Butler, Ramirez, Sandoval, And The New Age Of Free Agency


Oct 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler hits a RBI double against the San Francisco Giants in the second inning during game six of the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The other day the Oakland Athletics inked Billy Butler to a 3 year, $30 million contract. There was a lot of handwringing on the internet afterwards that the A’s guaranteed so much money and so many years to a guy who doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) play in the field and who simply wasn’t all that good in 2014.

But it’s not that big of an issue, and not because of things like Butler’s groundball profile and ability to play well as a designated hitter. It’s also not because at just 29 years old, Butler is a good bet to bounce back to his pre-2014 level of performance and that Billy Butler is a good player to have in the lineup. Of course $30 million isn’t totally inconsequential, but using it to sign Billy Butler is not nearly the problem some make it out to be.

One way to think about the $30 million committed to Butler is in terms of opportunity cost. What could the A’s have done with that $10 million per year if they didn’t give it to Butler?

The answer is not a whole lot. Due to MLB’s draft slotting system they can’t use that money in the form of large signing bonuses for draftees who in past years would have been selected in a spot that belies their true talent due to signability concerns. The $10 per year doesn’t buy much in an international free agent market that has seen prices skyrocket recently, and spending on international amateur players is somehow not only expensive but also carries a slotting system akin to the domestic amateur draft.

Teams are even limited in free agency itself. The qualifying offer and the draft pick penalties associated with it are a bigger issue than the raw dollars spent on free agents because when a team loses its first round pick (and associated slot bonus) it has no way of getting another one. But outside of the luxury tax, there aren’t any artificial limits on what teams can spend on player salaries.

There’s simply not a whole lot the A’s can do with that money, and because the opportunity cost of the money is so low, the contract doesn’t have to be a bargain to be worthwhile.

Then there’s the Red Sox, who seemingly eschewed their focus on drafting and development ($) to open the vault for arguably (emphasis on arguably) the two best free agent position players, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Almost as soon as the moves are reported does the handwringing begin. Ramirez, Sandoval, Shane Victorino, Rusney Castillo, Yoenis Cespedes, Daniel Nava, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt; the Red Sox now have approximately half of all position players in baseball. Where are they going to play everyone?!?!

For one thing, forgive me for not believing the presence of guys like Victorino (played all of 30 games last season due to injury), Craig (.215/.279/.315 in 2014), and Bradley Jr. (.198/.265/.266, albeit with great defense, but a .266 slugging percentage!) should prevent the Red Sox from adding Ramirez and Sandoval. Maybe the Red Sox will block Bogaerts by playing Ramirez at shortstop, though they probably won’t ($). Maybe they’ll hang on to both Cespedes and Victorino, sending Betts back to the minors when it clearly looks like he’s ready for the majors, though again, they probably won’t.

Oct 6, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez (13) reacts after the St. Louis Cardinals won in game three of the 2014 NLDS baseball playoff game 3-1 at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not clear how the logjam will play out. There’s likely a trade or two to be made here, but let’s not lose the forest for the trees. Talent almost always wins out in the end, and the Red Sox have amassed a lot of it. They just added perhaps the two best free agent position players available, and being that they are one of the select few MLB teams with more money than God; the opportunity cost of that money is even lower than it is for Oakland. They retain the seventh pick in the upcoming amateur draft per qualifying offer rules, so they only lose their second and third round picks, and the slot money associated with those picks. That’s a small but worthwhile cost when it means they add two really good players.

One inescapable truth shown by the Red Sox is that while teams are allowed to spend whatever money they have on player salaries, there are fewer and fewer players available worth spending it on. It’s no secret that free agent classes are getting weaker and weaker as teams lock up their young players through their prime years. The Red Sox could conceivably bank that money and wait for a better bargain in 2016 or 2017, but there’s not guarantee one comes about. Plus, the Red Sox want to be good now. Finding the best bargain is less of a concern than adding players who are, you know, good.

So yes, the Athletics and Red Sox paid market value for free agents with some warts in their respective profiles. But they both also added players who will help them win games in 2015 and beyond, and they added those players using money that can’t be spent in too many other ways. Both clubs are accomplishing what they set out to do this offseason, even if it meant they had to spend money to do so.