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The High Risk of Free Agent Position Players

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Signing free agent position players to contracts of five or more years has generally not been a good value.

Hanley Ramirez is one of the Top 5 FA Position Players
Hanley Ramirez is one of the Top 5 FA Position Players
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I took a look at the value in signing starting pitchers to long free agent contracts and, surprisingly, found some good deals and surplus values for most of the free agent pitchers who were signed to deals of five years of longer.

Since 2006, 23 positional players have been signed to contracts of five or more years, and the results are not nearly as positive. When committing significant years and money to free agent position players, there are a few ‘deals' that were found on the free agent market, but mostly, the players' performance did not provide a good value for the team.

The average age of the positional players who have signed contracts of five or more deals is just a shade under 30. At that stage in their careers, players generally are on the downward side of the aging curve -- they have already peaked. This is particularly true if the player relies on speed as their primary tool, as this is generally the first skill to decline (see Shin-Soo Choo and Carl Crawford).

Estimating the current cost of a win between $6 million and $7 million, we see that even before adjusting for inflation, 13 of the 23 5+ year contracts signed since 2006 were overpays. Additionally, and not surprisingly, several have been unmitigated disasters. Five teams paid $10m+ per win for free agent talent on the free agent market, a significant overpay. There are a few good deals on the list, but overall, the numbers are pretty ugly.

FA Walk Year Player Position

FA Age

Previous Team New Team Years Years Remaining Years Fulfilled Dollars Annual Average Value Cumulative Contract fWAR Cost Per Win
2013 Brian McCann C 29 Braves Yankees 5 4 1 $85,000,000 $17,000,000 2.3 $7,391,304
2013 Jacoby Ellsbury CF 30 Red Sox Yankees 7 6 1 $153,000,000 $21,857,143 3.6 $6,071,429
2013 Shin-Soo Choo OF 31 Reds Rangers 7 6 1 $130,000,000 $18,571,429 0.2
2013 Robinson Cano 2B 31 Yankees Mariners 10 9 1 $240,000,000 $24,000,000 5.2 $4,615,385
2012 B.J. Upton OF 28 Rays Braves 5 3 2 $75,250,000 $15,050,000 -0.2
2012 Josh Hamilton CF 31 Rangers Angels 5 3 2 $123,000,000 $24,600,000 3.1 $15,870,968
2011 Jose Reyes* SS 28 Mets Marlins 6 3 3 $106,000,000 $17,666,667 9.5 $5,578,947
2011 Prince Fielder* 1B 27 Brewers Tigers 9 6 3 $214,000,000 $23,777,778 6.8 $10,490,196
2011 Albert Pujols 1B 31 Cardinals Angels 10 7 3 $250,000,000 $25,000,000 7.7 $9,740,260
2010 Adrian Beltre 3B 31 Red Sox Rangers 6 2 4 $96,000,000 $16,000,000 22.8 $2,807,018
2010 Carl Crawford* LF 29 Rays Red Sox 7 3 4 $142,000,000 $20,285,714 5.5 $14,753,247
2010 Jayson Werth OF 31 Phillies Nationals 7 3 4 $126,000,000 $18,000,000 12.3 $5,853,659
2009 Matt Holliday OF 29 Cardinals Cardinals 7 2 5 $120,000,000 $17,142,857 23.7 $3,616,637
2008 Mark Teixeira 1B 28 Angels Yankees 8 2 6 $180,000,000 $22,500,000 15.4 $8,766,234
2007 Aaron Rowand** CF 30 Phillies Giants 5 0 5 $60,000,000 $12,000,000 4.3 $13,953,488
2007 Torii Hunter CF 32 Twins Angels 5 0 5 $90,000,000 $18,000,000 17.1 $5,263,158
2007 Alex Rodriguez SS 32 Yankees Yankees 10 3 7 $275,000,000 $27,500,000 20.1 $9,577,114
2006 Aramis Ramirez 3B 28 Cubs Cubs 5 0 5 $75,000,000 $15,000,000 14.5 $5,172,414
2006 Juan Pierre* LF 29 Cubs Dodgers 5 0 5 $44,000,000 $8,800,000 5.7 $7,719,298
2006 J.D. Drew RF 30 Dodgers Red Sox 5 0 5 $70,000,000 $14,000,000 12.4 $5,645,161
2006 Gary Matthews Jr.** CF 32 Rangers Angels 5 0 5 $50,000,000 $10,000,000 -0.9
2006 Carlos Lee 1B 30 Rangers Astros 6 0 6 $100,000,000 $16,666,667 8.5 $11,764,706
2006 Alfonso Soriano* RF 30 Nationals Cubs 8 0 8 $136,000,000 $17,000,000 19.6 $6,938,776

