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A Rick Hahn Assessment, Part Two: Free Agency

Unlike his modestly-positive work with trades, the free market is what has destroyed the White Sox over the past decade

Brett Ballantini started at South Side Sox in 2018 after 20 years of writing on basketball, baseball and hockey, including time on the Blackhawks and White Sox beats. Follow him on Twitter @BrettBallantini and email your site feedback to brettballantini@yahoo.com

It’s been almost a year since the genesis of this project.

Back in June, Malachi Hayes analyzed just how bad a job Rick Hahn has done on the trade market. It was a brutal assessment, tunneling down to point out, among many things, how ineffective the front office has been in unearthing gems — not only has there been little in the way of José Quintana discoveries in his decade at the helm, but in anything of worth beyond a stray Jake Lamb here or there.

Malachi’s piece motivated me in December to make a complete investigation of every trade Hahn has made. This free agent signing/extension was intended to run back-to-back — or, certainly not months later. Well, better late than not at all.

The broad take on Hahn’s trade work places Hahn, a decade into his tenure, at the time with 98 trades and player sales/buys, adding to the White Sox ... 4.6 WAR.

Now, that might not sound like much, and to be fair, it isn’t. But compared to the atrocious job Hahn has done with free agents, you could be forgiven if you want to turn back the clock 70 years, to the reserve clause and a time when free agency didn’t exist.

Before the ugly details, let’s establish a few things:

  • Winning baseball is built on the backs of young, underpaid talent, as it always has been. Whether you buy a dozen free agents a year, or you run a team that never plays at the top of the market (cough), it is your young, pre-arb and pre-free agency players, who drive value for your roster
  • Almost by definition, then, NO baseball GM has a record with free agency that’s in the black. By nature, the free agent market pays at an inflated rate, and to merely hope to break even on a seven- or eight-figure deal is an enormous win for a GM
  • FanGraphs, in fact, goes so far as to value its WAR not with a true baseball value (which would be driven down by all those pre-free agency players generating WAR) but by free agent dollars. A quick glance looks like rather than the true figure of $4.4 million paid per WAR in 2022, FanGraphs tabbed the its value of 1.0 WAR as $7.7 million
  • I am using the true value of WAR for each year of Hahn’s tenure, which increases from $3.1 million per WAR in 2013 to $4.4 million last year
  • This study just takes us through 2022, of course. There several deals in play in 2023 that are very likely to drive down Hahn’s record, not bring it up (i.e. there are no Johnny Cuetos coming to rescue the GM this year)
  • Extensions for pre-arb players count toward the trade WAR count (Eloy Jiménez, Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert Jr.), and any free agency years bought out at the end of the extension count toward Hahn’s free agency record

So we should not ding Rick Hahn for having a free agency surplus value in the red during his decade at the helm, because it’s likely every other GM in the game has same.

We SHOULD ding Rick Hahn for putting the White Sox tens of millions in the hole during his decade at the the helm.


So, right off, the dirty details for Hahn:

Signings 50
Positive surplus value (SV) players 8
Salary paid to free agents $568,235,053
WAR value of those free agents $213,698,292
SV of free agents -$354,536,761

Unlike Hahn’s trade history — most notably the “rebuild deals” and anything having to to with Adam Eaton — there is no “hot stretch” for the GM in free agency.

A full class-by-class assessment can’t run all the way up to 2022, because in some cases, players (say, Yasmani Grandal) still have time left on their deals to improve or hurt the overall class’ SV. But we can look at the early years:

2012-13 -$22,931,623.90
2013-14 -$25,583,278.08
2014-15 -$72,638,574.98
2015-16 -$7,845,245.06
2016-17 -$65,450,674.28 (includes $52 million spent to sign Robert)
2017-18 -$22,863,770.22
2018-19 -$12,416,204.85

And then make an in-progress assessment from there:
2019-20 -$98,851,656.30
2020-21 $1,968,452.90
2021-22 -$27,924,186.14

Yes, every year is a negative SV. Except, wait! The 2020-21 class is $2 million in the black? Unfortunately, even that class will end up negative, as Liam Hendriks will have to generate about 5 WAR for the rest of his White Sox career for 2020-21 to break even.

