Best Value Players in Baseball
Jonah Keri wrote an awesome article about baseball’s worst contracts on Grantland. Take a look, unless of course you are a fan of the Angels or Yankees. If you happen to be, then I’m very sorry. There isn’t much good news in there for you. But it is definitely worth a read.
That being said, I wanted to take a different look at the current contracts in the game; instead of (hilariously) awful contracts, I’ll list some of the best bargains out there in terms of value. Keep in mind that this is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a few examples of players whose teams are getting great value for the player’s future production.
Something to consider before I start: Youth is at a premium, but only to a certain extent. If a player is very young, very good, and makes very little money, I would agree that he is a good value. But not the best value, because young players are supposed to be cheap. So I’m looking for players who are close to, or entering, their prime on good-value deals who also happen to be very talented.
A deal that has a large commitment, in terms of dollars to a player, however, is not necessarily a bad deal. Length of the contract (and as a corollary, average annual value of the contract) is also very much considered.
I am excluding players who are currently under club control in pre-arbitration and arbitration eligible years. These players are very inexpensive due to the fact that the system is designed for them to be very inexpensive.
In essence, I’m looking for relatively young guys who are controlled for reasonable (when compared to the market) dollars and years who are very good to great players.
With that being said, let me make mention of a player who technically violates one of my rules for this article because he is still arbitration eligible.
Corey Kluber: Kluber and Clayton Kershaw finished 1 and 2 in terms of WAR among pitchers across MLB (7.3 and 7.2, respectively). WAR doesn’t give enough resolution to distinguish between a difference of 0.1, so we can basically same Kluber and Kershaw were tied as the best pitchers in the game. The difference, though, is Kluber is still on his pre-arbitration eligible contract, which means he made about $500,000 last year compared to Kershaw’s $4m. Which actually seems like a bargain for Kershaw, except for the fact that his mega-deal kicks in this year. He will make about $32.5m in 2015. Kluber on the other hand is arbitration eligible through 2018, which will be his age-31 season. That means they will be able to keep him at a discount through is best years. This can all change if the Indians extend him before he hits free-agency. While he is on this list due to his unique situation (arriving in MLB at an older age), buying out his arbitration years (keep that strategy in mind) doesn’t make much sense since pitchers in their 30's tend to be overpaid based on their production. One can assume his performance will likely also decline within the next five years, and the Indians control him for that sweet spot right into his 30's. So extending him doesn’t make much sense, unless it is at a very reasonable price. Like I said, even though he doesn’t technically qualify for this list, I couldn’t not mention him given his tremendous 2014 season and the fact that Cleveland could use a pick-me-up. Bravo Cleveland.
Now to the real list.
Mike Trout: At just 23 years old he is the best player in the game. In his first three full seasons, he posted WAR values of 10.1, 10.5, and 7.8, good for number one in baseball all three years. He is entering the first year of a 6-year, $144m contract that will start him out at just about $6m in 2015. That number will climb to about $34m in the final three years of the deal, but that rate doesn’t seem outrageous to me. Because while I hate $30m/year contracts to players on the wrong side of 30 who are getting paid for what they did, Trout’s contract will pay him that kind of money for what, prospectively, will be his best seasons. The Angels (please forgive the impending pun) hit this one out of the park. They bought out his relatively low-cost arbitration years by paying a premium on these next few seasons, but will control him through what should be his best statistical seasons. He will hit the free-agent market at 29 years old, just in time for another mega-contract. But by then, history tells us his best years are behind him, even though he should remain a very very good player for a few more seasons. But the Angels need to be careful that they don’t fall into the trap they were trying to avoid with his current deal.
Chris Sale: He will be 26 years old on Opening Day, and, coming off of a season where he posted a 5.4 WAR, looks to be the ace of that staff in Chicago. The White Sox have $27.15m committed to him through 2017, with additional $12.5m and $13.5m club options for ’18 and ’19, respectively. Having an all-star caliber player under control for reasonable money makes him a no-brainer for this list.
