Every offseason, we see some teams go out and get a jump on signing free agents, while others sit back and wait for prices to drop. Each tactic has its pros and cons. The teams that sign their players right away guarantee they get what they want, but at the risk of overpaying. Meanwhile, the teams that wait for the market to develop risk losing their preferred options to other teams and also risk having prices actually increase instead (see some non-closing reliever contracts over the past 5 years). However, it’s more likely that prices will drop as free agents realize having a lower paying job than they first wanted is better than no job at all.
The reason I bring this up is mainly because of the Phillies and Reds. The Phillies had just converted their stud reliever Ryan Madson into a closer, and they had a choice. Either they had to re-sign Madson, bring in a new pitcher, or “promote” a current reliever on the roster to closer. Well, the Phillies went the aggressive route and signed former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon to a 4-year, $50 million contract on Nov. 14th. Sounds expensive, but remember that the Twins once threw 4 years and $47 million at Joe Nathan prior to the 2008 season.
This left Ryan Madson on the market, and as other teams started filling their own closer needs, it became clear that his viable options were disappearing. Eventually, he agreed to a contract with the Reds just a couple days ago. Comparable pitcher to Papelbon meant a comparable contract, right? Nope. By waiting two months, the Reds were still able to get one of the best relievers on the market for the more reasonable price of a single year and $8.5 million.
I promise this relates to the Twins as well. Waiting out the free agent market doesn’t have to literally mean wait until the new year to get your shopping needs done. The Twins played the waiting game with Michael Cuddyer earlier this month and it paid off for them. Cuddyer refused to drop his price below $10 million per year, despite the fact that the Twins had a comparable player in mind as well in Josh Willingham. Eventually, the Twins (and Willingham) were sick of waiting for the Cuddyer sweepstakes to play out, so they struck a deal together. Final damage? 3 years and $21 million for Willingham. Cuddyer went on to the Rockies for 3 years and $31.5 million. Well played, Terry Ryan.
However, while the Twins did well in getting Willingham, I feel that they could have exercised some more patience elsewhere during this offseason. I’m fine with the signings of Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit. Those are relatively cheap contracts, and actually Doumit is likely expected to be the replacement for Jason Kubel. Instead, I’m talking about Matt Capps. He didn’t have a great 2011 season, but it was revealed shortly after the end of the season that he had been battling a sore forearm all year. The Twins, trusting that last season did not show us the real Capps, ended up re-signing him in December for one year and $4.75 million.
Let’s go back to Ryan Madson. He got the same contract length as Capps, for only $3.75 million more. Well played, Cincinnati. It still is possible that Capps returns to his 2010 form, but right now, we’d have to say that the Reds did much better here. They exercised more patience and ended up getting the better pitcher for a reasonable contract. I’m not necessarily saying that the Twins could have waited and signed Madson themselves. For all we know, they may have never been in the running for him. Instead, I’m suggesting that the Twins probably could have waited out Capps a little longer. Perhaps waiting another month for him (provided no one else signed him first) could have dropped his price down to the $3.5 million range.
Finally, I’m going to turn to Roy Oswalt and Jason Marquis. Oswalt was part of the “Four Aces” rotation in Philadelphia, and was likely looking at a multi-year contract heading into this offseason. Well, the market didn’t shake out the way he was expecting, and now there are reports that he’s only asking for one year and $8 million. The Twins were looking for a starting pitcher themselves, and they settled on Jason Marquis for one year and $3 million.
Granted, Marquis is likely just a placeholder for Liam Hendriks sometime around midseason, but we’ve counted on another young pitcher before only to be disappointed. You may have several names bouncing around your head, but I’m thinking of Kyle Gibson. At the beginning of the 2011 season, many of us were expecting Gibson to be promoted to the big leagues at some point during the season, and he would likely be fighting for a rotation spot this season. Well, Gibson ended up struggling a bit in the minors before we learned that he had a torn ligament in his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. It’s possible the same could happen to Hendriks this season (maybe not to the extent of TJ surgery, but any injury or ineffectiveness). Plus, Marquis just doesn’t seem like he’s going to succeed in the American League, since he’s had a 4.55 ERA over his career, which has been spent entirely in the National League.
I would have preferred signing Oswalt for the couple million dollars more. This isn’t quite the same as Capps vs. Madson. Starting pitchers eat up more innings, and the difference between Oswalt and Marquis is much more significant than the difference between Capps and Madson. Over the past three years, Marquis has been worth 1.5 bWAR, while Oswalt has been 9.9 bWAR.* Each pitcher has had some issues with injuries last season, but Oswalt has been the better, healthier pitcher over the past couple years.
* I’ll add this disclaimer that Oswalt’s bWAR is significantly higher partially because he has 532 IP over the past 3 years compared to Marquis’ 406.2 IP, because I can almost guarantee someone will point this out in the comments. My counterargument is that while Oswalt has pitched more innings, his innings have also been of higher quality, and since I used Baseball Reference’s WAR, the discrepancy is also due to Oswalt’s ERA being much better than Marquis’, rather than his FIP.
Being patient isn’t always the correct approach, though. Sometimes, you just have to jump on the available players, like the Twins did with Carroll and Doumit. I don’t think many people are going to complain about the Angels netting Albert Pujols when they did, at least in the short term. Another team will come along and sign Pujols’ biggest competitor on the market in Prince Fielder, and they will probably feel like they won because they held out for the more team-friendly contract. But I bet the Angels feel like they won in getting Pujols.
Like I said at the beginning, there are pros and cons to each offseason strategy with free agents. It’s just a matter if your favorite team correctly navigates their way through each one with some good luck along the way.