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Searching for overrated MLB free agents

Maybe not quite “landmines,” but if the predictions are any indication, maybe teams should stay away from these guys

Division Series - Cleveland Guardians v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In a (very long if you read the whole thing) Part 1 of this series, we looked at potentially-underrated MLB free agents. All of the methodology, calibration notes, etc., are located in that post. Here, we’re just going to dive right in, using the existing methodology, and look at the flip side: who might be overrated in terms of their predicted free agent contract dollars, relative to what their projections suggest they should get?

I should note here that you will see a dearth of relievers on this list. Why? It’s not because real outlays on relievers ever look like a good idea. Rather, it’s just because most relievers aren’t predicted to get big money anyway, so the “miss” ends up being fairly modest as well. For example, Taylor Rogers is (inexplicably) predicted to get a total guarantee between $14M and $30M across the four prediction arrays; the modeling suggests he likely doesn’t warrant anything in excess of $9M. The raw difference between his average predicted contract ($22M) and something like $9M is fairly low, compared to some other predicted contracts. So, we’ll kick off with a reliever who’s kind of a special case, and go from there.

5. Rafael Montero

Montero was not going to be on this list, but for him actually signing a deal. Fangraphs didn’t cover him in their materials; both MLBTR and ESPN had him securing a guarantee of around $25M. Meanwhile, the performance wasn’t really there.

Montero did have a pretty great 2022 (1.5 fWAR), though the fact that his 61/67/81 slash increases as you go left to right is a little telling. However, he failed to clear 0.4 fWAR in each of the three seasons before 2022. Steamer has him as a half-win reliever; IWAG spots him another half and puts him at 1.0 WAR for 2023. Knowing what we know about relievers, do you really want to nearly-triple the guarantee for 1 WAR on the free agent market just to secure Montero’s services? It’s not like he’s young, either — he turned 32 in October.

The thing that really put Montero on this list, though, is that the Astros somehow decided that going year-to-year wasn’t enough, and that the $25M in guarantees wasn’t enough, either. Instead, they gave Montero $34.5M for three years, clearing his estimates by 40 percent. Maybe that’s what happens when you have Jim Crane effectively firing a GM and apparently signing the deals himself. Maybe relievers are going to get even more absurd contracts this offseason (hi, Edwin Diaz deal). Whatever happens, using the tools at our disposal, Montero’s predicted deal already looked wacky relative to his track record and expectations; his actual deal is even crazier.

Scornful comparison: Honestly, anyone. No one but Raisel Iglesias in the 2021-2022 offseason got more than $25M. Kendall Graveman seems like an okay comp for Montero and only got $24M/3, and then lost about 40 percent of his production the next year. Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera were both slightly better in 2021 than Montero was in 2022 but also a couple of years older, and only got two-year deals in the $14M-$17M range. Andrew Chafin only got $13M/2

4. Anthony Rizzo

Rizzo was extended a Qualifying Offer, and if he takes it, this blurb is going to be moot. If the predictions figured that he’d either get the QO or take a deal like a QO, we’d have no beef. But instead, there is beef afoot.

Each of the four predictions had Rizzo getting a multiyear deal, with the Fangraphs crowdsource clocking in at three years and $54M. On his own merits, Rizzo is projected for 2.1 (Steamer) or 2.3 (IWAG) WAR in 2023, and will be in his age-33 season. This is a combination that definitely does not warrant a multiyear deal, especially not one that pays him anything particularly close in 2024 as it would on a one-year deal for 2023.

Correspondingly, this isn’t a blatant overrating of Rizzo, but it’s a really obvious one: Rizzo should pretty much get a QO-type deal, and instead he’s being predicted to get more. If Rizzo just takes the QO, not all will be right with the world, but at least things will make a little bit more sense than if he rejects it.

Scornful comparison: this one’s easy: compare him to himself! Rizzo, coming off a 2.1 fWAR season and heading into his age-32 season, only got $16M/1. Why would he get considerably more, including dollars to cover additional years, heading into his age-33 season while coming off 2.4 fWAR?

3. Jameson Taillon

The top three guys on this list are starters, which might say something about how teams are expected to value the ability to throw up bulk innings this offseason, but Taillon and the guy at first on this list seem like weird cases for this.

In short, Taillon is heading into his age-31 campaign having put together two generic, innings-eating seasons that totaled 4.2 fWAR across 321 23 innings. His slash across those two seasons? 101/101/102. Does that performance have value? Sure. That’s the kind of guy that’s nice to have around to prevent a part of your rotation from bleeding value.

But is it the kind of guy you really want to grab for multiple years? Taillon’s average guarantee across the four sources is north of $40M; MLBTR had him at $56M/4! To be clear, Taillon isn’t exceptional at anything at this point. He isn’t a huge innings horse, he’s been pretty homer-prone in the Bronx, and while he doesn’t walk many, his walk rate was more average than elite as recently as 2021. He isn’t a contact manager and he doesn’t throw hard. I could type more on this front, but you get the idea.

Perhaps fans of the Braves aren’t good mouthpieces to talk about Taillon in this way, given that Charlie Morton will be returning to Atlanta for $20M after just a 1.5 fWAR season, at age 39 (Taillon will be 31). But Morton was way better as recently as 2021, and in the end, Morton got just a $20M guarantee.

