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Marwin Gonzalez and the flattening of player valuation

All teams seem to be valuing players like him the same, for better or for worse.

MLB: ALCS-Boston Red Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone remembers the first sign of labor trouble. No, no, it wasn’t Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, nor was it JD Martinez a season ago. In fact the first sign that there was divergence between how front offices perceived a player and how players themselves (and agents) valued themselves was actually during the 2013-14 offseason, during the fiasco involving Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales.

Drew, heading into that season, had just put up a .253/.333/.443 and 3.6 fWAR season with the World Series-winning Red Sox, and couldn’t find a major league contract heading into the 2014 season; ZiPS projected he would be worth about 1.6 WAR that season. Morales had a similar predicament, hitting to a 119 wRC+ with the Mariners and was projected to be worth 1.4 WAR by ZiPS.

The problem, unfortunately, is that teams stopped caring about one-win players. Not that they don’t want one-win players; they have plenty of them filling up their 40-man roster and can be found all over the waiver wire and in non-roster invitee lists, it’s just that they hold a bit less usefulness when there are those other avenues.

It also means that because of their more widespread availability, and how those players skew older in free agency, teams aren’t going to pay them exactly $8 million per WAR on the nose. Drew and Morales, regardless of their disparate later outcomes, still got a deals around one-year, $10 million, and Morales even parlayed that into a three-year one, but that has precipitously gotten worse to the present day.

That brings us to this week, where Marwin Gonzalez signed a two-year, $21 million deal with the Minnesota Twins. It’s a solid deal, one that the Twins likely need to contend against the Indians who seem to be assuming that they won’t even sniff first place. Yet it brought me back to the original point about Drew and Morales, and the overall flattening of value in players valued similarly.

Gonzalez offers tremendous versatility (fantasy owners know this well), being able to play corner outfield and around the horn. He’ll also be worth about a win and a half, and maybe adding a smudge more via that versatility by possibly saving a roster spot. Yet when you look at him, and the infielders like him (let’s say, players over age-30 and projected between one and three wins in 2019), their contracts look... identical, and drastically under crowd-sourced projections. Here are those players, what they actually got, and how that differed in total value from the projection:

  • Marwin Gonzalez: $21 million earned, $9 million below median estimate
  • Asdrubal Cabrera: $3.5 million earned, $14.5 million below estimate
  • Brian Dozier: $9 million earned, $27 million below estimate
  • DJ LeMahieu: $24 million earned, $12 million below estimate
  • Jed Lowrie: $20 million earned, $4 million below estimate
  • Daniel Murphy: $24 million earned, $4 million below estimate

Gonzalez, Murphy, LeMahieu, Lowrie, and Murphy pretty much got... exactly identical ideals, which is incredibly terrifying. The only infielder to get more than two years was Eduardo Escobar, and not a single one of these players got more than $25 million total.

I’m not necessarily saying that they should; these are players who are over 30 with only slightly-near-average production at whatever stage of their career they’re in, and some, like a Drew, could just fall off a cliff. But it’s still incredibly odd, and eyebrow-raising, that a variety of teams with various placements on the win curve are essentially valuing these players identically, not even off by a factor of five or ten million on the top-line.

That generally matches what Brad Brach said, that “[I]t’s kind of weird that all offers are the same that come around at the same time and everyone tells you there’s an algorithm,” as well as Mark Reynolds, who said that they he received the same exact same offer from multiple teams on the same day.

Does that prove collusion? That certainly sniffs at it at least in these isolated cases, but even if it isn’t some intentional effort a la 1987, it does show that teams are effectively unifying their valuating of players in the middle-to-minor-league deal tier, which, for all intents and purposes, operates in that same collusive manner.