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January 12, 2004

Prospectus Today

Back in the Saddle

by Joe Sheehan

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(Tap...Tap...)

Is this thing on?

With my contributions to Baseball Prospectus 2004 safely behind me, it's time to get back to filling this space with observations and analysis. Or attempts at same. I've missed writing my column, and while there's no way I'll get completely caught up on the events of the last two months, I can have fun trying.

I'm not a resolutions guy, but I am making two commitments for 2004: to emphasize a more quantitative viewpoint in my analysis, and to spend more time answering reader mail. The former I'll just have to work on every time I write, but the latter has now been dedicated a "Task" in Outlook. Nothing in my life is real until Outlook starts nagging me about it, so hopefully that will help me be better about a weak spot in my game the last few years. I can't answer all my e-mail, but I can get to more of it than I have been.

The big news over the weekend was that Vladimir Guerrero surprised everyone by signing with the Angels. No one saw this coming; the Angels had been rumored to be interested earlier this winter, but had faded into the background after signing Jose Guillen in December. Over the last week, the Mets and Orioles had been engaged in a low-scale bidding war for Guerrero, a weird situation in which the goal seemed to be to guarantee the fewest years and the lowest amount of money while showing the least interest. Throw in raging insecurity and a lousy sense of fashion and you'd have the way women "pursued" me in college. It was this atmosphere that allowed Moreno and the Angels to come in and pick up a Hall of Fame talent at a price that almost seems like a typo.

The five-year, $70-million contract Guerrero will reportedly sign once he passes his physical has to be considered a bargain. Compared to his peer group--the very best players in baseball--he's laughably underpaid.


Player              Age   '01-'03 WARP  Annual Salary    Signed
---------------------------------------------------------------
Vladimir Guerrero    28       23.4         $14.0MM        28-32

Barry Bonds          39       43.8         $20.0MM        39-41
Alex Rodriguez       28       37.1         $25.6MM        28-34
Jason Giambi         33       32.0         $16.1MM        33-37
Todd Helton          30       33.5         $14.5MM        30-37
Albert Pujols        24       30.3         arb-eligible
Bret Boone           35       29.8         $17.0MM        35-36
Jim Edmonds          34       27.6         $11.3MM        34-36
Carlos Delgado       32       27.3         $18.5MM           32
Jim Thome            33       27.2         $13.1MM        33-37
Gary Sheffield       35       26.5         $13.0MM        35-37
Scott Rolen          29       26.3         $11.3MM        29-35
Manny Ramirez        32       25.5         $19.5MM        32-36

The last two columns reflect the money and time remaining on the deals, including pro-rated signing bonuses, not their total value. (In Scott Rolen's case, I listed the average annual value of the entire contract.)

Conceding that some of these contracts were signed under the old CBA, is there any player in baseball who is currently a better value than Guerrero? Albert Pujols is a special case, still three years from being able to negotiate a market salary. I think Alex Rodriguez is worth the money he makes, but I would have a hard time making the argument that you couldn't make up the performance gap between him and Guerrero with $11.6 million. (Guerrero and Rolen, or Rodriguez? Guerrero and Edmonds, or Rodriguez? Guerrero and Miguel Tejada, or Rodriguez?) Barry Bonds? That's a tough one, but Bonds is 39 and costs nearly 50% more per year.

In the same offseason in which Guerrero signed, Gary Sheffield got three years at $13 million a year. Sheffield is seven years older than Guerrero, a comparable hitter to Vlad, and not as good a defensive player. Jim Thome makes $13 million a season as well; he's five years older than Guerrero and a first baseman. Jason Giambi will make an average of $2 million more a year than Guerrero will over the next five years; he probably won't be a better player than Guerrero even once during that time.

Note that Guerrero's three-year WARP figure, and arguably the value of his contract, is held down by the concerns over his back. He missed 50 games last season, although his performance after he came off the disabled list--.353/.434/.661, just two missed games after the All-Star break--makes a pretty good argument that he's OK. Will Carroll makes a better one, pointing out that Guerrero's injury is manageable through flexibility and trunk-strengthening programs, and that Guerrero has shown a commitment to those programs that should minimize his risk of reinjury.

Guerrero is the fourth Spanish-speaking free agent that the Angels have signed this winter, following Guillen, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar. New Angels owner Arte Moreno, the game's first Latino magnate, never explicitly stated that he wanted to pursue Hispanic players. Regardless, adding more Hispanic star power than the Angels have ever had in franchise history should help them access the burgeoning immigrant and first-generation-American population in the areas around Angels Stadium, particularly in the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim. Not only does adding Guerrero add wins on the field, but he helps what seems to be a concerted effort to tap a neglected market for Angels baseball.

In the long term, there's no way having Vladimir Guerrero for five years at $14 million a year is a bad thing. He's a superstar in the middle of his prime, an exciting player to watch, and only last year's back problem lingers as a concern.

But.

In the short term, the addition of Guerrero may not be the bonanza it appears to be. Given the players already on the roster, and some complicating health questions, it's possible that the Angels may be boxing themselves into a situation that costs them a big chunk of the value Guerrero adds.

With the additions of Guillen and Guerrero, and the departures of Scott Spiezio and Shawn Wooten, the Angels now have five outfielders and no first baseman. The plan appears to be to move Darin Erstad to first base, using Tim Salmon at DH, and playing Guillen in center field, with Garret Anderson and Guerrero in their natural positions.

It should be noted that this isn't something just invented over the weekend. The Angels have been making noise about moving Erstad back to first base since last summer. The idea is that getting him out of center field will keep him in the lineup more. Maybe it would.

