Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Free agents who most helped their value
By Keith Law
Ervin Santana may end up getting more money than any other hurler on the market.
With the regular season about to end and 20 of the majors' 30 teams preparing for the offseason rather than the playoffs, free agency is starting to grab a little more mindshare around the industry now, especially as front offices look out over a weak crop and are less than ecstatic about what they see.
Here's a look at seven impending free agents who did the most to help their cases as they hit the market, and what compensation could look like.
I don't think any free agent has helped his own case more than Santana this year. Less than 12 months after the Angels dumped the one remaining year of his contract on Kansas City, Santana now looks primed for a four-year deal as the premium MLB starting pitcher on the market. Yes, I like him better than Matt Garza and Dan Haren.
He's having the second-best year of his career -- by WAR, the best since 2008 -- and has demonstrated that he can succeed outside the pitcher-friendly ballpark in Anaheim where he spent the first eight years of his career. His velocity is unchanged, but he's using his sinker more often and getting more movement on it, while he's also throwing more strikes across the board. He may always be a little homer-prone, but he's now in a range you can live with. This winter's market lacks a true ace, but Santana, who turns 31 in December, may be compensated in that range as the best free-agent starter available.
Nolasco's first 12 starts after his trade to Los Angeles looked like a big, long-awaited step forward for the right-hander -- a 2.07 ERA with 62 punchouts, 17 walks, and 5 homers allowed in 74 innings -- although two rotten starts since then, at a time when scouts are flooding major league ballparks to evaluate potential free agents and trade targets, probably haven't helped.
While his stuff is largely unchanged, Nolasco's approach to setting up hitters has, in part the result of his time watching Zack Greinke, a master at the craft, befuddle hitters with changing speeds and locations.
Nolasco, who like Santana turns 31 in December, is probably a solid No. 3 starter, above league-average and durable but not a star. His strong performance after a move to a playoff team could convince teams that he's more than that, which would put him in line for an Edwin Jackson-style four-year deal.
Because Nolasco was traded in the middle of the season he cannot be given a qualifying offer, which will help his value as he won't have draft-pick compensation dragging his value down.
Choo is having his best offensive season in 2013, helped by career highs in walks and OBP and his second-highest home run total, but his WAR makes it look like he hasn't improved because the Reds have played him out of position all year in center. That doesn't change the value he provided in 2013, but another team looking to acquire him and play him in right field could easily see him as a 5-WAR or better player for 2014 and beyond -- although his abysmal performance against lefties this year (slugging .236) is one red flag in his platform-year performance.
The 31-year-old is an ideal leadoff guy thanks to chronically high on-base percentages, but he has the power to hit second for a team in need of an impact hitter who can do a little of everything. I wouldn't give any hitter aged 31 or older a deal into his mid-30s, but Choo seems almost certain to get a large four-year deal at more than $10 million per season, with five years not out of the question.
Well, this wasn't hard, since Kazmir's value last winter was nil, but he's now in line for a guaranteed contract, perhaps even a two-year deal, after posting his first positive-value season since 2008. The time off and some mechanical tweaks have helped Kazmir recover his lost velocity, and he's sinking the ball more now and more effectively than when he tried to remake himself in that vein in 2011.
After working in the offseason with private pitching coach Ron Wolforth, Kazmir is getting better leverage off his back leg and rotating his upper body more completely, a delivery that looks more violent but also has the benefit of restoring his missing fastball. He'll turn 30 in January, and the limited track record probably limits him to one- or two-year offers, but could also lead to a number of minor league deals for once-good major league pitchers who've been out of baseball for a year or two.
Byrd's value, like Kazmir's, was near zero last offseason, after a terrible season at age 34 that ended when he was suspended 50 games for a positive test for tamoxifen, an antagonist of the body's estrogen receptors that can be used to block the estrogen-boosting side effects of testosterone use.
Byrd, who denies using any kind of steroids, bounced back with a full, healthy 2013 that has seen him set career highs in homers and slugging, along with his highest BABIP since 2007. Aside from health, Byrd's main change this year has been a more aggressive approach, which, paired with some swing adjustments to create better extension through contact, produced this big power spike. Some of that is sustainable, but he's also 36 years old with a long history of injuries, and shouldn't get more than a single guaranteed year -- which means he'll get at least two in this market, possibly three, for far too much money.
Saltalamacchia is my early pick for the player most likely to get a deal that shocks everybody -- not because he's unworthy of a large multi-year deal, but because the scarcity of catching around the game means he and Brian McCann are both headed for significant paydays.
Saltalamacchia is hitting free agency at the perfect time, entering his age-29 season just as his offensive game seems to be coming together, with career highs in doubles and walks this year after a career high in homers last year. He wasn't quite as atrocious batting right-handed in 2013 as he'd been in the past, but he'd probably still be better off abandoning switch-hitting or working with a platoon partner. He's a solid defensive catcher, better at framing and receiving than at throwing, but clearly superior overall to McCann. I'd be willing to stretch to four years on him, and I think the market will offer him that, possibly in the neighborhood of $10 million a year as a function of the dearth of everyday catchers on the market.
He, Santana and Choo are the players on this list most likely to receive qualifying offers from their current teams, with Saltalamacchia most likely to find his market affected by the potential loss of a draft pick. While a qualifying offer can be really damaging to a player like Kazmir, it will have far less of an impact on players likely to get deals of three or more years.
Feldman's 2013 season was a small victory for folks who argue that a pitcher's peripherals can tell a more complete story than his ERA alone can. In 2012, Feldman's ERA was 5.09, but his strikeout, walk and home run rates pointed to a better performance than that. A 3.81 FIP indicated there might be some hidden value there, as his misfortune in 2012 was bunched together (what analysts will generally call "sequencing") in a way that was unlikely to be repeated.
Sure enough, Feldman's pendulum swung the other way this year, with the lowest BABIP of his career (.251), which means his 3.51 ERA now likely overstates the value he provided or is likely to provide in the future. What's real about Feldman's 2013 improvement, however, is a sharper curveball, with better angle and depth, and more ground balls from his sinker than he has ever produced before. He's a good fourth starter who'll be paid like a third starter, probably a three-year deal in the $20-25 million range total.