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The traps of targeting young free agents

It’s always worth a look, but it’s more complicated than it may seem.

New York Mets Vs. Boston Red Sox At Fenway Park Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last week, Bryan wrote about the Red Sox targeting older free agents this winter. It’s a sort of jarring idea on its face considering we’re talking about a team that, yes, is trying to be respectable in 2021 but is also in a min-rebuild and really looking more strongly towards 2022 and beyond. Using just that thought process, it doesn’t really make a ton of sense. Of course, there is a case for it, which is outlined in the linked post. It revolves largely around being more watchable for fans (an underrated part of team-building for rebuilding clubs), mentorship for young players, and perhaps capturing some of that 2013-type magic.

Today, though, I want to look at the other side of the coin. Bryan covered the older names on the market, but what about the young players? Would it make sense for the Red Sox to skew their search to the bottom portion of the age curve on the free agent market?

On its face, this is kind of a ridiculous question, right? As I said, all signs point towards this team being more focused on 2022 and beyond, and so obviously they would want younger players. Generally speaking, younger players will be better longer, so if your focus is the future your focus should then be young. It’s pretty simple logic.

Except, well, it’s more complicated than that. While that logic makes perfect sense on its face, baseball’s economic system does not really make it as easy as it sounds. For a variety of reasons, ranging from service time manipulation to how long it takes to make it through the minors to extensions for star players during their arbitration years, free agency is not a young man’s game.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Really, there are three types of free agents that we see on the market before they hit the age of 30. The first group are the elite names. Think Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in recent years. The other group is the ones with very real flaws. These are the players who are generally non-tendered and thus hit free agency before their six years of service are up. The third group is the rarest, but there are sometimes quality players coming over from foreign leagues that have yet to turn 30. This year, for example, Ha-Seong Kim is one of the better infielders available and he just turned 25. And there is reason for hesitation with players like Kim as well simply because we have never seen them against this competition.

Looking specifically at this year’s class, FanGraphs has their directory of major-league free agents that includes a group of 324 players. Of those 324 players, only 48 are under 30 years of age, just under 15 percent of the entire group. So, right away one issue with targeting young free agents is just a simple lack of supply. That comes into play even more considering nine of the 48 have already signed. If we want to think about this group of 48 (and now 39 available) in terms of the categories we just discussed, there are none of the elite types. According to projected fWAR, which is not necessarily the best measure but it’s a good short-hand, the best under-30 free agent is Joc Pederson. Pederson is one of those tweeners, but he certainly is not elite. So basically, for every potential option here, there’s a reason they are currently a free agent.

The point I’m trying to make is not that the Red Sox should avoid younger free agents altogether. That would be silly. But rather it is to say signing young free agents for youth’s sake is far from a guarantee to work out. We’ll call it the Peraza Principle. Last year, the logic for signing José Peraza to play second base was that he was under team control for beyond the one year they signed him. If he played well, they had a long-term answer. Except, well, his former team had that option as well and non-tendered him. It sounds simple, but it can be easy to forget that the most important part of being a desirable long-term player is, you know, being good.

There are some young free agents that could be tempting because of their age but they just don’t make sense because either they aren’t a good fit with the team or we have little reason to believe they are desirable long-term players. Nomar Mazara, for example, doesn’t turn 26 until next April. He’s also a former top prospect. Perfect! This seems like the most likely Peraza Principle trap. Mazara has been in the league five years and has never even been average at the plate. Last season he had a 68 wRC+. Maybe there’s a chance he finally breaks out in 2021, but nothing we’ve seen from him at the major-league level suggests that’s a good bet.

In a different vein Kyle Schwarber is intriguing, but that is signing youth for the sake of youth. If you sign Schwarber, you are left in a spot where you basically have to either trade J.D. Martinez or Andrew Benintendi, tough ideas for a variety of reasons, or you have an outfield defense with Benintendi in center and Schwarber in left. That just doesn’t work with this roster, and puts everyone involved, including the pitching staff, in a bad position.

On the other side of the argument, there are some younger free agents who absolutely make sense to take a chance on. There are a number of pitchers who fit here, including but not limited to Taijuan Walker, Archie Bradley and Keynan Middleton. The aforementioned Kim would be a great target at second base, although there will be lots of competition there. Also at second, there are players like Daniel Robertson and Hanser Alberto. Jurickson Profar could fill multiple holes.

I guess the main point here is not a very profound one, but rather that all of these free agents have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. On its face, it makes a ton of sense for a team like the Red Sox to look at younger free agents. And they should! But they should look at all age ranges, and more specific to this post they should not sign young free agents just for the sake of going young. Often, there is a reason these younger players are free agents in the first place. If you don’t evaluate them beyond the possibility for the future, you end up with another Peraza, which is to say you’re exactly where you started.