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December 6, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Sabean Keeps the Gang Together

by Ben Lindbergh

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SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed INF-R Marco Scutaro to a three-year deal worth $20 million. [12/04]

Here’s a list of free-agent position players age 37 or older who have been signed to contracts three years or longer since 2005:

1. Marco Scutaro, Giants

That concludes the list.*                 

If you remove the “position player” requirement, you get Mariano Rivera, who signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees shortly before his 38th birthday. And then there are a bunch of almosts. Derek Jeter was still 36 when he signed his current three-year contract, although like Scutaro he had just completed his age-36 season. Jorge Posada was 36 when he signed the four-year, $52 million contract that took him through the end of his career. Raul Ibanez turned 37 during the first year of the three-year, $31.5 million contract he signed with the Phillies after the 2008 season. Derek Lowe got four years and $60 million, also from Atlanta, in 2009. He wasn’t a free agent, but Chipper Jones got a three-year, $42 million extension from Atlanta in March of 2009.

If you have your heart set on a long-term commitment long after you’ve passed your prime, it helps to be a future Hall of Famer, a player at a premium defensive position, a player on the Yankees (who used to spend money), a player with a lot of off-the-field, “marquee” value, or some combination of three or four of those things. It also helps, if you’re Ibanez, to be a late bloomer and have Ruben Amaro bidding for your services. And there’s a decent chance that the team that signs you will live to regret the last year (Posada), two years (Ibanez), or three years (Lowe) of the deal.

There’s a reason why I slipped in that “since 2005,” though. Go back another year, and the list gets twice as long:**

1. Marco Scutaro, Giants
2. Omar Vizquel, Giants

So we can identify another factor that helps old players land long commitments: the interest of noted non-ageist Brian Sabean. Sabean signed Vizquel to a three-year, $12.25 million deal in November of 2004 following his age-37 season, in which he’d hit .291/.353/.388 as the Indians’ full-time shortstop. Vizquel was worth every penny. He hit .272/.337/.353 for San Francisco over the next three seasons, averaging 150 games, winning two Gold Gloves, and racking up 6.1 WARP.

**Also, a few more pre-2005 pitchers or almosts: Greg Maddux signed with the Cubs for three years and $24 million in 2004, when he was 38. Tom Glavine was almost 37 when he signed a three-year deal in ’03, as was Luis Gonzalez when he signed for three years and $30 million in ’04.

Aside from Sabean’s interest, Scutaro, who turned 37 in October, doesn’t entirely fit the profile of an old player who can command a young player’s contract, though he is an Ibanez-like late bloomer. He’s not a future Hall of Famer, not a Yankee, no longer a player at a premium position, and not a long-time Giant with deep ties to the organization. But after last season, he can sell some jerseys: Scutaro famously hit .362 for the Giants after arriving from the Rockies in late July, then went on to win the NLCS MVP award.

Those three months happened, and they gave the Giants a big boost, but it doesn’t take PECOTA to tell you that they’re not about to be repeated. Even while singling the Giants' opponents into submission, Scutaro reminded us what kind of hitter he really is. Scutaro doesn’t strike out, and if a player who puts the ball in play as often as he does hangs around long enough, he’s bound to have a high-BABIP season where he looks like something special (Jeff Keppinger, a hitter whose style is similar, just enjoyed the same sort of season). The other two-thirds of Scutaro’s triple-slash line told a different story. Despite his batting average, he managed to post an on-base percentage below .400 with the Giants and a slugging percentage below .500, which is sort of difficult to do. The gap between Scutaro’s batting average and slugging percentage was right around his career norm, and the gap between his batting average and on-base percentage wasn’t nearly as anomalous as the batting average itself. Scutaro doesn’t walk all that much, and he doesn’t hit for much power, so he’s just ordinary offensively (.263 career TAv) when the balls aren’t bouncing his way.

There’s nothing wrong with ordinary. But when Scutaro was 34 and played shortstop, he got a two-year, $11 million deal from the Red Sox. Three years later, he plays less-demanding infield positions and almost certainly isn’t as valuable, and yet he got not only more years, but also more money per season. Yes, since 2009 we’ve seen inflation and bigger TV contracts and a new CBA, but mostly those extra years and dollars stem from Scutaro being traded to the right team at the right time. When Scutaro went to San Francisco in what amounted to a salary dump, he was having a disappointing season, doing okay at Coors but hitting just .238/.278/.292 on the road. Then he fluked into an eye-popping average for a team that won its second World Series in three seasons and isn’t afraid to make major commitments to veterans. Suddenly, he stands to make almost as much over the next three years as he’s earned in his career to date.

So yes, something seems off about that career trajectory, and yes, this is too many years for Marco Scutaro. But it was also a predictable overpay—before the Yankees briefly made Sabean sweat with some late interest in the wake of the Alex Rodriguez injury, Scutaro seemed predestined to stay in San Francisco on a contract that owed too much to his August-October performance, especially since he was the best second baseman available and offers some positional flexibility to boot. Sabean has something of a history of getting overly attached to low-cost acquisitions that work out improbably well (Aubrey Huff, Randy Winn).

Then again, if Scutaro had gotten two years and $20 million, this might not have raised quite so many eyebrows. There’s a decent chance that he’ll be worth the four wins or less it would take to justify the total expenditure over the life of the deal, and the Giants, who’ll be riding the extra revenue that comes with playoff success, won’t suffer far into the future over a medium-sized contract for Scutaro. And most importantly:

*Or at least some frantic and possibly sloppy research suggests that it does. Thanks to Daniel Rathman for his assistance in combing through past contracts for geriatric players. 

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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