it comes to free agency the last few years. They’ve been limited to the lower paid guys. Most of those guys are bench options or marginal starters, yet the Pirates need above-average starters. The guys they sign have been pretty much doomed from the start. They’re supposed to be role players, but because the team has been rebuilding, those players end up being the highest paid players on the team, which raises expectations for their production.

As for the bigger free agents, the Pirates can’t be a player for those guys until they start winning. This year’s results could be enough to turn some heads, at least in the middle range. But we’ve seen how that’s worked in the past, with players turning them down for one year deals elsewhere, or players choosing not to sign with anyone at all, rather than signing with the Pirates.

They don’t have a chance at the top guys, and they really shouldn’t be going after those players. It’s not a smart move to pay 20% or more of your payroll to one player. Plus, in most cases teams are paying for the name, rather than the numbers. Carlos Beltran has a 3.0 WAR and is making $13 M a year over three years. Josh Willingham has a 3.9 WAR and is making $7 M a year for three years. There’s some hindsight to that, but not a huge amount. Willingham has been consistently a 2-3 win player. He’s having a career year this year, but should have been expected to provide value even without the career year. Beltran was a 4.7 WAR player last year, but has been inconsistent with injuries, posting a 0.8 WAR in 2010 and a 3.0 WAR in 2009. For the Pirates, it makes more sense to go after the Josh Willingham types, who are consistently good, not far off in value from the top guys, and cost much less.

Basically what the Pirates are looking at is one of two options:

1. Go the same route and add players in the $5 M range or less. On average, half of them should provide positive value, but even if they’re providing positive value, they might not amount to more than an average player, which really limits the upside of these deals.

2. Go for a big name player in the $5-10 M range. They’ve had trouble adding guys like this in previous years, but perhaps this season will help, as long as players figure they could help avoid a third straight collapse next year.

Or, maybe there’s a third option: skip free agency altogether. Maybe add a few role players or bench bats, but try to add players through other means. Another A.J. Burnett style trade would be a good example. Find a team that spent big bucks on a free agent a few years ago, only to see that player fail to live up to his contract.

In the Burnett deal, the Pirates will only be paying an average of $6.5 M a year. By comparison, pitchers like Jason Marquis have landed $7.5 M a year deals through free agency in recent years. Marquis was coming off a career year, but that was an outlier. He was usually around a 1.5 WAR pitcher throughout his career. By comparison, Burnett was coming off of two of his worst years in his career, and was around a 1.5 WAR player. Which player would you take? The guy coming off a career year, who is more likely to be no better than a 2.0 WAR player? Or the guy who at his worst is a 1.5 WAR player, and still might have a chance at some upside, all while costing $1 M less a year?

There’s some hindsight that’s unavoidable with that comparison. Burnett was a risk that worked out, and Marquis looked to some like an over-payment at the time. But the point is that this is what is available on each market. The trade market provides players at reasonable prices, mostly because some other team was foolish enough to win a bidding war, and now they’re having to pay part of his salary just to deal him. The free agent market provides players that teams either no longer want, or can no longer afford. The players that teams can’t afford usually aren’t coming to the Pirates, since they usually command big dollars and go to the big market teams. The other players are cast off for a reason. Some might want to just test the market, but in most cases they’re out there because they’re just not that good.

That’s the problem I see with the free agent market. The good players go to the big market teams. A few of the middle players might go to successful teams in smaller markets. But the smaller markets are largely stuck with players who can’t land a big deal elsewhere, and for good reason. But because they’re still some of the best options on the free agent market, they get paid more than they should.

Unless they can attract one of the middle players, the Pirates should avoid free agency going forward. They’d be better off looking at alternate avenues for talent, such as trading for bad contracts, signing minor league free agents, or signing some lower priced guys and hoping they break out. I’d also add an exception to the “avoid free agency” plan, and that’s considering international talent. Not all of the international players work out, but it seems like the ones that do provide a lot of value compared to similar US players on the free agent market.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates beat the Astros 8-1.

**Pirates Notebook: Bucs Spark Hit Parade; Huntington Addresses SEALs Criticism.

**Over at Bucs Dugout: A Military Member’s View Of The SEAL Training.

**God is angry about Zoltan? Am I the only one who thinks that it’s amusing seeing someone calling themselves a “die-hard Pirates fan” (which could be viewed as idolizing if we’re being so strict with the rules) taking such a “by the book” approach here? Alternate comment: I didn’t know Michele Bachmann was a Pirates fan.

