Jayson Werth first hit the free-agent market coming off an injury-ravaged season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2006. He was 27 years old. No one expected anything from him. He signed a one-year contract with Philadelphia worth less than $1 million. By the end of his Phillies career, he'd turned out to be perhaps the best free-agent signing in recent years.
Werth next hit the free-agent market coming off a third straight 20-homer season in 2010. He was 31 years old. He signed a contract with Washington worth more than $125 million lasting seven years. He looks, with six years left on his contract, like the latest in a long line of spectacular failures the free-agent market has seen in recent years.
A list of the most lucrative free-agent contracts signed over the last five years -- including the likes of Barry Zito, A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, Jason Bay, Aaron Rowand, Derek Lowe, Gary Matthews Jr. and Oliver Perez -- reads like a Who's Who of has-beens or one-hit wonders costing their teams far, far too much money.
In no other business would be such a collective failure of investments to reap rewards result in continued investments. Still, the offers keep coming. Those who would bid big money on free agents this winter, be they Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson, would be wise to heed the lessons of recent history.
Part of the problem is the institution of free agency itself. It takes six full seasons of major-league service time for a player to earn the right to hit the free-agent market. Most players debut around the age of 25 and hit the free-agent market when they are older than 30 -- at which point their best seasons already are behind them.
An analysis shows that, over the past five seasons, more often than not, players signing free-agent contracts have turned out to be average or below-average players over the length of their contracts. To analyze players' value, we used the comprehensive statistic known as Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, as computed by FanGraphs.com. WAR measures the offensive and defensive contribution of each player, creating a basis from which to determine total value.
A player worth 0.0 WAR could be replaced by a journeyman Triple-A player with no change in results. A player worth 3.0 WAR is an average to above-average player - such as Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer or Boston's Marco Scutaro. Jacoby Ellsbury led the major leagues with 9.4 WAR last season.
Of the 27 players who signed contracts worth $50 million or more over the last five winters, just 10 achieved an average of 3.0 WAR over the life of their contracts.
Of the 37 players in that span who signed contracts worth at least $20 million but less than $50 million, 8.1 percent performed at a 3.0 WAR level. Of the 165 players who signed contracts worth more than $5 million but less than $20 million, 13.3 percent performed at a 3.0 WAR level. The two groups of players hit the 2.0 WAR level at almost identical rates.
Almost every team has been victimized by a free agent who did not perform to expectations -- the Giants with Zito, the Mets with Perez, the Angels with Matthews, the Mariners with Chone Figgins, the White Sox with Adam Dunn.
In Boston, not since Johnny Damon and Keith Foulke has a high-priced free agent actually delivered the production promised upon his arrival. J.D. Drew has been the most successful big-ticket free-agent signing the Red Sox have made in recent years. Assuming he doesn't return, he'll have finished his five seasons in Boston with an on-base percentage of .370 and a slugging percentage of .455 to go along with consistently above-average defense, making him about as productive a player in that span as the departed Damon has been. Most of the rest of the big-ticket free-agent signings were, if not disasters, close to it. Julio Lugo (four years, $36 million) and Edgar Renteria (four years, $40 million) both washed out. Mike Lowell (three years, $37.5 million) never hit more than 17 home runs or got on base at better than a .340 clip after he signed his contract.
In no other area did the otherwise successful Theo Epstein's front office blunder so frequently.
"Our decision-making process on expensive free agents, big-ticket free agents, has not been satisfactory -- not at all," Epstein said before his departure to supervise baseball operations with the Chicago Cubs. "That's(an) area we have to address and look in the mirror and dig deep into the process and see what we're doing wrong, because the results demonstrate that that's not an aspect of the organization that's functioning at a high enough level to meet our standards."
The same goes for the rest of the major leagues.