Keith Law’s Free Agent Rankings Are Out, So Let’s Talk Free Agents

Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion
Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In case you weren’t sure that Jose Bautista cost himself a bunch of money by looking old this year, Keith Law’s ranking of the top 50 free agents is here to remind you. In the piece, which went up this morning at ESPN.com (Insider only), Bautista comes in 15th, behind Jeremy Hellickson, Jason Castro (who slashed a pitiful .210/.307/.377 this year, but at least can catch), and Carlos Beltran.

Fifteenth!

And lest you think Law’s ranking is some kind of Jays-hating outlier, Ken Rosenthal produced a list of the top 10 free agents over at Fox Sports, and Bautista didn’t make the grade — Mark Melancon and Mark Trumbo, on the other hand, did.

Keith’s comments, if they reflect the thinking in the industry, are particularly stinging for Jose. To wit:

“His bat looked slower when he did play this year, and teams have learned they can attack him with pure velocity, another sign that the troubles of age might be here to stay. The player Bautista was yesterday is gone, and this version, a two-win player without a place to hide away on the field, should be lucky to see two years and $16 million.”

Note that he says should be, not will be.

In his preamble Law explains that he simply tries “to provide a rough idea of the offer I’d be comfortable making to each player if I was the general manager of a contending team (or would-be contending team) and operating at or above the median payroll level,” and notes that his “numbers are not predictions, and they often will fall short of actual market values. That is due to the “winner’s curse” phenomenon, in which the winner of an auction for a good of uncertain value is the bidder whose internal estimates of that value are the highest (and thus perhaps too optimistic), and because teams with large payrolls can and often do pay more for a win in the free-agent market.”

Still, though! If the market really is something resembling this soft on Bautista, maybe Jose ought to be getting set to announce that he really wanted to be in Toronto all along, and is taking a “hometown discount” — even if that’s not really what it is.

That said, there are some extenuating circumstances for Bautista’s poor 2016. Injuries, to be specific. But when you’re talking about a player who is now 36, you can’t just wave away injuries as a single year coinkydink. And while I can’t personally speak to Law’s point about bat speed, it’s not untrue that FanGraphs’ “pitch values” metric gives Bautista his worst mark against the fastball since his breakout (though an outstanding FanGraphs piece on Cleveland’s game-planning looks specifically at how they fed him a steady diet of breaking balls).

Aaaand his exit velocities in 2016 compared to 2015 (via Baseball Savant) aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring…

bautista-ev

But injuries!

There could be a bargain there, even, if the market gets really soft, because I’m sure not ready to believe he’s done yet. And there could be reason for Bautista to think hard about a Jays offer, too. That Booster Juice money probably isn’t available to him in another city.

If it weren’t for pure sentimentality, though, would we even be talking about this player? 

Beltran, for example, will likely require less term and is a switch hitter who is stronger from the left side, which would add much needed balance to the lineup. He is coming off a similar season by wRC+ (though he doesn’t possess the on-base skills Jose does, and made up for that gap with power, which may be a mirage because of the way Bautista’s leg injuries sapped his), and he knows he’s a DH.

I mean, if an old DH type to bridge the years until Rowdy Tellez or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. force their way into the picture is the way you want to go (and… is it?), isn’t that maybe better?

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Edwin Encarnacion isn’t rated as highly by Law (5th) as he is Rosenthal (2nd), and similar to Jose, there are age concerns at the centre of that. Obviously he still likes him enough to rank him ahead of guys like Aroldis Chapman, Josh Reddick, Kenly Jansen, Neil Walker, and Ian Desmond, but Law thinks that, despite a great five year run from Edwin, “there were some cracks in the armor this past season that should keep teams from making offers that run too many years.”

Specifically, he cites concerns about this year’s high strikeout rate, calling him “a guy who’ll probably hit .240 or so with walks and power — but a bit less of those things going forward.” He says he’d stop short of four years and $80-plus million, both in terms of length and dollar value. 

Meanwhile, TSN’s Rick Westhead reports, after talking to Encarnacion’s agent, that he’s looking for a contract in the neighbourhood of five years and $125 million — and that “he is already expecting ten or eleven teams to have serious interest.”

That’s… exactly what you’d expect an agent to say, but seems awfully optimistic to me, given that Edwin would be 38 in the final year of such a contract, and that — as Law points out — his contact skills are already eroding.

Edwin’s 19.7% strikeout rate this season was the worst he’s posted since his breakout in 2012, and especially high compared to the 10% rate he struck out at in 2013. The underlying numbers aren’t necessarily great in that regard either: his contact rates and swinging strike rates have trended in the wrong direction for three straight seasons. Which is… exactly what you’d expect from an aging slugger. 

But still.

My shorthand for thinking about free agent deals goes something like this: I think just about every team in the league would roll the dice on Edwin on a three year deal. Surely some teams would push it to four. Would any team be willing to go to five just to make sure they get him? I have a hard time believing it. And I have a very hard time believing it would be the Jays. Maybe some front office that feels it needs to make an offensive splash badly enough to do something outlandish and blow the competition away, but not one that’s particularly right-thinking. If nobody else will go past four, though, that gives the Jays a real chance to keep him — call me naive, but I genuinely do think he wants to be here and that could be tiebreaker for him, all else being pretty much equal. That is, assuming they’re one of the clubs willing to go even that far on term.

But I think they would be — or at least should be. I think there’s definitely something to the much-discussed notion that the club wants more balance in the lineup, but I don’t think that’s to the exclusion of Edwin or Jose, necessarily (and, in fact, near the end of the Westhead clip linked above, he says his Jays sources say they’re willing to talk multi-year with Bauista, which is… exactly what they would say).

The Jays have had a very potent offence over the last two seasons (granted, much more so in 2015) in spite of the lack of balance, so we maybe shouldn’t make too big a deal of that talk. It would surely be ideal, but the club can’t let perfect be the enemy of good here. And the fact is, they’ll need to do something to try to replace Encarnacion’s production (less so for Bautista, whose production basically disappeared in 2016 anyway, as he was merely a 1.4 WAR player). So… uh… why not Encarnacion himself?

* * *

Counterpoint: Sign Dexter Fowler.

Counter-counterpoint: Sign Fowler and EE!

* * *

For the sake of completeness:

Michael Saunders ranks 31st for Law, who rightly calls him a “capable extra guy,” while Brett Cecil gets a nice comment at 43: “I like him as a middle-relief signing who might be good enough for higher leverage work.”

Meh.

* * *

Pay Edwin!