Tier 3: Semi-Efficient Spending Teams
Here’s where we reach the tier of big market teams that have used their money efficiently. Despite the Yankees shelling out nearly $1 billion in commitments over the 10-year period, they have done a good job of getting value out of those big-money contracts. The same goes for the Cubs, who spent a little less, but have the same type of capital to take shots on prospects and unknowns, and still came out with above-average value on $ per fWAR. This is also the tier of teams that have used their capital to make a bunch of playoff appearances (sorry, Phillies!) and World Series appearances. The narrative on this tier would be even stronger had the Dodgers not slipped under $8 million per fWAR in free agency, but alas, Andrew Friedman and Co. are just that good.
Somehow, I’m surprised that Houston has even spent this much money on free agents. Their practice for the last half-decade has been to extend the players already on the team and let franchise heroes leave in free agency, one by one. The money reflects that practice, but the difference between Houston’s spending in the pre-“Astroball” era (before former GM Jeff Luhnow began constructing the current Death Star) and their more recent spending — at the tail end of Luhnow’s tenure and at the beginning of James Click’s reign — isn’t as pronounced as you might think.
Since 2016-17, across 4 offseasons, the Astros spent under a third (28.65%) of their total dollars committed, but have gotten really good value out of that spending. For that, Houston can thank Michael Brantley, who continues to churn out productive seasons for well below his market value.
Thank you, Michael Brantley. pic.twitter.com/em3hU93ZBR
— 𝕁𝕒𝕜𝕠𝕓 🌟 (@jakedc6) January 20, 2021
Leading up to the 2017 season, the Astros engaged in quite the spending spree, committing $150 million across 2 off-seasons. The guys they picked up became key contributors to the championship effort, as Houston added Charlie Morton, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Beltrán, and Josh Reddick. Take a look at how those signings turned out:
Remember that some of these guys had some extra help at the plate during the 2017 season (and beyond),with some getting more help than others, so that may play into a small overinflation of the fWAR. However, if we take the data at face value, you’ll see that Houston didn’t miss on too many of these contracts. You can quibble with the Carlos Beltrán contract, but fWAR doesn’t count those intangibles like leadership and good apologies! Tony Sipp didn’t even make the postseason roster in 2017, so… not a good contract by any measure.
Charlie Morton and Yuli Gurriel were both fantastic signings for the 2017 club. It’s crazy what happens when you turn your curveball into a dangerous weapon and add a couple ticks of velocity like Morton did. Also, Gurriel is pretty good in his own right.
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) November 2, 2017
Outside of the Beltrán and Sipp contracts, there really aren’t any awful signings; there really wasn’t anything bad enough to make fun of Houston for. They do know how to pick their spots in free agency.
The Yankees have been working hard to strip themselves of the stereotype of “outspending the competition and ‘buying’ all the good players” by simply not spending like a big market team in free agency. The Yankees have outspent every other team over the last 10 years, but that number ballooned because of a particularly George Steinbrenner-like offseason in 2013-14:
I’m going to miss Masahiro Tanaka so goddamn much pic.twitter.com/dtsI715RDk
— Eric Hubbs (@BarstoolHubbs) January 26, 2021
Taking a 30,000-foot view, the Yankees have really tapered off their spending lately, and don’t represent the free-spending Yankees of the George Steinbrenner era (which is probably a good thing overall, but is a letdown for Yankees fans who expect their team to spend big and never really do).
One year ago today, Jose Altuve sent the Astros to the World Series with a walk-off home run vs Aroldis Chapman. pic.twitter.com/8oBbDRwYWZ
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 19, 2020
So who’s really properly valued here? Tough to say.
Similarly to the Yankees and Astros, who had consistently good spending efficiency (All of their free-agent periods had sub-$20 million $ per fWAR), Atlanta whiffed on one free-agent period and kept their other “lost contracts” from becoming egregious. Take a look at their spending patterns across the 10-year measuring period:
2012-13 may have been the only really “bad” spending period for Atlanta, which was mostly a function of a 2-year, $28 million commitment to Melvin Upton Jr. (Formerly B.J. Upton). Besides that, Atlanta’s commitments were solid but mostly unspectacular.
