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The Volatility of the Free-Agent Outfield Market

As fellow Beyond the Box Score user Josh Amaral recently noted, the MLB free agent market can be a strange place. While major league teams have handed out their share of varying contracts to relievers this offseason, outfielders have also been on the receiving end of both highly lucrative and oddly sensible deals in free agency. In many ways, this off-season’s outfield market, with its head-scratching volatility, has demonstrated the peculiar whims and decisions that so often govern free agent signings.

A tweet from Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal yesterday shows just how illogical this whole process can be sometimes:

Cody Ross in '12: 22 HRs, 528 PAs, 113 OPS+. Scott Hairston: 20 HRs, 398 PAs, 117 OPS+. Ross: $26M. Hairston, also 32, isn't worth $8M/2?

—Ken Rosenthal, 17 Jan 13

Hairston had nearly as many home runs as Ross in over 100 less at-bats. Moreover, the pair’s splits in 2012 (Ross: .267/.326/.481; Hairston: .263/.299/.504) weren’t all that different either. But Hairston, as Rosenthal states, cannot get a team to pay him $8 million over two years, while Ross was paid $26 million over three seasons by a Diamondbacks team that already possessed a crowded outfield.

What this exhibits, ultimately, is that the free agent market is a weird mix of timing, need, public relations, owner desire, and GM scheming, along with a whole host of other calculated decisions that take place behind the scenes in MLB front offices.

Power will always be valued, as Josh Hamilton’s 5-year, $125 million deal proved. Though legitimate questions surround Hamilton’s age, injury track record, history of substance abuse, and approach, the Angels were more than willing to splash $25 million per year on the 31-year-old.

Nevertheless, Melky Cabrera, who was admittedly in a tough situation due to his mid-season suspension for PEDs, signed with the Blue Jays in a deal so overshadowed by Toronto’s other moves that I often forget the Jays even signed Cabrera. In 501 plate appearances for San Francisco last season, Cabrera posted a higher OPS+ than Hamilton (158 to 139) and an identical wOBA (.387). In 35 less games, Cabrera compiled more WAR (4.6 to 4.4) than Hamilton as well. Determining just how much of Cabrera’s success came from PED usage is difficult, but Toronto’s 2-year, $16 million deal with the 28-year-old could become a bargain.

Comparing the contracts handed out to Shane Victorino and Angel Pagan brings us to similar conclusions. Though Victorino had perhaps the worst offensive season of his major league career in 2012, the Red Sox still gave him a pricey long-term deal to be the team’s starting right-fielder (and, maybe eventually, center-fielder). Pagan is a year younger and had a far more productive season in a much more pitcher-friendly ballpark, and the Giants were able to sign him for less money per year than Victorino will earn. In all, the two outfielders will make almost the same amount of money by the end of their deals, though Pagan does have an extra year on his contract.

While many teams spend big money to "get their guy" or "make a splash" in free agency, others seem able to take a far more shrewd and cost-effective approach. Furthermore, not every signing a team makes is always either exorbitant or levelheaded. There remains a definite middle-ground, with free agent signings more often determined by the strange reality that is the free agent market.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. WAR taken from FanGraphs. Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

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