Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The current CBA was reached following the 2012 season. It included a new rule called a ‘qualifying offer’ that replaced baseball’s old method for compensating a team for losing a player to free agency. Under this rule, teams have the option to offer impending free agents a contract equal to the average of the top 125 contracts in baseball. If the player declines the offer and signs with another club, then the team losing the player gains a supplemental first round pick while the signing team loses their first available pick (the first 10 picks are protected).
Very few people would deny that baseball’s qualifying offer has led to some strange circumstances. It’s been in effect less than two years and already we have had eight players noticeably affected. The complete list includes Kyle Lohse, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, Kendrys Morales, and Cruz. Individually, we can make cases as to why each player may have been left with fewer options than originally anticipated, but the group as a whole points overwhelming to the existence of a qualifying offer effect.
The above list is interesting because, with the possible exception of Swisher and Drew, it’s a Who’s Who list of players that we (internet analysts as a whole) expected to be overpaid relative to their talents. Mr. Cameron spent a deal of time this offseason predicting that Cruz would sign a terrible contract. We all have concerns about Jimenez and Santana after each player posted one strong season in their walk year. Last year, Bourn was supposed to earn more than B.J. Upton right up until he didn’t, and everybody was grumbling about Lohse’s underwhelming stuff.
Not all players suffer from the qualifying offer effect. There appear to be two groups who do just fine. The less interesting group is those players who quickly re-sign with their original club. Mike Napoli, David Ortiz, Adam LaRoche, and Hiroki Kuroda all fall into this bucket. The other group is comprised of free agent powerhouses – Robinson Cano, Josh Hamilton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann. To a lesser extent, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson and Upton can also be included.
The players who struggle the most are those with some kind of wart. In a truly free market, players like Cruz probably would find a fairly pricey contract. There are plenty of teams that could use an offense first outfielder. My hypothesis is that when the qualifying offer penalty is attached to a player, teams become more focused on the negative than the positive. Whereas the narrative could have been, “this player will add 25 home runs and 80 RBI to the middle of my lineup,” teams might pay more attention to the PED suspension, past injuries and lousy defense when signing Cruz comes with a penalty.
The endowment effect and loss aversion probably comes into play, and they are a big reason why I hypothesize that teams focus on the negatives with players who received qualifying offers. The endowment effect is a behavioral phenomenon where people overvalue things they already own. Loss aversion is what it sounds like, people go out of their way to avoid losing things, sometimes to their detriment. Teams might be too timid about giving up a draft pick in some cases because it’s the proverbial bird in hand.
So, proposals. How can we go about fixing this? Honestly, there are a thousand and one ways that this system can be adjusted or replaced. Each has its pros and cons. It really comes down to the preferences of the owners and players as well as the trade offs that each party is willing to make. I’ll offer one idea as food for thought.
I like the theory behind the qualifying offer system. It’s a lot cleaner than the old arbitration system with its Type A, B and C players determined by an arbitrary Elias Sports Bureau formula. Given the penalty involved with the qualifying offers, my only issue is that too many players are getting caught in the net. The top tier can still sign mega-contracts, but there appears to be a definite point where talent level does not exceed most club’s desire to keep their draft picks.
My proposal is to increase the cost of the penalized qualifying offer and introduce a second tier option that carries no penalty. Let’s call them Type A and Type B as a nod to the past (also because I tried calling them Type I/Type II and it sounded too much like diabetes). Rather than an average of the top 125 contracts, the Type A players will be offered the average of the top 75 contracts. Looking back at the 22 players who received offers, perhaps four to six of them would have received a Type A offer. Incidentally, these are the players who signed large contracts without anybody hemming or hawing over the loss of a draft pick. Signing teams would still lose their top pick and draft pool allocation when inking one of these top players. The team who loses the player will still receive a supplemental first round pick.
Type B would fall in at a lower compensation level – perhaps an average of contracts 51-175. I’ll leave it up to others to get the math right. The idea is to offer some compensation for the loss of decent players like Cruz without affecting their market price. As such, a Type B free agent might net the original club a supplemental third round pick, but signing the player won’t penalize his new team.
Whether you like that idea or not, we can expect some kind of change to be instituted with the next CBA. The players affected by this rule are long-standing, dues paying members of the union. As such, their complaints carry a lot of weight. If Tony Clark is speaking up now about the topic, his goal is probably to prepare the owners to budge. Negotiating a CBA is about give and take, the players will have to give something in order to secure a free agent compensation system that punishes players less severely.
