Playing the Free Agent Game

As we get further and further away from the month of October, the pinnacle month of the baseball season, fans and players alike are kicking back and relaxing in their recliners at home, patiently awaiting for the season to start back up again in the spring.  Although it may seem like baseball goes completely dormant in the winter, the front offices of Major League organizations are hustling and bustling just as much during the winter as they are just before the trade deadline. The month of December, in particular, is arguably the busiest time for front offices.

Each December, all 30 MLB organizations, MLB representatives, and player agents congregate at a fancy hotel in a popular city for the annual Winter Meetings. The Winter Meetings are crucial in determining where free agent players and players on the trading block are going to call home next year. Almost 3,000 attendees discuss players, compromise on trades, and sign free agents over the course of four days. This year, organizations will have plenty to talk about.

To say the pool of free agent players this year is deep would be an understatement. Front offices have started chipping away at the goods before the Winter Meetings have even begun this year. Star pitcher David Price, who was traded from the Tigers to the Blue Jays before the trade deadline last season, played a key role in pushing the Blue Jays to and through the playoffs. The Blue Jays got more than what they bargained for when they traded their top prospect for him. Price earned an impressive nine wins in only 11 starts and a 2.30 ERA. If you ask Price, the phrase “Don’t fix what ain’t broken” doesn’t apply to baseball.  Even after joining a roster that features one of the best bullpens and unquestionably the best lineup in baseball, Price chose to come back to the States and signed a seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox. Mike Hazen, the general manager for the Red Sox, is clearly eager to start harvesting the cream of the crop.

Price isn’t the only top free agent arm to sign before the Winter Meetings. Pitcher Jordan Zimmermann has decided to part ways with the Nationals and is headed to Detroit after signing a five-year, $110 million deal with the Tigers. According to ESPN’s MLB Free Agent Rankings, both Price and Zimmermann are top 25 free agents this year. They aren’t the only ones in the top 25 to seal the deal. Three other members of the top 25 have already secured homes for next season.

According to ESPN, outfielder Jason Heyward is the top free agent in this year’s class, but I say pitcher Zack Greinke deserves the top spot. Greinke is coming off of the best year in his career. He finished the season with a career best and MLB-leading 1.66 ERA. The last time a pitcher finished a complete season with that low of an ERA was when Greg Maddux achieved a 1.63 ERA back in 1995. Greinke also led the National League in Win-Loss Percentage, WHIP, and ERA+.

Furthermore, Greinke is a lot like Price: good is never good enough. After the season ended, Greinke declined his player option for the 2016 season and willingly chose to enter into the free agent market. So far this has been a good decision for Greinke. If the free agent market behaves the way it normally does, Greinke will be sitting on a very, very large pile of cash.

The market works like this: if player A believes he is worth more to a team than player B, then player A also believes he should be offered a higher salary than player B. In this case, Greinke is clearly a better pitcher than Price. Therefore, front offices are anticipating that Greinke would not be willing to accept a contract worth anything less than Price’s. If the price is right, I’d anticipate Greinke taking somewhere around $225 million and seven years. This would put him at around $32 million per year, second to only his former teammate (potentially) Clayton Kershaw and one spot ahead of the newly signed David Price.

To put this number into perspective, take into consideration that Greinke started 32 games in each of 2015 and 2014. That’s $1 million for every game start. If we assume that Greinke makes 100 pitches in each start, then each pitch that he makes would earn him $10,000. In roughly 26 pitches, he can earn enough money to pay for an entire Swarthmore College education.
Of course, only big-market teams are in contention for signing Greinke. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that small and medium-market teams are taking it easy this winter. The Royals, recent World Series Champions, had three key players out on the open market. Alex Gordon, Johnny Cueto, and Ben Zobrist, who all played a vital role in the Royals successful pursuit of a championship, are all unsigned and are fair game for any team willing to fork over more cash than the Royals.

The Winter Meetings is a scary and mysterious time for baseball fans. Trades and signings can completely come spontaneously out of leftfield without precedent. Making predictions out of the four most intense days of general managing is really difficult. Sometimes both front offices make decisions they don’t usually make, and sometimes players do the same. Only the future will tell us who will end up where.

Ricky Conti

Ricky '19 is a senior math and econ major on the baseball team from SoCal. He is colorblind and always gets the green and red Gatorades mixed up.

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