As I was reading Jim Bowden’s “Pricing the Free Agents” piece on ESPN last Friday afternoon, I could hear the rising and crashing waves of criticism coming from the Sabermetric/blogging community from over yonder…and by yonder, I mean Twitter.  I know this because I was one of the people dropping snide, snarky remarks about several of his choices.  And though it’s easy to criticize the man who worships at the alter of OPSBI, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he held down the role of General Manager for 15 years with two teams.  As shocking (or even disturbing) as that may be to some of us, he didn’t ascend to that job by accident.  He worked hard to not only reach that status, but also retain it.  Did he make his share of baffling mistakes?  Absolutely.  But he also made some really smart moves that benefitted the ball clubs for which he worked.  While that doesn’t absolve him of criticism, he deserves some respect.*

He has a pretty great sense of humor.  Julian Levine of Giants Nirvana and I made a couple of jokes at his expense on Twitter a few weeks back, and he responded with a light hearted, friendly direct message thanking us for the “shout out.”  Maybe it’s just me, but I thought that was really cool of him.  Also, it allowed me to coin the term “OPSBI’d.”

The reason I’m semi-defending him is not because I want to praise him for being a smart guy or a good writer.  I’m not going to pass judgment on him on either case.  Instead, I find it to be a little cowardly to openly criticize someone else’s work without providing an alternative analysis explaining my position.  To remedy this, I’m going to analyze his list of top 20 free agents, and provide my own analysis.  Please keep in mind that I’m not only far more conservative than the free-wheeling Bowden, but also use a far different methodology.  While I do use fWAR to guide me in helping me determine my valuations, I know and understand it’s inherent limitations.  To help limit fWAR’s biases, I consulted rWAR, WARP, and its components as a check and balance.

1. Albert Pujols, 1B

3 Year fWAR Trend – 9.0, 7.5, 5.1

Bowden’s Projection – 9/$273M

Chip’s Projection – 8/$210M

Projected Value – $191M

The Pujols camp is reportedly looking for A-Rod (10/$275M) money, but I can’t envision a single scenario where he receives anything near that offer.  The Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies currently have power hitting first basmen locked up indefinitely; the Mets and Dodgers are stuck in financial hell; and the Angels and Giants don’t seem interested in raising their payroll considerably.  That leaves the Cubs and Cardinals as his most likely destinations.  Given the relatively narrow market for Pujols’s services; his “down” 2011 season; and A-Rod’s post signing performance, we won’t likely see a new record set this time around.  It’s too risky.  That said, Pujols is still the greatest hitter in the game.  He should receive a deal that makes him only the second $200M contract player in history.  It’s probably an overpay by $20M overall, but I think the Cardinals pay the premium to keep him in a Cards uniform.

2. Prince Fielder, 1B

3 Year WAR Trend – 6.4, 3.5, 5.5

Bowden’s Projection – 8/$192M

Chip’s Projection – 8/$185M

Projected Value – $171M

Fielder’s appeal, aside from his unbelievable abilities at the plate, is his age.  At only 27 years old, he’s four years younger than Pujols, and has around 3-4 prime seasons ahead of him.  This alone, makes him a incredibly hot commodity.  Considering his lower price tag, we could see a few teams like the Angels, Orioles, Nationals, and Giants sumbit bids.  Save for the Nationals, who were big time players last winter, I don’t see any of the other three teams being serious bidders.  Ultimately, I see him going to the Cubs as the consolation prize for not landing Pujols.  Concerns about long-term durability, weight, and performance projections keep him from breaking $190M.  8/$185M seems like a slight overpay, as I see him valuing at closer to $170M over the next eight seasons.

3. Jose Reyes, SS

3 Year WAR Trend – 6.4 (2008), 2.9, 6.2

Bowden’s Projection – 6/$108M

Chip’s Projection – 5/$90M

Projected Value – $110M

I’m fully prepared to be wrong on this projection, but I’m going with it anyway.  Yes, I realize he’s the best shortstop and leadoff hitter on the market this year.  Given his age and skill set (similar to Carl Crawford‘s), he’s practically guaranteed a six year deal at this point.  Still, I think teams should shy away from going beyond five years if at all possible.  As talented as Reyes is, his injury issues over the past three seasons are a major concern.  He’s played in only 295 of 486 possible games during that time, and has suffered from nagging hamstring issues that could affect his ability to remain at SS over the long haul.  If he remains healthy and remains at SS, he could outperform his next contract.

