While a pair of trades dominated this week’s news in Major League Baseball’s offseason, there have been some intriguing, under-the-radar signings to this point too. Clearly, though, the open market has yet to really get rolling. Before that happens, it’s worth checking in to see what kind of bang teams are getting for their buck. 

In terms of size and scope, the biggest free-agent contract is the four-year, $32 million deal the Kansas City Royals handed out to lefty Jason Vargas, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels. That’s not a small chunk of change, but admittedly, that transaction lacks the excitement and impact of the swap that sent Prince Fielder (and $30 million) to the Texas Rangers and Ian Kinsler to the Detroit Tigers. Or even the one involving David Freese going to the Angels and Peter Bourjos heading to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Since you probably haven’t been riveted by all the lower- and mid-tier free-agent signings, here’s a rundown, courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors’ easy-peasy transaction tracker tool, of the biggest contracts based on average annual value (AAV) through the first three weeks of November:

(Note: For the purposes of this piece, we’re not going to consider Hunter Pence, who scored $90 million over five years, and Tim Lincecum, who landed $35 million for two, as free agents, simply because they re-upped with the San Francisco Giants prior to becoming available to the 29 other teams. Same goes for Derek Jeter, who re-signed with the New York Yankees for $12 million.)

So what do these early pacts reveal?

Let’s start with this: In general, the market price for a win is considered to be about $5-6 million in free agency, although that number surely is trending higher.

There are two big reasons why the going rate is spiking: One, MLB’s latest television deals with ESPN, Fox and TBS mean that each of the 30 teams has an extra $25 million, give or take, to play with per year than in previous seasons. Also, savvy execs have taken to locking up their most talented players, so the top names simply aren’t reaching the open market as frequently or as early in their careers as they used to.

When there’s a greater supply of money as well as a higher demand for players, basic economics says that those available names are bound to get more than they otherwise would (or should).

And yet this offseason’s market hasn’t gone bananas. 

Sure, it might be a stretch to say that $34 million for four years of soft-tossing, homer-prone Jason Vargas or $26 million for three years of soon-to-be 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz is a good buy. Sometimes, though, the early inkings do turn out to be the best bargains. They are, after all, setting the market’s going rate to an extent.

That in mind, here’s a repurposing of the above table, only this time, to put the new salaries into context, there are two extra columns: The first calculates, using the $5 million-per-win standard noted above, how much value each player would have to produce in order to roughly be worth the money; the second shows each player’s average production over the past three seasons based on FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR):

While there is some rounding involved, what you should notice immediately is that none of these signings appears to be out of line given each player’s recent past production (from 2011-2013).

You might not agree with the valuation of one or more of these pacts for any number of reasons (i.e., the risk of giving three years to Javier Lopez, a lefty specialist reliever). Overall, though, this is a sign that the ratio of bang to buck is reasonable—at least in MLB terms—as long as the players can continue to perform close to the way they have.

That’s partly because, at this stage, teams have hopped on players with a clear flaw (or two), be it advancing age, injury concerns or limited potential. This makes them riskier picks than the big names, but not necessarily bad decisions.

After all, it’s much easier to get a net-positive return on a smaller deal, and it’s also less likely that such a contract will blow up a club’s finances or roster construction going forward. Almost assuredly, none of the players who have signed will be needle-movers over the next year or two, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t prove worth it in the end.

If the past few offseasons have taught teams anything, it’s this: The bigger the name, the bigger the contract—and the bigger the risk. Hello, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton…the list goes on.

That holds true, even in this toned-down world of lower-tier signings, as Keith Law of ESPN pointed out in analyzing—and questioning—the Royals’ decision to go to four years for Vargas:

Deals of four years or more for non-elite starters don’t have a happy history — the names Carl PavanoEdwin JacksonRuss Ortiz and Gil Meche come to mind — and it seems like there were similar or better options who wouldn’t have required a commitment of this length. It makes the Royals a little better for now, but Vargas operates with such a slim margin for error that he could end up cannon fodder by the middle of the deal, especially if he loses another half-grade of velocity.

That brings up another point. For many of these early deals, rather than asking, “Will this player be worth it?” the more appropriate question might be: “Was this player the best option within the price range?”

In other words, the initial contracts don’t seem to be way out of whack—nothing yet looks like an egregiously poor buy—but every choice essentially wipes out other possibilities a team might consider within that price range or at that position, options that might have been safer or better or more likely to pay off in a bigger way. Rosters are, after all, limited to 25 players at any one time.

Here’s Jonathan Bernhardt of Sports On Earth, again discussing the Vargas contract:

…while the Vargas contract is not in and of itself an albatross, $8 million a season is a significant (if small) piece of the Royals’ budgetary pie, and there have already been rumblings that the Vargas signing prices Kansas City wholly out of the Ervin Santana market. It’s too early to tell if that’s legitimate or just posturing on the Royals’ part, but Santana is a clearly better pitcher than Vargas if still only league average over the course of his career (100 career ERA+ to Vargas’s 91).

Of course, Vargas’s $8 million a year is less than half the annual value of the contract Santana’s camp has indicated they’re looking for, which is something in the five- to six-year range worth around $100 million. If salary creep has been pushing up the wages of below-average starters like Vargas, it’s been absolutely ballooning the salaries of consistently league-average pitchers.

The second part of Bernhardt’s analysis is the reason why this initial batch of deals, while not the most provocative or most likely to produce huge returns, doesn’t look all that bad: Eventually, some team is going to go in big after one of the top-tier free agents, offering $15 million or $20 million (or more) per season over a handful of years.

That’s just the sort of decision that can backfire enough to prevent a franchise from making future free-agent signings, or worse, from locking up the talent already on the roster to long-term extensions.

Three weeks into this offseason, it seems, teams are getting bang for their buck that’s just about in line with the players’ recent production, give or take a few million here or one or two of the deals there. There are a number of variables that will determine whether Ruiz, Marlon Byrd or David Murphy are worth it in the end, but teams haven’t necessarily been lavishing unwarranted and unrecoverable riches on the free agents who’ve signed so far.

Where things are going to change—and almost certainly for the worse—is with the players at the higher end of the market, where the amount of money and the number of years make it more about the bucks and less about the bang.

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