January 30, 2013
The Sunk Costs of 2013
In some ways, the team-specific strengths and weaknesses that metrics like wins above replacement player (or wins above replacement, in more ink-frugal corners of the internet) don’t attempt to account for is what drives much of baseball’s commerce. Every team’s actual replacement player, as opposed to the generic hypothetical, varies. Yes, the Justin Upton trade was about each team’s view of talent and probably grit, but even though the Diamondbacks don’t value Upton like the market may, the situation would have been totally different had Arizona’s roster included only two competent outfielders rather than five.
As much as the identity of each team’s easily available replacement player comes into play in the penthouse of the market, we will see throughout the year that it matters where the worst contracts are concerned, as well. Sunk costs take up space on rosters and even more space on payrolls when there is no suitable replacement. But when there is, we sometimes see action.
Sunk costs are a fixture of the contract landscape, either because players don’t perform as anticipated or because teams have to overpay for the later years of a contract in order to take advantage of the earlier years at what they think will be a below-market salary. It was Kevin Youkilis last year when Will Middlebrooks was ready to replace him at lower cost; it was Carlos Lee with Brett Wallace, and both the Red Sox and the Astros, respectively, ate most of their veteran’s money just to free up the spot.
Many players have been in the sunk cost zone for years, with their teams unwilling or unable to eat the money and run. Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells belong in the Sunk Cost Hall of Fame, maybe even with a waiver of the five-year waiting period. Barry Zito might be provided a pass, but only because there is no obvious replacement for him on San Francisco’s staff, even if you aren’t buying his dramatics at the end of 2012. But the rosters shaping up for 2013 have presented some additional candidates to add to the list of sunk costs, since their roster spots would be more valuable in somebody else’s name.
Ted Lilly, Dodgers LHP
This is less because of the flyball-prone lefty’s performance, which has been unpredictable, than it is the richness of the Dodgers’ rotation. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke take up the top two spots, Chad Billingsley is healthy, Josh Beckett and Aaron Harang are closer to Lilly’s category, Chris Capuano is still there and Hyun-Jin Ryu makes seven. Lilly makes eight and could very well be making his way out of town either as a good trade chip if he recovers well or just an arm who could eat innings for someone at a discount, with the Dodgers paying most of what’s owed him.