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December 14, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Werth and Crawford

by Christina Kahrl

Pending Cliff Lee's decision to stop being the Hamlet of Arkansas, the biggest big-ticket signings were consummated last week, with the Nationals signing Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal, while Carl Crawford inked a seven-year, $146 million contract to likely spend a fair-sized chunk of his adult life playing for Boston. The deals were huge, products of pre-economic slump pricing and a healthy dose of limited supply inspiring those huge bids. If the market has overstocked with first basemen or DHs or catchers, it was short on outfielders who could play the outfield and hit for power.

For the Red Sox, this was a case of throwing good money after bad assumptions and worse fortune--with Mike Cameron's value (undermined though it was by injury), or Jacoby Ellsbury's, or Jeremy Hermida's. Quality prospects like Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish cannot both be counted on, and the Sox aren't really built for a retrenching season, not after picking up David Ortiz's option and absorbing so many other expenses based upon the proposition that they're ready to take one of two playoff slots for the forseeable future.

For the Nats, signing Werth is based less on winning now or winning soon. It was instead a straight prestige move, not unlike the Tigers' choice to offer Magglio Ordonez a five-year (base) contract back in the winter of 2004. A year removed from the Kitties' embarrassing 119-loss 2003 and their consecutive century-loss seasons, the Tigers made a noisy move for a strong-armed right-handed bat with a history of injury and only a recently-minted thirty-something. Sound familiar? Until 2010's 90-loss campaign, the Nats were the game's most recent laughingstock themselves, with their own pair of 100-loss campaigns. Where the Tigers committed themselves to at least $75 million and five years (and wound up taking on six years for $90 million), the Nats are spending more, while hoping that they don't receive less.

When it comes to talking about salaries this large for talents of this sort, I'm not alone in thinking that Alfonso Soriano's name should come up in this conversation. He was an outfielder signed at the crest of his performance peak, and like Crawford or Werth, he was among the game's pretty good outfielders when he achieved free agency--one hell of a player, with lots of things going for him, but not a franchise talent, not somebody you know, halfway through a career, is going to the Hall of Fame. As Gag Halfrunt might say of any of them, "he's just this guy, you know?"

In his age-30 season back in 2006, Soriano produced 8.6 WARP and topped .300 in True Average for the first (and probably last) time, at .302. He also set career highs in walk rate, ISO, and his rate for homers per fly ball. He stole 40 bases for the third and what figures to be the last time in his career. He was briefly a popular example of an underrated outfielder, in stathead circles and more broadly, thanks to two things: he racked up a bunch of assists in what was his first year away from years of butchery at the keystone, and he seemed to beat Derek Jeter's mocking prediction that Soriano would never cut it in the outfield, because he had the vertical leap of your average barcalounger. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get Jim Hendry's public comment, upon signing Soriano to an eight-year, $136 million contract, that his new free-agent addition might be able to cut it in center.

Maybe Hendry believed it, and maybe it was just podium spin. Either way, saying something does not make it so, any more than signing Soriano was going to deliver $136 million in value. It only guaranteed $136 million in expense to get what Soriano was going to deliver, which after his age-30 season, was going to be less.

The extent to which how much less is something that'll be fun to sort out later this winter, when we might jump into the topic of what we can expect as far as player aging curves now that we're in the post-PED era. Even with the benefit of better training and pre-game preparation, we shouldn't be surprised if we see career performance curves regress to what was relatively normal in the '70s or '80s, or the '50s and '60s, those glory days when people got by... with amphetamines. Or clean living.

Adjust for inflation, and Soriano's deal comes out to about the same in average annual value (AAV) in 2010 dollars as Werth's--around $143 million over eight years, or just under $18 million, where Werth's at exactly $18 million, and Crawford will make almost $21 million. That's keeping everything in 2010 dollars, when Soriano has already pocketed $64 million, so with inflation he might end up making slightly more than Werth. We don't have to play accountancy games too far; it's fair to say they're roughly equivalent, where Crawford is making more. Let's drop all of that in a big, simple table:

Guy
AAV
Seasons Signed To
No-Trade?
Last Year Pre-Deal WARP
Last Year Pre-Deal TAv
Career TAv through 2010
Soriano $18M Age 31-38 Full 8.6 .302 .279
Werth $18M Age 32-38 None 7.0 .322 .297
Crawford $21M Age 29-35 Tricky 7.1 .309 .279

Taken in the broad strokes, what is it that the Sox are paying for? Relative youth, of course, at least when we're talking about these three, or Ordonez too if we want to chuck him in for good measure. That said, the Sox are hoping they're going to get better durability and continuing growth from Crawford, because if they "only" get what the Cubs did from Soriano, as far as a season similar to his walk-year career best, and then a lot of regret, you can imagine Beantown getting cranky enough to chuck somebody into the harbor, beyond tea or the odd Democrat.

