Free Agent Craziness
by Asher B. Chancey,
November 27, 2006

I would like to say something to Gary Matthews Jr. before I write what I am about to write:

Gary, you are one of my favorites! I was so glad to see you succeed this season. We here at (we call you GMJ) remember when you were with the Cubs. You brought an enthusiasm and excitement to the team. I’ll never forget that sliding grab you made, when you popped the ball up with your glove, and caught it laying on your back an instant before it hit the ground. That was amazing. I was furious (I even shed a tear) when the Cubs somehow managed to screw up and lose you and Miguel Cairo in a post-trade deadline waiver wire transaction which I still don’t totally understand. I have spent the last several seasons rooting for you with the same intensity with which I root for Marcus Thames, Aramis Ramirez, and Kerry Wood.

That having been said . . . .

What in the name of Darren Dreifort is going on in the baseball world these days? I really thought that general managers had finally grown wise to getting screwed by giving out huge contracts to marginally talented players. I really thought that watching Billy Beane put together small market winners had cooled the market, and eliminated wasteful big money contracts. It seemed to me the rate of increase of the average free agent contract was not only slowing, but the size of the average contract was actually getting smaller.

And then this happened.

For those of you who missed it, and I bet many of you will have been so logged by turkey torpor and stuffing overload that you couldn’t possibly have noticed, Gary Matthews Jr. just capitalized on his first full major league season by signing a big free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

“Gary Matthews Jr.?” you must be thinking. “Ah, he’s probably worth a three year deal.”

Try five years.

“Oh wow!” you must be commenting to yourself right now. “Five years! Well that contract must be worth close to twenty five million dollars.”

Try fifty million.

The number of things wrong with this deal outweigh the number of things right by at least 2 to 1. As I mentioned above, Matthews just finished his first season as an everyday player in the major leagues. In 2005, he played 131 games. In 2003, he played 144 games, but with two different teams, and he only managed 468 at-bats.

Second, Matthews career numbers simply do not come close to comparing to his numbers last season. Though he hit .313 with an OPS over .850 in 2006, his career average is .263 and his career OPS is .755. This would be fine, and we could chalk the numbers up to Matthews finally hitting it big, but Mathews will be 32 in 2007, and age where most players start slowing down, not hitting their stride.

Thirdly, and this is the biggest warning sign in my mind, Mathews spent the last three seasons playing for the Texas Rangers. The Rangers play in one of baseball’s best hitter’s parks, which makes Matthews’ numbers naturally suspect. The Angels, however, play in one of baseball’s best pitcher’s parks.

Why would any team give a guy coming off of a career year at the age of 31 while playing in a hitter’s paradise big money to come play in a pitcher friendly stadium? The only place Gary Matthews Jr. has ever had success is the Ballpark in Arlington, and for that the Angels are going to give him $50 million?

What the hell is going on here?

Speaking of giving way too much money to 30-plus year old former Texas Ranger outfielders, the Houston Astros made a big splash into the free agent market by signing Carlos Lee to a six year $100 million contract. Lee, of course, is no Gary Matthews Jr. He is a year younger, and has a significant track record of proven success in the majors. 2006 was his eighth full season in the majors, and his seventh straight season with at least 24 homeruns. He has always driven in runs and scored runs, and last season he went 19/21 in stolen bases.

When the Chicago White Sox traded Carlos Lee to the Milwaukee Brewers for Scott Podsednik before the 2005 season, Keith and I got into an argument because I thought Carlos Lee was awesome and he thought Carlos Lee was terrible. Lee proceeded to prove both of us wrong, getting off to a blistering start before absolutely collapsing in the second half of the season. In the end, Lee had 32 homeruns and 114 RBI, but also hit .265 with an 811 OPS. Lee wasn’t as bad as Keith thought, but he was no where as good as I thought.

The problem with Carlos Lee is that he is a big number jockey – he rides those big numbers as far as they’ll take him. But for every 30HR/100RBI season, there are seasons in which he has hit into 20 double plays. He scores lots of runs and hits lots of doubles, but has rarely finished in the top ten in any category. He has consistently reduced his strikeout totals the last few years, but he has had trouble taking walks as well. He doesn’t get on base well, and for a slugger his slugging percentage is very low.

Carlos Lee is a slugging outfielder whose career OPS+ is 113. 113 is leadoff hitter territory, not slugging outfielder territory. Despite his glossy homerun and RBI numbers, Carlos Lee is probably not one of the top 25 outfielders in baseball. That said, the Houston Astros are about to pay $100 million over six years for a guy who is an underachiever and is just entering his thirties.

What happened, did the Astros finally finish paying off Richard Hidalgo’s contract and decided to find a new lead weight to tie themselves to for well into the next decade?

The free agent season is officially here, and the early signs indicate that major league baseball teams are set to return to the free agent largesse of the late-1990s and early 2000s. Hopefully the insanity will die down before some fool-hearty GM seriously endangers the long-term future of his franchise.

While the signing of Alfonso Soriano by the Chicago Cubs shows that teams are once again ready to start spending money like crazy to sign the game’s brightest stars, the signings of Carlos Lee and Gary Matthews Jr. shows that teams are willing to simply spend money like crazy.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Asher resides in Philadelphia, PA and can be reached at