The Best (and Worst) Baseball Free Agent Contract of the Offseason (So Far)

A couple of days ago, I talked a little about how a few of the baseball free agent contracts signed this offseason might seem completely insane at first glance, but might not be so nutty when you look deeper, and when you look at where the signing team stands to finish the following season. In short, if a team is a move or two away from having a legit playoff contender, with the way small sample size can make champs of relative chumps, it’s probably worth it to shell out extra years (and money) for a player just to get to the playoffs. It’s worth it even when the team knows said player will probably be useless in those last years. Call it the Flags Fly Forever paradigm, if you will.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that teams can’t go out and find a major bargain on the free agent market, a good and possibly underrated player to snap up for a below-market rate. I loved the White Sox’s signing of Adam Laroche, a player who has averaged 26 home runs a season the past three years. They got him for just two years, and he hasn’t shown any signs of falling off a cliff. I thought the Pirates got a nice one-year steal on A.J. Burnett, a still-good pitcher who suffered for an abysmal Phillies team with a horrid outfield defense. There are still good deals to be had.

By that same extension, there are, naturally, still some real stinkers that get dished out as well. Sometimes teams just can’t help themselves and commit way too much money to players who don’t deserve it. The Royals handing Edinson Volquez two years when he’s had exactly two decent seasons, ever, seems questionable. The Tigers raised some eyebrows by handing 35-year-old Victor Martinez a four-year deal when they’re already bogged down by several other onerous contracts. A lot of people questioned when the normally spendthrift A’s signed Billy Butler to a three-year contract, and the Mets blowing a draft pick on Michael Cuddyer was just…confusing.

So never fear, snarky Internet lurkers and sarcastic message board denizens. There are still plenty of stupid free agent deals for us to pillory as we sit in our boxers and throw Honey Nut Cheerios at our laptop screens. There are also plenty of smart free agent deals to remind us that there is indeed sanity within the walls of baseball front offices everywhere.

I’ve decided to pick out what I feel are the best and the worst baseball free agent contracts so far this offseason. The offseason is only half over, so we may yet get a deal that blows these two away either on sheer brilliance or on a “my oh my, that whole front office needs to be prosecuted for war crimes” level of incompetence. Until that happens, this is what we’ve got. We’ll start with the worst.

As of January 5, 2015, the worst free agent contract of the baseball offseason goes to…(drumroll)…

New York Yankees sign Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 million deal

 

 

 

 

Just in general, I hate multi-year contracts to relief pitchers. I don’t understand why they keep happening. We’ve watched reliever after reliever and bullpenite after bullpenite explode in a pile of frayed elbows for 25 years now, and still we get teams handing out multi-year deals to relievers like they’re the safest bets in the world. They just rarely work out, ever. There are exactly two things relievers do consistently: strike out ten batters per nine innings and implode randomly.

Look at Kansas City’s brilliant relief trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. Those guys were unhittable last year, insanely so. Herrera and Davis gave up zero home runs in 140 combined innings and Holland was basically just as dominant. They were the best bullpen three-headed monster in baseball, but the chances are very, very good that, two years from now, one or two or all three of them won’t be any good.

Why? It’s because they’re relievers. It’s just what they do. They get hurt, they lose velocity, they start to blow leads inexplicably, and yet inevitably every offseason some dumb front office hands a three-year deal to a relief pitcher, as if we hadn’t just seen a dozen formerly brilliant middle relievers and closers fall by the wayside the previous year.

Remember when Eric Gagne was chewing through the league in 2003 and he looked like he was on the fast train to a ten-year stretch as a Hall of Fame closer? Well, two years later he was done as an effective pitcher. Done. Brian Wilson and The Beard in 2010? Done as a good pitcher by 2012. Jim Johnson saving 50 games in back-to-back seasons in 2012 and’13? Ask any A’s fan where Jim Johnson is now. I dare you. Those are just a couple of examples off of the top of my head. The number of bloodied relievers inexplicably finished after one or two great years is legion.

So, four years for Andrew Miller. Don’t get me wrong, Miller is a damned good pitcher. He struck out 103 batters in 62.1 innings last year. He was initially dismissed as a bust after washing out as a starter for three different franchises, but he’s reinvented himself as a reliever, one who can get both righty and lefty hitters out with aplomb. You’ve just got to love a guy like that, a former top prospect who persevered after being written off.

