Free Agent Decisions from the Player's Perspective

This year, like most of the last 35 year or so off-seasons, one of the biggest hot stove league questions is where the premier free agents will land. Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes lead a group of free agents that in addition to these players who rank among the best in the game, include several solid pitchers and numerous other valuable players. Discussions of whether Reyes is too big of an injury risk for a big multi-year contract or whether Pujols and Fielder will get a little less than they might because the Red Sox and Yankees are more or less set at first base are typical questions which surround free agents every year.

These questions focus on the needs and questions facing teams, but the question of how players might best approach free agency is often overlooked. Decisions about where to sign as a free agent can have an enormous impact on a player’s career and future. In the early years of free agency, Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson sealed their legacies by signing with the high profile Yankees rather than with less famous teams in smaller cities which offered more money. Similarly, Manny Ramirez’s decision to sign with the Red Sox a decade ago made him a much higher profile player than he would have been had he gone somewhere else.

The criteria on which players base decisions about where to sign cannot be fully known and obviously varies from player to player. While it can be safely assumed that all players want a lot of money and to play for a good team, the relative import of these things is not entirely clear for each player. Moreover, there are a number of other variables such as the region of the country in which a team plays, the particular city in which a team plays, what position a free agent would play on that team, whether or not a player wants to play for one team his entire career and others.

Decisions about where a player signs have impacts the rest of that players career. For example, if Prince Fielder were to sign with the A’s, which is very unlikely, his career batting numbers would be far less impressive than if he signed with the Cubs. These decisions also have an impact on how that player’s career is understood even after that player is retired. While it is likely that debating how good retired players is more interesting to fans than to the players themselves, these questions effect things that players presumably care about such as their chance of getting elected to the Hall of Fame and how marketable they are in retirement.

Players who play their whole career with one team, who spend little time as designated hitters, play in big market cities and who accumulate a lot of post-season playing time are often viewed as better, in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters and casual fans, than comparable players who do not meet these criteria. These are general considerations of which all players should be aware, but there are specific issues as well. Prince Fielder, for example, could end up being an all-time great, or he could be just another big power hitting first baseman who put on too much weight and stopped being a productive player too early. At least some of this depends on where Fielder goes. Nonetheless, if he signs with a team in a hitter’s park that can ease him into a DH role and give him a good chance of more post-season heroics over the next few years, he will be remembered very differently than if he goes to an NL team in a pitcher’s park with little chance of seeing much post-season action.

If Albert Pujols, on the other hand, stays with the Cardinals, he will further his legacy by becoming one of the few all-time great players to spend his career with one team. He will also continue to play first base most of the time as the Cardinals are an NL team and probably will continue to get plenty of October playing time. This, in the long run, will probably outweigh the few extra dollars he might get by going to the Marlins.

There are other occasionally other significant considerations as well. Some players, notably Cliff Lee and Greg Maddux, simply were not interested in the tsurris that goes with playing in New York so signed elsewhere. Similarly, if he continues to pitch the way he has in recent years, when star Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum becomes a free agent following the 2013 season, he will be courted by many teams. However, Lincecum is a uniquely good fit for the Giants. The ballpark, the city, the local culture and his role in the 2010 championship season cannot be replicated in other places.

The Giants will have to pay top dollar to keep Lincecum, but the pitcher would be wise to think about the bigger picture. In San Francisco he is the face of the franchise and plays in a city where is long hair and personality win him accolades from the fans and the media. He might win more games elsewhere, but he also might have to cut his hair and have fans who simply admire him as a player. It is hard to imagine “Let Timmy Smoke” t-shirts popping up in the stands of a lot of cities outside San Francisco.

The best ballplayers make so much money that differences of even ten percent less money to sign with a team that is a better fit are pretty much negligible. In this regard, the money offered free agents is measure of respect and status as much as anything else. For people who, like most athletes, are highly competitive, this is significant, but there are other variables involved with their signing decisions which may, in the big picture be more important and influence not just the remainder of their playing careers, but their life after baseball as well.