Today, I want to get an early look at one of the best free agents in the 2020-2021 free agent class, which potentially says more about the free agent class, but the player is still very good. We’re at the point of the year where I pretend that the Cardinals are a possible destination, even though we all know they are not. It’s both a way of passing the time, and if I’m being honest, it can help me talk myself out of a free agent, which isn’t particularly hard with most free agents actually.
Today’s target, George Springer, puts that to the test. Maybe. There’s a rather glaring warning sign before we even get to the stats: he’s already 31. This isn’t inherently a problem. It’s not great. But just being 31 in a free agent class isn’t a weakness. But there is the problem that he doesn’t have much competition on the free agent market, and that combined with him being 31 screams overpay. The next best player is Marcell Ozuna, who has the whole “can’t play defense” thing, and then it’s Joc Pederson, who has the whole “can’t hit left-handed pitchers” thing. He’s far and away the best outfielder on the market.
I don’t have to do as much work on future projections as I normally would since ZiPS helpfully has a 3-year projection. That includes this year though, and the next two years as of now are not updated to reflect his 2020 season. So it’s not perfect. But his 2020 wasn’t wildly out of wack with either his projection or who he’s been as a player, so there’s not a whole lot of reason to imagine those numbers being different.
Right now, his 2021 projection is 4.3 fWAR. It is entirely possible that when the 2021 projection comes out, that will be a different number. After all, Springer had a better season than expected offensively with a lower strikeout rate, higher ISO, and higher wRC+. He did this with a lower than expected BABIP, all signs that point to a better offensive projection in 2021.
However, there’s the matter of his defense, which I feel ZiPS overrates, but more importantly his 2020 defensive numbers, in the limited sample that they come in, suggest he won’t get as favorable a defensive number. He was a -4 fielder in CF this year, ZiPS projected +1 in center. That’s not why I think his defensive number is too high though. The sample is ludicrously small. No, the reason I think that is that his career UZR/150 in RF, done in over 4,000 innings, is +2.9 while his CF numbers in just 2,200 innings is +1.8. The CF numbers are not a good sample, the RF numbers are.
Before COVID, Springer’s projection in 2020 was 4.2 fWAR. So ZiPS thought he’d improve from that number at 31. But the strange thing is that it appears to be defensive improvement, not offensive? He has a slightly better offensive line, and I mean .001 of wOBA slight, but he has 0.1 more WAR in about 20 less PAs. In any case, no matter how you shake it, I think the 2021 projection right now is too optimistic on his defense, too pessimistic on his offense. This is a long-winded way of saying I think the 4.3 fWAR projection is right.
For the 2022 season, Springer has a projected 3.7 fWAR. Having the 2023 season will be very helpful when that comes out. Because the basic rule of thumb is that you take away 0.5 WAR in each subsequent season. This, however, is just a rule of thumb. As you can see, ZiPS takes away 0.6 for the 2022 season, and I suspect as he gets further into the 30s, it may chop off more than the assumed 0.5. Nonetheless a 2 season head start is better than what we got before the 3 year projection, so I’ll be forced to assume the 0.5 in this case after 2022.
It’s here where we talk price and folks, I have no clue what the free agent market will look like. Players will get less money, that is for sure. But in the past few years, even as that has held true, the big players still got paid. Springer would qualify. Of course, there was a pandemic that caused there to be no fans for all of 2020 and no shortage of teams will point to that to not spend money.
So I’ll present to you two free agent deals, one based on a 5-year-deal and one based on a 4-year deal. They will also be based on him being seen as a 4.3 fWAR player next season going into free agency. These deals will be based on his ZiPS projections. I suspect they are a tad higher than what he’ll actually get, for reasons outlined above, but it won’t be too terribly far off from these numbers.
5 years, $145 million
4 years, $125 million
Couple things here. First off, there’s a good chance ZiPS and any team projection is not that high for more reasons than no fans in the stand income. As I said, as he gets deeper into the 30s, there’s a good chance more than 0.5 WAR is chopped off, and with the exception of his 2022 projection, I am assuming 0.5. Secondly, it is possible WAR is not valued at $9 million per win this offseason, although that does have to do with no fan income.
Hypothetically, the Cardinals could sign him. While they don’t have $29-$31 million to spend in 2021, a whoooole lot of money is coming off the books after next season, and they could presumably be extremely creative with how they pay him given that. Springer would have to be on board of course. They could also trade Kolten Wong (or reject his option) or Carlos Martinez to make room as well. It wouldn’t actually be that hard to do if you were committed to signing Springer actually.
But to be perfectly honest, the 31-year-old outfielder is going to be forever scarred for me in free agency thanks to Dexter Fowler. I am aware Springer is quite a bit better than Fowler was, I am aware that he wouldn’t follow the trend of signing average players to long-term deals, I am aware of all that. But there’s this nagging voice in the back of my head telling me “this isn’t going to work out.” And Fowler isn’t completely to blame for that. Blame free agency of the past 20 years. But I can’t help it.
I will admit there is a certain irrationality to my “gut feeling.” Because part of my gut feeling is based on recent events with the Cardinals. I think if the Cardinals signed Springer, he would immediately become a worse version of himself, like Ozuna. But I think that because of Ozuna, not because I’m being rational. In a similar vein, I also am positive Tyler O’Neill will break out with his new team if traded.
I have never felt more certain of both things happening, but I know they’re not rational because 1) I don’t think Springer would immediately become a worse version if he signed with someone else. I wouldn’t be surprised though to be honest. Sometimes that happens, and if it happens, he’s at the right age for it to happen. And 2) I am not at all positive O’Neill breaks out if he stays with the Cardinals. I’m bringing up O’Neill by the way for two reasons: he’s reflective of Cardinals OFers who have broke out elsewhere and he’s probably getting traded if the Cards improbably sign Springer.
But I’m also not crazy. If the pandemic is going to cause nobody to spend, well then the Cardinals should maybe get in on the action. I’m going to pull a number of my hat essentially, but I’d sign Springer for 4 years, $100 million, but I probably wouldn’t go beyond that. I certainly don’t want to sign him for a fifth year. He should probably beat that, but who knows?
What’s your limit, or are you resistant to signing him?