Here's the thing, though: The Angels would be better off with Darin Erstad on the disabled list than at first base:

  • Erstad can't hit. I'm not just being a grumpy stathead. Since his raging fluke 2000 season, Erstad has batted .268/.320/.367 in 1,500 plate appearances. That's not a slump, it's not injuries and it's not park effects: It's an established level of ability. He's 30 years old and has a career EqA of .270, a mark he's been under four times in five years. PECOTA projects him to hit .261/.315/.362 in 2004, which would make him one of the worst first basemen in baseball.

    Don't like that projection? Be generous. Say that Erstad will have the second-best season of his life, a .290 EqA. His history at first base is that he's an average defender (one career Run Above Average in Clay Davenport's system), so we'll give him that. That puts him somewhere between Doug Mientkiewicz and Travis Lee with the bat, 20-30 runs above replacement, but without their defense. If he has the second-best season of his life.

  • Erstad can play center field. Any argument for justifying Erstad's $8 million salary begins and ends with his defense. He was worth three wins above replacement in 2001 and five wins above replacement in 2002 with his glove, and while he slipped to just about seven runs above replacement in '03, that was in less than half a season, one in which he was injured. For Erstad to be a valuable player, or even an average one, he has to be allowed to use his great range in center field.

    Rather than think of Erstad as Jim Edmonds with a better attitude and worse luck, the Angels need to start thinking of him as Gary Pettis. That's the player he is.

  • Angels pitchers give up fly balls. Boy, do they ever. Only three teams allowed more fly balls than the Halos did last season. Adding Colon and Escobar, who will probably inherit innings pitched by Aaron Sele, Kevin Appier and Scot Shields, won't do much to change that. Colon has become more prone to fly balls as he's gotten older, while Escobar has been all over the map, with a career-best GB/FB ratio in '03. Jarrod Washburn, Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey all put the ball in the air and need to be supported by a strong outfield defense.

    Of the other candidates, Jose Guillen has a career total of 14 appearances and less than 100 innings in center field. Davenport's stats peg him as an average corner outfielder. He'll be 28 in '04, and speed doesn't seem to be a big part of his game these days (two triples, 7-for-18 stealing, 31 GDPs in his last three seasons). Anderson is 32 and also not noted for his foot speed. He spent two years as the Angels' regular center fielder at ages 27 and 28, with mixed performances. Since moving to left field in '01, he's had two good seasons (20 FRAR, 31 FRAR) wrapped around one so-so one (7 FRAR). Guerrero hasn't appeared in center since 1997, and has just two appearances there in his career.

    No matter who replaces Erstad in center field, the Angels will be hard-pressed to get even league-average defense there. That's a 20-run loss as compared to what Erstad could be expected to provide, and I think the metrics may underestimate the real cost, given the flyball tendencies of the Angels' pitchers.

So add it up. The difference between Erstad and someone else in center field is a minimum of 20 runs, and that's making conservative estimates as to his 2004 defensive performance and what the Angels could get from a replacement. He'd be, at best, a below-average first baseman, and might well sink to replacement level. Give him his career .270 EqA, which is optimistic, and he's about one win above replacement, perhaps 20 runs below average.

Using conservative assumptions, there's 40 runs of difference between Erstad in center field and Erstad at first base. That's half the value of getting Guerrero right there. It's fair to say that what they do with Erstad, and not the signing of Guerrero, will determine the Angels' fate in '04.

The ill-conceived decision to move Erstad isn't the Angels' only problem. In most plans, Tim Salmon is slated to be the designated hitter. Now, Salmon agreed to take on that role last year in the wake of the season-ending injury to Brad Fullmer. However, he has never warmed to the slot, and may have reservations about doing so now. A bigger concern is that Troy Glaus is rehabbing an injured right shoulder, and according to Carroll, may not be able to play third base for part or all of 2004. That's not only one more body trying to get at-bats at first base and DH, but a hole created at a position the Angels aren't going to be able to fill with anything of value.

Signing Vladimir Guerrero was opportunistic and bold and brilliant...but can you think of a team that was less-prepared to grab him than the Angels were?

To make this work, the Angels have to commit to leaving Erstad in center field. Once they do that, they should test the waters on Salmon's ability to learn first base, which would keep him on the field for more than his four at-bats a game. If Glaus can't play third base, he splits time at first base and DH with Salmon. Guillen? His surprise 2004 performance notwithstanding, he's not worth screwing up your defense for. Make him the fourth outfielder and if he hits his way out of the job, deal with it then.

None of this makes signing Guerrero a bad idea. Heck, the Angels could release Guillen to solve this problem, eat the six million bucks and be ahead of the game. More likely is that Bill Stoneman will look to make at least one trade. With a glut of outfielders and starting pitchers, he might be able to package, say, Garret Anderson and Jarrod Washburn for a corner infielder or even a young outfielder. The two to San Diego, for Phil Nevin or Ryan Klesko? To Chicago, for Corey Patterson and Juan Cruz? To Minnesota, along with some money, for Justin Morneau, Lew Ford and an arm or two?

If you're Stoneman, it's a nice problem to have.

Notes

  • The line between being self-referential and self-reverential is even thinner than the words would have you believe. At the risk of falling on the wrong side of it, I'll point out that Rich Lederer, who has been profiling baseball writers for his site all winter, interviewed me for an article that is now up at Rich's Baseball BEAT.

  • One more pointer. Some of you may remember a couple of very funny BP pieces from the summer of '02, written by Derek Jacques. I haven't been able to get Derek to write more for BP, but he has started a Weblog. Check it out; Derek's been sending e-mails to a group of friends for years, and I'm happy that he's finally sharing his entertaining writing style with more people. Dude's funny.

  • If Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie switched jobs with Mike Martz, do you think the Rams would be practicing for a game this Sunday?

    Me, too. I do think Martz would have been challenged by his new environment, however.

It's good to be back.

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

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