Not-So-Free Agents

I’ve commented in some depth about a few of the major free agent deals that have been signed so far this offseason and the main theme — from Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla signing with the Nationals to Omar Vizquel signing with the Giants — is that I thought the deals were bad ones. Some, like Vizquel’s, were for too many years. Some, like Castilla’s, were for too much money. And some, like Guzman’s, were for too many years and too much money.

Well, over the weekend I looked over ESPN.com’s handy Free Agent Tracker, which lists every deal a free agent has inked this offseason, from Rigo Beltran‘s minor-league contract with the Brewers to Kris Benson‘s $22.5 million pact with the Mets. The thing that struck me is the fact that there is exactly one deal on the entire list that I think is a good one for the team. One, out of a couple dozen.

Doug Mirabelli re-signed with the Red Sox for two years and $3 million, which seems like a fair price to pay for perhaps the best backup catcher in baseball, particularly when there’s a chance Boston’s starting catcher, Jason Varitek, might not be back next year. Aside from Mirabelli’s, I can’t say that there’s a single contract I would have handed out as a GM. There are some that are harmless enough, sure, like the Yankees giving John Flaherty $800,000 to be Jorge Posada‘s caddy or the Astros giving Jose Vizcaino $1.25 million to be their utility man again. For the most part though, the deals being given out are for multiple years and for what seems like an awful lot of money for an awful lot of mediocrity.

Paul Wilson, who went 25-28 with a 4.62 ERA over the past three years, getting $8.2 million over two seasons? Two years at $6 million per for Troy Percival, a 35-year-old relief pitcher with a plumetting strikeout rate who hasn’t thrown 60 innings in a season since 1998? A two-year deal and $6 million for Cory Lidle, who went 32-37 with a 4.85 ERA over the past three seasons? Three years and $22.5 million for Benson, who set a career-high with a dozen wins this year and has exactly one season with an ERA under 4.00? And you already know what I think about the deals Vizquel, Guzman, and Castilla got.

As far as team-building strategy goes, I am a big believer in paying a premium for elite players and avoiding expensive mediocrity at all costs. In other words, $250 million for Alex Rodriguez doesn’t make me shake my head nearly as much as $16.8 million for Guzman, which is why the early returns this offseason are a little confusing to me. Why would a team like the Reds, with a payroll near the bottom of the National League, commit to paying over $4 million per year for Wilson, when they could probably find someone capable of giving them 90% of the production for 10% of the cost? Why would the small-market Twins spend a million bucks a year on backups like Juan Castro and Mike Redmond, and then quarrel over money with impact players like Corey Koskie and Brad Radke?

I just don’t get what’s going on, and I’ve decided that there are three possible explanations. One is that the earliest signings in any offseason are the ones that, for the most part, make you shake your head. Teams that act quickly are doing so without a market being set, and thus there is more of a chance that the contracts they hand out are bad ones. In other words, if you give me a bunch of money to go grocery shopping for the first time and when I show up at the store nothing has a pricetag on it, there’s a chance I might end up coming home with a $75 gallon of milk.

The other theory is that the GMs acting early, like Jim Bowden going on his shopping spree in Washington, are the ones more prone to handing out “interesting” deals. Of the 13 multi-year contracts that have been given out already this offseason, Bowden, Brian Sabean, and Terry Ryan have each been responsible for two, while Omar Minaya and Ed Wade have been behind one each. I am certainly not saying that is a list of bad GMs by any means, but those names being associated with questionable free agent decisions doesn’t exactly surprise me. On the other hand, it’s also not shocking that Theo Epstein is the man behind the one deal I approve of.

The last explanation is that maybe I have just completely misjudged the free agent market. Perhaps I was suckered into believing all of that talk about more responsible spending and no more gigantic, ARod/Manny Ramirez-type contracts being given out. When I wrote up my position-by-position free agent previews, I expected guys like Wilson, Lidle, and Glendon Rusch to sign for one-year deals and maybe a million bucks, so clearly I am completely out of touch.

I think it’s likely there’s a little truth to all three possible explanations. It seems to me that the teams and GMs getting the jump on the free agent market this offseason are doing so by targeting mid-level guys, rather than stars. Sabean didn’t think he could afford Nomar Garciaparra or Edgar Renteria at shortstop, so he acted quickly and went after Vizquel. Bowden didn’t think he could get Adrian Beltre or Troy Glaus to join a team that didn’t even have a name yet, so he grabbed Castillla to play third base instead. The danger in eschewing stars and going after mid-level guys right off the bat is that you might end up overpaying.

What if, in a couple weeks, Carlos Beltran signs with some team for “only” $90 million over six years? What if Beltre re-signs with the Dodgers for $12 million a season? What if Radke gives the Twins a hometown discount and re-ups for three years and $20 million? What if the talk about more responsible spending is actually true, but the teams in a position to go after the biggest names just haven’t had a chance to show it yet? If a GM has made peace with the fact that the top guys are out of his league and has decided to go after the second tier, wouldn’t he overspend on them if he assumed it would be business as usual for the elite free agents?

I have a hunch that the deals given to Vizquel and Guzman are going to seem awfully silly when guys like Garciaparra and Renteria sign. And the same goes for the contracts Lidle, Wilson, and Benson got once Radke and Pedro Martinez decide on a destination. Either that or I’m completely crazy, which is never too far out of the realm of possibility. I guess at some point I might have to adjust my entire line of thinking, although I have to say that I look forward to the adjustment that makes the words “Paul Wilson” and “$8.2 million” being in the same sentence not result in confusion.

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