Ubaldo Jimenez Sends Orioles Hurtling Toward Nelson Cruz.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
All along, it was assumed Cruz would end up with something statistically unreasonable. What he got instead is something that’s more or less fine for that kind of player, and this is one of the dangers of reaching conclusions about the market before the market reaches a conclusion about a player. As Dave has illustrated, or will illustrate, it’s interesting that this is what Cruz was reduced to. Something else that’s interesting is how the Orioles’ earlier acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez in part allowed the Cruz signing to take place.
As you know, the Orioles signed Jimenez, and as you know, Jimenez had been extended a qualifying offer, so by getting him under contract, the Orioles gave up their first-round pick. It was to be 17th overall. As you know, the Orioles couldn’t give up that pick twice, so by signing Cruz, they’re giving up their next pick, which was to be 55th overall. This, incidentally, is one of the arguments against the current system — it incentivizes a team to sign multiple compensation free agents, since the draft cost decreases each time. Once the Orioles dealt with one of these guys, it was easier for them to deal with another.
After Jimenez signed, there were reports that the Orioles were “intensifying” their pursuit of guys like Cruz, Kendrys Morales, and Ervin Santana. Whether or not that was actually true, it made all the sense in the world. In a way, signing Jimenez freed up money.
Here’s one way you can think about that. The Orioles got Cruz for $8 million and a year. Last year, the 17th overall pick had a slot value of about $2.16 million. The 55th overall pick had a slot value of about $1.00 million. So the former was worth more than twice as much as the latter, and these slot values don’t reflect the actual values of the picks — those might be three or four times higher. Perhaps even more; it’s difficult to nail down, and it probably varies from team to team. When it’s negotiating with a compensation free agent, every team has to keep in mind the value of the pick it’d be losing, and this in theory ought to be reflected by the salary numbers.
What the Orioles are giving up in exchange for Cruz is $8 million and the 55th. Now, let’s say Jimenez hadn’t signed. What’s the difference in value between the 55th and the 17th? $3 million? $6 million? Something even more than that? You’d subtract that value from the salary offer, and you’d presumably be left with something Cruz would be humiliated to accept. By getting Jimenez first, the Orioles could offer more to Cruz in terms of immediate salary, and they clearly reached or exceeded the point at which Cruz was willing to shake hands. At least in this way, Cruz got himself more money by waiting until later February.
Maybe the Orioles didn’t actually do all the specific math, but this is at least a general overview of the consequences of the Jimenez move. It’s similar to how, even if a team isn’t using actual WAR, it’s making decisions based on its own understanding of WAR. The Orioles could give Cruz more because suddenly they valued the draft cost to sign him less. And even still, Cruz got a smaller offseason contract than Brian Wilson.
Though Cruz’s deal is of a surprising size, the identity of his new team isn’t surprising at all. The Orioles were kind of Cruz’s only good-looking fit. More recently, Seattle looked like a favorite, but there’ve been whispers of two things — one, it’s been suggested Cruz didn’t want to play in Seattle, and two, it’s been suggested the Mariners didn’t actually have much interest, and that was just stuff coming from the outside. Seattle would’ve had to shuffle some pieces around. The Orioles had a hole, and though Morales was another potential free-agent fit, he seems to be in greater demand than Cruz was. Cruz, clearly, was available for this kind of contract. It’s been noted on Twitter that Cruz turned down some multi-year offers, but all we can really go on is what got Cruz locked up in the end.
Among the concerns for potential Cruz suitors: his PED suspension, his waning ability to move around, and his performance record in a hitter-friendly park. The Orioles shouldn’t have to worry too much about two of those. It looks like Cruz is going to serve as the regular DH, as he’s an inferior defender to David Lough. And Baltimore isn’t much less hitter-friendly than Texas, so Cruz isn’t going from one extreme to another. As for the PEDs, Cruz served his time, and there’s no reason to believe his offense is a total product of drug abuse. He might be hoping he has a more lucrative market in a year if he can get some distance between himself and his suspension.
I have to say that, as small a deal as this is, it still doesn’t look like a bargain. It’s only a bargain relative to what Cruz was expected to sign. Presumably, he’s an upgrade over Henry Urrutia, but he might be a one- to one-and-a-half-win DH. He’s 33, and he cost $8 million and a draft pick. He cost more than Chris Young, who’s an actual outfielder. He cost more than Michael Morse, who was an interesting DH candidate. Cruz isn’t a major impact player — he’s a one-dimensional slugger with failing legs. He boosts the Orioles’ odds of making the playoffs by a small number of percentage points.
