This tier is a mixed bag of lower-spending teams, like the Cincinnati Reds, and higher spending teams, like the Red Sox, who have made more than one or two ill-advised contracts, but not so many that their annual payrolls have been extremely bloated. Despite the “misses” in contracts, this group of teams (seven teams, or 23% of MLB) has combined for 25% of the World Series appearances and 18% of the total playoff appearances over the past decade. Unfortunately, this tier doesn’t have a strong team theme, unless you count “half-Midwest teams” as a theme.
Kansas City Royals
We kick it off strong with a team that finally climbed to the top of the hill in 2015 after 30-ish years of mediocrity and downright bad-ness. Royals majority stakeholder David Glass—who, during his 26-year tenure as the team’s majority stakeholder, saw exactly four winning seasons—was not enthusiastic about spending a lot of money in free agency outside of Kansas City’s three-year competitive window. So, it was a little surprising to see Kansas City’s overall dollars committed figure, $419.33 million (above average, by the way!), because it seems like the Royals are perennially underspending in free agency.
You wouldn’t be completely wrong for thinking so, because the Royals, outside of those three or four competitive years, really didn’t put much money down on free agents:
In the four-year window from 2017-18 to 2020-21, the Royals spent just under $50 million. In the four-year window from 2013-14 to 2016-17, Kansas City spent over $330 million, nearly 7x as much as the 2017-18 to 2020-21 window. Those four years rank among the worst in terms of the Royals’ $ per fWAR numbers, but they got a championship and two World Series appearances out of it, and I think most fans and GMs would gladly take that.
— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) November 1, 2021
I tend to give a fair amount of deference to World Series-winning GMs because winning the “piece of metal” is so dang hard to do. Of course, if you’re (the GM) pushing all your chips in to win a title, you’re doing everything you can to win, and that means handing out contracts that you know will bring the player to your team. Of course, the dollar figures probably aren’t worth it from a spending efficiency standpoint, but that’s not the point of going “all in” on one or two seasons. That’s why I’m more willing to excuse the Jeremy Guthrie contract because he produced a positive fWAR in the Royals’ most important seasons of the past decade and then crashed after getting the W.
However, I think that we can all agree that Omar Infante’s contract didn’t really move the needle for the Royals enough to justify it. He did do some pretty cool stuff in a Royals uniform, though:
— Tony Dreiling (@TonyDreiling) July 29, 2015
He also had a strong 2014 World Series, going 7 for 22 across the 7-game series. But he also had a 48 OPS+ (124 games) in 2015 and didn’t make the postseason roster that year, so he did as little as possible to help the Royals win that World Series.
I’ve chosen these particular contracts, not because they’re elite from a pure $ per fWAR standpoint, but because these guys all made strong contributions to one or both of the Royals’ biggest seasons. For Vólquez, it was being a reliable starter in the 2015 World Series and a strong contributor during the regular season. The same goes for Kendrys Morales, who got down-ballot MVP votes in 2015 and had 3 home runs in the 2015 ALDS against the Astros. For Vargas, it was his strong starts in the 2014 ALDS and ALCS that helped the Royals make the World Series. Vargas, unfortunately, was injured for the 2015 postseason and wasn’t able to contribute. All of these guys were excellent supplements to the Royals’ core players, which is exactly what you want out of a free agent on a World Series contending team.
The Cincinnati Reds spent a paltry $142,823,726 million across 10 years of free agency. That’s outright inexcusable, considering the Reds’ 2020 rotation was the second-best rotation in baseball by fWAR, and Joey Votto, one of baseball’s great treasures, was churning out elite fantasy production for nearly the entire decade in the middle of the Reds’ lineup. Cincinnati even had a decent core of players to build around, with Votto, Eugenio Suárez, Todd Frazier, and Zack Cozart, among others. And yet, the Reds had only three playoff appearances across these 10 years (2012, 2013, 2020) to show for it. If not for the expanded playoffs in 2020, the Reds would have missed the playoffs for the seventh straight year, and their missed playoff streak would be among the longest in the league. And if not for the Reds going “all in” for 2020, they would have spent less than $100 million across this 10-year period.
In a bit of cosmic karma, the Reds ended up in the bottom half of the league in spending efficiency, with a solid 1/3 of their free-agent fWAR coming from Nick Castellanos‘ 2-year, $19.775 million (4.6 fWAR) deal signed in the 2019-20 offseason.
And lest you think the Reds are instead spending money on the payroll in some other fashion, the Reds’ highest payroll over the past decade was $107 million. The 2020 payroll, when pro-rated for a 162-game season, probably would’ve been higher than that number, but that payroll still wouldn’t have even placed the Reds in the top half of the league in terms of spending.
