Economics of Baseball: The bottom of the bargain bin

According to the MLB Trade Rumors 2011 free agent tracker, twenty two players have signed 1-year, major league deals guaranteeing them $1 million or less. $1 million is a lot of money to anyone, but it's not a whole lot more than the $414,500 minimum salary major league baseball teams are required to pay each of the players on their active roster. Average regulars generally make more money during their first year of arbitration eligibility than these players will via free agency. Getting a major league deal is probably in and of itself a small victory for these types of players--they're more or less spare parts and many players of similar caliber had to settle for minor league deals. They are the cheapest type of player that's both eligible for free agency and worthy of a major league deal, the bottom of the bargain bin.

Intuitively, we see a lot of back-up catchers sign this type of deal. Five such have been finalized this year: Henry Blanco, Gerald Laird, and Dioner Navarro all signed for $1 million, Matt Treanor and Wil Nieves were had for slightly less. Having a second catcher is more or less a roster construction requirement these days, so there's not too much harm in committing the roster spot early in the offseason.

Only two infielders have signed 1-year deals for $1 million or less so far: the hilariously predictable Nick Punto signing by St. Louis and Jorge Cantu's pact with the Padres, though if I had to pick a title for the role in which Jorge Cantu is best used it would be "bench bat" or "reserve 1B" rather than "infielder".

Five outfielders secured MLB deals for $1 million or less; the Dodgers handed out three of them: Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, and Jay Gibbons. The $650,000 Jay Gibbons was guaranteed is the lowest salary figure on a MLB contract given to a position player this offseason, Tony Gwynn's $680,000 is second. Pat Burrell is playing for charity again, coming off a 2.5-win season and signing for just $1 million. But he gets to play in San Francisco--which is presumably where he would like to be since he signed for $1 million--and that's the beauty of free agency. Still, the best of the group may end up being Fred Lewis who signed for $900,000. While he will probably start the year in a quasi-platoon with Jonny Gomes, I wouldn't rule out Lewis finishing the year as an every-day outfielder.

Five relief pitchers were guaranteed roster spots for less than $1 million: Taylor Buchholz, Brian Tallet, Matt Albers, Jose Veras, and Joel Peralta. Peralta is coming off a year in which he pitched 49 innings with a 2.02 ERA, 49-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and 0.9 HR/9 and right now he looks like a great addition to Tampa Bay's bullpen.

Finally, five teams took a flier on a free agent starter on a MLB deal for less than $1 million. I wouldn't expect much from Dustin Moseley or Ryan Rowland-Smith, but if Chien-Ming Wang, Erik Bedard, or Scott Olsen are physically able to make more than a handful of starts the Nationals, Mariners, or Pirates could walk away with quite a bargain.

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