But one should almost never fret too much over a one-year deal, particularly when it’s a one-year deal that addresses a need for a could-be contender. There’s long-term cost here in the form of a pick, but it isn’t too substantial. There’s no long-term commitment. There’s no blocking of an organizational asset with promise. Cruz improves the Orioles right away at the cost of money they had available, and they could offer him a little more days after bringing Ubaldo Jimenez into the fold. Nelson Cruz has signed his free-agent contract, and there’s no one to criticize. That has to be the most surprising aspect out of everything.
How Much to Make of Juan Lagares’ Defense.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
What Lagares has on his side are some incredible defensive numbers. We all know to be cautious with those, when we’re talking about individual seasons. The words of this rival team official read like FanGraphs in the newspaper. There’s no question that Lagares is highly talented in the outfield, and that no amount of regression can make him look anything but skilled. But with Lagares in particular, the situation’s a little different, and the numbers have to be treated a little differently.
To quote that official:
As one rival team official noted, defensive metrics generally are plagued with “less year-to-year reliability,” making them far less precise than their offensive counterparts.
“You can’t just take his 2013 WAR and say that’ll work,” said the official, who has a background in analytics. “You have to regress defensive projections a bit and combine those with your offensive projections, plus whatever else you know about the players.”
Absolutely, right on. Lagares’ WAR last year was 2.9, in a partial season. That doesn’t mean you just project him as a borderline star in a full season. That’s fairly obvious stuff, but Lagares was supported by crazy defensive statistics and those have to be dealt with. What’s really interesting about Lagares is how those statistics break down.
For outfielders, UZR considers errors, range, and arm. With Lagares, you can just ignore the errors column, because the number is negligible. His range number was terrific, probably because his range was terrific, and this is what people usually think about first when they think about defensive statistics. They think of them as measures of range. But Lagares’ UZR got an enormous boost from his arm. His arm rating was more strongly positive than his range rating.
We have arm ratings going back to 2002. Let’s put everything over a per-150-games denominator. Last season, per 150 games, Lagares’ arm comes out to 20.6 runs above average. Since 2002, there have been 922 player-seasons of at least 750 innings in the outfield. Lagares in 2013 owns the highest Arm/150, by a full four runs over 2007 Alfonso Soriano. Right behind, there’s 2004 Alex Rios. Over 12 years of baseball, at least, no outfielder had a more productive arm than Juan Lagares last summer. He wound up with an astonishing 15 assists.
So, yeah. But then, if you paid any attention to the Mets, you already knew about this. It was no secret that Lagares was doing things with his arm other players generally didn’t do. It was actually a function of Lagares’ aggressive positioning, speed, hands, and arm. Controlling the running game is a skill of Juan Lagares’, but more important than what he’s done, now, is what he’s going to do. How reliable is an arm rating, year to year?
My guess was that range rating would prove more consistent than arm rating. I identified all outfielders who played at least 750 innings in consecutive seasons between 2002-2013. This left me with a sample of 587, and then I calculated all the Range/150 numbers and all the Arm/150 numbers. Year-to-year, Range/150 yielded an r value of 0.50. Here’s what that means: if a player was one standard deviation better than average in Year X, he’d be expected to be 0.50 standard deviations better than average in Year X+1.
Year-to-year, Arm/150 yielded an r value of 0.32. As expected, there’s a weaker relationship, and here’s what that looks like graphically:
You might prefer a table. Here’s another way of showing what regression looks like. For Year X, I split the players into six groups, in descending order of Arm/150. Then I averaged their Arm/150 ratings for Year X+1.
Group Year X Year X+1
Group 1 7.7 2.4
Group 2 2.9 0.6
Group 3 0.8 -0.2
Group 4 -0.9 0.1
Group 5 -2.9 -1.3
Group 6 -6.0 -2.2
The idea was already that we had to regress Juan Lagares’ defensive numbers. But because he built so much value on his arm, we have to regress a little more aggressively, because the arm numbers are a little less consistent than the range numbers. And that seems to make intuitive sense, because there are fewer opportunities to make a difference with your arm, and once people know you’re a threat in the outfield, they’re likely to change their baserunning strategies.
