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Superstars are Setting the Free Agent Market

Free agent stars have signed in the last few days, and their contracts should lead to even more money for the remaining crop.

The 2022-2023 offseason is going very well so far for free agent players.  Since the postseason ended with the Astros winning the World Series and setting the standard for franchises around the league, notable free agents have been setting and resetting the market.  The trend started with relief pitching, as elite closer Edwin Diaz set a reliever record with his $102M contract.  Just days later, solid arms Rafael Montero and Robert Suarez signed for money worthy of elite closers in recent years.

Those three signings were not flukes, though.  The trend has continued, as almost every free agent who has signed so far has received more money than expected.  Tyler Anderson somewhat surprisingly turned down a qualifying offer to sign for three years, while Mike Clevinger got a $12M guarantee after a down season.  The Rays signed Zach Eflin to a $40M contract, which is a franchise record for a free agent.  Jose Abreu signed with the Astros for around $15M more than other teams were willing to offer.

And it is not just competitive teams opening the checkbooks, as the Pirates and Nationals have both signed everyday players to fill out their lineups.  Carlos Santana and Jeimer Candelario will both get ample opportunities to rebound in 2023.  But a series of goodwill contracts for average players do not make front page news.  The superstars are really the ones setting the market for years to come.

Blockbuster Signings

The current barrage started on Friday, when Jacob deGrom blew away all predictions by signing with the Rangers for $185M over five years.  He is the best pitcher in the world and worthy of a hefty contract, but his lengthy and recent injury history caused many to expect only a two- or three-year contract.  deGrom could have gone for a higher average annual value than $37M, but he would have gotten less years and fewer total dollars.

The Mets moved on quickly from one ace to another by signing Justin Verlander to a two-year, $86.66M contract.  The AAV exactly matches that of new teammate Max Scherzer, a fellow future Hall-of-Famer nearing the end of his career.  It seems like Verlander did not want a dollar less on the AAV, and he sticks with a championship contender in the process.

Now with the Winter Meetings underway, the first star shortstop is off the board as Trea Turner signed with the Phillies for $300M.  A team sorely lacking on defense and contact, Turner is a perfect fit for them.  High-spending executive Dave Dombrowski wanted him so bad he gave Turner a whopping 11 years, which will bring the speedster into his 40’s when he will no longer be a threat on the bases.  Amazingly, Turner could have gotten way more as he turned down $342M from the Padres, but he chose to return to the East Coast.

How the Contracts Compare to Expectations

To show how players are earning more than expected, we can look at a compiled list with price figures.  There are many top free agent lists each offseason, but I will be using FanGraphs’ Top 50 Free Agents, which includes predictions from staff writer Ben Clemens and a median crowdsource.  The two figures are total dollars and contract years.

Player           Contract      Clemens     Crowdsource

Turner          300/11         288/9         210/7

deGrom        185/5           141/3          120/3

Verlander     86.66/2      80/2           70/2

Kershaw       20/1            20/1            20/1

Abreu            58.5/3        36/2            32/2

Rizzo             40/2           32/2            54/3

Anderson     39/3           30/2            43.5/3

Perez            19.65/1       30/2            39/3

Clevinger     12/1             9/1               8/1

Pederson     19.65/1       18/2             20/2

Eflin             40/3            9/1               30/3

Montero      34.5/3         N/A             N/A

Suarez         46/5             N/A             N/A

In almost every case, the free agent signed for more total dollars than what Clemens or the median crowdsource predicted.  There are a few who opted for higher AAV’s, and of course some topped both values.  Clemens is an excellent analyst, but this year he has significantly undervalued the pitching market.  Montero and Suarez did not even make his top 50 list.  He also predicted a mere $9M for Eflin, while the crowd came close on Eflin and Anderson.

The hot stove is indeed hot at the moment, and it won’t cool down anytime soon.  Every agent and front office now need to recalibrate expectations as the available talent will be more expensive than we thought in October.  The thick deals will also have ramifications for the next few years, as the qualifying offers are calculated based on the average value of the top 185 players.  The QO will likely pass $20M next offseason.

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