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The best MLB free agents from 2012-2013 are a sobering reminder for everyone

Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton were the stars five years ago, and it got worse from there.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is officially here. Well, unofficially, there is still some dickering to do with qualifying offers, so don’t expect players to start joining new teams just yet. But it’s coming. The Rosenthal bombs. The sources say. The people with knowledge of the organization’s thinking. The unnamed team exec’s thoughts. As always, the offseason is going to be a big ol’ Twinkie: pleasurable and harmful at the same time.

Before we get there, though, I would like to offer some words of caution. I would like to leaf through the history books to find them, and I would like to invite you along with me. We’ll travel back ...



... back to the year 2012, when you were merely annoyed with the Giants and Mike Trout was still a rookie curiosity. This was just five years ago, and it can teach us so much about the monster that is Major League Baseball free agency.

It starts with a list. This is from MLB Trade Rumors, and it’s a list that’s titled “2013 Top 50 Free Agents With Predictions.” It went like this:

  1. Zack Greinke
  2. Josh Hamilton
  3. Michael Bourn
  4. Anibal Sanchez
  5. B.J. Upton
  6. Nick Swisher
  7. Edwin Jackson
  8. Dan Haren
  9. Hiroki Kuroda
  10. Kyle Lohse
  11. Angel Pagan
  12. Shane Victorino
  13. David Ortiz
  14. Mike Napoli
  15. Adam LaRoche
  16. Ryan Dempster
  17. Rafael Soriano
  18. Melky Cabrera
  19. Shaun Marcum
  20. Torii Hunter
  21. Russell Martin
  22. Cody Ross
  23. Marco Scutaro
  24. Stephen Drew
  25. Joe Saunders
  26. Ryan Ludwick
  27. Kevin Youkilis
  28. Francisco Liriano
  29. Carlos Villanueva
  30. A.J. Pierzynski
  31. Joe Blanton
  32. Brandon McCarthy
  33. Jason Grilli
  34. Kyuji Fujikawa
  35. Koji Uehara
  36. Ryan Madson
  37. Joakim Soria
  38. Joel Peralta
  39. Mariano Rivera
  40. Ichiro Suzuki
  41. Jeff Keppinger
  42. Mike Adams
  43. Andy Pettitte
  44. Jose Valverde
  45. Jonathan Broxton
  46. Scott Baker
  47. Sean Burnett
  48. Jeremy Guthrie
  49. Eric Chavez
  50. Jeremy Affeldt

Please note that this isn’t to pick on MLB Trade Rumors: Every outlet that made a list had an order that was roughly the same. It wasn’t like they slapped Yuniesky Betancourt at the top and wrote, “Trust us!” This is as close to a consensus list as we can find.

Again, this is five years ago. Let’s do a quick tally:

  • 32 players who are either retired or playing internationally
  • 10 players who might play a role on a bench or in the back of a bullpen next year
  • Three players who might play a significant role with their current/future team, but probably won’t
  • Four players who are expected play a significant role with their current/future teams
  • Zack Greinke

That is, just 10 percent of the free agents from five years ago are still playing at roughly the same level right now. This is a small sample, and it’s possible this was an especially unlucky class. We’ll do this experiment next year.

Somehow I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. The 2011-12 class doesn’t look a whole lot better through the prism of last year, either. It’s not like all (or even most) of these players were signed to a five-year deal, so there aren’t a ton of Big Conclusions to draw.

There are a couple, though.

Baseball sure likes to devour baseball players whole and decorate its front yard with their careers

Without any specific details, what I’m thinking about right now are the players who went through hundreds of hours of rehab, the dozens of surgeries that left them waking up in a hospital, groggy, thinking, “Here we go. This is going to take. This is a fresh start,” only to end as a footnote on some nerd’s SB Nation article.

This was five years ago. Which leads us to the next takeaway.

This makes the stories of indestructible players like Bartolo Colon and Fernando Rodney that much more remarkable

Because, boy, they sure keep chugging. And I guess it’s possible that Shaun Marcum will show up in 2019 with a bionic arm and help the Yankees to a title. There have been stranger developments.

The only problem is that it’s impossible to predict which players are going to do this. If the Giants had given Jason Grilli a 20-year, $25 million contract right after he was drafted, they would have gotten something close to their money’s worth, and Grilli would have been a little richer. can see why the 20-year contracts aren’t exactly in fashion these days. Or why they never were.

Your team should probably have a five-year plan that extends beyond free agency

Well, yeah. But look at this list for a reminder! All of these free agents were bought on a credit card with 21-percent APR. They were bad ideas at the time, but some of them were necessary. Think of them as roof repairs. And think of a farm system as a bank account. You need a danged roof, and if the farm is dry, you need to pull out the plastic and grimace.

In this analogy, Rob Manfred is late-stage capitalism, but I’m still working this all out. He might be a wireless thermostat.

The players you’re arguing about right now, the ones who will dominate the hot stove league, are going to burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere in just a couple of seasons. That doesn’t mean that every free agent is a silly idea. Of course teams should fill their roster holes this way if they can. But it’s a race against an imaginary clock, and we should all pay a little more attention to the ticking sound.

Players asking for more money is a good thing

Because look at the attrition here. Heck, yes, squeeze the billionaires dry while you have the chance. In five years, they’ll need that money to golf. And most importantly, don’t forget that your “hometown team” will completely forget about you after the talent goes away. Ask for more!

Great, now I want a Marvin Miller shirt in that Che Guevara style. DOWN WITH OWNERS. UP WITH PLAYERS.

Every free agency is built with mostly fringe players, even if you don’t know it yet

This is the main one. Here’s the current top-50 list. You know all of the names on there. You would like several of them on your favorite team. Some of them will help their new teams, maybe even to a World Series.

Most of them are just floating through this strange game, though, and it won’t take very long for us to forget about just how much value — real or perceived — they had when we constructed our imaginary rosters and imagined just how the next championship would be wrong.

Mostly, though, this is an article with just one takeaway: Holy crap, that list. Baseball comes at you fast. Just look at the best free agents from five years ago.