Just for the sake of showing some individual cases, everybody agrees that Jeff Francoeur has an amazing arm. In 2007, his arm was worth 16.6 runs above average. In 2006, it was +3.5, and in 2008, it was +2.5. Ichiro went from negative to positive between 2002-2003, and he went from positive to negative between 2008 and 2009. Alfonso Soriano lost ten runs per 150 after his remarkable 2007. Nyjer Morgan lost 20 after 2009. No single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings. Well, let me revise that — no single player has yet posted consecutive double-digit Arm/150 ratings with the same sign. Between 2002-2003, Bobby Higginson went from one of the best ratings to one of the worst. Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled it off, but Jeff Francoeur has almost pulled a lot of things off.
Getting back to Lagares, last year his Arm/150 was almost 21. It was about 4.4 standard deviations above the average. According to the calculated r value, next year we’d expect Lagares to be about 1.4 standard deviations above the average, which would leave an Arm/150 around 6. Which would represent a reduction of about a win and a half, and truth be told we should probably be regressing more heavily since Lagares was in the outfield for barely 900 innings. As noted before, you can’t make Lagares’ arm not good. But you can make it less extraordinary, and applying regression makes Lagares’ numbers a lot more realistic.
You regress the arm stuff, heavily. You regress the range rating separately, and then you put them together. You still get a very good defensive center fielder, and maybe Lagares is better than his regressed self, but you can begin to understand why the Mets aren’t just going to hand him a regular job. His 2013 WAR is misleading. Lagares really might not be able to hit enough, because as good as he’s been in the field, he’s been that good for two-thirds of one season.
Sure does still seem better than Eric Young, though. And I sure do hope people keep trying to run on him, because as much as I believe in regression to the mean, I’m most fascinated by those who refuse to do it, and we can’t be sure it’ll happen to Juan Lagares until or unless it happens.
Do The Dodgers Have a Problem At Second Base?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Back when the Dodgers signed Cuban Alexander Guerrero for $28 million, I mentioned that some scouts thought his defense was stiff. Thinking that stiff shortstop defense would be fine at second base, maybe I didn’t think that was a big deal. Maybe we all should’ve paid more attention to that facet of the player.
The news has trickled out slowly, but it hasn’t been good. First, Jeff Sullivan identified the position as a problem spot on a contender. Then Mike Petriello pointed out how little safety net the Dodgers had at second base. Then there was a bit of news that the team wasn’t sure about Guerrero’s defense at second. Then someone called the position an open battle, maybe even a platoon situation. Then came the pining for Mark Ellis.
We should have known from the signings alone that something was up at second base: Justin Turner, Chone Figgins, Brendan Harris, Miguel Rojas, and now it looks like Cuban shortstop Erisbel Arruebarruena are all headed to Dodger camp. Most are minor league signings, but that 23-year-old Cuban shortstop may cost the team another $25 million, and maybe he’s not really in the mix for second base anyway. Point is, they’re worried about second base.
The eventual solution may come with Alexander Guerrero in the minor leagues and a platoon in the major leagues. That would disappointing for most parties involved in bringing the Cuban in. As a 26-years-old, he’s close enough to his peak that the expectation probably was that he’d break camp with the major league team. But, considering he’s adjusting to a new league and a new position at the same time, it wouldn’t be enough to render final judgement on the deal.
The Dodgers paid for Guerrero’s upside over the options. Other than Robinson Cano, the pickings were slim — David Adams, Willie Bloomquist, Luis Cruz, Mark Ellis, Rafael Furcal, Omar Infante, Kelly Johnson, Nick Punto, Brian Roberts and Skip Schumaker all feature lower ceilings than the Cuban at least. So it behooves them to groom him the right way in order to better their chances of seeing that upside. Maybe the minor leagues is the right idea.
After all, a platoon between Dee Gordon and Justin Turner — or, really, pick two names from above, with one including possible lefty hitters Dee Gordon or Chone Figgins — might provide the same production as most of the names on that list above. The fans project Infante for a .310 wOBA and his defense was barely above scratch last year. Turner has a lifetime .305 wOBA which might be improved facing just lefties, and his versatility made him a good non-tender to watch. Dee Gordon has been atrocious so far, but a new position and a new role (he’s only been 14% worse than league average against righties) might work for him. Miguel Rojas has been a slick defender in camp, and the team could use some infield defense up the middle. Maybe Arruebarruena will be ready enough to contribute with the glove right away.