In fact, there isn’t a single “great” deal Hahn has made, truly. Of his 50 signings since taking over as White Sox GM, just eight have given the White Sox surplus value. That’s a 16% clip, and as much as GMs hope to “break even” with free agents, 16% in the black is utterly abysmal. It also speaks to Malachi’s criticism almost a year ago, which essentially dinged the front office for NEVER finding a hidden gem in trade (a reverse Tatís, if you will). The same goes for free agents.

Quintana is a great example of this sort of pickup win, and that move greatly helps the Ken Williams GM tenure (and to be fair, Hahn specifically had a LOT to do with that signing. But sorry, you weren’t the top dog then, Rick). Hahn alone has essentially zero such players.

Top 10 Best Rick Hahn Deals

  1. Carlo — oh, heh, hold on, there aren’t 10

Top 8 Best Rick Hahn Deals

  • Rodón is a bit of a tip-in, but he was refused arbitration and then re-signed at half of the estimated price for 2021. Sort of a cheapie, but Hahn bargained at the right time. (For argument’s sake, Rodón would have been about a $6 million SV in 2022 had Hahn offered him the no-brainer QO
  • Miguel González is on the board here for his fabulous 2.1 WAR produced on a $550,000 salary in 2016. But, unfortunately, bringing him back in 2018 at $4.75 million to produce -0.7 WAR more than offsets this particular SV win on Hahn’s docket
  • Although I said Hahn never had a “hot streak” with free agency, there was a stretch from Jan. 22 to Nov. 25, 2015, where three of his four (Soto, Beckham, Avila) free agents yielded SV. However, we still can’t call 2015 a winning year for Rick, as Emilio Bonifacio alone crushed the modest SV yielded by the other three
  • On the other hand, it took 14 free agent contracts before Hahn got in the black with a player (Soto). That is a rough career start

Top 10 Worst Rick Hahn Deals

  • I mean, where do you even start here? Over the course of a decade, Hahn is paying $9.5 million per WAR rather than the $3.5 million value WAR has held on average, which is a 271% markup
  • Hahn is getting back about 38% in WAR for every dollar he spends. Full disclosure, and without researching other teams, a fair minimum target would be getting a dollar in value back for every two spent, so, a 50% ratio
  • Given we are not evaluating 2023 (or 2024) yet, Leury García has been cheated onto this list. But, the money will be spent, and the production will be nil (hey, at least not negative WAR!) so we can present García as No. 3 on this list, as a finished project
  • On that note, Yasmani Grandal is unlikely to pass Keuchel as the worst return of Hahn’s career. However, he’s pretty dead-stuck in the No. 2 spot (just to avoid a negative SV year from Yaz, he’ll need 3.5 WAR or so this summer)
  • It is similarly impossible for Lance Lynn, with a hefty salary, to turn into a positive value for Hahn. But a really good (All-Star) year could at least get him off of the Top 10 worst values list above
  • As alluded above, Luis Robert Jr. and his $52 million to sign from Cuba technically belongs on this list, but really it is easier to have it, in a line-item sense, roll into Robert’s career on the South Side. What the big international bonus did was put a down payment on the first 10.0 WAR of La Pantera’s career (as of this moment, Robert is at 8.5 WAR, so he hasn’t paid the bonus off quite yet; then, we get to work on earning his long-term contract)
  • Among 2023 players, [redacted] will need to top 2.0 WAR to be a positive SV for Hahn; Elvis Andrus simply has to be a positive-WAR player to justify his very modest contract

Not sure if there are any big conclusions or points left to make. Just like pissing away a high first round draft pick and the value that projects out of that prospect, never hitting on a buy-low (for a one-and-done, Johnny Cueto, or a prospect, José Quintana) player just destroys a GM’s chance at “balancing the books” on his free market expenditures.

I do plan on working backwards with this GM trades/free agent series, tackling Ken Williams next. That alone will give us a good comp to use against Hahn.


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