In the final tier of our free-agent value exercise, we find teams that have really swung and missed on a few different players over the last 10 years. In previous tiers, most teams have truly avoided the dreaded “albatross” contract. Half of the teams in this tier, unfortunately, have not. The other half of the teams in this tier haven’t had true “albatross” contracts, but they’ve missed on contract after contract in free agency, so much so that you just have to wonder what kind of scouting they’re actually doing on the guys they sign.
This 4-team tier (13.3% of all MLB teams) is responsible for just 9 playoff appearances (8.49% of all playoff appearances), and over half of those playoff appearances are thanks to the Cleveland Guardians:
I had to lump the Guardians in with the other 3 teams because they’re not close enough to the Tier 4 teams, but they’re certainly not on the same level as the Rockies, Angels, and Marlins. They’re in here for efficiency’s sake.
This tier we’ll call “Teams that Can’t Figure Out How to Spend Money Appropriately Even When They Do Have It.” It goes to show you that even the cheaper teams, like the Guardians and Marlins, can still have really awful free-agent contracts despite spending as little money as possible.
The more successful Ohio baseball team of the last 10 years, the Guardians — like their Cincinnati friends — were averse to spending any real money in free agency, although the Guardians actually had the stronger playoff core to supplement. In fact, they were just a run away from winning a World Series about a half-decade ago (2016). And the Guardians tried to “supplement” that core in the way that Larry Dolan approved of:
And a solid half of the Guardians’ free-agent spending this decade came from a difficult 2012-13 class. Let’s take a look at one of the worst $/fWAR classes of the decade:
Cleveland tried to build its championship core via “reasonable deals” in free agency and wound up paying $43.7 million to a post-prime, 32-year-old Nick Swisher and $37 million to a soon-to-be-out-of-his-prime Michael Bourn. Bourn’s deal was fine, but the rest of these deals, well… you do the math. The Guardians were so desperate to get rid of Swisher and Bourn before the end of their deals that they dealt the two of them (at the 2015 trade deadline), along with cash considerations, for Chris Johnson, who was subsequently released from his contract in December 2015. By the way, when the Guardians signed Nick Swisher, the Yankees received a compensatory pick in the 2013 draft, which was used to select Aaron Judge. So, the Yankees really won out in that exchange.
Cleveland would make its run at the 2016 World Series, coming ever-so-close to a World Series title at home:
1. 2016 WS game 7: Rajai Davis 2-run Home Run, +39.04 cWPA for CLE pic.twitter.com/nkrevYb9Yj
— MLB Metrics (@MLBMetrics) February 6, 2022
Possibly the most electric home run in any World Series over the past 10 seasons. Anyway, Cleveland realized that it was oh-so-close to winning it all, so they decided to supplement their core and try to make one more run at a title, dropping over $40 million in free agency. Let’s see what Cleveland did to try to get “over the hump”:
— Noticia Libre (@Noticia_Libre) January 5, 2017
To be fair, they won 102 games the following season (although their Pythagorean W/L was actually 108-54) and lost in the ALDS. Plus, the team didn’t have too many holes, with nearly every regular batter in their lineup sporting an OPS+ of 100 or higher, so it’s not like they could’ve gone out and really improved their hitting. Besides, that 2016-17 free-agent market was famously devoid of elite hitters (the high watermark of that offseason was the 4-year, $110 million contract handed to Yoenis Céspedes). But I can’t help but wonder if Cleveland would’ve been better off spending a little more on their rotation or the bullpen to make this team even better.
As with the rest of the teams in this tier, Cleveland has not had many multi-year contract “wins.” In fact, the best value Cleveland has gotten out of a multi-year contract was Oliver Pérez’s 2-year, $3.6 million contract, signed during the 2018-19 offseason, in which he racked up 1 fWAR in two seasons. The only other multi-year contracts Cleveland has handed out are the ones already listed previously, to Encarnación, Bourn, Aviles, and Swisher.
This article was partially inspired by former Rockies GM Jeff Bridich, who famously ran the Rockies straight into the ground, albeit with some help from his good friends Dick and Charlie Monfort. When I began collecting the data, I wondered, “How much did the Rockies waste on free-agent relievers?” The answer was much better than I thought it would be, as the Rockies did not finish last in terms of $ per fWAR committed to pitching. Rockies fans can thank Jhoulys Chacin, of all people, for providing about half of all Rockies pitching fWAR in a 2-year window.
