Predicting free-agent busts

Masahiro Tanaka, Robinson Cano and Carlos Beltran are drawing heavy attention as free agents. Getty Images

Baseball's long-term contracts are one of the world's greatest sources of buyer's remorse. Big-name players never come cheap, and they also never come with a service warranty or a money-back guarantee. When you give Ryan Howard $125 million, there's practically no chance that the manufacturer will issue a recall notice and provide a replacement. So the contract you give is the contract you're stuck with, unless you can trick the Dodgers into bailing you out. Like any winter, there will be some deals doled out this offseason that end up looking not so good down the road. The trick is guessing which ones they will be.

To get an objective spin on this, rather than just a simple list of "Contracts That Will Make Dan Mad," I started with Jim Bowden's predictions for what contracts will be, and asked the ZiPS projection system what the contract should be based on future projections. While situations will obviously vary, and team needs differ, it at least gives us a reasonable starting point for guessing who will be overpaid.

For the purposes of this exercise, I projected out the ZiPS value for the length of the deal that Bowden predicted, with each projected win above replacement being worth $5.3 million, and an inflation rate of 5 percent.

In a lot of cases, ZiPS agrees with Jim. This isn't surprising, given that GMs will generally try to work from reasonable expectations, not pull a random number out of a hat like Bud Selig does when he suspends a certain Yankees third basemen whose name I will not mention here. In some, the market looks overheated compared to a sober valuation.

1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP
Bowden's prediction:
5 years, $75 million + $82 million posting fee
ZiPS value: 5 years, $98 million
Difference: -$59 million

While Yu Darvish's success will likely have a noticeable effect on the willingness of teams to offer top money to the best pitchers from NPB, there's a serious risk of going too far in the opposite direction and offering too much. ZiPS saw Darvish as absolutely worth the contract at the time he signed with the Rangers, but he did come with risks and was a special example.