January 23, 2013
Young and Running Out Of Time
Signed OF-R Ben Francisco to a minor-league deal. [1/21]
If The Asylum were to make a film about a bat-first, platoon-neutral, low-production corner outfielder, then Francisco would be the leading man. He has almost no platoon split, which is great when it's applied to a star like Ryan Braun, but when we're talking about a guy who balances mediocre against mediocre, there's just no way to leverage it. We see specialist types—be it relievers or bench types—make it onto rosters all the time, but not players like Francisco. The idea of a corner outfielder without a platoon split is good; too bad the execution with Francisco is poor. —R.J. Anderson
Signed LHP Erik Bedard to a minor-league deal. [1/21]
The last time Bedard made this column, it came on the heels of his release from the Pirates; partly because he pitched poorly, partly because of his laconic style. You’ll have to excuse me for not taking the charge seriously, it’s just so many people have accused Bedard of apathy or rudeness that the effect is gone. If Bedard is a jerk, he must be the benign kind, so long as he doesn't violate a golden rule: Only valuable players get away with acting poorly. Expect Bedard to open the season in the Astros rotation, which is the first step in his master plan to irk reporters and fans in another city. —R.J. Anderson
Signed UTL-R Mark DeRosa to a one-year deal worth $750,000 with a club option worth $750 thousand. [1/22]
Here's a surprise. Not only did DeRosa get a big-league contract, but he got one with a club option. Alas, the chances of DeRosa's option being exercised seem fat. Over the past three seasons DeRosa has appeared in 26, 47, and 48 games; usually because of his left wrist, and last season because of an oblique strain. When DeRosa has played in recent years he's managed a .259 True Average against lefties. His ability to play multiple positions is a plus as well. If DeRosa can find a way to stay healthy then he could be a useful bench player. Otherwise, look for Mike McCoy to get time in his place. —R.J. Anderson
Signed LHP Pedro Feliciano to a minor-league deal. [1/21]
Feliciano, he of 408 appearances from 2006-2010, appeared to have a rubber arm until he signed a two-year deal (worth $8 million), and then missed both of those seasons while recovering from shoulder surgery. The only question reasonable people ask of the whole affair is how did this happen to the Yankees and not the Mets? Reversal of cosmic roles aside, the Mets have a smart little low-risk signing on their hands if Feliciano returns to form. In such scenario Feliciano would provide value as a specialist and trade chip. Here's a fun thought. Who would be less welcoming of a reunion: Yankees fans with Feliciano, or Feliciano with Jerry Manuel? —R.J. Anderson
Signed LF/DH-R Delmon Young to a one-year contract for $750,000, plus incentives that could bring the value to around $3.25 million. [1/22]
The simplest way to explain this is to note that $750,000 is a pittance for a team with a ~$170 million payroll, that it's about as low as you can pay even for near-replacement level players, that Delmon Young is near the replacement level, and that no move that costs just $750,000 can produce enough downside to get too agitated over it.
But criminologists will tell you that the severity of punishment is less of a deterrent to crime than the certainty of punishment, which might make you wonder why the apparent certainty of disappointment didn't deter the Phillies from signing Young, regardless of the modest stakes. We've got Young at around 1.2 WARP in his career, which is already six full seasons old, and at -0.9 in the past year, -1.2 in the past two years, and 0.6 in the past three years. In 2012, he had the same isolated power as Alexi Amarista, a Pomeranian chew toy who played in Petco. Young had a worse walk rate than nine NL teams' pitchers. Even with the spectacular fluctuations you expect from defensive metrics, he hasn't had a single season in his career with a positive FRAA—or, for that matter, a positive +/-, or a positive UZR. He has, however, thrown more bats at umpires in his career than every other player in the majors combined.
But now, a comparison. One of those gimmicky blind comparisons. This one covers the past three seasons:
We can agree, I hope, that those players are basically the same. The second player, Young, is considerably younger and has at least the reputation of a guy who can stand on the field. The first player, were he to be a free agent, would certainly sign for more than $750,000 (plus incentives) and, were he to sign for $750,000 (plus incentives), his new team's fans would certainly be elated. After all, limitations are limitations, but who wouldn't want Adam Dunn at $750,000?
We aren't involved in the conversations that lead to a deal like Young's happening, but presumably upside was discussed, alluded to, or at the very least in the back of the Phillies executives' minds. Adam Dunn, for instance, would get considerably more than $750,000 (plus incentives) as a free agent because Dunn has upside. He has been good in the more distant past, which makes him more likely to be good in the future than somebody who hasn't been good in the past. And he has been quite good, which suggests not just that he might return to form but that the form might be exciting. And this is the thinking behind Young, who stands out among the great unwashed replacement-level masses simply because he's interesting.