But the point goes beyond what the team actually does at second base this year. This team is stacked at other positions and can afford to ‘figure it out’ at second. Last year, they scored 649 runs, the seventh-most in the National League, and this with a second baseman that was 8% worse than league average with the stick. Our projected depth charts have them above-average at every position but second base. Full(er) years from Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig should help them at least match their offensive total from last year, even if second base takes a step down from the league average that the Ellis-led crew managed last year.
Projections are just projections, but it’s worth noting that only two of last year’s playoff teams had seven above-average position players. Only one was in the NL — the Dodgers. That the Dodgers have good players everywhere (with some depth) has allowed them to gather this group at second base with less heartburn.
The Dodgers have a problem at second base. The Dodgers don’t really have a problem.
What If Aroldis Chapman Threw Softer?
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
In a sense, this is a hypothetical. In a sense, this can be investigated. What if we chopped a few miles per hour off Chapman’s average fastball? We can’t know for sure what that pitcher would actually be like, but we can make something of an educated guess, based on Chapman’s history. So let’s try it, just to see. Big thanks to Brooks Baseball for making this fairly easy.
We’re interested in Chapman when he throws in the 94 mph to 96 mph range, or so. But we can’t just isolate those slower fastballs. Things aren’t that simple. What if one of those slower fastballs came in a game in which Chapman was averaging nearly 100 mph? Then it would function almost as a pseudo-changeup, a minor change of pace. No, it’s better to focus on Chapman’s lowest game averages. I’ll try to keep the methodology to a short paragraph.
From Brooks Baseball, I exported Chapman’s single-game fastball velocity averages. In all, his fastball averaged 98.1 mph, with a standard deviation just less than 1.7. Subtracting the standard deviation from the average yielded just under 96.5 mph. I decided to isolate Chapman’s games in which his fastball averaged something below that mark. I was left with a sample of 36 appearances. Over these 36 appearances, Chapman’s fastball averaged 95.6 mph. So, rather than throwing like Aroldis Chapman, he threw like a really talented baseball player. Last season, John Axford‘s fastball averaged about 95.3 mph. Luke Hochevar‘s fastball averaged about 95.4 mph. This is a good fastball — a fast fastball — but a diminished fastball from Chapman’s established norm.
So what do the other numbers say? How did Chapman perform over his 36 slowest relief appearances? This is to be the basis of our educated guess. And, you know, things could be better. Over these appearances, Chapman threw just 59% strikes. He walked 19% of 151 batters. Over all his other appearances, he threw 64% strikes, and he walked 11% of more than 600 batters. The slower Chapman has been, the wilder Chapman has been.
But, my goodness, that isn’t everything. Slower Chapman also struck out 36% of the batters he faced. He allowed a contact rate of 67%. He allowed three home runs, for a rate which isn’t meaningfully different from his ordinary rate. Last year, 125 relievers threw at least 50 innings. Five managed strikeout rates of at least 36%, including Chapman. Slower Chapman has a higher strikeout rate than Trevor Rosenthal.
And there’s a very important consideration. Aroldis Chapman averages 98 mph with his fastball. We’re looking at a sample of games over which he’s averaged less than 96 mph. So this is selecting for games during which Chapman wasn’t quite right. Put another way: What would Chapman be if his 100% was throwing 95 mph to 96 mph? What we’re looking at are games in which he was throwing 95-96, but he wasn’t 100%. He’s dealt with shoulder fatigue before, and this can lead to performance issues that sometimes manifest as subpar control. That’s a likely explanation for the high observed walk rate. Slower Chapman is also not-normal Chapman, which means the numbers we see might reasonably represent the bare minimum, or so.
So let me summarize real quick. The question: What if Aroldis Chapman lost a few miles per hour? When he’s pitched below his norm, he’s walked a lot of batters, and he’s struck out a ton of batters. The walk rate might be explained by the fact that these are games in which Chapman wasn’t quite OK. And when he wasn’t quite OK, he still posted what would be one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball. So if healthy Chapman averaged about 95.6 mph, he might strike out even more batters. After all, it’s easier to do better when your arm feels better.
Here are examples of Chapman throwing in the mid-90s, for the hell of it:
When he’s thrown softer, Chapman still hasn’t thrown soft. A fastball between 95 mph and 96 mph is still a really good fastball, an above-average fastball even among the pool of relievers. I don’t know how to test what Chapman might be around 92 mph to 93 mph. When he’s thrown softer, Chapman hasn’t been literally unhittable, but he’s been about as close as any other pitcher. So there’s reason to believe that even if Chapman lost a few miles overnight, as long as he were healthy, he’d still function as a strikeout machine.
