There’s an awful lot of downtime in baseball, and the nature of the sport leads to long stretches where viewers generally chitchat about things not directly related to the action of the game. In the 2018 season, one of these examples stood out to me the most, as The Athletic’s beat writer Marc Carig engaged in a debate about the relative value of a Yankees’ broadcaster:
Career OPS+ 132, though from 75-79 he had an OPS+ of 152. Where did that rank in the AL during that span?— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) September 9, 2018
The answer: 1st.
Just ahead of a couple randos named Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson.
cc: @29alltime https://t.co/QbG1gWNkor
This got me thinking about the changing economics of baseball, and what players of the past would be worth on today’s market. The reserve clause was only abolished about 40 years ago, meaning the majority of our historical references for great ballplayers were chained to a given team, without much agency on their own.
So, for this offseason, I decided to start a weekly – maybe – series on the present value of former great players, and who better to start with than Ken Singleton himself? Kenny played from 1970 to 1984, as an outfielder for the Mets, Expos and Orioles. Under the current CBA, he would have become a free agent at the age of 29, after the 1976 season. In his first seven seasons – the Mets didn’t call him up early enough in 1970 to burn that first year of service – Singleton posted a 126 OPS+, and 20.4 bWAR. Overall, he was a pretty good player, albeit not a star.
I ran a Play Index query for all players with at least 20 wins in their first seven seasons, and then continued to filter down based on similar OPS, wins, position and age. Finally, I tried to filter with an emphasis on as close to the present as possible, so our comps were within the current economic environment. That left us with this list, with an emphasis on fellow outfielders:
Please note that Jason Kipnis was signed to an extension by Cleveland, not a free agent deal, but his stats were so comparable to Kenny that I felt he should be included. Overall, we see players with a similar offensive and value proposal to Singleton worth about $77 million on the market, and that number creeps up a bit when you factor in outfielders and more recent deals.
The other factor that helps Singleton a lot, but is hard to quantify, is the value of “elite” seasons. Any years with an OPS+ of 140 or greater, and five-plus wins, are valued higher by front offices, since it’s really hard to have a season that good by accident. In the four seasons leading up to Singleton’s hypothetical free agency, he had two such elite seasons, with both a 140 OPS+ and five wins.
Given all that, I think it’s likely that Kenny would get a bit of a bump in his expected contract value, and would hover around the Lorenzo Cain/Brian McCann level. He was younger than both, but not as good a hitter as McCann nor as good a fielder as Cain. Yoenis Cespedes’ deal is probably out of reach, as Yo is a much better hitter than Singleton at the same point in their careers.
So overall we’re looking at about five years and between $80-85 million in total. Let’s split that difference and say $16,500,000 in average annual value. It’s slightly below our overall average, but higher than average total value, and a trend we see in free agency is players try to maximize total value rather than AAV.
So what do you think? Would you pay a low-800 OPS outfielder $16 million a year? Who should I cover next? The rough plan is to work my way through the YES broadcast booth, but if there’s a particular player with a Yankee connection you’d like evaluated, let me know in the comments and I might do that next!