4. Mark Buehrle, SP

3 Year WAR Trend – 3.4, 3.7, 3.4

Bowden’s Projection – 4/$64M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$40M

Projected Value – $35M

Bowden’s justification for his contract projection if A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, and Jason Schmidt received an AAV of $16M per season, so should Buehrle.  Given how terrible each pitcher had performed after signing their comparable deals, doesn’t this seem a bit shortsighted?  While Buehrle is nothing if not consistent, he’s about to enter his age-33 season with a “meh” skill set.  He has great control and gets hitters to swing at pitcher’s pitches, but he lacks an out pitch and gives up a ton of hits.  To paraphrase Keith Law, Buehrle would get murdered if he pitched in front of a bad defense.  That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.  He should be a great deal for the right price, but unfortunately that price is nearly half of what Bowden’s suggesting.

5. C.J. Wilson, SP

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.0, 4.6, 5.9

Bowden’s Projection – 5/$75M

Chip’s Projection – 5/$85M

Projected Value – $73M

Bowden’s projection is almost dead on with my estimation of Wilson’s value for the next five seasons.  Still, given the weakness of the starting pitching free agent market this year, I see Wilson bringing home a contract similar to the ones Burnett and Lackey signed in recent years.  Clearly, there are some concerns with injury history, projectability, and control issues among the most commonly mentioned, but overall he seems like a solid investment in the right situation.  He’s proven he can pitch effectively in a hitter friendly environment, and outperformed both Lackey and Burnett in the two seasons leading up to free agency.  The Yankees and Rangers seem to be likely destinations, but I can also see the Nationals and Royals as dark horse candidates.  With C.C. Sabathia off of the market, Wilson’s value should soar.

6. Carlos Beltran, RF

3 Year WAR Trend – 7.6 (2008), 3.0 (2009), 4.7

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$45M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$42M

Projected Value – $56M

At 34, Beltran is still a complete ballplayer who’s capable of playing at a very high level.  Like his former teammate, Jose Reyes, his primary blemish is his recent injury history.  Knee injuries have plagued him recently having missed significant portions of the 2009 and 2010 seasons as a result.  As a result, teams will likely remain cautious about signing the perennial All-Star.  Regardless, I expect him to be a 3.5-4.5 win player over the next few seasons, which would put him in excellent position to outperform his contract.  Ideally, given his injury history, I’d love to see Beltran sign a two year deal.  I don’t think that’s going happen.

7. Aramis Ramirez, 3B

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.2, 0.4, 3.6

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$42M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$42M

Projected Value – $34M

Ramirez is no longer the player he was from 2004 to 2009 when he was posting wOBAs in the .380s and .390s like it was his job, but he’s still carries a tremendous amount of offensive value.  Still, with the market for third basemen being as brutal as it is, he should make out like a bandit this winter.  That’s true even when you’re 33 and defensively challenged.  When your primary competition is Wilson Betemit, Mark DeRosa, and Miguel Tejada; life is good.

8. Jonathan Papelbon, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.0, 1.2, 3.0

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$45M

Chip’s Projection – 4/$56M 

Projected Value – $40M

The problem with closers is that they very rarely provide enough on-field performance value to cover the cost of their contract.  This is true even with elite closers like Papelbon.  Per Fangraphs, the average cost of a win on the free agent market is expected to be worth approximately $4.75M (subject to change) this year.  Even with a 5% inflation rate over each of the next three seasons, Papelbon would need to average 3.0 fWAR through 2015 in order to justify his salary.  While Papelbon has registered three 3 fWAR seasons (including a 3.2 fWAR in 2006) during his career, it’s unreasonable to expect him to maintain that performance indefinitely.  Still, as the premier closer on the market, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get paid.

UPDATE:  With Madson signing a four year $44M contract to remain in Philadelphia, Papelbon’s all but guaranteed a four year deal himself.  Unless he drops his demands, he’s likely priced himself out of Boston.