Mostly, I did this out of my own curiosity. But the other night I was wondering how long Chapman might be able to keep throwing as hard as he does. Velocity tends to diminish, and Chapman’s pressing against the upper extreme. Velocity-wise, Aroldis Chapman can’t be this version of himself forever. Performance-wise, though, it looks like he could still get the job done, even as a more ordinary hard thrower. Eventually, Chapman might be reduced to throwing 95 mph. And should that day come, opposing batters probably still will really hate him.
The Worst Transactions of the 2014 Off-Season.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Cost: Two years, $16 million.
$8 million per year for a guy coming off a +4 WAR season would ordinarily have no shot at ending up on any kind of list of the winter’s worst moves, especially given the short term of the deal and the limited risk that the overall expenditure implies. That said, it isn’t often that a guy goes from -1.0 WAR and a PED suspension at age-35 to +4 WAR at age-36, and so the question is simply how much should we put into one excellent season versus what Byrd had done previously. We had over 4,000 plate appearances showing Byrd to be an average hitter, and now we have 600 where he’s been an excellent hitter. Maybe he found a late career miracle cure and is going to ride his new found success to glory, but more likely, he’s going to go back to being Marlon Byrd, and the Phillies are going to remember why they gave up on him a decade ago.
9. Yankees sign Carlos Beltran.
Cost: Three years, $45 million.
Beltran is still a really good hitter, and in 2014, he’ll probably earn his $15 million paycheck, even if he’s now more of a DH than a regular OF. But Beltran is going to be 37, and it won’t be long until he’s exclusively a DH, and the bat isn’t so good that he can afford to slip much and still be an impact player without adding anything in the field. And his age, slippage has to be expected, and $15 million for a 38 or 39 year old Beltran probably isn’t going to look very good. On a one or two year deal, this could have made sense, but for $45 million over three years, the Yankees could have done better.
8. Colorado acquires Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles.
Cost: Dexter Fowler.
I get that the Rockies have outfield depth, and wanted to give guys like Corey Dickerson and Charlie Blackmon a shot, and Fowler’s getting expensive enough in arbitration where he’s not some kind of massive bargain anymore. However, he’s still a quality player, in the prime of his career, and the Rockies basically gave him to the Astros in order to free up enough room in the budget to sign Justin Morneau, who is older, worse, and not really much cheaper. Moving Michael Cuddyer to first base would have freed up playing time for Dickerson or Blackmon in the same way that trading Fowler did, and the team would have been better off for it. Lyles and Barnes are unlikely to ever make any real contribution in Colorado, and it’s hard to see this series of moves actually paying off for the Rockies.
7. Diamondbacks sign Bronson Arroyo.
Cost: Two years, $23 million.
Bronson Arroyo is unoffensive. He’s not bad, and when he keeps the ball in the ballpark, he can even look deceptively effective. But the reality is that Arroyo turns 37 in a week, gets destroyed by left-handed batters, and his entire success is based on walking the tightrope of weak contact. If he doesn’t hit his spots perfectly, 2011 happens, and he threatens the all time record for home runs allowed in a season. Arroyo is an okay back-end starter, but there’s no good reason to spend $12 million per year on okay back end starters, especially for an organization with a limited payroll and younger kids who project to be nearly as good. Arroyo’s biggest selling point is his durability, but 200 mediocre innings just aren’t that valuable.
6. Diamondbacks acquire Addison Reed.
Cost: Matt Davidson.
I don’t mean to pick on the Diamondbacks, but I actually like this trade even less than I like the Arroyo deal, and I don’t think I hid the fact that I didn’t really like that deal too much. It’s not that Addison Reed is bad, because he’s not. He’s fine, and he’ll be a good enough closer for Arizona. But they already had J.J. Putz and David Hernandez, who also would have been good enough closers, and the D’Backs didn’t need a third good-not-great right-handed reliever enough to justify trading a player with some legitimate value. Even if they didn’t see Davidson as a long term piece to build around given their roster and his defensive skills, he’s still a property of some real value; Marc Hulet ranked him #62 on his Top 100, while Baseball America came in at #72. This isn’t a guy to just give away for a minor bullpen upgrade. To make things worse, Reed has racked up a ton of saves in his time in Chicago, and is going to be quite expensive to retain in his arbitration years, so this probably ends up being Davidson for a few years of Reed’s services before he gets non-tendered. And that’s not a good swap.
