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July 10, 2012

Overthinking It

The Brief Wondrous Life of a One-Year Deal

by Ben Lindbergh

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In April, we wondered whether the Angels had made a terrible mistake by signing Albert Pujols to a 10-year contract over the winter. In June, we wondered whether we might have made a terrible mistake in April. We won’t actually know whether the Angels got a good or bad deal on Pujols until he’s much closer to the end of the contract, but that won’t prevent us from prematurely passing judgment at many more points along the way to November 2021. Only 112 more months to go!

So no, we can’t get a great handle on contracts that won’t expire until the end of 2013, 2014, 2015, and beyond. But one-year deals—those, we can say something about.

One-year deals are awarded to several types of free agents. They can go to setup men, whom smart teams tend not to trust beyond a year (Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez, Luis Ayala). They can go to productive veterans who are too old to command long-term commitments (Jim Thome, Darren Oliver, Bartolo Colon). They can go to veterans who aren’t particularly productive but aren’t quite ready to retire (Raul Ibanez, Mark Kotsay, Omar Vizquel). They can go to platoon players and bench bats, pieces that every team has to have but no team wants to pay much for (Andruw Jones, Reed Johnson, Juan Rivera). They can go to reclamation projects, players (usually pitchers) coming off a year of injury, absence, or ineffectiveness (Andy Pettitte, Jamie Moyer, Jonathan Broxton). They can go to catchers with good gloves who aren’t expected to hit (Jose Molina, Brian Schneider, Henry Blanco). They can go to young players who didn’t get the offers they were looking for and decided to settle for a single year and hold out hope for a bigger score the following season (Edwin Jackson). They can go to Cesar Izturis, for some reason.*

*How old would you say Cesar Izturis is? At least 35, right? However old Miguel Cairo is, maybe? Wrong! Cesar Izturis is only 32. Maybe he seems so much older because he made the majors at 21 and hasn’t gotten a bit better since. Maybe it’s because he has such a small statistical footprint. In 12 seasons, 1228 games, and 4173 plate appearances, he’s been worth -0.2 WARP to his teams, or roughly the same as any streaker who’s spent 30 seconds on the field. 

There’s some overlap across those categories, but the one thing that’s true of all the players who signed one-year deals last winter is that we already have a pretty decent idea of whether their contracts will work out. Every team has already played more than half of its schedule, which means that these players are more than halfway to hitting free agency again. These are all the one-year deals that stand out for being particularly good, particularly bad, or particularly closely related to Yuniesky Betancourt.

Most valuable: David Ortiz, Red Sox ($14.575 million)
Ortiz is the only player to sign a one-year deal who’s on pace for a five-win season. He’s also the only one on pace for a four-win season. This isn’t that surprising: stars get multi-year contracts. Ortiz is the closest thing to a star in this pool of players, and consequently, the Sox had to make him the highest-paid single-year signee to avoid adding on a second season. He cost them almost $15 million, but they got exactly what they wanted: a big bat, a fan favorite, and a contract that won’t put them on the hook for his late 30s.

Least valuable: Xavier Nady, Nationals ($700,000)
Since 2008, Xavier Nady has totaled -2.7 WARP. About -1.2 of that comes from his .157/.211/.275 line this season. The Nats have had bad luck with injuries, but their worst luck was that none of them involved Nady, until the right wrist problems that mercifully put him on the DL in late June.

Best value: Fernando Rodney, Rays ($2 million)
Note the distinction between “most valuable” and “best value”: Ortiz has offered the best bang, but Rodney has offered the best bang for the buck. As R.J. Anderson pointed out to me recently, you’d have to add up the K:BB ratios from Rodney’s previous five seasons to equal his 7.60 mark from 2012. Rodney entered the season with a 101 ERA+, below average for a guy who’d never started a game. Now he has the second-lowest ERA of any pitcher with at least 30 innings.

Rodney isn’t the only successful closer to be signed for one season: a one-year offer last November made the Royals Jonathan Broxton’s rebound team. However, he cost twice as much as Rodney, and he’s sporting a career-low strikeout rate. Like any pitcher with a sub-1.00 ERA, Rodney has been more than a little lucky, but not so much that his success isn’t sustainable. Due perhaps in part to a shift on the rubber, he’s saved 25 games in 26 opportunities, transforming himself from a shaky setup man into a trusted closer. Closers don’t come cheap, which is why Rodney will be the eighth different pitcher to lead the Rays in saves over the past eight seasons. Next season should make nine, since Rodney has already put himself in position for a longer and more lucrative contract. That’s the downside of one-year deals: they minimize risk, but they also leave teams little time to savor their successes.  

Worst value: Juan Rivera, Dodgers ($4.5 million)
This one was hard to figure, as I wrote when the deal went down last November. Rivera was coming off a sub-replacement season, and he went for way more than any comparable player had the previous year. Whether it was a good idea to get Rivera was debatable, barely. Whether it was a good idea to get him and pay him much more than any other team would have offered wasn’t. Rivera has rewarded the Dodgers with a whopping -0.3 WARP.

