The Class of ‘08

Each offseason, every major league team decides who to target in free agency and how aggressively it should build its club for the following season. One of the oft-forgotten parts of that process is considering the strength of the following year’s free-agent pool.

In other words, a team looking for a center fielder this year (and there were plenty of them) had some uninspiring options: Gary Matthews Jr., Juan Pierre and Dave Roberts. Next year, Andruw Jones and Torii Hunter will be on the market, and it looked for a while as if Vernon Wells would be, too. A team without a serious shot at the postseason in 2007 could sensibly look at the present options and decide to break the bank next year instead.

While decisions like that have to be made on a position-by-position basis, it’s interesting to compare free-agent crops as a whole. Teams have spent the offseason fighting over a few premium players and a host of less valuable options, so it’s perhaps easy to assume that next year’s choices will be better.

Comparing Free-Agent Classes

At the most general level, I want to know whether next year’s available free-agent class will be better than this year’s. It’s a really tough thing to judge in February, because plenty can change between now and next February:

  • Big-name players (such as Wells) can sign extensions with their current team.
  • Older players can decide to retire.
  • Players can have breakout years, can completely fall apart or can succumb to injury.

That’s just the beginning; it’s hard enough to judge the value of a free agent in the first place! All that said, I’m going to give it a shot.

Depending on how you define the term, MLB teams have signed 58 players to multi-year contracts. For the most part, I didn’t include one-year deals with options, though I did count Andy Pettitte and Greg Maddux, both of whose options are player options that probably will be exercised.

Those 58 include everybody from Alfonso Soriano and his seven-year monstrosity to smaller deals like the ones parceled out to Alex Cora, Toby Hall and Guillermo Mota. In other words, we’re considering the players who differentiate this year’s free-agent class from next year’s—the guys who sign one-year deals probably will be back on the market next year.

To get a basis for the quality of this year’s class, let’s take the top 50 of those 58. That includes just about everybody who was useful last year, excluding only the likes of Henry Blanco and Jason Marquis. I measured each player by 2006 VORP, and the cutoff was Danys Baez at 4.7. Using one season’s worth of VORP is a shoddy way of judging the quality of a free agent, I know. But as we’ll see, it gives us a baseline against which we can compare 2007 projections. And, of course, general managers have been known to give undue weight to walk-year performance.

A couple more notes, first. I included Japanese imports Daisuke Matsuzaka, Akinori Iwamura and Kei Igawa. I used their 2007 PECOTA forecasts. Also, everyone who technically became a free agent is on this list, which means I’m including Aramis Ramirez and Mike Mussina. In practical terms, you could debate whether they ought to be counted; in the end, it doesn’t matter much, and including them serves as a reasonable counterbalance to those players who will be extended and never become free agents next offseason.

How Good is the ’07 Class?

If you look only at 2006 performance, this year’s crop of free agents looks pretty darn good. We may not expect repeat performances from Matthews or Soriano, but those two were among the nine players who were worth between 40 and 50 VORP (approximately four to five wins above replacement, not counting defense).

After that, it drops off quickly; only five more players were above 30 VORP (three wins), while another 12 were between 20 and 30. Of these 50 multi-year signees, there were 24 position players (average VORP: 27.0), 15 starters (29.5) and 11 relievers (13.0).

Is that good? Heck if I know. In a vacuum, it’s a bit surprising; the way fans and GMs fretted about how they’d fill their lineups, I expected a disaster. But most of the ugliness this offseason has been the dollar amounts related to the production, not the production itself.

Wait ‘Til Next Year

There are plenty of attractive options who could appear in next year’s market: Carlos Guillen, Andruw Jones, Adam Dunn, Carlos Zambrano, Michael Young, Freddy Garcia, Joe Nathan and Bobby Abreu, just to name a few. As I already mentioned, the composition of the 2008 class will change between now and November. Some players will sign extensions, while there could be surprise additions. (Alex Rodriguez could void his contract and return to the market, for one.)

But is that group better than this year’s? To answer that question, I took next year’s free agent class (about 60 guys with a chance to contribute, from this list) and found the top 50, determined by their PECOTA-forecasted VORP. Judging by those numbers, it’s all downhill from here.