5. Mets sign Curtis Granderson.
Cost: Four years, $60 million.
I get that the Mets offense was lousy last year, and Granderson makes it less lousy, but for $60 million, you have to get more than what Granderson projects to give over the next four years. Both ZIPS and Steamer see him as roughly a +2 to +3 WAR player for 2014, and the reality is that left-handed hitting outfielders of similar value were signing for a fraction of what Granderson cost the Mets. He may be marginally better than David Murphy (2/$12m), David DeJesus (2/$11M), or Nate McLouth (2/$11M), but there’s no way the gap is worth $10 million per year, plus an extra two years committed for ages 35 and 36. Granderson is getting paid like an impact player, but he just isn’t one, and the Mets could have gotten 90% of the production for 15% of the cost.
4. Yankees sign Masahiro Tanaka.
Cost: Four years, $108 million, plus player option for another 3/$67M.
I think Masahiro Tanaka is probably going to be very good. This isn’t about being skeptical of his abilities, or his prior workload, or anything relating to Tanaka, really. This is all about the contract, and specifically, the opt-out. While Tanaka’s deal is widely reported as $155 million over seven years, the opt-out means that it’s really a contract for $88 million over four years, not including the $20 million posting fee, with some chance that the Yankees will have to pay Tanaka an additional $67 million if he goes bust. Essentially, the Yankees paid $27 million per year for the next four years if Tanaka is good, and if things don’t break in their favor, they pay a $67 million tax to boot. If they only wanted a four year commitment, they could have signed any two of the domestic free agents for the same amount that they paid to get Tanaka, upgrading their roster in a very similar manner while taking a tiny fraction of the risk. Without the opt-out, at least this would have had a chance of working for NYY. With the opt-out, the deal is all downside.
3. Rangers sign Shin-Soo Choo.
Cost: Seven years, $130 million.
$130 million isn’t superstar money anymore, but it should buy a better overall player than Shin-Soo Choo. The things he does well, he does very well, and they certainly have value, but he’s not a good fielder, he doesn’t hit left-handed pitching, and he doesn’t even have that much power for a guy whose value is almost entirely tied up in his bat. The total package is an above average non-star, and he probably was worth something closer to Curtis Granderson’s contract than the one he actually got. I thought the Giants overpaid for Hunter Pence, but he looks like the steal of the century compared to Choo’s deal with Texas. For the next year or two, Choo will be worth $20+ million per year, but the back end of this contract is going to be a disaster, and there just isn’t that much value at the front end; certainly not enough to make this contract anything but a mistake.
2. Mariners sign Robinson Cano.
Cost: 10 years, $240 million.
There’s a decent chance that, over the life of this contract, Cano actually is a $200 million player, and in terms of total wasted dollars, $4 million per year for a decade isn’t actually a huge mistake. If Cano had signed this same deal with another team, it probably wouldn’t have ranked this highly, but unfortunately for the Mariners, they are one of the organizations with the least to gain from signing the winter’s best free agent. For starters, they still aren’t particularly good even with him on board, so they’re unlikely to take advantage of the first few years of the deal where he’s likely to be worth his salary. Additionally, his signing displaced Nick Franklin, leaving one of the team’s better young players without a future in the organization. The Mariners needed a lot of things this winter, but a second baseman wasn’t one of them, and the upgrade they got from replacing Franklin with Cano — and whatever lesser thing they get for Franklin in trade — simply wasn’t the best use of their $240 million. By the time the Mariners are ready to win, Cano’s contract is likely to be an anchor, and the kind of big splash that looks regrettable not too long after the ink dries.
1. Tigers acquire Robbie Ray, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ian Krol.
Cost: Doug Fister.
There are basically two options here:
1. Everyone is wrong about Robbie Ray. The Tigers actually just acquired one of the best young left-handed pitching prospects in the game, the kind of guy who could step into their rotation in 2015 and provide years of quality innings before he ever makes any kind of real money.
2. Dave Dombrowski screwed up. Because if Robbie Ray isn’t a quality, high-end pitching prospect, the Tigers sold a pitcher as good or better than Masahiro Tanaka, who will make less than $20 million over the next two years, for the kind of return that a team should expect when trading a decent role player.