Where the Rockies “missed” in terms of contracts was the money committed to position players signed in free agency. The Rockies and Angels ran a tight competition to see who could sign the worst set of free-agent position player contracts over the last 10 years, and the Rockies barely survived:
And now you partially understand why the bottom two teams on this chart have a combined 2 playoff appearances over the past 10 years (or 20 seasons between the two of them). Free agency is a guessing game; if teams had a perfect sense of how players would perform on new teams, we wouldn’t have this article. But when teams engage in a guessing game, they tend to “hit” on a handful of their signings, enough to drive their free-agent “success rate” up to 40, 50, or even 60% (and for the Rays, it’s much higher). The Rockies are at the low-end of the free-agent success spectrum. By my count, there are a few decent signings in this 10-year window:
Hey, they got some good value out of these guys. These contracts are nothing to be ashamed of, and many GMs would be happy to get this kind of production out of position players signed in free agency, especially at a relatively reasonable rate.
#OTD 6 years ago, Michael Cuddyer hit for the cycle for the 2nd time in his career, becoming the 30th player to do it multiple times.
— Tyler Milliken ⚾️ (@tylermilliken_) August 17, 2020
The problem with the Rockies’ free-agent spending is that when they “missed,” they missed so badly that it drove their overall value down significantly:
5 years ago today, the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a 5-year free agent contract.
What a disaster!
His -2.5 WAR from 2017-2019 was the 4th worst in MLB, ahead of only Chris Davis, Lewis Brinson, & Alcides Escobar
Desmond opted out of both the 2020 & 2021 seasons.
— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) December 7, 2021
(The -2.5 WAR mentioned is bWAR, not fWAR.)
Now, if you squint hard enough, you’ll see that the total amount that the Rockies spent is close enough to how much the Orioles have already paid Chris Davis for his monster deal. And you might be thinking, “Well, the Rockies missed on a Chris Davis-like contract here, although they managed to tack on an extra -2 fWAR. Why are they all the way down here?” It’s because they simply don’t have enough value in other contracts to make up for all of these bad ones. The Orioles, at least, had a handful of good grabs in free agency and then had the strength not to keep spending on areas that they clearly couldn’t project well — like free-agent relievers — unlike the Rockies. From 2013 to 2017, the Rockies continued to hand out contracts to relief pitchers, only for those pitchers to predictably struggle at Coors Field. It was only recently that the Rockies (a) rid themselves of Jeff Bridich, (b) stink, and therefore have no reason to try to spend heavily to complete their bullpen, and (c) learned their lesson, and (d) are no longer run by Jeff Bridich.
This article was also heavily inspired by The Machine himself, Albert Pujols. As a longtime Angels fan (it’s in my bio on this site, I’m not ashamed), I was happy to see the Angels had signed the greatest first baseman of the 21st century in December 2011. As a 12-year-old, I went to the press conference at Angel Stadium where they introduced Pujols and C.J. Wilson and thought that it was only a matter of time before 2002 became the first of our many World Series titles. Oh my goodness, how wrong I was, and how I’ve grown to dislike Pujols so much as a result of his albatross contract. Scores of GIDPs later, I am now an official Albert Pujols disliker. Just let me be petty, okay?
Even if I wasn’t a Pujols hater, there’s still plenty of reason to dislike this Angels’ free-agent spending run. For one thing, it’s one of the many reasons Mike Trout has one playoff appearance to his name and Shohei Ohtani has zero. And free agency — and owner Arte Moreno’s very heavy hand in some of those decisions, apparently — is a huge part of the reason the Angels have cycled through GMs over the last 10 years. It should come as no surprise that the GMs the Angels have pushed out — Jerry Dipoto (Seattle’s GM from 2015-present) and Billy Eppler (The Mets’ GM from 2021-present) — have been quite successful elsewhere when allowed to work their magic without an overbearing and yet frustratingly oblivious owner.
The other teams in this tier have struggled to find value in short-term deals and have mostly stayed away from real long-term deals. The Angels are the opposite, always looking for the sizzle without providing the steak to back it up. I would say that the Angels learned their lesson after signing Pujols to a 10-year deal and Josh Hamilton to what ended up being a 2-year deal, but Anthony Rendon (who I like very much, by the way, no shade to him) is on the books for another 4 seasons after 2022.
