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August 5, 2002

The Daily Prospectus

Flushing $32 Million

by Joe Sheehan

Mark Prior threw 135 pitches yesterday. It was worth it, though, because it pulled the Cubs to within 12 1/2 games of first place in the NL Central and to within 14 games of the Dodgers in the wild-card race.

Look, I've made this argument before, so I'm not going to waste a column on it again today. Letting your nominal franchise pitcher throw 135 pitches in a meaningless game is inconsistent with any kind of plan for success. Letting him bat in the bottom of the eighth having thrown 119 pitches is grounds for firing.

Prior's start is actually a great argument for not capping draft bonuses. If this is how teams handle a player in whom they've invested this kind of money, what will they do when they don't have to put $10 million into getting top talent? If you're a player, what's your incentive to submit to a system that 1) takes away the only leverage you'll have for the next nine years and 2) handles you in a way that may ensure you never again have that kind of hammer?

I don't see anyone rushing to give Alan Benes a five-year, $65-million deal.

Enough about that. Today, I want to look at a different kind of genius at work. Over the weekend, the Angels and Darin Erstad reached agreement on a four-year deal for $32 million. Erstad is 28 years old, stays in the lineup, plays pretty good center-field defense... and in three of the last four years, has hit like a girl:

Year     AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   SB  CS
1999    585   .253  .308  .374   13   7
2000    676   .355  .409  .541   28   8
2001    631   .258  .331  .360   24  10
2002    416   .281  .319  .385   17   3

Erstad's 704 OPS this year is 129th in MLB, putting him in a group that includes Rafael Furcal, Moises Alou, Adrian Beltre, Craig Counsell and Sean Casey. That's four disappointments and a player, Counsell, who isn't expected to do too much. Erstad's VORP of 8.7 places him ninth among AL center fielders, and over a full season, would mean he's worth about 1.3 wins more than a replacement-level center fielder. Let's overrate his defense--which is good--and say he's worth a whole win with the glove.

Eight million bucks a year for two wins above replacement level?

When you get down to it, Erstad got this contract because he's a white ex-football player who dives a lot. He doesn't put runs on the board, and he doesn't take off enough to justify this contract. Given his career path, and the extent to which his offense is reliant on batting average, my guess is that Erstad will be worth the money in one year of this deal. In the others, he'll be a millstone on the Angels' payroll, their convenient excuse for not signing a top-tier starting pitcher or a real catcher in the free-agent market.

All you really need to know about the Angels is that they gave this kind of deal to Darin Erstad, but traded Jim Edmonds before his walk year for Adam Kennedy and Kent Bottenfield. It's not about winning in Anaheim: it's about looking good and saying the right things. That's why they've gone to the postseason three times in my lifetime, and have never won a series in October.

Yeah, bring on 50% revenue sharing; let's establish a system where this kind of decision making is profitable.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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<< Previous Article
6-4-3: Reasonable Pers... (08/02)
<< Previous Column
The Daily Prospectus: ... (08/02)
Next Column >>
The Daily Prospectus: ... (08/06)
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