Recent free-agent history a cautionary tale for clubs
Trend has shown teams that make biggest financial splash fall short of expectations
As the Winter Meetings draw near and the free-agent market grows more active by the day, the baseball world becomes inundated with the usual mix of predictions and superlatives. Team X is having the best offseason. Team Y is spending its money the smartest. Player A and Player B will instantly make Team Z a contender.
But as the Angels and Marlins showed a year ago, the rush to crown next fall's champion based on this offseason's activity is almost always an exercise in futility. The World Series champion Giants spent about $3.6 million in free agency a year ago, choosing instead to commit to a long-term extension with ace Matt Cain, invest in their shutdown pitching staff and make a few under-the-radar moves. The Cardinals weren't particularly active on the open market the winter before their 2011 World Series victory, either.
So rather than trying to fill out 2013 playoff brackets based on the latest signings, take a look back at last offseason's biggest free-agent winners.
The Angels were considered the offseason champions with their haul of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Marlins were the talk of baseball at the Winter Meetings after reeling in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell in one big spending spree. The Phillies made a huge commitment to closer Jonathan Papelbon. The Tigers swooped in and locked up Prince Fielder to a long-term mega-deal.
Of those seven players, all among the best and most coveted in a top-heavy free-agent class, only Fielder played in the postseason. The Angels came close, finishing third in a tougher-than-expected American League West, while Miami and Philadelphia quickly fell out of contention in the National League East.
"I guess all the talk we did last season didn't add up to any wins," Marlins president David Samson said in a recent radio interview with 790 The Ticket. "So maybe less talking and more winning is in order."
But around this time every year, it's all about the talk. Who will outbid everyone else for Zack Greinke? Where will Josh Hamilton land? What's the market like for Michael Bourn?
The Angels committed more than $300 million to Pujols and Wilson, and the Marlins drew up contracts worth about $190 million for the three stars they unloaded less than a year later. Both clubs snatched up the superstars on the open market, and all of a sudden, it was as if the league pennants were theirs to lose.
"We spent it wrong," Samson said in the radio interview, recorded not long after Miami shed Reyes, Buehrle and most of its payroll in a 12-player trade with Toronto. "It showed with everything off the field and on the field."
Detroit was third team to commit to more than $100 million worth of long-term contracts last year, a figure that suggests a playoff-fueled spending spree but rarely works out -- at least not right away -- as it did for the AL champion Tigers.
Since the 2007 season, eight of the 19 teams that committed the previous offseason to more than $100 million in free-agent signings have made the postseason. Four of those clubs reached the World Series, and the '07 Red Sox and '09 Yankees won it. The past two seasons, the Tigers and Rangers have fallen just short after $100 million winters.
But more often than not, the clubs that give their fans the most to cheer about in November, December and January are nowhere to be found come October.
Look back two years, when the Red Sox made a big splash by signing Carl Crawford to a $142 million contract and adding Adrian Gonzalez via trade. Boston hasn't been to the playoffs since. Like Miami, the Red Sox shipped out both players in a big trade this year. Washington broke the bank that offseason by offering Jayson Werth a seven-year, $126 million deal, an investment that sputtered out of the gate before the Nationals' breakout season in 2012.
So, what does that mean for this winter and offseasons to come? A few big moves and exciting news conferences announcing newly-signed stars seldom change a club's future, and most of baseball's recent success stories have been a product of savvy trades and excellent player development. But that certainly won't stop clubs from handing out massive contracts in hopes of creating an instant World Series contender.
Already this offseason, the Braves have made their largest free-agent signing: five years and $75 million to center fielder B.J. Upton. Whichever teams sign Greinke and Hamilton figure to commit to contracts worth north of $100 million, and the free-spending Dodgers might cross the $100 million marker, as they've been linked to Greinke and fellow starters Anibal Sanchez and Kyle Lohse. But that might be it in an offseason that lacks the star power of last year's crop of free agents.
Looking forward, however, $100 million winters in free agency figure to become much more common, setting a new standard for offseason splurges more in line with what the Marlins shelled out for Reyes, Buehrle and Bell. Even relief pitchers are becoming significant investments, as Papelbon signed for four years and $58 million last year, a pact Rafael Soriano could turn into a trend for top closers this winter.
With revenues increasing across the league, even the small-market teams are feeling the effects of rising salaries in free agency. The low-payroll Rays recently agreed to a contract worth $3 million annually with setup man Joel Peralta, who made about $3 million over two years with Tampa Bay from 2011-12, and made a surprising $100 million commitment to extend third baseman Evan Longoria through at least 2022.
For all the talk of Major League Baseball's new national TV deals helping out small markets like Tampa Bay, team owner Stuart Sternberg pointed out that prices are really just increasing equally for everyone.
"After it all gets divvied up, it's not enough to move the needle. It does allow us to get a middle reliever," Sternberg said. "But everyone else can get a middle reliever, too."
In other words: It will be about spending the best, not spending the most. But as the Marlins and Angels proved once again last winter, that has always been the case in free agency.