Economics of Baseball: 2010 in 1-year deals for free agent position players

This is a picture of Jim Thome being congratulated by Minnesota Twins bench base coach Scott Ullger after mashing a tater. June 28, 2010 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

According to baseballprojection.com's Free Agent Tracker, thirty position players signed 1-year deals in the 2010 preseason. Due to the number of contracts I won't discuss them all as I did in my two-part examination of last year's free agent starting pitching market. Rather, I'll discuss the three best and worst contracts.

First, some general observations about the class. Immediately apparent is the fact that the group as a whole was extraordinarily efficient. They produced 52.3 fWAR for only ~$106 million guaranteed. The $2.02 million dollars-to-win ratio is far lower than the $5.34 million figure starters on multi-year deals or $4.4 million figure starters on 1-year deals produced. It's been noted by others before, but GM's willing to fill their position player vacancies with 1-year stop-gaps can acquire severely underpriced talent.

I think this is because the market for position players on 1-year deals is smaller than we think. With the almost universal goal of fielding a really good and really cheap team at some point in the future, teams farther away from contention often elect to go with a cheaper option or let the kids play rather than getting into a bidding war over a 33 year old shortstop with a team that could actually use the wins to contend. Pitching is always a hot commodity because pitching is hard and pitchers get hurt and someone has to do it, but unless a GM of a rebuilding team sees a grossly undervalued asset that he might be able to flip at the trade deadline for something that will help the rebuilding effort there's not a lot of incentive for him to get in on this market.

Of the eight teams that made the playoffs, only the Phillies and Rays didn't sign a free agent position player to a 1-year deal. Of the playoff teams, San Francisco made the most of the market, signing Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe, and Bengie Molina. The trio provided 9.3 fWAR for $10.75 million. Though the world championship wasn't won in the FA market alone, it's fair to say squeezing 9 wins out of $11 million was an integral part of their 2010 success.

The best:

Aubrey Huff -- I'll admit it: I laughed when I first learned that the Giants had guaranteed $3 million to a guy who put up -1.4 fWAR the previous year. Along with just about everybody else I was extremely wrong. Huff boosted his walk rate and re-gained his power stroke in 2010 en route to a 5.7-win season. The $0.53 million dollars-to-win ratio is one of the best in the group and his deal provided more surplus value than any other in the sample.

Jim Thome -- 2010 was an outstanding year for Jim Thome and fans of MASHED TATERS alike. Thome served as a part-time DH for Minnesota and managed a .283/.412/.627 slash line in 340 plate appearances. He faced mostly right-handed pitching and all but proved he is still capable of mashing it. Over half his hits went for extra-bases. He even rendered Hawk Harrelson speechless after blasting a game-winning homer off of Matt Thornton in mid-August.

Adrian Beltre -- The Red Sox didn't make the playoffs, but they were pretty close and Adrian Beltre was a big reason they finished where they did. Decimated by injuries, the Sox never got healthy enough to make a serious run at the AL East crown. Adrian Beltre experienced none of the aforementioned injury woes, hitting .321/.365/.553 in 641 plate appearances, leading the league with 49 doubles, playing plus-plus defense at 3B, and racking up 7.1 fWAR. $10 million/year doesn't exactly qualify as bargain-bin shopping, but do credit Theo Epstein for finding an undervalued source of talent. Or perhaps Beltre for his second career year.

The worst:

Xavier Nady -- Nady was useless, posting a .306 on-base average in 347 PA's while playing mostly first base and a bit of corner outfield. All in all he made $3.3 million and provided -0.5 fWAR in return. Yuck.

Nick Johnson -- The Yankees guaranteed Nick Johnson $5.5 million, but he only racked up 98 plate appearances. When he played he hit only .167, but posted a 24-to-23 walk-to-strikeout ratio and a .388 on-base average. Still, he slugged .306 and was used almost exclusively as a DH, resulting in only 0.1 fWAR. Brian Cashman's MO in the 2010 pre-season was to acquire things he didn't really need but would make the Yankees even better if they panned out. Javier Vazquez and Nick Johnson didn't, but the Yankees still finished with the 3rd-best record in baseball.

Pedro Feliz -- While Xavier Nady was useless, Pedro Feliz was actively offensive. He combined to hit .218/.240/.293 in 429 PA's in Houston and, after he was mercifully released, St. Louis. He has a good reputation as a defender, but wasn't particularly good in the field in 2010, resulting in a grotesque -2.1 fWAR. Nobody in baseball provided more negative hitter fWAR, including not only catchers and middle infielders, but also pitchers.

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