It's not the icebreaking move that the frozen free agent market so desperately needs, but it may be a sign of things to come this month. Via The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal, Todd Frazier has agreed to a two-year, $17 million deal with the Mets. From the standpoint of the soon-to-be 32-year-old third baseman, this is a steep discount that many other mid-market free agents may settle for as spring training approaches. For the Mets, this is a significant improvement at a low cost, one that strongly suggests they don't expect any contribution from David Wright, who didn't play at all last season.
Frazier split last season between the White Sox and the Yankees, who acquired him along with relievers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson in a July 19 deal. The move was a homecoming for the slugging third baseman, who grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, where he led the Toms River East American team to victory in the 1998 Little League World Series; in celebration of their championship, the team was introduced at Yankee Stadium before the national anthem, for which Frazier stood next to his pinstriped shortstop counterpart, Derek Jeter.
Though Frazier’s .213/.344/.428 batting line was hardly a knockout, his 27 homers and 83 walks pushed his OPS+ to 105, which ranked 21st of the 31 third baseman who made 300 plate appearances last year. That puts him in the general vicinity of Kyle Seager, Manny Machado (both 107) and Evan Longoria (100). Coupled with above-average defense (+8 Defensive Runs Saved, matching his career high), Frazier’s 3.4 WAR ranked well ahead of fellow free agent Mike Moustakas (1.8), who's three years younger and expected to command a much larger contract.
Ignore the batting average and Frazier's numbers also compare favorably to the .269/.315/.413 combined line of the eight players the Mets used at third base in 2017, with Wilmer Flores, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Reyes accounting for three-quarters of the playing time. That motley assortment was a gruesome 17 runs below average according to DRS, with Flores (-8) and Reyes (-5) the worst offenders. Baseball-Reference estimated that Mets third basemen were a combined 0.2 wins above replacement, mainly due to the hot bat of Cabrera once he agreed to shift over from second base; he finished the year with a modest 1.1 WAR, while Flores (-0.2 WAR) and Reyes (-0.6) were both underwater. If Frazier does nothing else but clean up that mess, he’s a solid three-win upgrade.
The 2017 season was the third year in a row that the Mets belatedly cobbled together a solution at third base, as Wright played a combined total of just 75 games in 2015-16. The 35-year-old Wright underwent rotator cuff surgery in September, and then lower back surgery in October. He's planning on attending spring training, but hasn't been cleared to resume baseball activities. Though he’s signed through 2020, his inactivity allows the Mets to recoup most of his salary via insurance.
Frazier made his major league debut in May 2011 and spent five seasons with the Reds, earning All-Star honors in the final two (2014-15). In 2015, after hitting 25 homers in the first half of the season, he won the Home Run Derby hosted in Cincinnati, but fell into a second-half slump and finished with 35 homers and a .255/.309/.498/117 OPS+ line. The Reds, who went into rebuilding mode soon after hosting the All-Star Game, dealt Frazier to the White Sox in December in a three-team, seven-player swap. In his lone full season on the South Side, Frazier set a career high with 40 homers but slipped to .225/.302/.464/107 OPS+.
As I noted last month, Frazier's slash line has been brought down by three straight seasons of declining batting averages on balls in play, from .309 in 2014 to .226 in '17. Even so, he does enough other things well to give him considerable value. He was worth 4.0 WAR in 2015 and 3.4 in '16; his three-year total of 10.8 is ninth at a talent-laden position, behind Josh Donaldson, Kris Bryant, Noaln Arenado, Machado, Adrian Beltre, Justin Turner, Seager and Jose Ramirez.
With a solid track record like that, a free agent such as Frazier could have been expected to net a three- or four-year deal in winters past. Taking him through a quick spin in my What's He Really Worth model, which incorporates a player's last three years of performance, a projection of his future value, and estimates of the market cost for a win, the rate of inflation and an age-related decline, I get valuations of $49.9 million over three yeas using the low-end estimate of $9 million per win, and $58.3 million using the high-end estimate of $10.5 million per win. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron estimated Frazier would get a three-year, $42 million contract, while MLB Trade Rumors predicted he'd land a three-year, $33 million deal.
For Frazier to get just over half that is a blow, considering that he earned $12 million last year, his final year of arbitration eligibility. Consider that in December, 32-year-old former Reds teammate Zack Cozart, who played shortstop alongside Frazier regularly from 2012-15, netted a three-year, $39 million deal to play third base for the Angels; he's produced 8.9 WAR over the past three seasons. In January, the Mets re-signed 31-year-old rightfielder Jay Bruce, who’s been worth just 4.2 WAR over the past three seasons despite hitting 95 home runs in that span, to a three-year, $39 million deal. Frazier quite rightly should have come away with at least that much instead of the reported $17 million pact.
Apparently, there's a hometown discount to factor in as Frazier was said to enjoy his time with the Yankees. The team valued both his production and his clubhouse presence, but their efforts to get under the $197 million competitive balance tax threshold limited their pursuit of Frazier. Via FanRag's Jon Heyman, Frazier "made clear he wanted to be in NY." Still, this rates as particularly eye opening given that Frazier is represented by agent Brodie Van Wagenen, who last Friday expressed frustration on behalf of players, suggesting that this winter's free agent inactivity "feels coordinated," that "the algorithms that have helped determine player salaries in recent years are suggesting dramatically higher values than owners appear willing to spend" (ahem), and that "a fight is brewing." Van Wagenen suggested that players might boycott spring training as a protest against the status quo.
Obviously, Frazier is one player who's not spoiling for a fight, and he may be part of a wave of free agents who settle for what’s out there just in time to pack for spring training. While his signing won't turn the Mets into contenders by itself, he's a legitimate upgrade to a lineup whose other additions — the return of Bruce and the addition of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, whose 2017 season was wrecked by back woes — look rather meek. There’s a lot more the Mets could and should do to return to contention after a dismal 70-92 season, but this is a step in the right direction.