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February 8, 2011
Transaction of the Day
The Orioles, win something? Really, come now, we've seen a new generation come of age and, in its madness, go gaga for Justin Bieber since the last time such a thing was a rational proposition. Could it really be the case?
In September, I suggested that we "(b)uckle in for what should be one of the most interesting offseasons in the industry, because Showalter is nothing if not decisive." Four and a half months later, I'm not sure if the Orioles would want to run up a self-congratulatory "mission accomplished" rag, but a week out from pitchers and catchers reporting, it's safe to say that the Birds delivered on the lot. They've added four new lineup regulars, a closer, and—in adding the Duke—a swing man long on utility if short on active attendance.
Nevertheless, signing Vladi at this price is a reasonable cause for complaint by several standards. First, there's the one where your scoreboard is financial in its bent. As I've argued in the past, the Orioles have often had to pay a premium to coax free agents to come to Charm City. Perhaps this isn't all that different from overpaying Marty Cordova or Danys Baez, on the basis of what they'd once been or whatever was wished of them from whichever front-office crash-test dummy signed him. If you're worried about where Peter Angelos is spending his big tobaccy cash*, or the money he gets from the MASN deal (the one that coerces the Nationals to surrender their television rights for a fraction of what their market value might be, providing the Orioles with all the moolah from advertising and cable fees and the like), or even revenue sharing cash, it would seem clear that it's getting spent to some purpose—perhaps actual ambition, like the cicada, comes along every decade or so.
Yet there are those who weep for the expense, like these were their own nickels and dimes getting tossed into Vladi's change cup. Instead, I'd note that Vlad has the good fortune to have signed the deal he might have reasonably expected three months ago. In this, he's exactly like Derrek Lee; as noted yesterday by Roger Noll, spending revenue on players may not be always be "rational," but there is a segment of the chatterocracy and the paying public that expects it as a matter of good form.
Then there's the complaint that not only is Vladi expensive, at this late date he wasn't even guaranteed to be the best DH bat left on the shelves, given the availability of Russell Branyan and Nick Johnson. It's a fair concern, given the relative production of the three: Vladi's .307 career True Average compares favorably to Johnson's .297 and Branyan's .278, but he's the oldest of the three. In the abstract, is Vlad's age-36 season going to be three or four times as valuable as Branyan's age-35 or Johnson's age-32 campaign? Not if you scale compensation directly to production, but that isn't what the Orioles are paying for, which is why they didn't just offer Guerrero a slight markup on whatever $1-2 million deal the Swinging Surfer or Nick the Stick wind up with.
Instead, the Orioles are paying a premium for three things. First, there's durability, which Guerrero has going for him in his dotage, relatively speaking; as Corey Dawkins' injury database reminds us, there was Vladi's loss of 66 days to two separate injuries in 2009, amidst an otherwise solid record for durability over the last seven seasons. This is something Branyan and Johnson do not have going for them, and never will—Johnson is his generation's byword for breakability, while Branyan has been on the DL four times in the last three years, not counting a couple of non-DL injuries in March or September that shelved him for extended stretches during that time.
Second, there's the value of Vladi's body of work, recent as well as historical. Nattering about his second-half fade last season is sort of like getting worked up over his first-half slump in 2009—yes, at some point, Vladi will be done, but that bell's been preemptively tolled for a couple of years now. Then there's the concern that he's leaving Texas, because away from the bandboxy Ballpark, he hit "just" .284/.336/.461 last year. It's a fair concern, one that will be all the more interesting to sort out now that PECOTA's out and Vladi was already projected to a .283 TAv if he were in Texas. However, it's worth remembering that Vladi was a great hitter, so his losing ground has only dropped him down among the ranks of the mortals at DH, as R.J. Anderson noted on Saturday. His history argues that he has an enduring platform for success that has propelled him this far, which is why his projection comes with just a 4 percent shot at a PECOTA "collapse," so he has a stronger basis for delivering than Branyan (projected for a .275 TAv and with a stronger shot at losing ground), let alone the infrequently available Johnson. Seasonal variation happens to everybody, and Guerrero has been notoriously streaky over the course of his career—that means risking a few of the downs as well as gladly riding the ups.
Prophylacting against Vladi's streaks brings me to a third defense for signing him, which is that Guerrero fits in with the Orioles' existing lineup in a way that Branyan perhaps could not, and Johnson's track record for fragility argued against. While Guerrero is excellent at putting hard-hit balls in play, pairing Branyan with Mark Reynolds might have shaken the sangfroid of even the most cocksure sabermetric assurance that "strikeouts don't matter." Having Vladi in the lineup keeps a right-handed power bat in the lineup, even on the days off for Derrek Lee at first. But there's also the happy fact that signing Vladi (or any DH) means moving Luke Scott into left field—the improvement the O's are achieving isn't just relative to other DHs, it's the improvement of getting Felix Pie out of the regular lineup.
This is sort of like replacing Cesar Izturis with J.J. Hardy—it's just as important that the improvement is relative to the Orioles' past options as it is with reference to what's average. As a starting left fielder, Pie makes a hell of a fourth outfielder, or somebody else's starter in center. For an Orioles team armed with active ambition, they could do better, and with Vladi, they have. If Scott rotates to DH for Guerrero's days off, or plays first when Lee needs time off, that's a nice bit of roster flexibility, flexibility better guaranteed by Vlad's durability and availability than it would be with Branyan or Johnson. If Buck Showalter wants a lefty bat off the bench to spot for Lee or Guerrero on either's day off, he can move Scott and start Pie. Since Pie doubles as Adam Jones' backup, there's a nice bit of overlapping functionality, where Pie should still be able to count on a few hundred at-bats as a quality reserve instead of an overstretched regular. Branyan, batting lefty, wouldn't be as clean a fit.
That, on top of health and history, adds up to a few reasonable reasons for why signing Vladi at this price made sense. Pre-Vladi and pre-Duke, I wrote, "Suggesting that the Orioles will improve by 10 games this year understates the extent of the improvement, even with the unbalanced schedule—if they wind up around 76 wins, that might represent disappointment, especially when the Yankees' rotation is a mess and the Rays seem to have committed to a year to regear." That's no less true now, even with Freddy Garcia and a slenderized Bartolo Colon donning pinstripes and the fading duo of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez shlepping to St. Petersburg. The division is still Boston's to lose, but an Orioles team that could wind up north of 80 wins, even if propped up by short-term rentals of veteran bats, has hope and faith for the first time in more than a dozen years.
That's not just for respectability, but for a run at something more: if they're within a half-dozen games of the wild card slot at the end of July, they'll be in a position to deal to keep it going. Whether they make it or not, mounting a bid will help make them a more attractive venue for free agents next winter, when Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder rate as the biggest prizes, making one-year deals with DH or first-base types make that much more sense. If they happen to come attached to serious money now, when the O's have it to spend, so much the better.
*Consider this an ongoing (rare) exhibit of trickle-down economics that works: Wealthy corporations kill millions (by messing with a legal drug, an honest license to print money, no less; talk about an industry that needs to go organic), but an intrepid big-name lawyer comes in as a hired hand for state gumment and sues said industry for billions, collects his spectacular fee upon emerging victorious, and then, rather than keep all of it or try to figure out which of his brood inherits how much, he's generously recycling his good fortune to our tired, our poor, our underemployed designated hitters, yearning to be anything but free. Only in America.