Most useful part-time player: Andruw Jones, Yankees ($2 million)
The Yankees wanted Andruw Jones because they thought he’d hit lefties, and he has. To make his signing even sweeter, he’s hit righties, too. As Steven Goldman noted elsewhere, Jones is having one of the best part-time power seasons in Yankees history. He’s also adequate in the outfield corners. That combination of skills makes him the fourth outfielder and platoon bat every team would like to have.

The Yankees also lucked out on a one-year deal with a mostly-healthy Eric Chavez (0.9 WARP, $900k), got enough out of Andy Pettitte before his injury to justify their $2.5 million spend, and landed an above-average starter in Hiroki Kuroda for the reasonable price of $10 million. The Yankees win one-year contracts this season.

Most predictable player: Edwin Jackson ($11 million)
Last year, Edwin Jackson had a 3.79 ERA. This year, he has a 3.73 ERA. Last year, Jackson walked 2.8 batters per nine and struck out 6.7. This year, he’s walked 2.8 per nine and struck out 6.8. Jackson started strong, but he’s struggled in June and July. Last winter, the righty was reportedly seeking a five-year, $60 million contract. He didn’t get it. With identical numbers and more mileage on his arm, he won’t get it this offseason, either. Fortunately for him, durable league-average arms have no trouble finding teams to pitch for once their demands come down.

Most surprising resurrection: Oliver Perez, Mariners (major-league minimum)
Perez spent the spring in “take a flier” territory, one of many arms, like Moyer and Jeff Suppan, offered a minor-league contract and an invitation to camp on the off chance that they could bounce back from injury and ineffectiveness. Most of them, like Moyer and Suppan, have not bounced back. Perez has. As I wrote last week, Perez has regained all of the velocity he’d lost and developed into what looks a lot like a viable LOOGY. In the few innings he’s pitched since then, his control and velocity have been even better.

Biggest BABIP bungles: Francisco Cordero, Blue Jays ($4.5 million), Casey Kotchman, Indians ($3 million)
In the vast majority of cases, a team with access to proprietary data sets, scouting reports, and medical records is going to pick players better than a blogger with access to none of those things. But sometimes I wonder whether all that extra information can confuse a team, or whether the risk aversion that a team faces (but a disinterested internet analyst doesn’t) can do more harm than good. Last season, Cordero had a 2.45 ERA and 37 saves. He wasn’t fooling anyone. Cordero had the lowest strikeout rate of any closer this side of Matt Capps, one of the lowest BABIPs in the league, and a fastball that had lost some speed. No one was going to give him another ninth-inning job or anything close to his old $12.125 million salary. For a while, it looked like no one was going to give him anything at all.

Finally, on February 1st, the Blue Jays signed him for the not-inconsiderable sum of $4.5 million. Yes, it was only a one-year deal, and no, they weren’t expecting him to be a big weapon. But why make even that substantial a commitment when your average armchair GM had an inkling he was about to blow up? And blow up he has, to the tune of a 6.00 ERA. He’s not that bad, just as he wasn’t that good in 2011—this time, his BABIP is on the other end of extreme. Still, there’s a point at which a one-year deal doesn’t minimize risk. It just minimizes the amount of money you’re throwing away.

Casey Kotchman was a similar case. Like Cordero, he was coming off a superficially successful season built on a fluky BABIP, and he had to wait for early February before receiving a one-year offer. As R.J. Anderson wrote at the time, “The Indians are going to hope that Kotchman repeats his 2011 performance. They should be happy, however, if Kotchman can merely stay above replacement level for the third time in six seasons.” Three-plus months into the season, Kotchman has contributed -0.1 WARP. He’s making $3 million. It’s safe to say the Indians aren’t happy.

Most times, when moves don’t make sense, I assume that something we don’t know would explain them. In the cases of Cordero and Kotchman, the ignorance of outsiders might have helped.

Worst unpredictably bad signing: Ryan Madson, Reds ($8.5 million)
The Reds were roundly praised for reading the closer market correctly and swooping in to sign Madson, the best reliever remaining, with a one-year, $8.5 million offer in mid-January. WARP might not approve of paying any reliever more than a million dollars an inning, but compared to what other teams—well, other teams besides the Rays— paid for their back-of-the-bullpen arms, Cincinnati got a steal. Like Edwin Jackson, Madson was an offseason failure for Scott Boras, who’d hoped to get his client a four-year deal. Instead, Boras watched the Phillies, Madson’s former team, give Jonathan Papelbon the four-deal contract he’d been campaigning for, leaving Madson with little choice but to lick his wounds and hope that a second season of solid closing would earn him more money in 2013.

We’ll never know whether it would have. Madson blew out his elbow in March and lost the season to Tommy John surgery. In hindsight, the Madson move was even more costly than the Dodgers’ decision to re-sign Rivera, but no one could have known that at the time. Sometimes, the results don’t reflect the decisions behind the deal.

Most Yuniesky Betancourt-like player: Yuniesky Betancourt, Royals ($2 million)
Fun fact: Yuniesky Betancourt has a -5.7 FRAA in 44 games. Seventeen major leaguers have lower FRAAs than that. All of them have played at least 20, and in most cases, closer to 40 more games than Betancourt has. Game-for-game, Betancourt has done more damage with his glove than any other player. Sure, it’s a small sample size. But the Royals would probably be better off if it didn’t get much bigger.

Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.

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

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