Miller is a very good reliever, one of the very best, in fact…but four years? Was that really necessary? Miller has been lights out ever since converting to the bullpen in 2012. In that time (with the Red Sox and in half a season with Baltimore last year), he has contributed a grand total of 3.0 WAR. That may underrate him a bit, but you’re still going to have a hard time convincing me that 50-60 relief innings is worth $9 million a year for four years. The Yankees will be lucky if Miller contributes five wins over the course of this contract.

It might still be okay. Remember, we’ve got to take these things in context. If Miller is a player who can push the Yankees over the edge and into an assured playoff spot in 2015 (and maybe 2016), then the extra years might be a necessary burden to carry if Miller drastically increases the team’s shot at an immediate championship. So is Miller the player the Yankees need to get over that playoff hump for the first time since 2012?

Heck no! The Yankees won 84 games and finished second in the AL East last year, but they were totally lucky to win even that many games. They had the run differential of a 77-win team. This team revamped their bullpen, which is all well and good. Unfortunately, their expensive, enfeebled lineup will still struggle to score runs, their starting rotation is full of injury question marks, and, on top of all of that, they have the Alex Rodriguez sideshow to look forward to.

In short, this team is a mess, and the Miller signing doesn’t really do a whole lot, in the big picture, to bring them even with the Orioles, Blue Jays, and the retooled Red Sox. If Miller were the final bullpen piece in an otherwise complete, championship-caliber team, then I’d be okay with this signing, even though I despise lengthy reliever contracts. The Yankees aren’t a championship-caliber team, though. They’re a team that, with a ton of things breaking the right way, could possibly win the AL East. Crazier things have happened. Way, waaaaay more likely, they’ll struggle to break .500 and Alex Rodriguez kills team morale with his mere presence, Barry Bonds 2007 Giants-style. A team in this spot shouldn’t be retooling with ludicrous reliever contracts.

So that was the worst. Now, the absolute best free agent contract (so far) of the offseason is…(drumroll)…

Dodgers sign Brett Anderson to a one-year, $10 million deal.

banders

 

 

 

 

 

I absolutely love this deal, a low-risk, potentially huge-upside signing by LA. I was really hoping the Giants would make a run at Anderson, and sign him to a cheap deal just like this one on the chance that he might have a healthy year in him. Unfortunately, I think I was overestimating the willingness of the Giants’ front office to think outside the box. The Giants instead decided to re-up Jake Peavy for two years and go to the Tim Lincecum well again, so here I am, just sitting here praising the Dodgers.

Anderson has been an injury wreck ever since he stepped onto to major league field in 2009. You name the malady, he’s probably had it. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011, which knocked out most of that season and pretty much all of 2012. He pitched in only 16 games in 2013 due to a broken foot. Then, last season, just when it appeared that he was hitting his stride with the Rockies, he messed up his back and was done for the season. I’ve had him on my fantasy keeper league for the past two seasons after making an ill-advised trade for him (just…don’t ask). Every time he motions in discomfort on the mound has to be pulled early from a game, a part of my soul dies.

So Anderson hurts himself crawling out of bed in the morning. That much is clear. What’s also clear is that, if he can stay healthy for any stretch this season, the Dodgers have themselves a legit number three-caliber starter. He isn’t a sure thing to eat innings like Dan Haren, the guy he’s basically replacing, but his ceiling is so much higher.

Anderson was great even in the high altitude last season, posting a 2.91 ERA in eight starts between injuries. In his career as a starter, he own a 3.69 ERA, and he showed flashes of brilliance with the A’s, especially in 2010 and 2012. He makes a living limiting home runs, and it’s easy to see him having a big year in Dodger Stadium.

Anderson has a 200-inning season in him one of these years, and when it finally comes, he’s going to be a playoff-caliber starting pitcher. The Dodgers are gambling that that year will come in 2015, and for the relative pittance of $10 million (the Dodgers can, uh…easily afford it), that’s just a great gamble to make on a pitcher with this much upside. Why couldn’t the Giants have taken the chance? Why????

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