FREE AGENTS OF (LOOSE) CHANGE
FREE AGENTS OF (LOOSE) CHANGE
It started with the following text to a buddy of mine on the eve of Game 6 of the ALCS:
“More pressure? (David) Price tonight or (Johnny) Cueto tomorrow (if necessary)?”
The corollary question was: Who was more nervous, Price’s agent or Cueto’s agent?
We are now officially in Hot Stove Season. The time of year that only the die-hards find interesting. The rest of America has turned its focus full-time to the NFL, the lame (and way too early) BCS Standings, the Fall portion of the NBA season – which outcome won’t be decided until Summer (and people think the baseball season is too long!), the beginning of college basketball, Thanksgiving, and the end of year holidays. In short, the vast majority of people couldn’t give a rat’s ass about baseball in November. Good thing we aren’t the vast majority of people!
The Price/Cueto question got me thinking about the players who helped or hurt their respective (financial) causes in the last weeks/months of the season (including the post-season). It is pretty interesting to do the “what if/what now?”.
Here are eight examples of players whose agents love or hate them just a little bit more today than they did a few months ago:
Let’s start with David Price. Ironically enough, his 0-7 record and 5.27 ERA as a post-season starter probably will not dissuade multiple teams from throwing nine figures at him. Shockingly, Price’s post-season record and ERA get way less publicity, attention, and criticism than that of Clayton Kershaw, who has been demonstrably better in the playoffs, year in, year out. But I digress.
Price’s showing in the aforementioned Game 6 – wherein he retired 18 straight batters before a duck fart that should have been caught opened the floodgates to what would eventually become a 4-3 series-ending loss – probably saved his bacon a little bit.
Price is an elite lefty, and he will get paid regardless. Teams will be lining up to pay Price to carry them to the playoffs where that 0-7 record will be put to the test . . . again. Look for Price in LA with at least $150M guaranteed (or that just may be wishful thinking!).
And now Johnny Cueto. Talk about your enigma. When the Reds openly discussed trading Cueto mid-season, rumors persisted that there was a problem with his elbow. And when the Royals sent a package of 3 elite prospects to Cincinnati to rent Cueto for two months, no one knew for sure what the Royals were getting. He made 13 regular season starts in KC, going 4-7 with a 4.77 ERA, including a 5-game stretch of 6, 6, 4, 5, and 7 earned runs. Ouch!
Cueto continued his mediocrity in Game 2 of the NLDS, giving up 4 earned runs in 6 innings, and got a no decision.
But then, five days later, he threw 8 innings of 2H/2ER ball to earn a very impressive win. Maybe Cueto was, in fact, a big-game pitcher entitled to a nine-figure deal.
But then, five days later, he started Game 3 of the ALCS, threw 2 innings, walked 4, gave up 8 earned runs, and was gone before half the fans even downed their first Labatts. At that moment, the Kansas City faithful were wishing they could have Brandon Finnegan back; Cueto simply wasn’t worth it.
Things were so bad that there was a legitimate question as to whether or not Cueto – the guy the Royals traded a big part of their future for – would be on the mound for Game 7 of the ALCS. Was Chris Young, the 36-year old journeyman a better option? Thanks to Jose Bautista (see, From G.O.A.T. to Goat) Kansas City fans never had to find out.
But then, a week later, Cueto started Game 2 of the World Series. He pitched a complete game 2-hitter, and gave the Royals a commanding 2-0 series lead. His services were not needed again for the Royals to dispatch the Mets.
So, what is Cueto worth? Will someone pony up Jon Lester money ($155M) for a 30-year old pitcher with a questionable record? Or, will he better suited for a 4/$64M deal? If his agent is crafty, maybe he gets Cueto a 4/$76-$80M (maybe 5/$100M) deal from a team in desperate need of a front-line starter. Had Cueto come to KC and put the team on his back (see, Bumgarner, Madison; Schilling, Curt) from August through October, he might be looking at a deal well in excess of nine figures. It is quite possible that Cueto’s performance over the past few months cost him upwards of $50M.
Yoenis Cespedes. Make no mistake, this guy is going to get a huge contract. But how huge? If the season had ended on September 23rd, Cespedes would have been looking at $150M, easy. But then in the last week of the season and throughout the playoffs, we all watched, in real time, his value drop. His power fell off, he was a liability in center field (that showing, plus his winning a Gold Glove in left, cemented his position for any acquiring team), and then there was the minor controversy of playing golf during the World Series with a bum shoulder. “Cespedes for the Rest of Us” may not be for everyone. He may still get nine figures, but I am sure his agents were none-too-pleased with his performance on the biggest stage(s).
Zack Greinke. Has there ever been a pitcher who performed better in a walk year? I am sure there has, but no pitcher ever had a better ERA in his walk year – considering Greinke had the 6th best single-season ERA of any pitcher since 1920. Greinke opted-out of the last $71M on his current deal with the Dodgers, just to opt-in to at least $150M with someone (else?). Greinke was the anchor of the Dodgers’ staff – even if he was never considered the ace – and will be paid handsomely in the months to come. There is something about a 19-3 record, a 1.66 ERA, and a 5-1 K/BB ratio encourages teams to back up the Brinks truck.