Take a look at some of Atlanta’s biggest contract “wins,” one of which was instrumental in finally bringing that championship to Cobb County:
The issue with Atlanta’s spending patterns is that they are so reluctant to give out long-term contracts in free agency — the biggest long-term deal Atlanta dealt out was a 4-year commitment to Nick Markakis — so it’s hard to pick anything but 1-year deals. Atlanta’s just done an outstanding job of drawing out value from these 1 and 2-year commitments, as you can tell.
Not only was Charlie Morton very good in the regular season, but he also pitched until his body literally gave out in the playoffs. Morton racked up a 3.24 ERA across 16.2 innings (starting 4 games) in the 2021 postseason, which was key to Atlanta winning it all.
Charlie Morton got THREE batters out after breaking his leg. 😮
Welcome to the World Series. pic.twitter.com/OHBvIJl3Gd
— Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) October 27, 2021
Speaking of contracts that were huge successes for the team and massively underpaid the player, can I introduce you to the Tyler Flowers deal? Atlanta was privy to the best season of his career, as Flowers’ bat finally caught up with his defense for a short time. In 2017, Flowers didn’t play enough to qualify for a batting title but still managed to be the 3rd-most valuable catcher in baseball via fWAR. Flowers’ fWAR rate that season, pro-rated over 162 games, would have given him roughly 7 fWAR. And yet Atlanta paid him $3 million for it. Tampa Bay is insanely jealous right now.
Like every team in this tier, Atlanta has also suffered its fair share of losses. However, theirs have been losses specifically in short 1-year contracts, which makes it a little better because they can cut bait with those players after a year or two and not have their multi-year payroll burdened by a hefty commitment to one player. The money’s still lost, but at least Atlanta doesn’t have to justify playing a player who clearly doesn’t have “it.”
The Mets slid in just beneath the average amount spent by MLB teams. I’ve got nothing to back this up, but I feel like if Steve Cohen had taken over the Mets just a couple of years earlier, they’d be right up there with the Yankees in terms of money spent. The Mets — or rather, the Wilpons — reined in their spending over the decade, which probably helped them spend efficiently, but it maybe hurt their chances at running it back with the core that made it to the World Series in 2015.
The Mets were doing some of this in 2015:
— MetsAvenue (@MetsAvenue) August 29, 2017
And then they did this in 2016:
That’s not to say that the Mets didn’t try to supplement that 2015 group. To ignore a rotation that had a pair of future aces and Steven Matz would be absolutely criminal, and thankfully, the Mets had their heads screwed on straight that offseason. Here’s what the Mets did to try to “run it back” in 2016:
|Player||Position||Dollars Spent||Contract Length||Total fWAR||fWAR Year 1||fWAR Year 2|
|Bartolo Colon||SP||$ 7,300,000||1||2.4||2.4|
|Jerry Blevins||RP||$ 2,400,000||1||0.6||0.6|
|Antonio Bastardo||RP||$ 3,692,623||1||-0.2||-0.2|
|Neil Walker||2B||$ 10,550,000||1||3.6||3.6|
|Asdrubal Cabrera||SS||$ 16,500,000||2||5||3.6||1.4|
|Alejandro De Aza||OF||$ 5,750,000||1||-0.4||-0.4|
For those of you keeping track at home, that’s a $ per fWAR metric of $4,199,329.36. That is an excellent set of offseason acquisitions at a reasonable price. And I would shame the Mets more for not spending up in the offseason, but the highest-paid free agent batters in the 2015-16 free agency period were Jason Heyward and Justin Upton. So, it’s not like the Mets could’ve made their lineup immeasurably better through free agency acquisitions. The Mets lineup was already fairly deep, with 5 players holding OPS+ over 100, and 4 over 110.
Unfortunately, their relative lack of spending from 2013 to 2017 probably didn’t help keep the team competitive (yes, free agency is but one measure of a team’s overall construction, but it’s still a useful measure of team investment):
Ultimately, the Mets spent their money relatively efficiently, but I can’t help but think that if they had spent another $400 million more on free agents over this period — spending as if they were a true big-market team — in the same efficient manner as the first $400 million, we’d probably be talking about the Mets a little differently.