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Heres how i feel…they are going to spend 15 mil on FA anyway…they always do…sign one or two of the middle players and cross your fingers..its better than signing four clint barmes

Bryan Graham

Point taken, but I guess my view on it is, if they don’t want to come, pay them more than they can get elsewhere. If it would have taken $9 million to get a guy that could only get $7 million elsewhere but the guy helps win games and produces, then it’s worth it. Who wouldn’t have loved to see an Aramis Ramirez, Kubel, or Willingham in the lineup even if it’s for more than their WAR suggests it should be for? I guess my bottom line point is, as a fan I could care less what a players WAR is. I care about whether a player is producing and helping my team win games. And if we have to pay more to get the guy than somebody else does, so be it. Just get the guy instead of signing guys that do nothing and you end up having the same hole to fill next year.


Good Article. Someone, please answer this: When was the time a starting pitcher or position player free agent sigining worked out for the Pirates?

Nathan Swartz

Shawon Dunston
Reggie Sanders


All the more reason to pass on free agents in the future. I wish we now would have spent even more money on international signings and in the draft than we already did knowing how horrendous our record is at signing free agents.


The answer isn’t “Stand pat and hope”, its draft and develop. Not just 1st round guys. Thats where they are falling short. Not just under NH, but for the past 15 years.


exactly…spending in FA for the pirates is the wrong move. This article just underscores the failure of NH. Vazquez, Church, Crosby, Overbay, Diaz, Barmes, Barajas, McLouth, Bedard. Thats over $35M for 0 WAR.


IMO, players are not robots, there is no real way to determine how a
free agent is going to perform for the Pirates at any price. No team in
baseball is more analytical with stats on players than the Pirates, they
make most of their deals with stats, unfortunetly they don’t understand
the other side of player evaluations. There is one major fact that does
affect free agency for the Pirates and that is money. They don’t have
the money for high end free agents and never will have it no matter who
owns them or how much the attendance spikes. I should clarify (no
owner), meaning no owner that keeps the Pirates in Pittsburgh.

No owner spends his own money, revenue streams determine team spending

So, starting with free agency concerning the Pirates is probably the
wrong place to start.

VRR Cards

Mark Cuban could and would. Too bad they wouldn’t sell the team to him.


Although in your list, you failed to mention Jason Kubel, who turned to be a great value for the Dbacks, Kubel, along with Willingham, should have been the targets last offseason for an offense in desperate need of competent hitters. Going into the season believing Presley and Tabata could man the corner outfield spots was foolish. Instead, the Bucs wasted their money on McLouth, Barajas, Barmes, Bedard, etc. This is the problem with NH, no ability whatsoever to identify value in FA’s. Yeah yeah about Burnett, but that’s really his only successful acquisition of the sort. As they say, even a blind squirrel will find a nut from time to time

John Lease

This has been true for a long time. The FA’s the Pirates sign haven’t been worth it. The guys who will make a difference on your team are the top tier guys, which the Pirates won’t bid on. Derek Bell is your typical Pirate FA signing, or the Barmes/Barajas one. Actually, they were better than usual, they (hopefully) made it thru a whole season. The difference between them and non-roster invitees isn’t that big, certainly not worth the money wasted on them. I’ve always said, the Pirates devalue ML jobs. There are only so many out there, they should be able to hammer that home to non-roster guys, of whom there are a ton every off season. They’ve been able to do that with bullpen guys, I don’t know why position players and marginal starters are different.


Dioner Navarro would’ve been useful.

Edwin Jackson is James McDonald, just two years more experienced. Their career trajectories are identical. Anybody who wants to sign Edwin Jackson while also suggesting that JMac is a disaster really needs to do some research before sitting down at the keyboard to type such nonsense.

Bryan Graham

J-Mac is NOT Edwin Jackson. Every man is his own man and has his own destiny. Hopefully J-Mac can turn into a Jackson type pitcher, because he doesn’t have the bat if he turns out to be a Ankiel.

David Lewis

I started down the same path with a couple of fanposts at Bucs Dugout, one looking at major-league FAs signing major-league contracts less than $5M over the past five years, and one looking at major-league FAs signing major league contracts for less than $1M or signing minor-league contracts over the last five years. I didn’t get to the top-tier FAs yet, but based on my quick skim through the data, I had a gut feeling that I would come out the same place you have.

