Particularly, we need to consider the market for these players in free agency. How much will it cost to retain these players and should the Tigers do it? I wrote earlier in the month about the offers I would make to this group at New English D, but let’s look at it from a purely theoretical standpoint. What is the value of each free agent?
Approach to Valuation
Let’s begin with a few basics. First, I’ll be writing in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) as the asset that players are selling. If you’re not a fan of the specific way WAR is calculated, that’s fine. All you have to accept here is that teams are paying for runs or wins on the free agent market. Generally speaking, a win above replacement costs about $6 million to $7 million on the free agent market with relievers making a bit more and defense-first players making a little less.
For example, if you expect a player to be worth 2 WAR next year and 1.5 WAR the year after, a fair market deal might be worth somewhere around 2 years, $23 million. It’s not a precise system, but it usually does a good job explaining the free agent market as a whole.
Second, we have to consider the fact that players typically get worse as they age, especially into their thirties. So while Max Scherzer might be a 5-6 WAR pitcher in 2015, he will not continue to be that good for the entire six or seven years of his contract. On average, you typically knock about half a win off the previous year’s projection to form a basic aging curve.
We can start with the relief pitchers because they’re slightly less interesting than Scherzer and Victor Martinez. Joel Hanrahan is still recovering from surgery and while someone will take a flyer on him due to his past, the odds of anything more than $1 million with some incentives are pretty low. He’s more likely looking at a minor league deal. Teams simply don’t pay for currently injured relievers.
Jim Johnson is a more interesting case because he was a very talented reliever until he had a disastrous 2014. The fact that Johnson signed for nothing when he was released by the A’s midseason indicates that most teams wouldn’t be interested in him for anything above the league minimum, and it’s not like he did himself any favors down the stretch. Right now he’s projected for 0.1 WAR, which might net you $1 million to $2 million as a reliever on a one year deal. Given that he was quite good just two years ago, Johnson might be able to pad that a bit, but he will certainly sign under $5 million per season on a one year deal.
Joba Chamberlain presents and interesting case because he had a very strong opening half to the season and then pitched very poorly down the stretch. Will that scare teams away? Perhaps, but the overall body of work was pretty good, even if it was trending in the wrong direction. He’s currently projected for 0.2 WAR in 2015, but after posting a 0.8 WAR in 2014, there will be teams that focus more on the recent past than his prior struggles. He’s certainly going to beat his $2.5 million salary from 2014, but by how much is an open question. The market will probably line up for something like $4 million to $5 million, but given his relative youth and potentially electrifying facial hair, a two year deal is quite possible, pushing him to the 2 year, $8-10 million range if things break well.
Phil Coke has established himself as one of the more recognizable Tigers but his pitching isn’t exactly his calling card. He’s another guy projected for just 0.1 WAR in 2015, but that’s forecasting a lower innings load than he can probably handle. Given his usefulness against lefties, he’ll certainly snag a major league contract, probably somewhere around one year and $2 million. No one is going to pay Coke to be a reliever ace, but he’s capable of playing the role of second lefty/long man out of most pens.
With the relievers behind us, we can consider the more interesting players the Tigers have up for grabs. Torii Hunter, like the relievers, will not receive a qualifying offer and will hit the market for his age 39 season. He’s projected for 1.8 WAR in 2015, but that is on the backs of a much better defensive projection (more like 2013 than 2014) than we might expect. If Hunter is a 2 win player, he could wind up right around one year, $13 million. The contract crowdsourcing project at FanGraphs suggests he will hover around one year, $10 million.
It’s unlikely that Hunter can find more than one year at his age, but someone will probably take his still above average bat and dream on his defense to be good enough to split time between the outfield and DH in 2015. I doubt it will be the Tigers, but it will come from someone.
Victor Martinez presents the only real challenge for the Tigers this winter because they actually do want to re-sign him and he will cost very real money (unlike any of the relievers). Martinez is coming off his best offensive season and given the power surge, he’s likely to command some serious attention from many AL teams. He’s projected at about 3 WAR for 2015, which means that would be something like 7.5 WAR over three years or 9 WAR over four. At the going rate, that would be around 3 years, $50 million or 4 years, $60 million. The FanGraphs crowdsourcing project thinks he’ll be coming in at three years and $45 million to $50 million.
Interestingly, several prominent and responsible commentators think he’s in line for something more like 4 years and $80 million. While Martinez is good and well-respected, even the least rigorous front offices won’t expect the 2014 Martinez to show up ever again. He’s a good hitter, but he doesn’t provide defensive or base running value and he’s 36 with bad knees. There’s a lot to like about his skill set, but match his deficiencies with a qualifying offer (basically a tax on the team that signs him) and I don’t expect an insane bidding war considering that his market is capped at 15 teams rather than 30.
Finally, the heterochromatic elephant in the room. Max Scherzer is going to get paid a very large sum of money this winter and it’s very likely it won’t be from the Tigers. He’s going to get six or seven years and the floor will be the $24 million annual value he rejected this Spring. The early projections are very pessimistic on Scherzer (3.5 WAR in 2015), although it isn’t entirely clear why. If we assume a more reasonably 5 WAR in 2015 and work from there, we wind up with 22.5 WAR over six years or 24.5 WAR over seven. That works out to roughly 6 years, $150 million or 7 years, $160 million at the current market rate. The FanGraphs readership thinks 7 years, $168 million is manding spot.
However, the FanGraphs crowd and our normal expectations have recently under-predicted the salaries of top free agents. The models work reasonably well on average, but we’re dealing with averages in a system in which the player signs for the highest bid. This means that while Scherzer might be worth something like $160 million over seven years, it’s more likely that someone might pay him $190 million over seven years to win the auction. This variability is more present in big deals, perhaps because teams value stars more than average players for other reasons, or because there is more disagreement about how exactly a player might age when we’re dealing with a long contract.
We’re left with a fairly clear picture. The Tigers could re-sign all four of the relievers with very low risk if they wanted to, although there are probably other relievers deserving of those roster spots. Torii Hunter will get a one year deal for about $10 million to $14 million and there’s no real reason for the Tigers to get involved in that conversation.
Victor Martinez is going to get at least three years and at least $15 million per season. It will be interesting to see how many of the 15 AL clubs make a heavy effort to sign the switch hitter and how much that drives his price. He won’t get five years and I can’t imagine more than $80 million total, but there’s some room in there to debate.
Scherzer is going to get a huge contract, bigger than 6/$144MM, and there’s very little chance it will be with the Tigers. Even if the Tigers agreed with the highest bidder about Max’s long term value, it’s very tough to add another huge contract to a payroll of this nature.
The long and short of it is that Martinez might be back, but you shouldn’t expect to see any of the others wearing an Old English D in 2015.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44