The Cardinals envision themselves as a medium-spending team, based on their free-agent spending amounts, but they’re one of the few teams who have been able to turn those medium amounts of dollars spent into real success. 7 playoff appearances and 1 World Series appearance is no joke, especially for a team that spent about half of what the Cubs and Yankees spent in free agency.
There is one moment in this period that had a monumental impact on the Cardinals’ team construction over the past decade: Albert Pujols‘ free agency decision (in 2011-12, not in 2021-22). The Cardinals reportedly offered Pujols a 10-year contract in 2011 for about $44 million less than what the Angels offered, offering The Machine $210 million, with $30 million deferred. We will get to Pujols’ contract when we examine the Angels’ spending habits (hint: they aren’t good), but retaining Pujols would have made the Cardinals drop very far down this list, assuming Pujols played as poorly in St. Louis as he did in Anaheim; it would have been a $210 million dud. I’m sure Cardinals fans have finally made their peace with the way it turned out — especially because of how poorly Pujols played out in Anaheim — since he’s now back in a Cardinals uniform for one last ride:
“Welcome back, Albert! It’s like you never left!”
Pujols hits his first Home Run as a Cardinal in over a decade 🙌 @BRWalkoff
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 13, 2022
Let’s talk Cardinals contract wins. A surprising amount of Cardinals pitching fWAR comes from the ageless Adam Wainwright. Waino hit “free agency” (in quotes because I’m not sure he was ever going to sign anywhere else besides St. Louis) in the 2019-20 offseason and signed a deal that was pro-rated down to $2.9 million for the shortened season; in the 2020 season, Wainwright produced 1 fWAR, which is a great 1-year deal for just about any team. Wainwright once again hit “free agency” in 2020-21 offseason and was rewarded with another 1 year, $8 million contract. Waino then went out and anchored the Cardinals rotation for another year, to the tune of 3.8 fWAR. That’s $10.9 million spent, and 4.8 fWAR returned.
But since I don’t want to focus too much on the 1-year deals, since those are low-risk, high-reward deals, and pretty much any team can “hit” on those, let’s take a look at some of their better multi-year contracts over the past 10 years:
Well, well, well, look who it is! It’s our friend, Carlos Beltrán, who made the Astros’ worst contract list just a few moments ago. Beltran’s seasons overlapped with the Cardinals’ run to the World Series in 2013, while the other deals came just after. And, speaking of the Astros-Cardinals connections, Aledmys Díaz is now a regular on the Astros. Even though he took a couple of years to reach the majors, Díaz’scontract is still one of the best ones out of St. Louis in the last few years.
— Brad B ⚾️ (@celeBRADtion) June 22, 2019
Let’s take a look at some of the “losers” from the past 10 years:
The Cardinals were smartly able to move some of Dexter Fowler’s contract off the books last season, but that signing has been a bit of a disaster. The Broxton and Miller signings are possibly more defendable, especially because Miller was not far removed from being the most dominant pitcher of the 2016 postseason at the time he signed the contract. However, I can’t recommend enough that teams stop trying to commit big sums of money to all but the top tier of relievers.
Yet another team in this tier with a World Series championship, the Cubs pushed all their chips in early in the decade and are starting to taper down their spending as the next wave of Cubs talent makes its way to the Show. There’s no need for the Cubs to spend a hundred or even two hundred million on free agents just yet, but they’ll be there soon.
Speaking of spending $200 million on free agents, take a look at what the Cubs did in the 2015-16 free agency period:
Yeah, that Heyward contract kind of stinks, but from speaking to Cubs fans, you would think that he has just been downright terrible. Actually, he’s providing below-average value (sub-optimal, obviously), but he’s not unplayable. The Zobrist contract was quite a success, both in the Cubs’ championship year and the years beyond.
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) October 1, 2018
Actually, we may have to go back another year to see some of the other key players in the Cubs’ championship squad. Chicago built its championship team through a homegrown core, just like every other champion, but they reached their title more through free agency expenditures than teams like the Astros, Dodgers, and Giants. Let’s take a look at some of the key contributors signed before the 2015-16 period.