*Traded      ** Designated for Assignment

Eight of the long-term contracts signed since 2006 have come to terms, and the results are discouraging. Five of the eight contracts were overpays, including Rowand / Soriano / Lee / Matthews / Pierre; Matthews played so poorly, he was designated for assignment before the contract ended.

Perhaps surprising to Red Sox fans (though not to those paying attention), J.D. Drew's contract was one of the better values of the completed contracts. Drew amassed nearly a 12.5 WAR, costing about $5.6m per Win, which even after adjusting for inflation, was about market rate. Drew's reputation belies the value he created for the Red Sox, including an ALCS grand slam in 2007 that is not captured in the WAR numbers.

The Braves are in a challenging situation with B.J. Upton, who has been a complete failure in his first two seasons for Atlanta. Atlanta's having difficulty unloading the deal, and may even be struggling to give him away to a competitor. The Rangers are hoping they do not have the same situation on their hands with Shin-Soo Choo, whose AAV is $18m. He amassed .2 WAR in his first season in Arlington, which is certainly cause for concern.

On the positive side, Adrian Beltre has been of immense value to the Rangers. After coming off a one-year deal with Boston in 2010, Texas signed Beltre to a six-year, $96m deal. Since then, Beltre has amassed 22.8 WAR, costing the Rangers under $3m per WIN -- significantly under market value. Beltre has shown no signs of slowing down, and even if he never played again, the Rangers would still have paid him $4.2 million per Win, which is lower than market rate.

Likewise, Matt Holliday has been a good bargain for the Cardinals. Although his WAR has decreased the last two seasons, he is still an above-average player for St. Louis. Beltre and Holliday present the two most positive values on the list

Contract Year Adrian Beltre WAR Matt Holiday WAR
Year 1 5.4 6.2
Year 2 6.4 4.8
Year 3 5.2 4.5
Year 4 5.8 4.4
Year 5 TBD 3.8

Although Robinson Cano started his ten-year contract with a strong 5.2 WAR, all other players who signed eight-year deals have not been good values. Prince Fielder and Alfonso Soriano were both traded mid-deal, and Albert Pujols, ARod and Mark Teixeira have been overpays.

In evaluating the recent history of long-term deals, it would be wise for teams to shy away from long-term deals, particularly for players on the wrong side of 30. In looking at the top five free agent position players, Pablo Sandoval is probably the lowest risk considering his age, but there are questions about his body structure and durability as he ages.

Free Agent Position Age Going Into Next Season
Pablo Sandoval 3B 28
Hanely Ramirez SS 31
Victor Martinez 1B/DH 36
Melky Cabrera OF 30
Nelson Cruz OF 34

The Victor Martinez deal is a significant commitment for Detroit in terms of both years and dollars. The Tigers are betting VMart continues his productivity after coming off a career year, something that we have not seen in recent years.

Overall, signing positional players to 5+ year deals has not worked out well, and teams have generally overpaid compared to market rates for Wins. Teams would be better off signing mid-tier players to fewer than five years, or spending the money on the pitching market instead. A long-term deal with a positional player free agent is unlikely to be the significant value teams hope it will be -- buyer beware.

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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and ESPN Free Agent Tracker

Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.