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Lindholm: What Are Baseball’s Top Free Agents Really Worth In 2013?

Jacoby Ellsbury. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

Jacoby Ellsbury. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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By Scott Lindholm-

(CBS) There has been a flurry of activity as the window for baseball free agency opened, and it’s hard to evaluate a deal without some kind of baseline measure.

FanGraphs provides one such metric—click on a player’s Values tab and then look in the Dollars column. It assigns a dollar value to a player’s WAR value (to see how that’s done see the article here, and good luck)—for 2013, that value was approximately $5 million per point of WAR. Choosing a player completely at random, say, Jacoby Ellsbury, his FanGraphs’ 2013 WAR value was 5.8 and his Dollar value $28.9 million.

The most common thing I ever have and ever will write is this—DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE NUMBER ITSELF, BUT INSTEAD HOW THAT NUMBER COMPARES TO OTHER PLAYERS. The fact that Ellsbury delivered $28.9 million of value is incomplete until it’s compared with other center fielders:

(Table by: Scott Lindholm. Information taken from FanGraphs.)

(Table created by Scott Lindholm. Data from FanGraphs.)

Any metric has to pass the smell test, and reviewing the best center fielders as measured by FanGraphs’ WAR does indeed match up well with expectations and allows a way to determine if the Yankees overpaid for Ellsbury. Without knowing how the contract is structured, it passes muster on first glance since Ellsbury delivered more value than the average yearly payout. That’s not the issue—almost ANY team would be willing to pay good money for 2013 Ellsbury. It’s the 2017 Ellsbury and beyond that will be the true determinant of whether he delivered value, and the Yankees are about the only team left (other than the Angels, and even they’ve learned after Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols) willing to overpay. Why that is will be for another day, but I did touch on it in a post I wrote at my blog a couple of months ago.

This chart shows some of the notable signings so far in this offseason:

Table created by Scott Lindholm. Data amalgamated from ESPN & FanGraphs.

(Table created by Scott Lindholm. Data amalgamated from ESPN & FanGraphs.)

There’s a healthy mix of reasonable value (Jhonny Peralta, Brian McCann), ehh (Geovany Soto, Willie Bloomquist) and “WHAT?!?!?!” (Tim Lincecum, Marlon Byrd). Notable free agents still available include Shin-Soo Choo, Robinson Cano (who will get his own blog post soon, which will be cryptically titled “Robinson Ca-NOOOOOOOOOO!”), Stephen Drew and Carlos Beltran. Using the FanGraphs Dollar Value is a simple way to see if teams are signing players to reasonable contracts.

There is a change recognizing that paying for past performance is ridiculous and illustrated by the contracts Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo signed—reasonably priced deals locking in young talent expected to become key components (read more on my thoughts on this here). It’s too early to definitively state if these contracts are justified or not, but the thinking is easy to understand—identify the Cubs core players of the future and lock them in and effectively bypass three years of arbitration. It’s a calculated risk on the upside of young talent with the hope they’re paying for players on the rise instead of paying EVEN MORE for older free agents on the precipice of their decline years.

When the dust settles I’ll write future posts on where the Cubs and White Sox are, with the short answer being they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Cubs are a couple years away from determining if their attempt to replicate the Cardinals method (draft well, judicious signing of free agents) will deliver results. The Sox are dangerously close to becoming the next version of the 2013 Marlins—old, bad AND expensive as well. Paul Konerko’s re-signed at 1-year, $2.5 million with $1 million of it deferred until 2021—even for the White Sox that’s a rounding error. A WAR of around .5 will justify this contract, easy for him if he can stay healthy, and EXACTLY what FanGraphs projects his 2014 WAR will be, along with 351 PA, 11 home runs and 44 RBI.

Scott Lindholm is a columnist for CBSChicago.com and 670TheScore.com and frequent contributor to The Boers and Bernstein Show, known affectionately as Scott from Davenport. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.