Chris Carter and the free-agent market, and why the Yankees might have won one


Chris Carter hit 41 home runs in 2016, more than anyone in the National League not named Nolan Arenado, who had the help of Coors Field in hitting his, and more than all but five players in the American League.

With that kind of power, you would think Carter would have no trouble connecting again going into the offseason if he took a swing at a big raise.

You’d be wrong. The Brewers, for whom Carter hit those 41 home runs, didn’t even offer him arbitration, which made him a free agent, after which Carter, in searching for a new team, did what he does at bat when he’s not hitting home runs — he mostly flailed.

He finally signed this week with the Yankees for one year and $3-plus million, which in the realm of free-agent contracts, is more a bloop single than the home runs Carter is better known for.

Carter’s flaws are certainly as big — at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds — as he is. He’s a career .218 hitter, he led the NL with 206 strikeouts, he’s a bad fielder and his lack of foot speed certainly hurts his team when he’s not on a home run trot.

But the lack of interest in and pay for Carter is indicative of what the consensus in MLB is this offseason: relievers are valued, and home run hitters not so much.

Mark Trumbo, who led the majors in homers last year with 47, got $37 million to return to the Orioles, or not half as much as Aroldis Chapman to return to the Yankees. Edwin Encarnacion, who’s averaged almost 39 homers a year over the last five, got $60 million and three years, or a couple million and a year less than closer Mark Melancon, even though the former had 702 plate appearances last year, or 432 more than batters the latter faced.

Brett Cecil, coming off a year where he was alternately unacceptable and then unhittable, got four years and $30 million to leave Toronto, or $12 million more than a humbled Jose Bautista received to come back. Add that to the list of things that won’t make Bautista happy.

The Rockies gave Mike Dunn three years and almost $20 million to pitch in Coors, speaking of home runs, which ought to be fun. And the Marlins spent $6 million per year on Junichi Tazawa, who had a .730 OPS last year, 4.14 and 4.17 ERAs in consecutive seasons and pitched so poorly in the second half of 2016 the Red Sox left him off their postseason roster.

Given that Tazawa signed with the Marlins, postseason experience probably wasn’t a prerequisite. But it makes you wonder how much more than the $1.6 billion reported this week the Marlins would sell for if they didn’t have expenditures like Tazawa on the books.

It’s almost as if it’s been so long, everyone forgot how the final years of Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50-million contract played out (he was worth it, if you don’t mind your closer grabbing his crotch before the home fans, until the Phillies traded him in the middle of 2015).

Multiyear contracts for relievers (especially marginal ones), like Bud Selig in the Hall of Fame and Pete Rose on the honor system, are a bad idea.

Teams win at free agency when they identify the bargains, and for all his faults, Carter might be one at $3 million. He won’t hit 41 home runs for the Yankees because he won’t play enough to. But on a team that has tried to trade Brett Gardner and is depending on Aaron Judge, he’s not a bad contingency.

(The Yankees might want to keep Carter away from Judge, who fanned in 42 of his first 84 major-league at-bats last year).

Carter hit 29 homers vs. righties last year, but that’s because he batted against them more than three times as often. His home run rate vs. lefties (1 every 11.2 at-bats) was better than righties (1 every 14.1), no small matter when the Yankees’ archrival and defending division champion might have four of them in its starting rotation.

Three million dollars for a power-hitting platoon DH/first baseman/corner outfielder is not the worst deal transacted in New York this week, even if it comes with defective parts. Forbes’ Josh Benjamin wrote that the Rangers signing Mike Napoli was the better deal, but his piece placed more emphasis on careers and not price tags, which seemed an odd thing to downplay, especially considering the source (a blog titled Sports Money; to be fair, Napoli’s contract details were slower than he is and not publicized until later in the week).

Mr. Benjamin may yet be right and the reported $8.5 million the Rangers pay Napoli might be better spent than the $3-plus million the Yankees pay Carter. But there’s not much evidence of it from 2016: Carter’s OPS (.821) and OPS+ (114) both surpassed Napoli’s (.800 and 104), their WARs were nearly equal (Carter’s 0.9 to Napoli’s 1.0) and while Napoli didn’t strike out 200 times, he came close (194). Carter is five years younger, and even on one-year deals, age matters, especially if one of the principals will be 36 when next season ends.

Much was made in Michael Lewis’ Money Ball about on-base percentage and Scott Hatteberg, which missed the most important tenet of the book as Carter does so many offerings. The A’s didn’t revere on-base percentage but identified it as an undervalued attribute on the market, much as the Yankees just did Carter’s power.

When you pay less for more — or equal value — you usually win, even if frugality and the Yankees are an odd couple.

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