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How much will a win cost in free agency?

Teams across baseball declined options left and right. What can that tell us about the months ahead?

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Cardinals fans got a sneak preview of how stingy teams across baseball are expected to be the winter. Kolten Wong is, by my count, one of 40 players whose team or mutual option was declined by his most recent club. Wong’s floor is hovering around 2 WAR (thanks in large part to his defensive prowess), but St. Louis deemed a $12.5 million salary in 2021 to be too much for their liking.

That teams are looking to cut payroll comes as no surprise, of course. The exact numbers are fuzzy—and MLB’s lack of financial transparency doesn’t help clear things up—but baseball didn’t come close to the upwards of $10 billion in revenue the league presumably expected to generate pre-pandemic. However, there are still free agents to be signed at a price. If Mike Trout suddenly hit the market, it’s not like teams would refuse to open their wallets altogether.

My goal was to use the early data from teams’ option decisions (i.e. choosing to exercise or decline) as a proxy for what the price-per-win may look like during the actual free agency period. The 30 teams collectively decided on 49 players (note: I complied that list from Fangraphs and this article), but 23 of those players are projected, per Steamer, to post less than 0.5 WAR next year. I chose to omit those names; otherwise, we get weird data points like the Rockies making the ever-so-bold move of not paying Daniel Murphy $120 million per win ($12 million divided by a 0.1 WAR projection). That would leave us with 26, but I also cut Zack Britton because of an unorthodox contract structure resulting in his option being for the 2022 season.

Here are the remaining 25 players. I should also note the option amount column does not account for any potential buyouts in the event of a declined option. In theory, that means these options might look slightly “better” from the team’s vantage point than they really are.

$/WAR estimations

Name Team Option amount (in millions) Projected WAR (Steamer) $/WAR (in millions) Team Decision
Name Team Option amount (in millions) Projected WAR (Steamer) $/WAR (in millions) Team Decision
José Iglesias BAL 3.5 1.9 1.8 Exercised
Roberto Perez CLE 5.5 2.3 2.4 Exercised
Merrill Kelly ARI 4.25 1.5 2.8 Exercised
Mike Zunino TB 4.5 1.5 3.0 Declined
Anthony Rizzo CHC 14.5 4.6 3.2 Exercised
Todd Frazier NYM 5.75 1.6 3.6 Declined
Wilson Ramos NYM 10 2.2 4.5 Declined
Kolten Wong STL 12.5 2.3 5.4 Declined
Charlie Morton TB 15 2.7 5.6 Declined
Starling Marte MIA 12.5 2.2 5.7 Exercised
Chris Archer PIT 11 1.9 5.8 Declined
Mitch Moreland SD 3 0.5 6.0 Declined
Jedd Gyorko MIL 4.5 0.7 6.4 Declined
Adam Eaton WSH 10.5 1.6 6.6 Declined
Corey Kluber TEX 18 2.7 6.7 Declined
Martín Pérez BOS 6.85 1 6.9 Declined
Brett Gardner NYY 10 1.4 7.1 Declined
Eric Sogard MIL 4.5 0.6 7.5 Declined
Carlos Santana CLE 17 2.2 7.7 Declined
Howie Kendrick WSH 6.5 0.6 10.8 Declined
J.A. Happ NYY 17 1.4 12.1 Declined
Robinson Chirinos NYM 6.5 0.5 13.0 Declined
Mike Leake ARI 18 1.1 16.4 Declined
Ryan Braun MIL 15 0.7 21.4 Declined
Jon Lester CHC 25 0.7 35.7 Declined

This table is a big yikes if you’re the MLBPA. For context, the $/WAR ratio in a “normal” free agency cycle would probably be somewhere in the $8-10 million-per-win range, depending on how you calculated the final metric. Here, however, Starling Martin was the only player projected above $3.2 million-per-win who had his option picked up, and he still only checked in at $5.7 million. Based on these figures, it might reasonable to guesstimate that the value of a free agent will be roughly halved this winter.

From a labor relations standpoint, especially with the next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations right around the corner, players are likely to object to owners pocketing a disproportionate share of baseball’s wealth during prosperous times while effectively offloading a rare downturn onto the players. (Again, we don’t have the detailed numbers to examine that claim with much mathematical precision.)

There’s also the fact the 2021 season itself is still shrouded in uncertainties with COVID-19, possible limitations on ticket sales, etc. Who knows what amount of teams’ cost-cutting measures are due to 2020 losses vs. fear of 2021 losses. The answer is likely a combination of both. Either way, if the steps leading up to free agency were any indicator, we’re in a low-budget winter both in St. Louis and elsewhere.