Vicente Barletta

I think the Pirates need to take the Reds route to improve: a trade for a good upgrade. I like Headley, but I still don´t know where would he play. 1B and move him to 3B against tough lefties and then Sanchez plays 1B?
That raises the question what to do with Jones. I would keep him as insurance for Snider in RF.
The team also needs a C. Someone mentioned Ianetta but I don´t think the Angels will trade him with his affordable 5M option. I would take my chances with The Fort starting the season to see if Sanchez develops into a decent option, if not, trade for a C midseason.
Now the pitching, where I think most of the work has to be done. At this point the Pirates only have two locks at SP: Burnett and Wandy. McDonald has to regain his spot in Spring Training. Karstens is a non-tender (no way I´m paying again 4M for a guy hurt all the time. Bedard 2 anyone?)
Maybe McPherson and Locke can compete for the #5 spot on the rotation.
So the Pirates need to at least look for one SP on the FA market o trade. My options? Kyle Lohse as FA or Gavin Floyd as a trade. I would spend a little more and get someone like Saunders as insurance, so that way you have a rotation like:


Lohse or Floyd
McDonald vs Saunders
McPherson vs Locke

If McPherson or Locke are so good to keep them in the rotation, then they become good trade candidates.

Now the bullpen: One of the reasons for the collapse. I would only keep Hanrahan, Grilli, Watson and Resop. The rest: start from scratch.


I don’t see Edwin Jackson on the list. He signed with the Nats in the offseason after the Pirates were pursuing him I believe. I think it would have been worthwhile for the Pirates to spend over market on a FA like that. Still in his prime with solid stuff and no history of arm problems. Now I know that it was said that he just didn’t want to go to Pittsburgh. Well I would bet Jayson Werth wasn’t crazy about signing with the last place Nats the season before but if an organization is willing to pay over market for you then they will come. And after the signing of Werth, Washington management said something along the lines of, “we know that we probably overpaid for him, but we’re showing the fan base that we’re committed to winning.”

The Pirates just had to show that they were willing to pay a bit over market instead of offering around market value. Between Barajas, Barmes, Bedard, and McClouth and the salary added by acquiring Wandy its gotta be enough to have made an above market offer to Edwin Jackson.

Stephen Stull

I don’t want to hear this crap, you are just enforcing the NH philosophy of not spending money. Obviously what we are doing now isn’t working so….if free agency doesn’t work either then how do all these other teams in MLB continually win more games than us? Just utter stupidity is the only thing that can describe this article.

Marcus J

Winning teams do build from within. But they usually supplement with free agency. Not just the Yankees either. Look at the teams in playoff chase this year. The Nats got Edwin Jackson. The Cards got Beltran. The Reds got Ryan Ludwick (who is missing from your list by the way). The Brewers got Aramis Ramirez. The three teams ahead of the Bucs in the central division all did very well in free agency and not with huge $100 million contracts. You mention the International signing of the Rangers getting Yu Darvish and the Brewers getting Aoki, but you miss perhaps the biggest International Free Agent Signing. Oakland landing Yoenis Cespedes (not on your list). I find it disturbing that fans would take a loser mentality that the Bucs should just punt on free agency. They need to do better in free agency just like they need to do better developing in house talent.

Vicente Barletta

The problem is the Pirates don´t have enough talent to turn it around, like this season proved. The supposed good arms in AAA weren´t that good: Wilson, Locke, Morris.
Besides, except the Rays what other is a playoff caliber team right now? The Nationals are a combination of good luck at the draft (Strasburg/Harper) and spending money.


And a pretty good managerial selection!


Tim, great article as always but please explain to my why the Pirates shouldn’t sign Josh Hamilton to $20-25M a year for 5-7 years? Let’s say we give him $25M over 6 years for $150M. $25M on top of our already low cap would only put it in the $75-80M range, where it should be anyway. Hamilton gives us a big name to market and sell seats/merch. He would be proof to the fans/rest of MLB/NL Central/other free agents that the Bucs are willing to pay, not cheap and ready to win. He also gives the Pirates a legit 4 hitter for years to come. This is supposed to be beginning of the Pirates window and with Cutch signed for the next 6, makes sense in that light. Sure the Pirates still have holes but I like this line-up 1. Marte 2. Walker 3. Cutch 4. Hamilton 5. Jones/Sanchez 6. Pedro 7. Any SS not names Barmes 8. Fort/Sanchez.


I believe in the Bucs current philosophy of building from with-in but no one can deny what a 287AVG/43HR/124RBIs batter would add to this line up. You could argue that would give the Bucs 10-20 additional wins per season making them a playoff contender. The Pirates can still make money with a 75M cap, especially as a playoff contenter. The rotation should be solid over the next few years with the young aces moving up. Getting a top tier free agent goes against the grain and Bucs MO; maybe we should all think outside the box more…


Where to start, A) We don’t have revenue to increase payroll to $80 million a year. B) These big contracts for players in the 30’s rarely ever work out for the signing team. C) Hamilton is particularly risky due to health and off-field issues. D) A contract like his would cripple the team’s ability to sign any of there own players. E) Why would Hamilton even want to come here without us massively overpaying?