Here’s the 2020 class:
Over half of Cincinnati’s total fWAR over the measuring period was the result of Wade Miley and Nick Castellanos. Cool!
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox, tied with the Giants for the most championships won during this time, spent quite a lot of money on free agents. Unlike their big-market counterparts, like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Cubs, the Red Sox failed to spend their money efficiently, falling in the bottom 10 teams in terms of $ per fWAR. Like the Dodgers, though, the Red Sox took shots on some questionable free agents, with some panning out, and others flopping. All told, the Red Sox dished out the second-most money to their free-agent signings among all MLB teams.
The Red Sox had the worst free-agent class of any team, across all 10 seasons, in 2014-15. Take a look:
The Red Sox fell for the “sign relievers to big contracts in free agency” trap here with Justin Masterson and they whiffed badly on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramírez. From a dollars per fWAR standpoint, this is, without a doubt, the worst free-agent class of the last 10 years. Hanley did last long enough with the team to get a World Series ring in 2018, but he also failed to make it onto the field during the 2018 postseason. The other signings failed to make much of an impact, which sure didn’t help this class as a whole. In fact, this free-agent class produced a whopping -2 fWAR. Nice work, Ben Cherington and Larry Lucchino!
It isn’t fair to mention how bad the contracts for Pablo and Hanley were without also mentioning how bad the Red Sox whiffed on Rusney Castillo and Eduardo Núñez:
Let’s take a look at some happier Red Sox free-agent classes, namely the ones immediately preceding their World Series titles:
It was tough to gauge whether Ortiz’s free-agent deal, signed Nov. 2, 2012, was a true measure of free agency or just a late extension, so I apologize if the numbers are a bit off here. Ortiz did some pretty cool stuff in 2013:
5 years ago today, down 4 runs, David Ortiz hit a game-tying grand slam, flipping Torii Hunter into the bullpen & sending bullpen cop Steve Horgan into celebration.
The Red Sox went on to win the World Series.
Officer Steve Horgan will retire in 2019. pic.twitter.com/PWUMF6gQ4n
— Only In Boston (@OnlyInBOS) October 13, 2018
The Red Sox also grabbed a handful of other key contributors in 2013, including a reasonably priced closer in Koji Uehara, a power bat in Mike Napoli, a great beard in Jonny Gomes, and a great Flyin’ Hawaiian in Shane Victorino.
When Shane Victorino hit this grand slam in the 2013 ALCS for the Red Sox, the entire series changed momentum.
Such an underrated hit, such an underrated player. pic.twitter.com/A5WPG0uAw2
— Jordan Moore (@iJordanMoore) March 31, 2020
Let’s take a look at the 2017-18 free-agent class:
This one’s a winner because of J.D. Martinez. Núñez, as we already established, was a contract miss. Moreland was an All-Star in 2018, although, uh… you don’t see too many All-Stars end up with a 0.7 fWAR at the end of the season.
Happy birthday, J.D. Martinez! His 2018 season was crazy…
43 home runs
130 RBIs (led league)
.330 batting average
4th in MVP votingpic.twitter.com/pZYEk83Fsn
— Guy Boston Sports (@GuyBostonSports) August 21, 2020
Chicago White Sox
Back squarely in their competitive window, the White Sox spent a long, long time getting back to competitiveness. Before Chicago made it to the AL Wild Card round in 2020, they had not made the playoffs since 2008. In between then, the White Sox won more than 80 games just once and traded Fernando Tatís Jr. to the Padres for James Shields. For a good chunk of the decade, the White Sox held up on the spending—as teams tend to do when they win 60+ games and lose 90ish—which is partially why the White Sox come in well under the average dollars spent (they also could’ve just spent more, as a “big revenue” team (!!)).
AJ Preller and FTJ are still laughing at fleecing the White Sox with the James Shields trade. ? pic.twitter.com/HEvJ7HovtD
— Danny Vietti (@DannyVietti) February 22, 2021
Chicago thought they were ready to contend after they won 85 games in 2012 and narrowly missed the playoffs, but uh… they were not. 2012 was the high point for Chicago in the early 2010s; after then, Chicago wouldn’t win more than 80 games until 2021. At least they spent well in 2013-14…?
José Abreu’s contract is only 3 years because he opted out of the rest of his initial 6-year deal so that he could be eligible for arbitration. The best offseason for Chicago with over $30 million spent (a real offseason!) was solely due to José Abreu’s contract because the rest of these contracts were busts. At least they didn’t waste too much money on free-agent relievers, which hurt a lot of other teams in their search for free-agent value.