Alex Gordon. Heavy is the head that wears the Royals’ crown. The world is Alex’s oyster, and he just has to decide how many pearls he wants. There is a fair shot that he gets 5/$100M on the open market; but that is too rich for Kansas City’s blood (the largest contract they have ever given was 5/$55M for Gil Meche, who retired one year early, ultimately making this only a $43M commitment). Assume KC goes “all-in” for Gordon and offers 4/$80M – which would be stretch for sure – does he give them a hometown discount and leave $20M (or more) on the table? There is a precedent for this – one of my favorite baseball/contract stories ever:
In 2011, Jered Weaver gave the Angels a hometown discount – leaving about $50M on the table – signing for 5/$85M. Here is what he had to say about it: “How much more could you possibly need? I never played this game for money purposes, I played it for love and for championships. I’m a Southern California guy and I’m happy to stay here and have my friends and family close. Loyalty is very important to me. The Angels drafted me and I wanted to stay here and win a championship or two or three.”
But there is also a precedent for the exact opposite – one of my least favorite baseball/contract stories ever:
A year after helping to bring the first World Series title to Boston in 86 years, Lead Idiot Johnny Damon left the comfort of the Back Bay for the bright lights of the Bronx for an additional $12M. Not only did he leave Boston, he went to the hated arch rivals. Sure, it’s easy for me to say he should have walked away from $12M, but by that point in his career, Damon had already earned more than $45M; he was about to earn $40M more with the Red Sox. Had he stayed with the BoSox, between a lower tax rate and never having to pick up a check again in the Commonwealth, he probably would have made up the difference, and then some. But no, I am not bitter.
So which path will Gordon take? Will he stay home (he is from Nebraska) and become the modern-day George Brett? Or will he become the latest turncoat who chased a buck at the expense of his fans and his reputation. Only time will tell . . .
John Lackey. Say what you will about this guy – he glares at teammates when they make an error, he is petulant when he doesn’t get the borderline call, he sometimes pitches like an ace and sometimes pitches like a joker. But, this past season he was stand-up (and by “stand-up” I mean he fulfilled the terms of his contract, which is an anomaly among professional athletes).
A little background: In 2010 Lackey signed a 5-year/$82.5M contract with Boston. He had a history of a balky elbow, so the Red Sox smartly added a clause that stated if Lackey “missed significant time because of the pre-existing elbow injury”, an additional year would be added to the deal at the MLB minimum. Wouldn’t you know it, Lackey missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. So Lackey had to pitch the 2015 season for the paltry sum of $507K (which, I admit, is a lot of money in real-life terms, but is $14.75M less than he earned in his previous three seasons, and is more than $18M less than he earned in the first year of the deal). Lackey never said “boo”; he didn’t hold out; he didn’t complain. He just went about his business as the de facto ace of the Cardinals (he was traded to St. Louis in 2014, for those of you paying attention; and became the Cards’ #1 when Adam Wainwright blew out his Achilles), pitching 218 innings, and posting a 2.77 ERA.
Now Lackey is line to get one last contract. He just turned 37, so he probably won’t get more than 2 or 3-year deal, but he should command $12-$15M/year for keeping his mouth shut, living up to the terms of the deal he negotiated, and pitching like everyone in Boston had hoped he would.
Jeff Samardzija. How does the song go? “If we could turn back time . . . to the good old days”. It really wasn’t that long ago that the Chicago Cubs (the then hapless Chicago Cubs) made the following offer to Samardzija: 5/$85M. In fact, it was June, 2014.
Since that time, Samardzija has gone 16-20 with a 4.29 ERA, and given up 44 homeruns; oh, and he has been traded twice. The White Sox did the big guy a favor last week by making him a Qualifying Offer, guaranteeing him $15.8M next season – if he so desires. But my guess is that he tests the free agent market and gets – at best – 4/$48-$52M. Said differently, had Samardzija signed on the dotted line 17 months ago, he would be getting paid $85M to play for a perennial playoff team on the Northside; but since he didn’t, he is now going to either play on the Southside for less than $16M or will be out there hawking his wares on the open market, claiming that he was the victim of bad defense and that his fastball hasn’t lost any velocity (in fairness, it hasn’t). In the words of Rick Perry: “Oops!”
We could do this all day, but let’s end in the same place my last post ended: good ol’ Daniel Murphy. In the words of J. Geils Band: “Freeze Frame!” If only Daniel Murphy could freeze time at 1030pm on October 21st, he might be looking at 3-4/$40-$60M. But then the World Series happened. And Murphy’s flaws were exposed: he is a good – but not great – hitter, who happened to catch lightning in a bottle for a few weeks; and he is a WAY below average fielder who doesn’t really have a position.
His best bet is a team that has use for him at 1B, 2B, and 3B, allowing him to be a much richer-man’s Kiké Hernandez, a slightly richer-man’s Justin Turner, and a slightly poorer-man’s Ben Zobrist. Now he is staring down the barrel of 2/$25-$30M, or he takes the Mets’ $15.8M Qualifying Offer. Either prospect has Murphy leaving $30M-ish on the infield dirt at Citi Field. If there is such thing as “addition by subtraction”, there must also be a concept of “winning so much you lose”. If not, Daniel Murphy (and I) just coined it.
The Hot Stove is heating up.
We have just witnessed the first three players to ever accept a Qualifying Offer (Colby Rasmus (Astros), Brett Anderson (Dodgers), and Matt Wieters (Orioles). We have seen the Red Sox send four prospects to the Padres for an elite closer (Craig Kimbrel). And the Angels just gave up their best prospect to get the best defensive player on Earth. If you don’t believe me, spend 3 minutes watching this (well worth your time, especially since we won’t have any Web Gems for nearly four months):
As more deals happen, and more players make generational money, I will be here to comment and opine. But for now . . .