Tim, I agree that FA is certainly not a big part of the answer, Although NH hasn’t done very well, our new GM may be able to get the good $5 million dollar guys (Iannetta anyone?). I would certainly prefer a trade for someone like JJ Hardy (makes $7 million for 2 years) who should be available.


but what if Hardy’s numbers at PNC tank? Here, lemme explain…
most would consider the trade for Ludwick last year as a disaster even though we gave up practically nothing in return. This season, Ludwick signs onto a team with a hitter friendly park and he has a wonderful comeback season. Hardy is a very very good shortstop, and he may be available via trade because of Machado, but will he actually put up the offensive numbers that Barmes has not? There’s a very good chance he will not.
barajas has never been this bad offensively, and he was better with the Dodgers in a park suited for pitchers. did we sign him right when he lost all offensive value? Or will Rod rebound elsewhere like Ludwick, and Berkman, and McLouth, and etc…?
like you said above, Hamilton is not a good FA target. the only chance you have at a Hamilton like signing is raising your own Hamilton in the minor leagues, like McCutchen.
building a major league team with little funds is the worst kind of gambling. bigger dogs like the yanks, sox and angels can make mistakes financially. the pirates cant sink all of their money into one or two players. its a huge mistake to believe a Hamilton can put us over the top. he possibly could however make us better. but how do you afford to put other quality players around him???


You’ve made some good points, but I don’t see your reasoning of why Hardy shouldn’t continue w/o tanking. Isn’t there an equal chance he might improve?


Tim – thanks for compiling all of this. I’m sure it was time consuming. I’d be curious about what this analysis looks like going back five years. This is one year of data and I’d venture a guess that most teams would be looking at/looking for more data than that before coming to a conclusion.


My thinking is that top F.A.s are highly overpaid. Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells, Mathews, Jr., Soriana, etc.. There are bound to be pitchers, both starters and relievers, who didn’t pan out. The Giants have a LH SP whose name I’ve forgotten who is vastly overpaid.
The midtier and lower FA signings have usually worked in the past, to a degree. I’d rather see the Pirates pursue the $5MM to $8MM guys and have a little better chance at success than the bargain basement types they’ve gone after for several years. Overpaying is the only way they’re going to get those guys at PNC however. They would need to proceed with caution and not get burned by Barmes (or Barajas) type contracts. Somebody in the F.O. has to recoginize talent and it’s been a futile attempt for that to happen for quite some time.

Dan Kaminski

How is anyone supposed to win then? If free agency is stupid, we have poor major league talent and just a couple real prospects, seriously what is the answer to the Pirates continually sucking? That is pretty much saying “Hey everyone! You might as well quit caring about the Pirates forever because everything they do is stupid, wrong, makes no sense, etc.”

Bryan Graham

We got lucky in the Burnett trade, we can thank his wife’s fear of flying for that deal. Alot of these big contract guys have no-trade clauses that I’m pretty sure includes the Pirates in most circumstances. If memory serves me correctly, and that is becoming a rarer and rarer occurrence anymore, Burnett would most likely be an Angel if it weren’t for his wife, because we all know they would have given up more to get him.


well, the pirates arent continually sucking. as of this season, they are pretty much MLB average, which is way better than what we are used too.
free agency was fine for everyone until the television world exploded and large market teams have benefitted mightily. theres a reason why ESPN still shows Yanks vs RedSox even though the Sox are awful; media exposure made both teams juggernauts financially, and im talking about around the world popular. the pirates? never will be able to compete financially. ever.
free agency has been cruel for teams like the pirates. but its okay. the ship was finally turned around 5 years ago and it was for the better. wanting change from NH is fine, but spending more money from FAs isnt the answer.

John Lease

Right, the previous 19 losing seasons are an outlier in the Pirates always sucking.


Spending money on FA is a bad idea. Trading your prospects for established major league talent is not a good idea. So , then I guess the Bucs are just stuck at the point where they just “stand pat” and hope somehow things turn around? Wow. Sounds like a plan to me.

Stephen Stull

He was being sarcastic…


i believe the pirates have signed the mediocre FAs because they honestly didnt have anyone better waiting in the minors. if sachez were ready, would barajas have been signed? if mercer were a legitimate SS option, would barmes have been needed? if jones had been dependable in 2010, would have Overbay become a pirate?

Bryan Graham

Unfortunately we will probably never know if Mercer or anybody else is a legitimate SS option as long as we have future hall of famer Clint Barmes manning the position. If they had no intention of playing Mercer, they should have left him play in AAA instead of riding the pine in the bigs.

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