The Lester contract aged quite well; He was the Cubs’ second (prime Jake Arrieta will do that to you) ace in 2015 and 2016, then declined a little, but not so much that the contract looked horrible in retrospect. Similarly, Hammel was a strong mid-rotation option in 2015 and 2016, enough to carry the Cubs to the playoffs and then the title. And, David Ross’s contract wasn’t bad on its face already, but the leadership he provided, especially during the World Series (and a nifty home run or two in Game 7), makes this contract totally worth it.
One of my favorite baseball videos — David Ross breaks down his home run from Game 7 of the 2016 World Series pic.twitter.com/9qmV2TXEpj
— Ben Porter (@Ben13Porter) October 23, 2019
The Cubs have taken some losses, though:
Most of the contracts in these higher-ranked tiers are not going to be so bad that they come out to $30 or $40 million per fWAR. The Cubs and Dodgers had a couple of contracts that come near that level — and they can afford to do miss on contracts with their payroll — but the key to avoiding total inefficiency in free agency spending is not handing out the true “albatross” contract, a la Chris Davis. The Chatwood and Morrow contracts come close to that $30ish million threshold, but the Cubs saved themselves from a new tier of bad contracts by cutting these contracts off at 3 years.
Speaking of World Series champions… how about the team that won 2 titles in this time period and showed up in the playoffs 4 times? The Giants went into a “rebuilding” period for a couple of seasons after 2016, finishing below .500 for 4 straight seasons, but appear to be right on track — although it is quite early in the 2022 season to make this kind of claim — to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons (and it’s an even year in 2022, watch out!) for the first time since 2002 and 2003.
The Giants have had 3 different general managers during this 10-year period. Brian Sabean retired after 2014, racking up 3 World Series titles and 4 World Series appearances in his tenure. Bobby Evans was the GM from 2015-18, helping lead the Giants to a playoff appearance during his tenure. And current GM Farhan Zaidi has led the team out of their rebuild and into a playoff appearance — and the best record in baseball — in 2021.
Let’s take a look at the different free-agent contracts handed out across each GM’s tenure:
Sabean was right about in line with the Giants’ overall $/fWAR metric. Sabean signed a couple of strong contributors for the 2014 playoff run, including Mike Morse, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong. Vogelsong was a solid back-end rotation option. Mike Morse held a 130 OPS+ across 482 plate appearances. Tim Hudson was even an All-Star in 2014! Sabean had his fair share of misses, too, like Javier López and Jeremy Affeldt (please stop overpaying relievers), but he didn’t miss too badly on any one contract.
— MLB Daily Dingers (@MLBDailyDingers) February 16, 2021
Here’s where the Giants slipped up a little bit, dropping their $/fWAR to levels that would place them one tier below this one if extended across 10 years. It’s unfair to put this spending all on Bobby Evans and the San Francisco front office. The Giants had come off 3 World Series titles in 5 seasons when Evans took over, and their farm system had grown thin after competing for so long. The fanbase expected some more of that “even-year magic,” so Evans had to throw a bunch of money at Jeff Samardzija, Johnny Cueto, and Denard Span. In 2016, Cueto was an All-Star, finished 6th in Cy Young voting, and 26th in NL MVP voting; altogether, a very strong season. But other than that, the contracts were “meh” at best.
Finally, here’s Farhan Zaidi’s track record:
— SFGiants (@SFGiants) June 6, 2021
The “misses” have been pretty harmless because Zaidi has been reluctant to hand out multi-year deals, but he hasn’t had to spend a lot to supplement a talented core yet. The Giants only just got competitive, after a 4-year rebuild, so Zaidi’s first real test in free agency was this past offseason (’21-22); he was able to add Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Cobb, and Carlos Rodón on fairly reasonable deals. If the Giants remain competitive in 2022 and beyond, Zaidi will have all the financial backing he wants from San Francisco ownership, along with their high expectations.