Young, like Dunn, has been good in the past (though much more distant). I wouldn't say that Young has ever been quite good, unless it's followed by the qualifier "for his age." But "good for his age," and particularly "great for his age," often turn into "good" or "great" eventually.
That doesn't mean it's a good thing to sign Delmon Young. It merely means that there is a thought process behind signing Delmon Young. Whether we should accept that thought process is what's next.
Young was, as you know, an elite prospect. Three times he was Baseball America's no. 3 prospect, and mixed in was one year at the very top of their list. The only position players to rank ahead of him at any point were Joe Mauer, B.J. Upton, and Alex Gordon.
Gordon is an interesting name to mention there, because Gordon was also a flop through age 26, and now he's 28 and he's a superstar, or at least plays like one while few people notice. Young's past-three-years line was already mentioned (Player B), but Gordon's line during the same three years wasn't exciting, either: 95 OPS+, and 4.3 WARP (thanks to better defense and baserunning). Since then, he has been worth 11 WARP in the past two seasons. If Delmon Young's agent didn't mention Gordon when he was talking to Ruben Amaro, Jr., he doesn't deserve his cut of the contract.
How realistic is it, though, for a player like Young—elite prospect, disappointing early/mid-20s—to bloom late and establish himself as something other than he has established himself? I went through the Baseball America top 100s from 1990 through 2000 and collected all the top-10 position prospects, then filtered out all but those who were disappointing through age 26. The disappointing ones were any with fewer than 4 WARP produced in their age 24, 25, and 26 seasons. (Gordon wasn't a prospect in this era, but even if he had been, he was too good to count as Delmon-level disappointment.)
There were 21. I've brought a table to this party!
What we mostly see are players who were bad and stayed bad. What we mostly see is that, if these players are the template for Young, the Phillies have a new right fielder who is going to be lousy. If he is, that's sorta okay. At $750,000, he's easy enough to cut loose, assuming that we're talking about a functioning front office (which I assume we are).
But what we also see is Cliff Floyd. Floyd's not a perfect comp—nobody is ever a perfect comp, but he's not even a totally convincing comp—because he was a) injured during a lot of those seasons and b) had been a well above-average hitter during each of those three seasons and c) could take a walk, which might not be any more important than any other skill but man oh man does it seem like it is, emotionally speaking. But at the same point in his career, Floyd had produced 1.9 career WARP in 539 career games, and depending on your perspective "but he's always injured" isn't necessarily more promising as an excuse than "but he sort of sucks." Floyd, though, stayed healthy and got much better in his age-27 season, and averaged 139 games with a .934 OPS over the next three seasons.
There's also Barrett and Alomar, whose age- 27, -28 and -29 seasons would be bargains today at $750,000 (plus incentives), but I was tempted to take catchers out of this exercise completely because they do tend to develop more slowly. And there's Clayton, who doubled his value and was no punchline, but his bump comes almost entirely from a one-year FRAA spike. You might note Konerko on the list, but WARP simply hated him at the time; he was more or less the same player in the three years before and the three years after our Delmon line, and that's about the same player he is now. Konerko's out of place on this list.
So we have 21 players: one shouldn't be on the list, three of the remaining 20 are qualified successes, one turned into a star and the other 16 suuuuuuucked. Is a 1-in-17 chance at getting Cliff Floyd worth a $750,000 (plus incentives) flyer on Young? It all depends on the opportunity cost. If Young comes at the cost of a roster spot that would otherwise be used on Juan Rivera, then it probably is, though it's no slam dunk. If it comes at the cost of giving an extended chance to Domonic Brown, himself a former top-10 prospect, in fact a former Best Prospect In Baseball, then probably not. I haven't done this exercise with players who, like Brown, were considered disappointments through age 24. But I'd bet almost anything that there's a much higher success rate among those disappointments than in Delmon's disappointment comps.
Again, assuming a functional front office and an alert manager, there's no reason to think Young has to play all season over Brown unless he's good. Between Young and Darin Ruf, there will be plenty of chances for the Phillies to change course and get Brown full-time play, unless Young and Ruf are both very good. In that unlikely scenario, the Phillies will be thrilled, and if that's the case Brown can go fly a kite for all anybody will care.
A lot of times we say we can't judge a move until we see how the players play; but in this case, it's far less about how Young plays, and more about how the organization reacts to his nearly but not quite inevitable failure. Because there's no reason this move has to cost them anything more than $750,000, a pittance, unless they let it. —Sam Miller
Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @SamMillerBB