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What Jason Giambi and the Yankees can teach us about Bryce Harper’s free agency

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A great hitter with no positional flexibility is exactly the type of player hurt by the current market

Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees - April 27, 2007 Photo by Bryan Yablonsky/Getty Images

Jason Giambi is among the best examples of the mentality of the 2000s-era New York Yankees. He was a regular MVP candidate while in Oakland, winning once and receiving votes in two other season. Once he was a free agent, the Yankees scooped him up. At the time that he hit free agency, after the 2001 season, he had been about as valuable over the start of his career as Bernie Williams over his first seven seasons. He hit better than Bryce Harper, too. Now put a pin in that, because we’re going to come back to it.

I’ve done a few of these modern-day free agent posts this winter, as a thought experiment examining how the market for players has changed. Over the past few years, we’ve watched the market change in front of our eyes, with a couple of notable trends. First, overall spending on free agents has declined. While the 2019 class hasn’t suffered as much as last year, Ben Lindbergh’s research from that linked article speaks to the shifting sands of free agency.

Of course, the top two players on the market are still available, and while they’ll boost the spending this winter, the fact they’re still available is kind of the point. Teams are more willing than ever to wait out free agents until their price drops, or not even pursue them at all.

The other major change in free agency is the premium placed on versatility. As bullpens grow ever larger, it becomes more and more important for your position players to be able to field at more than one place on the diamond. DJ LeMahieu, for example, got about six million more than MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs projected he would, mostly driven by the belief he can play three different infield positions well. Daniel Murphy can play at least two, even if he’s now primarily a first baseman, and he got more than the projections thought as well. Jed Lowrie got exactly what MLB Trade Rumors pegged in terms of AAV.

It is in this changing market that we toss a player like Giambi: an elite level hitter, with good contact skills, great power skills and wonderful ability to get on base. It’s not hard to imagine that he would have been even more high-profile in this era, based on the hype Aaron Judge and Joey Votto get for consistently running .400+ OBP seasons.

Yet he wasn’t a great defender at first and nobody would have ever dreamed of asking him to play another position. In a lot of ways, he resembled JD Martinez: an otherworldly hitter tasked with playing a weak defensive position, or DHing, and both 30 years old at the time of free agency.

Martinez came in well under projections, signing for $40mm less than predicted with the Red Sox. His deal also includes three different opt-outs, which reduces the level of risk for Boston even further. Despite being one of the very best hitters in baseball, teams just weren’t willing to lock up Martinez long-term, with Boston being the only real public bidder for his services.

Now, back to Bryce Harper. Harper has been a worse hitter by about 9% than Giambi over the beginning to their careers, and is coming off a terrible defensive season in 2018. He’s four years younger than Giambi was at the time of their free agency, but it’s still very much up in the air as to what he’ll sign for. At the very least, we can be pretty comfortable saying Harper will get a contract with multiple opt-outs to shift risk away from the team signing him.

The combination of factors here suggests that it would have been difficult for Giambi to do better than the contract he signed ahead of the 2002 season. He probably would have ended up with a bit more money than Martinez, since he was able to reach base at a higher rate — .399 vs .364 for JDM — and plate discipline tends to age better. I don’t see him being able to get a sixth or seventh year though, mostly due to the lack of positional versatility.

Giambi is fascinating for a bunch of reasons, both real and hypothetical. He was a great player for the Yankees, a 143 OPS+ player who reached base more than 40% of the time in the Bronx. Yet I think he’s seen in a different light than that by fans, and he’s the kind of player we’ve seen struggle in the new free agent market. His ability to get on base would have made him valuable, but it’s not like he’d be signing any record-breaking deals in a hypothetical 2019 free agency.