Saturday, April 1, 2023

Where Free Agents Go To Die


Eduardo Rodriguez, in making his Opening Day start for the Tigers the other day, reminded me that for three consecutive years, the Opening Day start went to Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann had an 18.9 combined WAR between 2011 and 2015 through strong work with the Washington Nationals, and made virtually all of his starts in that period. After the 2015 season he signs a huge 5-year deal with the Tigers, then proceeds to have a 2.0 WAR in that stretch, lasting the exact same period of time. There he struggled with injuries, high ERAs and less-fantastic teams, and limped along until having an even worse go of it in Milwaukee in 2021.

And so here's Eduardo Rodriguez, the Opening Day starter, who was one of the Red Sox' most reliable arms from 2018 til 2021, was a rock even when people started getting injured, and, like Zim, peaked with a 19-win season. And now he's signed a long deal with the Detroit Tigers, was mediocre in his first season and missed some time and...I feel like we've been through all of this before.

Basically what this has led me to hypothesize is that if you don't play for the Detroit Tigers, and your idea of solving free agency is signing with the Detroit Tigers, it's not going to go very well for you. This is what I'm seeing with Javier Baez. One can make the argument, like I will, that he peaked in 2018-2019 and everything else has been, while decent, not quite as good as that peak period. Baez was still very helpful last season, but Baez hit 31 homers in 2021 and hit a team-leading 17 in 2022. Is it the Tigers, is it Baez's trajectory, who knows? But even as Baez could be on track for a decent year, the specter of the contract is flying over him, and people are wondering if he'll live up to it.

The Tigers' contracts didn't always use to be like this. Torii Hunter signed a mini-deal with the Tigers, over the Yankees, and people thought he'd mellow out, but he saved his career and became a hero again. Magglio Ordonez signed a big deal with the Tigers, and even if he eventually petered off, he sported some MVP-caliber numbers throughout the mid-2000s. And Miguel Cabrera's initial Tigers contract was insanely lucrative for all involved parties, but after the 2015 season, where the team fell apart, the Tigers re-signed him to a deal that's gone to this year, that time, Cabrera's had a 2.9 WAR. 

Cabrera had a 5.1 WAR in 2016. Every other season has either been barely above replacement level or negative values. Even if they got one good season out of this deal, every single other season, from 2017 onward, has been a mythology season. Yes, he's not playing well, but he's Miguel Cabrera. 

These are the only three mega-contracted players on the Tigers, and they've all been disappointments since those contracts. Even some of the little ones, like Schoop or Turnbull, have had disappointing seasons on it. I wish this was a problem this team knew how to solve, because this is downright spooky. 

The good news is there are these younger players, like Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, who could hopefully inherit the team and be signed to extensions. It just might be a bit before we get there. But it's a much safer reality than signing great players and having them do nothing for you.

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