July 10, 2012
The Brief Wondrous Life of a One-Year Deal
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)
Least valuable: Xavier Nady, Nationals ($700,000)
Best value: Fernando Rodney, Rays ($2 million)
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)
Most useful part-time player: Andruw Jones, Yankees ($2 million)
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)
Most surprising resurrection: Oliver Perez, Mariners (major-league minimum)
Biggest BABIP bungles: Francisco Cordero, Blue Jays ($4.5 million), Casey Kotchman, Indians ($3 million)
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)
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)
Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.