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March 19, 2003
The Hinske and Wells SigningsMonday, the Blue Jays announced that they'd signed both Eric Hinske and Vernon Wells to five-year deals in the neighborhood of $15 million. The deals take both players through their arbitration seasons, while not buying out any years of free agency. More importantly, the deals tie each player to the Jays through their probable peak; Hinske is under contract through age 29, Wells through age 28.
My first reaction to the deals was positive. Hinske should be a good player through the life of the deal, although he lacks the potential of, say, Eric Chavez or Hank Blalock. Hinske's defense improved enough during last season to scotch the idea of moving him off of third base, which leaves just his performance against left-handers (.202/.293/.339) as a major flaw in his game. Wells has a higher upside and considerably more defensive value than Hinske does, although his lousy OBP means that he hasn't been as good a player to date.
In thinking about it, though, I really didn't have a sense of whether contracts like these turned out well for teams. While the Cleveland Indians popularized signing players through their arbitration years, they tended to do so when players were further along in their careers. Five-year deals for guys with less than two years of service are rare; only Nomar Garciaparra has received one, and it turned out very well.
To get a sense of what the Jays might expect, I used the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia to find players of comparable age and accomplishment in recent years--basically, the guys you might have considered giving these types of contracts to. I used a broad definition of "comparable," as you'll see below, but I wanted to find as many players as possible to get a sense of whether five years and $15 million was a bargain or a bad buy for the Jays.
I'll spare you the suspense: the Jays should make out very well here. Most players who had a year like Hinske's 2002 at age 24, or Wells' at age 23, would go on to be, at worst, solid major-league players for the next few years. In many cases, a five-year, $15-million contract (adjusted for the pay scale of the time) would have ended up being an amazing bargain.
Here is a list of the players aged 23 and 24, with no more than 300 at-bats prior to the season in question (to eliminate players clearly superior to Hinske or with more service time) who posted at least 6 RC/G (Hinske had 6.46 last year) with a secondary average of at least .300 (Hinske's was .359) in the years 1986 through 1997:
Player Season Age RC/G SecAvg Eric Davis 1986 24 8.10 .576 Dan Pasqua 1986 24 8.07 .407 Lenny Dykstra 1986 23 6.67 .341 Chris James 1987 24 6.70 .313 Kal Daniels 1987 23 10.38 .495 Fred McGriff 1987 23 6.90 .464 Mark McGwire 1987 23 8.54 .456 Matt Nokes 1987 23 6.28 .325 Mike Greenwell 1987 23 8.35 .330 David Justice 1990 24 7.58 .410 Frank Thomas 1991 23 9.47 .479 Mike Piazza 1993 24 7.63 .325 Tim Salmon 1993 24 7.50 .410 Ryan Klesko 1995 24 8.59 .444 Carlos Delgado 1996 24 6.02 .338Note: Deion Sanders also qualifies, although the circumstances surrounding his baseball career make him a questionable data point.
These are the best offensive comps for Hinske, and the fact that all but two of these players is an outfielder or first baseman gives you an idea of how impressive his first season was. If you'd offered to buy out the next five seasons of all these careers, avoiding arbitration or future negotiations on a long-term deal when the player had more leverage, you would have done well with all but Dan Pasqua, Kal Daniels, Chris James and Matt Nokes. Of those, only Daniels and Nokes would have been reasonable candidates for Hinske/Wells-type deals.
Hinske is clearly inferior to some of the players above: he has platoon issues, a high strikeout rate and lacks the power that some of them possess. On the other hand, he has more defensive value and speed than almost all of his comps.
Hinske's PECOTA comps are a mixed bag, with some scary names like Mike Pagliarulo and Jack Howell mixed in among Larry Walker, Paul O'Neill and Mo Vaughn. I think the odd collection of comps is a point in Hinske's favor. Unique players tend to be hard to find direct comps for, so you get a mix of inferior players who have his attributes and superior ones at easier defensive positions who better mirror his performance at the plate.
The case for signing Wells is a bit fuzzier. He hasn't shown Hinske's skill at the plate, in particular showing little discipline. On the other hand, he's younger, a very good center fielder, and has been a top prospect for more than three years. There haven't been many young center fielders since 1985 with his 2002 stat line; a couple of Andruw Jones seasons (1998 and 2001) and Juan Gonzalez's first two full campaigns in 1991 and 1992, as well as Torii Hunter's 2001. Gonzalez and Jones, younger than Wells at the time, would go on to walk more as they aged. Hunter, however, is probably the best comp, and if Wells follows the Twin's development path, he'll be well worth the money.
PECOTA's comps for Wells are all over the map, mostly injury-prone or disappointing outfield prospects like Rondell White, Jeffrey Hammonds and Rick Reichardt. While his comps aren't encouraging, I think Wells is the safer of the two signings, because he has more growth potential and defensive value than Hinske does. Even if he doesn't develop much more as a hitter, his excellent range in center field and good power will make him an asset, and I don't think there's much chance that he'll be worse than he was in 2002. Hinske doesn't have Wells' upside, and may have been at or near the top of his range last year. He's more likely to decline from his 2002 performance, at least in 2003.
In both cases, though, I think the Blue Jays have done well to commit to these players. There are reasons to do so that go beyond the specific merit. The Jays can now sell Wells and Hinske to their fans as the cornerstones of what should be an exciting team, a contender. They get cost certainty, as well as roster certainty, with two of their best players through 2007, enabling them to budget around the pair. If the two develop as hoped, they'll provide the kind of low-cost core that enables J.P. Ricciardi to sign the right free agents in 2004 and beyond, when the Jays should be overtaking the Red Sox and Yankees for AL East superiority.
Overall, the signings are a calculated risk with minimal downside and significant upside.
Trip to Japan Cancelled
Baseball cancelled the season-opening series in Tokyo between the Mariners and A's, citing concerns over the imminent war in Iraq. The games will be rescheduled and played stateside later in the year.
It's a difficult decision for MLB, which has made a significant investment in this series, its second Far East season-opener in four years. However, the concern about sending personnel so far from home with a war about to start, and worries about how secure the players, front-office people and their families might be, carried the day.
I don't believe there was a bad decision to be made here, as there are arguments in both directions. I can't blame Bud Selig for erring on the side of caution, and perhaps the side of a great number of people in the Mariners and A's camps who were approaching the trip with trepidation.