9. Jimmy Rollins, SS

3 Year WAR Trend – 3.0, 2.5, 3.8

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$39M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$36M

Projected Value – $35M

While Rollins is still a good player, he appears to have entered the decline phase of his career.  Luckily for Rollins, there are a number of teams in the market for a veteran shortstop this winter with the Mets, Giants, Brewers, Braves, and (obviously) Phillies among the most eager.  If Rollins has a smart agent, he’ll shop offers until after Reyes signs in hopes of leveraging his own client.  Rollins could get four guaranteed years (anything is possible when Brian Sabean’s in the mix), but it’s unlikely.  If he does get a fourth year, it will most likely be as a club option.

10. David Ortiz, DH

3 Year WAR Trend – 0.3, 2.6, 4.2

Bowden’s Projection – 2/$25M

Chip’s Projection – 2/$24M

Projected Value – $25M

Do you remember the Derek Jeter saga from last year?  If any contract negotiation has a chance of reprising that kind of drama this winter, it’s going to be the one between Ortiz and Red Sox management.  While 2/$24M seems like a perfectly reasonable deal, I get the impression the Red Sox are going to allow Ortiz to test the market.  As I’ve mentioned a few times before, the market for designated hitters has been very soft over the past several winters.  Given Ortiz’s likely contract demands and his relatively limited market, he could easily end up in Vladmir Guererro territory if he’s not careful.  Ultimately, I think he re-signs with the Red Sox for two years, but not before being humbled by the verital pu pu platter of one year contracts being offered by the other American League teams.

11. Hiroki Kuroda, SP

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.1, 4.1, 2.4

Bowden’s Projection – 1/$12M

Chip’s Projection – 1/$12M

Projected Value – $11M

We are in complete agreement on Kuroda’s projected contract.  Although I’d love him to travel across the country to sign a one year deal in Boston, he’ll likely return to either the Dodgers or Japan.  He’s the quintessential middle of the rotation pitcher every contender needs.

12. Ryan Madson, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 1.3, 1.3, 1.7

Bowden’s Projection – 4/$40M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$25M

Projected Value – $23M

I’ll be honest.  I’m having a lot of trouble gauging the market for Madson.  I think he’ll have plenty of suitors, which could drive the price up; but I don’t see teams willing to give a relatively inexperienced closer four years at $10M per season.  Then again, that could change if some team grossly overpays for Papelbon and/or Heath Bell.  Still, as a pitcher that’s actually three months older than Papelbon, I’m not thrilled about the idea of giving Madson a longer-term commitment; even if it’s for less money.  I can see his contract reaching as high as 3/$30M.

UPDATE:  Last night, the Phillies came to terms with Madson on a four year $44M contract.  Clearly, I valued Madson incorrectly.  Never underestimate the Amaro Principle.  Anytime Amaro can overpay for a veteran talent (see Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez), he’ll do it.

13. Heath Bell, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.0, 2.4, 0.5

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$30M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$34.5M

Projected Value – $24M

Bell is another tough case.  How we project his contract potential, depends on how much stock you take in his 2011 performance being a fluke.  When dealing with a 34 year old relief pitcher, teams should exercise caution when evaluating him.  Even still, his primary statistics (saves, ERA) are impressive enough that a few teams will ignore the potential warning signs.  He’ll get paid regardless.

UPDATE:  I originally had Bell down for 3/$30M.  After Madson agreed to a contract with an $11M average annual salary, I’m expecting his demands to go up slightly.

14. Michael Cuddyer, 1B/RF/DH

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.8, 0.8, 3.1

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$30M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$35M

Projected Value – $24M

Maybe it’s my bitterness, or my lack of faith in man kind, but I’m going to project the over on Cuddyer’s contract.  If there’s one player this winter certain to experience the “Lyle Overpay” (h/t to David Schubert of Sabeanmetrics), it’s Cuddyer.  Because of his “versatility” (and I use that term as loosely as possible), he’ll likely be overvalued by a number of teams looking to establish maximum roster flexibility.  While it’s true he’s played 1B, 2B, 3B, and RF in recent years (plus LF and CF in the past), it doesn’t mean he’s proficient at any of those positions.  In a perfect world, he would be barred from ever wearing a glove, and relegated to being a DH.  Unfortunately, his bat isn’t strong enough to give 500-600 PAs at that slot.  About to enter his age-33 season, Cuddyer is a man on the decline that probably  should be receiving a 2/$16M deal max.  Because of his perceived intangible and leadership qualities, he’ll receive offers far exceeding that number.