The composition of the class is about the same: 24 hitters, 14 starters and 12 relievers. There are more catchers (including some good ones) and more quality shortstops, but it’s remarkably similar. Here are the average VORPs by group for both the ’07 and ’08 classes:

Group      '07 FAs  '08 FAs
Hitters     27.0    21.6
Starters    29.5    21.0
Relievers   13.0    14.3

While the relievers look stronger, the rest of the comparison makes the ’08 class look weak. Is it possible that GMs will be even more desperate next offseason than they were this time around?

Yes and No

The factor that has the potential to change this analysis the most is the possibility that some of these players won’t hit the free agent market. Adam Dunn, projected to be the third-best hitter on the market, is subject to a club option. The top of the list is littered with guys who could be extended by their current teams: Andruw, Zambrano, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling.

The Twins already have talked about keeping Joe Nathan, and it’s difficult to imagine Mariano Rivera or Ichiro Suzuki changing teams. While it’s always possible that someone will come out of nowhere like Matthews did, there’s aren’t a ton of options. Among the younger players on the bottom of next year’s list are Joe Kennedy, Carlos Silva, Milton Bradley and David Eckstein. Useful players all, but I don’t think any of those guys is going to get a $55 million, five-year deal.

On the other hand, there are some issues with my (admittedly slapdash) methodology that make next year’s crew look a bit better. First, forecasts drift toward the mean. That may not affect our averages much, but it does suggest that a few players at the top will have great years that PECOTA didn’t project for them. (On the flip side, a few of these guys will probably get hurt and underperform their forecasts.) By using projections to measure the quality of next year’s free agent class, I might be understating it.

The bigger issue is that I haven’t considered age. In next year’s group, especially among the starters, are a lot of young pitchers. Among the available starters are Zambrano, Garcia, Jason Jennings, Jake Westbrook and Mark Buerhle. All else equal, I’d rather have a 29-year-old No. 4 starter than a 35-year-old one.

To some extent, the same thing is true of the class of hitters. While this year’s group had a few good young position players, including Soriano and Julio Lugo, next year’s looks better. Topping the list are Guillen, Dunn and Andruw, with Young, Eckstein and Michael Barrett right behind them.

Loose Ends

A free-agent class made up of young players may be preferable to an equal one of older options, but the advantage is only so great. First, player agents know just as well as GMs that younger guys are better bets going forward. In other words, the age advantage isn’t free. Further, it’s all well and good to sign a guy who’ll still be productive in 2010, but more often, when teams go shopping, they want help next year.

So, even when you consider caveats such as age and methodology, the difference between this year’s class and next year’s is substantial—in favor of the class of ’07. The more premium options come off the market by signing extensions or triggering options, the worse the next offseason becomes.

And there’s more. I’ve made it through this entire article without mentioning some of the highest-profile guys on the market this year: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Tom Glavine and Moises Alou. They all signed (or are likely to sign) one-year deals. The same is true of plenty of other impact players: Octavio Dotel, Cliff Floyd, Eric Gagne, Luis Gonzalez, Mike Piazza, Jeff Weaver, Randy Wolf and Kerry Wood. Many of those guys will be back on the market next year.

However, it’s extremely unlikely that all will be. A couple will retire, and perhaps one of them will re-injure something so badly he’ll miss 2008. Not only that, most of those players are old. However well they’ll play in ’07, they probably will be less effective the following year. While it’s possible that Wolf or Gagne will be better one more year into his recovery, it’d be tough to make the same argument for Alou, Floyd or Piazza.

When comparing free-agent classes earlier, we looked only at the players who wouldn’t be on the market in both ’07 and ’08. However, when you expand the discussion to those players currently on one-year deals, it’s even tougher to make a case that the class of ’08 is superior to this year’s group.

I’m reluctant to make any conclusions about contracts based on this analysis—plenty more factors drive salaries beyond the quality of the talent pool. However, if next year’s group is even weaker than this year’s, it’s easy to see why teams are rushing to lock up their own players and looking to get younger. If they wanted to stay away from this year’s free agent class, they’ll be running even farther away from next year’s.

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