Let’s take a look at another one of Chicago’s good off-seasons, which was just last year:
Despite committing roughly $8 million to Adam Eaton, Chicago nailed their offseason, with Carlos Rodón pitching like a superstar for about 75% of the season and Liam Hendricks pitching like the elite reliever he is. Committing big money to a reliever can work… if you do it right!
Other than that, the White Sox didn’t have a ton of contracts to cheer about. Take a look at their big 2014-15 offseason, which preceded a 76-win season, then a 78-win season, and then all the way down to a 67-win season:
The long-term deals were fine-ish during that offseason, while the short-term deals stunk. It happens (*shrug*), but at least the mistakes didn’t kill the team’s outlook long-term.
So, we’ve managed to avoid the truly terrible contracts so far. Unfortunately, we’ve run into our first real albatross, courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles. Birdland was blessed with a fella named Chris Davis, who signed a 7-year, $161 million deal in the 2015-16 offseason. Crush had raked in Baltimore before the contract, racking up a strong 13.4 fWAR from 2013-15. Unfortunately, he couldn’t keep it up over the life of his deal, and Davis ended up producing -2.3 fWAR over his 6 seasons in Baltimore. So, if you’re following along at home, Baltimore spent $161 million on a contract for a below replacement-level player.
With Chris Davis’ contract factored in, Baltimore committed $432.8 million across the 10 years. They got 34.4 fWAR for their troubles, for a $/fWAR of $12.6 million. Without Chris Davis’ contract factored in, Baltimore committed $271.8 million for 36.7 fWAR, which comes out to a $/fWAR of $7.4 million. So, the Orioles were strong spenders outside of the Davis contract. Although, some of that is due to Mike Elias’ extreme aversion to spending since becoming Baltimore’s GM.
When teams are in their “lean” years and they expect to lose a ton of games, they tend not to spend as much money in free agency, like with the White Sox above. The Orioles are guilty of that, except they have comically underspent during their “lean years.”
Over the past 3 years, Baltimore has spent a total of $7.8 million (and gotten 2.7 fWAR from it, actually). Most teams outspend that in a single offseason, on a single player.
Well, let’s take a look at Baltimore’s big successes outside of 2018-19 to 2020-21:
Believe me when I tell you that there were slim pickings for Baltimore contract successes. I couldn’t pick any multi-year deals besides Wei-Yin Chen or Andrew Cashner (I guess?) because there were literally no other good multi-year deals to choose from; they’re either “meh” or just bad.
Take a look at Baltimore’s track record for multi-year contracts over the 10 years:
Let’s look at Ubaldo Jiménez‘s biggest Orioles highlight!
Let’s take a look at the last pitch Ubaldo Jimenez threw in his MLB career pic.twitter.com/KZOF9ZK8mb
— McGeneric Rockies Fan (@rockierage117) February 6, 2020
Meanwhile, another name on that list, Alex Cobb, just tied his personal best for fWAR in a season on the final year of his contract with the Orioles. And the Orioles paid for it, too! It’s just too bad he had that great year as a member of the Angels.
San Diego Padres
The final team in this tier, the Padres also spent a long time rebuilding before getting back into their contending window. The Padres and the White Sox’s competitive windows have lined up almost exactly right, with the Padres having their best seasons early in the 2010s before going into a long rebuilding period. Funny enough, Dave Roberts was the manager of the Padres for a day in 2015 before he joined the Dodgers! He lost his challenge during the game, and his career “Overturned Challenge” percentage is 54.7% now. I bet that Dave Roberts and AJ Preller would make such a fun team in San Diego.
Speaking of Preller, once he took over for the Padres, he was responsible for spending about 93% of San Diego’s free-agent money in about 70% of the seasons. He did so with the flair associated with everything Preller does.
Gary, Keith and Ron look back on the 5th year anniversary of Bartolo Colon's legendary home run
Ron also reminds us that 3 weeks after Colon's homer, James Shields was traded to the White Sox for Fernando Tatis Jr. ? pic.twitter.com/WkCbN75RMa
— SNY (@SNYtv) May 8, 2021
Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. had to be separated while yelling at one another in the dugout pic.twitter.com/VwPKZTQovH
— saucycatches (@saucycatches) September 19, 2021
Hopefully, he will continue to play well and be a leader in San Diego, because he’s a Padre for the rest of his career, barring a trade. The other two contracts were just solid.