15. Edwin Jackson, SP

3 Year WAR Trend – 3.6, 3.8, 3.8

Bowden’s Projection – 3/$30M

Chip’s Projection – 3/$36M

Projected Value – $40M

When Jackson was progressing through the Dodger farm system, many considered him to be an ace-in-waiting.  While those lofty projections have never come true, he’s developed into a solid middle of the rotation pitcher with excellent stuff.  At only 28 years old, he’s in the middle of his prime, so it’s possible a GM or two might be willing to overbid hoping Jackson reaches his maximum potential.  His mid-90s fastball and devestating slider make it possible, but his spotty control makes the idea seem far fetched.  He’s been pretty consistent over the past three years especially, so that warrants him a three year deal at minimum.  Given his potential and the weak starting pitching market, a four or five yeal is certainly possible; albeit ill-advised.

16. Roy Oswalt, SP

3 Year WAR Trend – 3.0, 4.7, 2.5

Bowden’s Projection – 1/$10M

Chip’s Projection – 2/$24M

Projected Value – $24M

Had there not been questions about his health, Oswalt would have ranked higher than Buehrle on this list.  He’s a solid 3.5-4-win pitcher that has a ton of high pressure experience, and can soak up innings in the middle of the rotation.  The Phillies will be in play to bring him back to Philadelphia, but the Yankees, Red Sox, and (maybe) Cubs will certainly take a look at signing the veteran righty.  He’s certainly a risk, but provided the medicals come back acceptable; he’s worth it.

17. Carlos Pena, 1B

3 Year WAR Trend – 3.0, 1.1 , 2.6

Bowden’s Projection – 2/$17M

Chip’s Projection – 1/$9M

Projected Value – $7.5M

While his 2011 numbers were an improvement over 2010’s, he’s entering the free agent market as the third best first baseman.  In most years that might not be a big deal, but this year he’s up against Pujols and Fielder.  As such, there’s a chance he’ll get lost in the shuffle.  That said, he could become a hot commodity for teams that lose out on the two biggest prizes.  While that could net him a two year deal, his “underwhelming” (by some standards, not mine) production will likely net him a one year pact.

18. Francisco Rodriguez, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 0.3, 1.4, 1.4

Bowden’s Projection – 2/$17M

Chip’s Projection – 1/$8M

Projected Value – $5M

After spending two-and-a-half disappointing seasons in New York, and being forced to play second fiddle to John Axelrod upon being traded to the Brewers; K-Rod will be looking for an ideal closer role that will allow him to rebuild his value.  He’ll probably start out the winter looking for a two-year contract.  Given his recent stretch of public issues, that seems pretty unlikely.  As a result, I think a one year deal would be most advantageous for the righty.  If he can continue the dominant success he had in Milwaukee in 2012, he could parlay it into a larger deal the following winter.

19. Francisco Cordero, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 0.3, 1.4, 1.4

Bowden’s Projection – 1/$8.5M

Chip’s Projection – 1/$7M

Projected Value – $2.7M

Cordero’s not as good as his ERA and save totals suggest.  Just four seasons after racking up a 33% strikeout rate with Milwaukee, his rate plummetted to 15.3% this season.  At 36 years old, teams pursuing him should exercise considerable caution.  He still has a serviceable arm, but he shouldn’t be considered your bullpen’s best arm.  Even though, I’m projecting his value at $1.3M for 2012, I still see him getting a pretty sizeable one year deal.  Despite everything we’ve learned about the game, too many GMs still overvalue saves.

20. Joe Nathan, RP

3 Year WAR Trend – 2.1, 1.9, 0.0

Bowden’s Projection – 1/$7.5M

Chip’s Projection – 1/$6M

Projected Value – $5.5M

His 4.84 ERA won’t look pleasing to the average baseball fan, but his 3.96 xFIP indicates he was extremely unlucky with fly balls leaving the yard.  His strikeout rate is lower than it had been pre-surgery, but it’s still acceptable given it’s relation to his walk rate.  At 37, I’m not sure Nathan will ever return to being the championship caliber closer he once was, but he’s a classic low risk/high reward guys that could be called upon to pitch high leverage innings out of the bullpen.  There is reason for optimism.  He posted a 22/5 K/BB ratio in 23 innings during the second half of the season; meaning he could be a comeback candidate next season.