Olney: Free agents focused on home runs will be disappointed this offseason

The Tigers didn't get a big return for J.D. Martinez on the trade market, so it will be interesting to see what he can get in free agency. Joe Mahoney/Getty Images

Chris Carter's path in baseball over the past year should be instructive for players plotting a plan toward a big payday, a reminder that the skill of hitting home runs -- the most coveted asset in Major League Baseball for decades, from the rise of Babe Ruth right into the steroid era -- isn’t necessarily the gold mine it once was.

Carter hit more homers than any other National League player in 2016, 41 bombs for the Milwaukee Brewers, and at season’s end, the Brewers had a choice: Go through the arbitration process with Carter and pay him about $8 million on a one-year obligation or dump him.

The Brewers, unable to find any takers for Carter, simply released him. The best deal he could find to remain in Major League Baseball was a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the New York Yankees. But when Carter -- who is just 30 years old -- batted .201 for the Yankees, they cut him. He has played most recently for Triple-A Nashville in the Oakland Athletics organization.

Many, many other examples have emerged over the past couple of years about how power hitting hasn’t always translated into dollars or perceived value:

Mike Napoli clubbed a career-high 34 homers for the Cleveland Indians last year, and he had to settle for a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers. The Detroit Tigers took outfielder J.D. Martinez into the market in early July, hoping that a robust deal for him would emerge, but they received only marginal return for him from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jay Bruce has been one of baseball’s best home run hitters this season, and he passed through waivers in early August before the New York Mets moved him to Cleveland -- and almost all of the return for the Mets was rooted in the salary they didn’t pay to Bruce, rather than the value of the prospect they received.

All of this makes the recent emphasis within the industry on lifting the ball and hitting for power seem somewhat ill-timed. In an era during which a lot of teams increasingly pay for skills other than slugging, a generation of hitters are altering their swings in an attempt to drive the ball for extra-base hits and generating home runs more than ever before -- and the staggering volume of hitters with gaudy home run production might diminish the already depressed market prices.

As of Wednesday morning, exactly 110 hitters in the big leagues had 19 or more homers for the 2017 season. The single-season industry record for homers will be obliterated sometime in the middle of September, and by season’s end, there could be something in the range of 120 batters with 20 or more homers. About 40 hitters will finish with 30 or more homers. Only 150 hitters will have enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, meaning that the majority of regular players will have 20 or more homers.

Look at it another way: Relievers are typically some of the lowest-paid players in the majors because of the front-office perception that finding comparable production is not difficult. As of Monday morning, there were fewer relievers averaging a strikeout per inning -- exactly 100 among relievers with at least 40 innings -- than the number of players with 19 or more homers.

“Who’s going to pay all these guys this winter?” one evaluator asked rhetorically. “Some guys will be left behind.”

Meaning that some agents are destined to be bearers of bad news for players expecting to get paid big dollars for the gaudy home run totals they just posted.

Free agents figure to be hurt the worst, as Carter, Napoli and others were last winter. Arbitration-eligible players could see salaries bumped upward by augmented home run numbers, because this system continues to be stacked on top of old-school statistics -- wins for pitchers, for example, and RBIs and home runs. Almost all teams rely significantly on advanced metrics these days, but baseball’s antiquated arbitration process still values saves and homers more than WAR.

“But that’s why the Brewers cut [Carter],” one evaluator said. “They weren’t going to pay for the home runs, when they could find someone else for less money.”

A lot of the same players who had to settle for one-year deals last winter might again have difficulty getting big dollars this winter, in spite of their power numbers: Consider Yonder Alonso, who was an All-Star and has 25 homers so far in 2017; and Mark Reynolds, who has put up some of the best numbers of his career at age 34 and might surpass 30 homers and 100 RBIs. Veteran Curtis Granderson, who has 23 homers for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Mets, could struggle in free agency, and the same might be true for Napoli, despite his 29 homers.

J.D. Martinez will be a fascinating test case as a free agent this fall, after generating such lukewarm interest in the trade market. He is respected as a run producer and hammers left-handed pitching, and he has 37 homers in just 103 games and a .368 on-base percentage. But he does not rate well in defensive metrics, and he has 112 strikeouts in 370 at-bats.

This is why some evaluators predict there will be even more pre-arbitration deals this winter -- short-term contracts of one or maybe two years. Some agents might be leery of risking the possibility that their clients won’t get a 2018 contract and will instead be tossed into the ocean of free agents, in the same manner that Carter was.

If players are looking to differentiate themselves from their peers, some evaluators suggested, there are other skills for which they can be well-compensated.

1. Defense.

Teams are increasingly focusing on run prevention through their roster and lineup choices. “The Jason Heyward contract was pretty telling,” one evaluator said, referring to the Chicago Cubs’ outfielder. “He got a monster contract [eight years, $184 million] with two opt-outs, because a lot of teams were after him for the defense.”

The same evaluator noted the three-year deal the Minnesota Twins made with catcher Jason Castro, who is known as a good handler of pitchers and excellent at pitch framing: “You see a guy like Jason Castro with a career OPS under .700, and he’s making $8 million to $9 million annually on a multiyear deal.”

Castro had 62 homers in the first six years of his career -- and he got a contract about seven times greater than Carter’s last winter.

2. Positional flexibility.

Victor Martinez's four-year, $68 million deal for him to serve as a designated hitter for the Tigers might go unmatched among designated hitters for years and years, because teams are paying for defense -- and love it when a player has the ability to move around the diamond. Ben Zobrist is a recent model for this, getting a four-year deal from the Cubs -- and similar offers from the Mets and other teams -- partly because he can play second base, the outfield or even shortstop in a pinch. “If I was an agent advising a player,” said one executive, “I’d tell him to learn to play more than one primary position, because you make yourself more marketable, and to more teams, because one team might need a second baseman and another team might need a third baseman.” Demonstrating the ability to at least play serviceable defense can mean additional job security.

3. Find a way to put the ball in play.

It’s not hard to find sluggers who hit a lot of home runs, while also generating a lot of strikeouts. It’s far more difficult, in the supply-and-demand world, to find high-end contact hitters -- players who won’t always contribute generously to the growing number of strikeouts.

Only five MLB players with at least 300 plate appearances have more walks than strikeouts -- Joey Votto, Mike Trout, Justin Turner, Dustin Pedroia and Buster Posey. Only 14 players have a strikeout rate lower than 12 percent.

“Look at why everybody loves [Jose] Ramirez,” one evaluator said. “Doesn’t strike out. Tough at-bats. Helps you a lot even if he’s not hitting homers.”

Some executives predict that contact hitters will increase in value in the market. Those are tough to find.

Home run hitters tend to strike out a lot, as they go after the ball. There are plenty to go around.

Supply vs. demand.