Who will be the worst free agent signing of the 2018 offseason?

Oct 18, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jake Arrieta removes his cap as he is relieved in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game four of the 2017 NLCS playoff baseball series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s going to be the dud this time around?

Every free agent class has one: the signing you wish had gotten away. It’s too early to say who last year’s turned out to be, but Jason Heyward is one more season of current production away from being the clear “winner” of the 2015 iteration of this award; Ubaldo Jimenez might well have won it before the 2014 season, and so on and so forth. We can’t predict how the future will actually go, but we can predict how it should be — and the modern baseball free agency system is one of the least efficient possible in allocating talent at a reasonable cost to teams.

Very few baseball players, in aggregate, actually make it to free agency; many who do remain unsigned or signed to minor league deals, because the majority of their valuable years as a baseball player have already been used up while under team control. The earliest most players will hit free agency is age 28 or 29, recall. That’s only five years at best (outside of outliers and generational talents) before their decline phase starts. Now, outliers and generational talents will be overrepresented at the top of free agency, because everything up until that point has been winnowing out roleplayers or specialty talents — none of these guys, even the best of them, should ever get the deals that fans bemoan as having broken the franchise. Pat Neshek signs year to year contracts. So do Danny Valencia, and Steve Pearce.

So the player we’re looking for is a guy who has been forced into the top of free agency by scarcity and isn’t of the outlier or generational talent mold — who will we overpaid because the system forces him to be overpaid, because the system is designed to disproportionately reward those who complete the trek to free agency as a payoff for restricting their market rights as rookies. The player we’re most likely looking at here, then, is Jake Arrieta.

Disclosure: I have many reasons, as a fan and a professional, to be salty about the success of Jake Arrieta. I root for the Baltimore Orioles, when I find time for such things anymore around the grind of being an analyst, and his comical transformation from a Triple-A pitcher to one of the best starters in baseball with the Chicago Cubs basically underlined a fundamental problem in development that Baltimore has had regarding starting pitching for almost two decades now. If the Orioles had permitted Arrieta to throw the way he wanted to throw, he might be turning down a qualifying offer from then now, and who knows how 2014 might have otherwise gone.

That said, two things remain true: first, and most importantly, the starting pitching market is the most over-leveraged, overvalued market in an already-ridiculous free agency. It’s not ridiculous because players don’t deserve to get paid this much — it’s ridiculous because players should be getting paid for their best years of value, not based on those best years and projected forward into their decline. Would this involve paying guys who haven’t performed as much and as often as a free agent pitcher about to hit age 32, as Jake Arrieta is? Yes. It would also mean paying a 25-year-old like a 25-year-old, rather than paying a 32-year-old like a 25-year-old.

Second: Jake Arrieta was legitimately great for two seasons, has been good for two seasons, and has been a professional baseball player for eight. It’s unlikely he’ll immediately go back to being as bad as he was for the Orioles pre-trade, but he’s led the National League in wild pitches the last two years and has seen a decline in his ability to induce bad contact in that same period. It’s entirely proper to believe he experienced a true revelation in how to pitch upon going to the Chicago Cubs — but it’s also entirely proper to believe that it came to him too late for him to establish a career as an amazing pitcher off of it. Too many years had passed languishing in the Orioles organization for him to make the fullest use of his natural gifts; now, he has to contend with his decline coming just as he realizes how he should have been doing things all along.

There aren’t a lot of other candidates for this position because there aren’t a lot of other big-money candidates in general; the biggest FA get this offseason is likely going to be a 23-year-old from Japan who will sign for far below market value due to how hideous the current NPB posting agreement is. Eric Hosmer will probably get too much money, but he’ll also probably be average to slightly below-average at worst; Yu Darvish will probably be fine.

Arrieta, on the other hand, could easily sign a $120 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers and turn into a 93 ERA+ pitcher for the term of the deal — not because of some moral flaw, but because he’s aging into his early to mid-thirties, he was only ever dominant for a short period of time to begin with, and the market is predisposed to overpaying him. If and when it happens, it won’t even be his fault. It’s just how baseball has chosen to do business.

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  1. Donna

    Nov 15, 2017 at 8:58 am

    I would hands up take Jake over Yu Darvish, as I have seen both pitch A LOT!

    You naysayers just wait… Jake will be another Nolan Ryan, he will still be killing it in his 40’s. He will continue to take care of his body and continue to do great things.

    He has especially proven how well he performs in big games…. Just straight out swap out Yu for Jake in the 2017 playoffs and the Dodgers would hoist another flag.

  2. KLD

    Nov 14, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Absolutely right, the way that free agents get paid nowadays is ridiculous! Getting ludicrous amounts of money for what you did is just stupid and really needs to change before baseball is too damn expensive to enjoy for the average fan. Going to games may be a rich man’s folly if things don’t change. Problem is, the best system is a year to year approach. Pay a player for the year he had and stop with the 10 year contracts! Unfortunately, this is just a pipe dream for a fan.

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