The interesting thing about this sort of broad-strokes comparison is how generous it might appear to be to Werth, at least when you're looking at his career True Average. I don't think it's really that surprising, at least when you get right down to it. Between a platoon role, a lot of misguided avoidance by the Orioles and later the Jays, as well as early-career wishcasting that he might be a catcher, and then a lot of formative time lost to injury, Werth's growing pains as he turned into a quality corner outfielder were basically wiped out by all sorts of unusual interruptions. Finally trusted with real work in 2008 after sticking as a Phillies bench asset in 2007, I would suggest that Werth's late-career development is less a matter of a surprise as much as his finally profiting from health and his mid-career associations. Remember, at the same time that he was benefiting from working with Charlie Manuel, a fine manager who had previously excelled as a hitting coach, the Phillies also have one of the game's better training staffs, which contributed to Werth's thirtysomething triumph over his twentysomething fragility. If there's a player to compare him to in that regard, favorably, it might be guys like Paul Molitor or Brian Downing, except that Werth's value in his 30s will be that much greater because he's a strong-armed, mobile right fielder.

As easy as it might be to write off the Nats' decision as expensive and nuts, I wind up seeing things to like about it. If it winds up being sort of a pricier echo of the decision to sign Ivan Rodriguez last year, that's also OK--putting yourself on free-agent radars isn't the worst possible outcome. Because they appear to be free to deal Werth later if things don't go well, the Nats might only have to eat a portion of the deal if it doesn't go well, but in the meantime, it serves an agit-prop purpose that might reward them even more than initial expectations that he has to be a disappointment, because he used to be fragile, or used to be a platoon player, or used to be a catcher, or came up as a prospect in a pair of organizations with no sense of direction, before the Dodgers resurrected him. If the Nats get Brian Downing-level greatness from Werth in his 30s, something more likely than the incredulous stammering his signing seemed to elicit, Mike Rizzo and company shouldn't feel too badly about bidding up the market to get their guy. Unlike Adam Dunn, he has defensive value, and if they wind up adding someone like Derrek Lee at first base for the short term, their pitching could end up with a couple of reasons to feel good about the kind of support they'll get, on both lines on the scoreboard.

As for Boston, signing Crawford might press the Sox into trading Cameron at a heavy discount in spring or, failing that, Ellsbury, but in either instance, the cash consumed can be taken as the cost of doing business. The expense of trying to win in 2010 has been taken on, without success; the Sox can roll with it, not sulk. Cameron will be headed into his age-38 season with a price tag of $7.25 million, after all, and if Theo Epstein can find someone to swallow half of that after he proves himself healthy in camp, they might count themselves fortunate. while Ellsbury is someone comparable to Dave Collins--he's a leadoff man who doesn't walk or boast much power. Tallying steals strikes fanthead fancies, of course, but that's a lot less important in the real world, where the relationship between categories and wins is far from direct. Add in that Ellsbury is just two years younger than Crawford without anything like the same track record, power, or value in the field, and you can see how yesterday's fair-haired boy becomes tomorrow's Houston Astro.

Finally, not that everyone doesn't do their homework, but I can't help but be curious if the same factors that contributed to the Sox signing J.D. Drew informed their decision to sign Crawford, in terms of an ability to perform later in games and with runners in scoring position. As much as it might be sabermetric anathema to suggest such a thing, Eric Van gave a compelling presentation on the subject of Drew's ability to deliver at the SABR convention in Atlanta this summer, and I'm willing to concede this may well be an area where the Sox may well have stolen a march on the research community. Crawford plated 17.8 percent of his baserunners for the Rays last season; Juan Pierre got to 13.4 percent, and Ellsbury managed 13.1 percent in 2009. I'm not going to get into any adjective-based propositions about that kind of performance, but the difference is meaningful, and directly related to the kind of base hits these different hitters deliver. Crawford hits balls harder than Ellsbury (or Pierre), and a leadoff man's job is not only to get on base.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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