Wish lists are a big part of the holiday season, and baseball is no exception. However, general managers around the league do not have the advantage of Black Friday bargains. Teams forced to satisfy their needs in the free agent market usually pay full price, and then some, so making an imprudent purchase can prove costly for years to come.
Free agency is a risky proposition for baseball teams. With the exception of the truly elite who hit the open market while still in midst of their prime, free agents are often seeking to cash in on past performance. That’s why doubts always linger when mulling over a big acquisition. However, this year’s free agent class seems to have more than its fair share of question marks. Even the cream of the crop has a greater potential to turn sour. In particular, Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke, the best player and pitcher on the market, are not only saddled with additional risk, but they are also being held to the standards of recent award winning performances that have never been repeated. However, because of the recent trend toward long-term extensions that has thinned out the talent level of the free agent pool, both could break the bank when they eventually come to terms on a new deal.
Hamilton and Greinke have taken a similar path to their current position. Both players were early first round draft picks who entered the professional ranks as highly touted prospects, only to see their careers derailed by personal difficulties. At times written off, Hamilton and Greinke not only re-emerged as productive contributors, but they eventually went on to win an MVP and Cy Young, respectively. However, neither player has lived up to their award winning performances since being honored. And yet, they are both on the precipice of a major payday.
Although Hamilton probably won’t come close to the $200 million figure that was floated around during the season, the lefty slugger is still a good bet to command an average annual salary north of $20 million for at least five years. Considering Hamilton has never come close to approaching his 2010 MVP campaign (his next two highest bWAR ratings combined are barely better than his result that year), such a commitment would be hard to swallow even without the outfielder’s unusually high risk profile. However, when those factors are entered into the equation, it’s even harder to justify the numbers being bandied about.
Hamilton’s well known struggles with substance abuse provide a unique layer of risk, but even if that was not a factor, there would still be good reason for apprehension. Other concerns that chip away at Hamilton’s value are his age (at 32, the center fielder is already exiting his prime) and inability to stay healthy. The slugger has played in 150 games only once during his career, and his injuries have been an eclectic blend. In addition to chronic knee and back maladies that have caused him to miss an occasional game, Hamilton has also had multiple surgeries for a sport hernia. His aggressive style (broken leg and arm caused by crashing into a wall and a slide at home plate) has also led to two extended absences, while unusual maladies, such as sensitivity to light and withdrawal from quitting tobacco, have also impacted his performance. Even if Hamilton was able to replicate his recent performance over the course of a lengthy deal, a salary above $20 million would be stretching it, but considering all the risks, a long-term commitment could quickly become regrettable.
Zack Greinke expects to sign a record deal this off season, and several industry executives agree that he’ll get it. With big market titans like the Rangers, Angels and Dodgers all reportedly interested in his services, Greinke could wind up signing the richest deal ever given to a right hander. But, is he worth it?
The knee jerk reaction when evaluating Greinke is to consider the risk related to his diagnosis with social anxiety disorder. However, that’s not the only concern. Aside from his Cy Young award season in 2009, Greinke has never had an ERA+ above 125, nor has he posted a bWAR above 5.0. The right hander has also spent most of his career pitching in the relatively week Central divisions of each league. That doesn’t mean Greinke hasn’t been, and won’t continue to be, a very good pitcher, but the righty has not yet proven he deserves to be paid a salary on par with the game’s elite aces.
There’s no denying Hamilton’s and Greinke’s talent, but it’s also hard to ignore the red flags. However, both players are certain to sign a blockbuster deal, one that is probably too long and too expensive. Although the same could be said for most big name free agents, in the cases of Hamilton and Greinke, there seems to be a more significant downside as well as a greater likelihood of it occurring. That realization probably won’t temper the excitement expressed by the teams who eventually sign the two All Stars, but, in free agency, the failure to properly weigh risk against reward can turn happy holidays into a winter of discontent.