The one team in this tier with a goose egg in the “Playoff Appearances” column (and the losingest North American sports team of all time), the Phillies have spent their money well, for the most part. The beginning of the 10-year measuring period coincided with the end of the Phillies core that won the 2008 World Series; the Phillies made the playoffs every year from 2007 to 2011, but haven’t made one since. Perhaps this year will be the year the Phillies finally break that streak, as they stacked power bats (from free agency, by the way) to build a formidable top-of-the-lineup. No worries, though, as Philadelphia fans are known for acting rationally:
Joe Girardi is a bad manager
— James Seltzer (@JamesSeltzer) April 17, 2022
The Phillies have had to spend money in free agency since emerging from their rebuild in 2018. They came out of a 5-year rebuild with less talent than you’d like to have; for all of that losing, the Phillies were rewarded with, uh… Aaron Nola, Rhys Hoskins, and maybe Mickey Moniak and Alec Bohm? Philadelphia had other young talent coming up around the same time as Nola and Hoskins, like J.P. Crawford and Sixto Sanchez, but chose to send them away for more established players, like J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura. And the young talent they were hoping would turn into the next great Phillies core, like Maikel Franco, Odúbel Herrera, Héctor Neris, Vince Velasquez, and Nick Williams all ended up being mostly duds ( I love you, Hector!).
I apologize for eulogizing the last half-decade for all my Phillies fans who stuck around to read this part of the article, but it’s important to note why they’ve been such heavy spenders in free agency lately. The fanbase — again, known for its rational, well-thought-out takes — was more than ready for the team to start winning again, but the Phillies didn’t have the internal talent to build around. So, they had to import players via free agency and trading. Accordingly, the Phillies placed in the top 10 in dollars committed to free agents over the 10-year measuring period.
Teams tend to spend most when they get competitive, as you saw from the Giants and Cubs’ spending patterns. However, the difference between the “lean” years and the expensive years for the Phillies is almost comically large:
The early 2010s were the product of Ruben Amaro, Jr.’s tenure as GM. Amaro was not able to pick too many “winners” during his time as GM; all of his $/fWAR rates are relatively high, and there are no years with a true “home run contract.” All of the 2011-12 fWAR was the product of Jonathan Papelbon’s 4-year, $50 million contract. 2013-14 would probably look a little better if the Phillies hadn’t committed $24 million to Carlos Ruiz (0.7 fWAR across 3 seasons), but it’s hard to convince teams not to re-sign a franchise hero for a relatively modest contract sum, even if he’s going to produce next to no value.
The Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon as a free agent 5 years ago today. Worked out great. pic.twitter.com/O2XMrlWIL3
— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) November 14, 2016
Phillies fans love to hate on Matt Klentak, and they might actually be onto something, based on that dreadful 2017-18 offseason (and the lack of solid homegrown talent, and the selection of Mickey Moniak first overall, but that’s a story for a different article).
Spending money on relievers and completely whiffing? Where have I seen that before…?
The Jake Arrieta contract, in hindsight, wasn’t the greatest contract to ever hit the books. It certainly wasn’t the worst contract I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even the worst contract in this tier (Carlos Beltrán, come on down!). But it just didn’t live up to expectations. Arrieta was a year removed from an All-Star appearance and a 9th-place Cy Young finish, and only 2-years removed from a Cy Young award and a 6th-place MVP finish. What he did for the Phillies didn’t even come close to that, which is why it feels like even more of a dud than it actually was.
Alright, enough of this moping around. Let’s see Philadelphia “win” on some contracts!
I want to give the Phillies extra credit for realizing just how good Zack Wheeler was going to be. In 5 years with the Mets, Wheeler had a 3.77 ERA, a 3.71 FIP, a 100 ERA+, and zero All-Star appearances.
In his 2 years with the Phillies, Wheeler has been superb, holding sub-3 ERAs in both 2020 and 2021 (and a 142 ERA+), finishing 12th and 2nd in Cy Young voting in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and even landing 19th in MVP votes last season. Regardless of whatever happens over the next few seasons, Wheeler has been an unqualified success.
Phillies starter Zack Wheeler today vs Braves
🔥17 straight retired
— Jeff Skversky (@JeffSkversky) April 3, 2021
Unfortunately, we’ve had to retire #PitchersWhoRake, because it only applies to one guy now, but Zack Wheeler was an executive board member of the Pitchers Who Rake club.