That aging curve hit Pujols quickly. If you’re curious, Albert’s contract alone — which paid him more than 4 teams spent in total over the same time period — had a $/fWAR of $42.3 million.
May 6th 2012 Albert Pujols hit his first home run as an Angel
— Jared Tims (@Jared_Tims) May 6, 2021
I want to give a special shoutout to Billy Eppler for his time as the Angels’ GM. Unlike his predecessor (Jerry Dipoto), Billy had some successes in the MLB draft, selecting MLB-quality Brandon Marsh, Jo Adell, and Griffin Canning, which helped bring the Angels out of the cellar in terms of team prospect rankings. But Eppler really missed in free agency during his time as GM. Take a look at the second-to-last free-agent class Eppler put together before he was fired:
I cannot believe the Angels let Eppler get away with another year at the helm after this free-agent class. This class is a fireable offense. And look, I know Eppler had his hands tied with the free agents he could sign because Jerry Dipoto left Eppler with the “worst farm system” that Keith Law had ever seen, the Pujols contract tied up a significant portion of the annual payroll, and the Angels had historically struggled to develop pitching talent, but this is just embarrassing.
But Eppler took over in time for the 2015-16 offseason, so he has a larger class of free agents that we can judge him by. Let’s see how he did:
On your mark, get set, terrible! And of course, all the same caveats apply here: the Pujols contract was a hamstring, Arte Moreno’s gonna do Arte Moreno things, worst farm system ever, etc. But -0.7 fWAR across 5 free agent classes? He’s all yours, Mets fans.
Okay, yes, I’ve been pretty harsh on Billy Eppler, so let’s check out Jerry Dipoto’s track record with the Angels. This one is going to sting too:
Yeah, Jerry wasn’t much help either. Of course, his legacy with the Angels is always going to be hurt by the twin killing of Pujols and Hamilton, but there wasn’t a whole lot else for JeDi to hang his hat on. At least C.J. Wilson wasn’t a total bust. The same issues that plagued Billy Eppler (bad farm system, the owner being overbearing, etc.) plagued Jerry Dipoto, plus, Dipoto had to deal with Mike Scioscia’s resistance to analytics.
Alas, we’ve reached the end of our inquiry with the Miami Marlins. They are the exact opposite of their intrastate rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, in that they’ve tried to do a lot with a little money but failed miserably. The Marlins, by far, generated the least amount of fWAR out of free agency. And well over half of that came from the 2011-12 free-agent class.
The Marlins have been bailed out by the fact that they have not been competitive since 2017. With the trading of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, J.T. Realmuto, and Marcell Ozuna (Holy cow, what a roster they had back then!), the Marlins didn’t feel the need (and probably hadn’t been given the approval) to sign a big-ticket free agent. As a result of their uh, frugality, the Marlins have been just fine in terms of $/fWAR, but they haven’t gotten much fWAR for their trouble.
Alright, so we’ve established that the Marlins haven’t spent a whole lot lately. But let’s see what happened when they did spend a “whole lot!”
Okay, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. There really aren’t many good contracts to pick from here. In fact, you’ll see in just a second why the Marlins are the lowest team on this list.
@lamelaza_7 Mayo 16/2012 José Reyes se robo el home en un juego entre Los Marlins de Florida y Los Bravos de Atlanta.
May 16/2012 José Reyes stole home plate in a game between the Florida Marlins and the Atlanta Braves. #josereyes #lamelaza #metsdenewyork #newyorkmets pic.twitter.com/uWaCxIBQRY
— BASEBALL CALIENTE R D (@Prosario777) June 10, 2020
So, Miami ran into the same problem as the Rockies did: too many bad contracts producing negative fWAR. The issue is that Miami couldn’t make up for it with enough of the other contracts that recouped fWAR value, like the Rockies did.
Ultimately, this tier especially has made me pretty sad as a general baseball fan because these teams all have delightful players to watch and storylines to root for. The Angels have Fish-Man and ShoTime. The Guardians had one of the best teams of the mid-2010s and came within a single run of winning a World Series title. The Rockies had Nolan Arenado for a little bit. The Marlins had a lineup filled with All-Stars, traded them all away, and then came up with one of the best rotations in baseball for this year (plus Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Jesús Sánchez!) and beyond. Each of these teams has something to root for! But they’re all so, so bad at signing free agents. Let’s figure it out, guys!
For now, I’ll leave you with this:
— Los Angeles Angels (@Angels) April 27, 2022