Free agency is one of history's great scams, up there with state lotteries and the old grifter trick of selling a man his own house. They all rely on greed, stupidity, and man's belief that bad things will happen to other people but not to him.
By definition, nearly anyone you can sign on the open market is old or infirm. There are exceptions, which are what keep the scam running, just as lotteries work because of absurd stories about random yokels winning nine-figure fortunes. There are just not very many.
Near the middle of the season, then, the most surprising thing about last winter's free agents is how well they've played. Some, such as Raul Ibanez and Francisco Rodriguez, have been great, and others, such as CC Sabathia and Derek Lowe, have been good, but there are few outright busts among the best-paid players in the class.
Even many contracts that look mildly disastrous right now aren't as bad as they seem. Manny Ramirez may have brought the carnival to Chavez Ravine, for instance, but he does have a .492 on-base average. If he keeps that up on his return, his suspension will likely end up just another ridiculous Manny story, like that time he sold a grill on eBay. Bust isn't quite the word you'd use to describe him.
Still, there are plenty of those, and no matter how well Mark Teixeira may be hitting, the inherent silliness of signing free agents for a lot of money will be proved on fields across America tonight.
The king disaster, Mets fans would surely argue, has been left-handed pitcher Oliver Perez, who signed for three years and $36 million, walked more than a man per inning in three of his first five starts, and then went on the disabled list with a mysterious knee injury.
Whether or not he has been the worst signing in the game, his April implosion should remind fans and executives not to expect players to be something other than what they demonstrably are. Counted on and paid as a No. 2 starter, Perez led the league in walks last year and entered the season with a career ERA below league average. When you sign a lousy pitcher, you get ... a lousy pitcher.
Similarly, one suspects that the only people in America surprised that Kerry Wood has run up a 5.68 ERA as a closer for Cleveland after signing for two years and $20.5 million are the ones who signed him. Unlike Perez, Wood is a strong pitcher -- he just happens not to be a closer, as his much-abused arm seems unable to handle pitching two days straight. (His ERA on one or no days of rest this year is 9.23.) That the Chicago Cubs used him on back-to-back days all of once last September should have served as a clue here.
Anyone disappointed by the performances that these two have turned in is surely disappointed that their shrewd decision to send vital bank information to an Azerbaijani diplomat trapped in Paraguay and soliciting help via e-mail has yet to pay dividends. Free agency is not an alchemical act that turns dross to gold.
To invest in a reasonably young and hard-throwing pitcher, though, makes at least some sense. The season's most epic failures, I would argue, involve position players doing exactly what they could have been expected to do. Take the Cubs' Milton Bradley, who signed a three-year, $30 million contract this winter. Probably the best hitter in the American League last year, Bradley is famous for two things: an inability to stay on the field (he has topped last year's 126 games once) and an unsurpassed ability to get into arguments. So this year he has missed about a third of his games and gotten into tiffs with umpires and reporters. Shocking!
None of this would count much if Bradley were hitting, but he isn't. Of course this is what happens to 31-year-old players; they get worse, not better. Bradley was a risk worth taking, but just as Cubs general manager Jim Hendry would get the credit if he were leading the league in OBP, he has to get the blame now that Bradley is devolving into a caricature of himself.
At least there was a reasonable chance that Bradley would star. The signings that hurt worst may be those involving a player counted on to be nothing more than reasonably solid -- Pat Burrell, for instance. In each of the last four years he put up an OPS between .875 and .902. That's not great for a 32-year-old who can't play the field, but it's not bad, and certainly worth a two-year, $16 million contract. As is, though, Burrell's OPS for Tampa Bay this year is .657.
Should we have seen this coming? Perhaps so. Aside from the inherent dodginess of a brutally stiff-bodied hitter of his age, Burrell has always been utterly useless against American League pitching. (His career OPS in interleague play is .707.) He'll improve some, but the broke Rays will mourn the loss of their $16 million all the same.
In fairness to the executives who signed them, if every player mentioned here was clearly a potential catastrophe, each also came with some mitigating factor attached. The two players competing for the prized title of worst signing of the winter did not.
The first is shortstop Edgar Renteria. Thirty-three and a mediocre defender with an unreal amount of wear on his treads, he has had one year in the last six in which he was something more than a decent hitter, and is thus exactly the sort one doesn't want to tie on to. So of course the San Francisco Giants, who have made a cult of this class of player, signed him for two years and $18.5 million, and have been rewarded by the sight of Renteria trying to keep his slugging average and OBP above .300.
The second is Reds center fielder Willy Taveras. We can grant that there must be something about him that doesn't show up in the boxscore -- he has, after all, played for two pennant winners -- and still marvel at the idea of paying a man with a career slugging average of .337 $6.25 million for two years. Always inept at the plate, Taveras is hitting like a pitcher this year, with a remarkable .220/.269/.273 line, and may be the single biggest reason why the Reds aren't quite in the race right now.
Whether one thinks Taveras or Renteria was the worst signing comes down to matters of principle and philosophy. Is it worse to pay an outrageously bad player a relatively small sum of money, or to pay a merely bad one three times as much? I would tend toward the former -- Renteria, after all, is usually passable even at his worst, whereas Taveras strains mightily to be so at his best. Either way, the sight of Taveras weakly grounding out to first, or of Oliver Perez throwing a ball three feet wide of the plate, and the accompanying mental images of burning piles of greenbacks, are what should come to mind this winter once the elderly and injured hit the market. People do win the lotto, but tens of millions lose.