Moreover, Taillon is projected (Steamer and IWAG agree here) for just 1.9 WAR next year. He’s a quantity option but doesn’t look to be much of a quality one. Is that something teams want for multiple years for real money?

Scornful comparison: Tyler Anderson only got $8M/1 after coming off a 2.1 fWAR year in 2021, though his track record was worse than Taillon’s. Anthony DeSclafani came off a 3 fWAR year and was more erratic than Taillon, but only got $36M/3. Freakin’ Carlos Rodon came off 4.9 fWAR and got a one-year deal for $21.5M. The only guy from last offseason that really seems to track with what’s predicted for Taillon is Jon Gray, who came off 2.3 fWAR in fewer innings than Taillon’s 2.4 in 2022 and had a notably better track record earlier in his career. Gray got $56M/4, which is what MLBTR seems to be aping despite Gray being a year younger, but that deal also seemed somewhat problematic when it was signed, as it was part of the Rangers’ ignore-the-models spending spree. I guess this is more of a puzzled comparison than a scornful one, in the end.

2. Justin Verlander

We’re into speculative territory here, because Justin Verlander may as well be Jaime Lannister at this point — “There are no starting pitchers like me. Only me.” — given the combination of his age, his return from injury, his superlative performance, and the fact that he’s doing it by blowing guys away rather than pulling a Jamie Moyer and legerdemain-ing hitters into outs. But, still! Look at these forecasts, while keeping in mind that Verlander will be 40 next February.

$80M/2! $70M/2! $120M/3! $72M/2!

Remember when we talked about Clayton Kershaw, who was younger, did not basically miss two whole seasons recently, and was pegged for basically the QO? And now we have Verlander, who admittedly was elite again in 2022, getting like double the QO amount, on a two-year deal. There’s a happy medium between these two poles, I think, where Kershaw is very underrated and Verlander is very overrated, and a more market-sensible deal is in the middle. For Verlander, that could be something like $54M/2, which balances him being great-to-serviceable for up to three years against him finally hitting a wall somewhere in 2022.

To be fair, this is a place where Steamer and IWAG are very split — Steamer is fine throwing a 4+ projection on Verlander, but IWAG is very concerned about the dearth of effective hurlers at age 40 and figures he won’t be able to throw more than 90 innings or so, on average. So even the $54M is a combination of Steamer’s $84M/3 and IWAG’s $24M/1 — Verlander already turned down an option for $25M/1, so he’s clearly on the hunt for something big. But as big as a $38M AAV for multiple years? Just seems like a cacophony of alarm bells to me.

Scornful comparison: Nope, there really isn’t one. Verlander got $50M/2 coming off TJS, but it’s fair for him to ask for more given that he posted 6.1 fWAR in that season. Scherzer was “way” younger in getting his $43.33M AAV deal at a point where the extra years of age may really, really matter. I got nothin’ but the serious feelings of unease from giving a top-of-the-market deal to a guy hitting age 40.

1. Taijuan Walker

Yeah, I just straight-up don’t get anything here. This is like someone whose favorite player was Wade Miley came in and messed with all the predictions.

Walker’s predicted contracts are: $42M/3, $39M/3, $52M/4, and $60M/4. Walker’s last few seasons: 2.5 fWAR in 157 13 innings (2022), 1.4 fWAR in 159 innings (2021), a 2.3/200 season in 2020, a couple of injury-destroyed years, and then 2.5 fWAR in 157 innings (again, not a typo) in 2017.

He’s heading into his 30s, and his best season featured a 92/94/97 line. But he’s out there getting three- and four- year contracts with sizable (though not insane, or particularly high) AAVs. Again, this is pretty much the Taillon situation, but Walker has somewhat more aggressive predictions. IWAG has him as a 2-win guy next year, but that’s the kind of guy who just gets the QO or a deal like it and you see what he does next year; there’s no reason to commit bigger funds to a guy who might age out of average as recently as one season from now. Steamer thinks he can only manage 1.4 WAR as a point estimate next year, which pretty much cements Walker’s top spot on this ranking.

It’s perhaps notable that in his writeup, Clemens notes that Walker is the best candidate among the average-y starters (such as Taillon and Martin Perez) for a one-year deal to try to showcase that he might really be closer to a 3-win guy. This makes sense for teams as well; but Walker has no reason to do so if the predictions are close to accurate and he can double or triple the earnings from a one-year prove-it deal right now.

Scornful comparison: see the Taillon section. Maybe less scorn, but just... why would you willingly commit so many years to these guys?

Just for the sake of completeness, I’ll throw some “(dis)honorable mentions” here.

Underrated, but not egregiously so, using this methodology:

  • Jose Abreu: Can provide 4 WAR while underhitting his xwOBA and being fairly old, but contract predictions seem to be very concerned with age in lieu of production achieved. (Steamer agrees, though!)
  • Jean Segura: Not a huge difference, but could possibly provide two years of average production when predictions see him as more of a one-useful-year guy.

Still quite overrated using this methodology:

  • Noah Syndergaard: like a worse version of the Taillon and Walker issues.
  • Kodai Senga: lack of good information to go along with sizable contract predictions.
  • Josh Bell: back-to-back 2.0 fWAR seasons, but has a couple of predictions that are way high considering he’s a one-dimensional slugger who doesn’t even provide above-average production.

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