Pitching prospects are hard to predict, and there are plenty of scenarios where it turns out that #1 is actually true, and this deal works out for the Tigers. If Ray turns into something, swapping two years of Fister for six years of a good young arm won’t look like a bad idea at all, especially given the Tigers current pitching depth. But the consensus among other teams and prospect experts is that Ray is not that kind of prospect, and that this is the most lopsided trade we’ve seen in years. For two bargain years of Doug Fister, the Tigers should have gotten a really strong return, and very few people think this qualifies. Maybe Ray will prove everyone wrong. Or maybe a good GM just whiffed.
Red Sox Pull Capuano from Cautious Market.
Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
What’s more of a surprise are the terms themselves. Capuano signed for one year, despite having looked for two earlier in the offseason. And his guaranteed base salary is just $2.25 million, with incentives that could push the deal up to a maximum of $5 million. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because the Red Sox just won the World Series. Granted, there might’ve been a discount because Capuano grew up in Massachusetts. But if there were substantially bigger offers out there, it stands to reason Capuano would’ve taken one of those, so it’s curious that he was available so cheap.
We’ve talked up Capuano as a bargain for so long it’s possible the wrong impression has been conveyed. No one has ever suggested that Capuano is going to be an excellent pitcher. Rather, it seems like he should be solid, yet a market never really materialized, ending up with him signing for a fraction of Willie Bloomquist‘s guarantee in the middle of February. Capuano’s never been about major upside. He just seemed and seems like a rare free agent who could offer some surplus value.
One of the stranger things: two years ago, Capuano signed for a guaranteed two years and $10 million. He was younger, but he was also less removed from his most recent Tommy John surgery, and in 2011 he’d been a more or less league-average starter. His new maximum is half of that contract, despite some market inflation, and despite Capuano having been reasonably effective for two years in Los Angeles. Though he’s now in his mid-30s, there’s no sign of decline in his repertoire. He’s coming off a very Capuano-like contact rate.
To me, it seems like the market has grown increasingly cautious about pitchers with arm-injury histories. It’s the best explanation I can come up with for why Capuano signed with the Red Sox at the cost of a utility infielder. Again, even a durable Capuano wouldn’t have signed a huge deal, but this could be at least in part a response to his pair of elbow surgeries. He’s also had shoulder surgery, and though none of this has happened since his last free-agent contract, philosophies around the marketplace might’ve changed.
Masahiro Tanaka, of course, got the biggest contract, and he hasn’t been hurt yet. Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas got four years, having been reliable types. Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Garza got almost identical terms, but Garza’s been the more consistent performer, Jimenez had a draft pick attached, and Garza’s deal includes a cheap year of injury protection. Tim Lincecum got a lot of money despite his inconsistency, and he’s had great health. The reliable Scott Feldman got three years. Phil Hughes got three years. Bronson Arroyo and Tim Hudson got bigger guarantees than Scott Kazmir despite being much much older.
Meanwhile, Capuano signed for very little. Ervin Santana is still available, and though we don’t know what he’ll ultimately sign for, there’s talk teams are worried about his elbow. Paul Maholm was given an even lower base than Capuano. Dan Haren had a shoulder problem, and he got one year. Josh Johnson got one year, although that much was expected. Jason Hammel got one cheap year. Going international, Suk-min Yoon signed for a cheap three years in large part because he’s coming off a shoulder issue. Previously, he was one of the best prospects in Korea. Scott Baker was given a minor-league contract. Shaun Marcum was given a minor-league contract. Erik Bedard was given a minor-league contract.
There are, of course, always a million factors. Bruce Chen has been healthier than Capuano, and the last three years, he’s posted a better ERA and a similar FIP. He’ll make just $3.25 million this season. But he’s a year older, and his xFIP has been much worse, and he seems to have the inferior raw stuff. Also, it’s a comparison of two contracts given by two teams. The Chen contract shows the Capuano contract isn’t outrageously cheap, but as Dave pointed out on Twitter, Capuano has a smaller 2014 guarantee than Edinson Volquez. It still seems like a good deal for a fifth/sixth starter who could come in handy in a variety of roles.
A market aversion to injury-proneness is almost impossible to measure, meaning changes in that aversion are also almost impossible to measure. You’d expect that pitchers with injury histories would sign for some percentage less than others, because durability is, in part, a skill. A pitcher who’s been hurt is a pitcher who’s more likely to get hurt. There are essentially two questions: (1) Is the market more cautious now than it used to be? (2) Is the market now too cautious? It seems, from here, like the market might’ve been a bit too afraid of Chris Capuano, and the Red Sox just took advantage of that. I’m open to being wrong, since teams know more about injuries than I do, but they don’t know that much, and they sure do hate to see salary on the DL.