Caveat emptor

With the talent pool filling and owners standing on the shore with checkbooks in hand, it’s time for the fun and games of free agency to commence. As usual, this winter is fraught with questions: Will the economy cause owners to become cautious in their financial dealings with players? Will the owners learn from past mistakes and decide to spend wisely? And, is Scott Boras serious?

Based on last winter’s signings, here are five types of free agent contracts that are to be avoided. As you can see, some are more damaging than others.

Happy shopping!

The misguided long-term signing
Luis Castillo
Four years/$25 million

After arriving in New York in a midseason deal with the Twins in July of 2006, Mets GM Omar Minaya decided to hang onto his acquisition to big, long contract.

It was a questionable deal given Castillo’s stagnant production over the previous four seasons. What made the deal even more questionable was that second baseman Castillo underwent knee surgery late in 2007 and rehab was to keep him out of the first part of spring training. He didn’t appear in a spring game until March 15, and his knees bothered him the whole year. In addition, he logged time on the DL with a strained hip flexor.

The leg injuries were a huge issue, considering that, in the best of times, Castillo is a groundball hitter whose game is all about speed. In the past, roughly 60 percent of all of Castillo’s batted balls were hit on the ground and in his best seasons, about 12 percent of his base hits have stayed on the infield. In 2008, his GB/FB ratio was at 3.6, which is right in line with his career average of 3.4. But a lack of explosiveness out of the box meant his percentage of infield hits dropped to a career low 7.7 percent.

The high percentage of ground balls and infield hits mean Castillo’s success at the plate always has been predicated on a slightly above average BABIP.

For his career, he owns a .333 BABIP, and as you can see from the chart, before 2008 he posted exactly one season below .300.

Castillo was miserable in the field as well. Usually a defender with average range, the leg injuries took their toll here as he slid in the Fielding Bible’s +/- system with a -14, which ranked him 33rd among second basemen. He had trouble turning the double play as well, converting just 42 percent of his opportunities, which ranked him 31st among second basemen.

The good news? 2008 is over. The bad news? He’s under contract for three more years. The Mets reportedly are shopping Castillo this winter, but they’ll need to eat some of that salary if they plan to move him to another team.

Trying to catch lightening in a bottle

Eric Gagne
One year/$10 million

This move has become popular with teams on a tight budget. The plan: Sign a veteran to a one-year deal with the hope he either (a) becomes a key piece of your post season puzzle, or (b) can be dealt at the trading deadline for prospects. The Brewers didn’t count on (c) he performs so poorly that he doesn’t contribute and can’t be traded under any circumstances.

After finishing in second place in the NL Central, just two games behind the Cubs, in 2007, the Brewers rightfully believed they needed to add a closer to be competitive. They just pursued the wrong guy.

Milwaukee for some reason thought it was buying the Texas Rangers version of Eric Gagne, the one who posted a 2.16 ERA and 16 saves in 17 opportunities during the first part of 2007. Instead, the Brewers got the Boston Red Sox version of Eric Gagne with a 6.75 ERA in 18 innings in ’07.

Gagne announced his presence immediately in Milwaukee. Charged with protecting a 3-0 lead in the bottom on the ninth on Opening Day, he gave up a single to leadoff hitter Derrek Lee, a walk to Aramis Ramirez and a homer to Kosuke Fukudome. Fourteen pitches, no outs and a tie game.

The home run was a harbinger for Gagne. In 46 innings, he allowed 46 hits. Eleven of those left the yard. It was the most home runs Gagne surrendered since he was a starting pitcher for the Dodgers back in 2001. His HR/FB rate was an astronomically high 20 percent.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He blew five saves in the Brewers’ first 31 games, hit the DL in May with rotator cuff tendinitis and washed out of a set-up role as the Brewers battled for the wild card, ensuring that despite the spot in the playoffs, Milwaukee got nothing of value in return for its sizable investment.

The prodigal son
Tom Glavine
One year/$8 million

Sentimentality can be a nice thing. But when it replaces rational thought, it can be a problem.

Glavine left Atlanta following the 2002 season and pitched well for the Mets in three of his first four seasons in Queens. His fifth and final season wasn’t a good one and he finished with a 5.54 ERA, a 5.15 xFIP and a 1.41 WHIP.

It should have been a warning sign for Atlanta, but instead the Braves brought back the 42-year-old left hander. It made for a nice story in spring training: Glavine was returning to the team and the city where he became a star, pitching 16 seasons and 11 postseasons. Then, reality hit. He made three starts before landing on the DL with a hamstring strain. Upon his return, he made nine more starts before returning to the DL, this time with a strained elbow. His walk rate over those nine starts was 5.1/9 (compared to a career rate of 3.0 BB/9), which should have been a sign he wasn’t healthy. When he finally was shut down, he admitted he had been hurting for about a month.

To his credit, he rehabbed and made one more 2008 start (he got hammered by the Cubs) before shutting down for the year. He’s once again a free agent and has said he would return only if he pitched for Atlanta, meaning this entire scenario could repeat itself, but for less money.

The declining veteran
Andruw Jones
Two years/$36 million

Jones hit the free agent market following a .222/.311/.413 year in 2007. It was unfortunate timing for Jones and it probably saved some team a bunch of money. Originally seeking a five-year deal, Jones settled for two to play in Los Angeles.

His power peaked in 2005, when he crushed 51 homers and had a .321 ISO. He had flashed steady power before, topping 30 home runs in five of his seven seasons before ’05. In the two years following, his HR total dropped to 41 in ’06 and then 26 in the walk year of his contract.

Jones felt that his lackluster power performance in ’07 was due to a slimmer physique, so he decided to bulk up in the offseason. Apparently, the bulk was more from Taco Bell than the barbells and Jones reported to his first Dodger camp with quite a bit more weight than he had carried the previous season. The result wasn’t more power as he had planned; it was a decline in mobility and quickness. He hit just .159/.282/.250 over his first 100 plate appearances and found himself on the DL by mid-May with a cartilage tear in his right knee.

He returned to the lineup in early July and was even worse, posting a .153/.238/.222 line in his next 80 plate appearances before returning to the DL. His power had vanished completely.

Recently, Jones indicated that he would like to return to Atlanta when his contract is up following the 2009 season. I bet the Dodgers can’t wait.

What were they thinking?
Carlos Silva
Four years/$48 million

Silva was a six-year veteran who had one quality season under his belt when he hit the market last winter. That was in 2005, when he posted a 3.44 ERA and an ERA+ of 129. His other five seasons’ performance ranged from average to below average.

The Mariners ignored all that when they bestowed a four-year contract on the right hander last December.

What they also ignored was the makeup of their team. Seattle’s infield defense, with Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez up the middle, wasn’t equipped to handle a pitch-to-contact groundball type of pitcher like Silva. Adrian Beltre had a superior season with the glove, but the overall result was 213 hits allowed in 153 innings and an opponents average of .330, despite keeping the ball on the ground 44 percent of the time. It didn’t help that his strand rate was a pitiful 61 percent.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your position), the Mariners have three years to fix their infield defense behind Silva. Either way, his contract will continue to be a problem for the new management in Seattle. Other teams should learn a lesson.

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