Buster Posey: This is probably the biggest gamble of the players in this article. He will be 28 years old on Opening Day, he plays a position that is tough on a person’s body (he knows this better than anyone), and the Giants owe him at least $146.5m over the next 7 years (there is a club option for an eighth year). But the Giants have already shown that they are willing to move him to first base to give him some rest (he averages about 4 games catching for every game at 1B), and I think a permanent move to first will happen sooner rather than later in an effort to preserve his bat, which is his real value. Assuming he stays healthy, either by a position change or a miracle if he stays at catcher, an average annual salary of about $21m is not unreasonable for a guy who trailed only Jonathan Lucroy in WAR among catchers. If you think about him as a long-term first base option, his 5.7 WAR in 2014 would have ranked him at the top among first-basemen, essentially tied with Anthony Rizzo and a touch ahead of Miguel Cabrera. Posey has proven that he is relatively durable, aside from freak ankle injury from a play at the plate that sidelined him for 2011. MLB has since ammended its rules to protect catchers from this type of play, though I think we are all still a bit confused on the application of the rule.
Jonathan Lucroy: Lucroy has quietly put together very good numbers the past few seasons in Milwaukee. In 2014, he lead eligible catchers in WAR at 6.3. Offensively, he trails only Buster Posey with an .837 OPS. But where he really shines through is with his defense. In 2014, FanGraphs ranked him first among catchers in RPP, a stat that measures how adept a catcher is at blocking pitches. He was ranked second in defensive runs saved. His overall defense was good for second overall as measured by FanGraphs, despite a slightly below average arm. All this to say that he is probably the best active catcher you’ve never heard of if you are simply a casual baseball fan. And he will make $3m in 2015 and $4m in 2016. This is after making $2m in 2014, a year in which he was an All-Star and finished 4th in MVP voting, trailing only Clayton Kershaw, Giancarlo Standon, and Andrew McCutchen. He has a $5.25m club option for 2017, which the Brewers will likely pick up provided he doesn’t fall off that face of the Earth. He will undoubtedly sign for much more once he hits free-agency. But for now, he is absolutely one of the best value players in the game.
Andrelton Simmons: If Buster Posey was my biggest gamble, Simmons is a close second. With only two full years at the major league level, he posted WAR ratings of 4.6 and 2.3 in 2013 and 2014, respectively, making him an above average to all-star caliber player. But his true value is his defense. His UZR/150 ranks him tops among shortstops (18.4) as does Defensive Runs Saved (28). He is entering his age 25 season and is owed $56m over the next six seasons, which will take him through his age 30 season. It will be interesting to see how his offense holds up, an admitted weak point in his game. But a perennial Gold Glove caliber player at one of the most important positions on the diamond is highly desirable.
Andrew McCutchen: What’s not to like? He is a perennial MVP-caliber player who is guaranteed $37m over the next 3 years with a $14.75m club option for 2018. Assuming Pittsburgh picks up that option, he will be a Pirate through his age 31 season. He was second only to Mike Trout last year in WAR among outfielders, coming in at 6.8. Since he came into the league in 2009, he is fifth among all players as ranked by WAR (33.9) and trailing only Ben Zobrist (I’ll get to that in a minute) among qualified outfielders. He should remain in contention for MVP over the next few seasons barring injury.
The guy who would have been on this list had I written this article five years ago:
Ben Zobrist: Zobrist is a sabermetrics gem. His WAR since 2009: 8.5, 3.7, 6.3, 5.9, 5.4, and 5.7. He played every position for Tampa Bay sans pitcher and catcher. Remember who McCutchen trailed in WAR since ’09 among outfielders? Yeah, that’s right. Zobrist. Among all players since 2009 he trails only Miguel Cabrera in WAR (35.4). Miggy. The Triple Crown Winner. The baddest dude on Earth with a piece of lumber in his hands during that stretch. And Zobrist was basically as good as him as an overall player. The guy was one of the best utility players in the game. Except he wasn’t a utility player. He was an all-star caliber player who happened to be utilized like a Swiss Army Knife by Joe Maddon. What team wouldn’t kill for a guy like that? I can tell you that I wish the Red Sox had had him. And he did all of that averaging $3.7m over six seasons. WHAT?!? He was an absolute STEAL! He has got to be at the top of the ‘Holy Shit This Guy Was Really Really Good and Nobody Even Freaking Noticed’ list. By the way, I should make that list some day. That one would be fun.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs. Contract information courtesy of RotoWorld