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
Even many contracts that look mildly disastrous right now aren't as bad as they seem.
Still, there are plenty of those, and no matter how well
The king disaster, Mets fans would surely argue, has been left-handed pitcher
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
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'
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
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 --
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
The second is Reds center fielder
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.