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January 20, 2004

Prospectus Today

Best Free-Agent Signings

by Joe Sheehan

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Ivan Rodriguez and Greg Maddux are still on the market. For that matter, so are Mark McLemore, Shawn Estes, Todd Zeile, and Dave Veres. But I think we've seen enough to evaluate this winter's free-agent signings. Today, the best. Tomorrow, the worst.

  • Vladimir Guerrero, Angels. Forget what it does to the Angels' roster, because they can solve that problem by leaving Darin Erstad in center field. Just look at what they got: one of the top five players in baseball for the bargain price of $14 million a year. He's marketable, he's talented, he's healthy (per Will Carroll) and he's theirs for the bulk of his prime. You just can't do any better than this.

    I like Gary Sheffield. I think Gary Sheffield will end up in the Hall of Fame. But there's no way that Guerrero at ages 28-30 is worth just $1 million a year more than Sheffield at ages 35-37. Guerrero is going to end up as one of the great free-agent signings ever, right up there with Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux in 1993 and Randy Johnson in 1999. He will be worth 8-10 wins a season over the life of the deal, and I'll predict right now that he'll win at least one MVP award in that time.

  • Miguel Batista, Blue Jays. Batista's traditional statistics hide just how good a pitcher he's been since finding his way to the desert in 2001. He was just 29-26 with a 3.76 ERA for the Diamondbacks, who usually had to be prodded into letting him into the rotation. (Batista relieved at least seven times each year, usually towards the beginning of the season.)

    Look closer, though, and you see that Batista was improving throughout his time in Arizona, becoming more efficient and effective each season. What follows are his translated rate statistics, as well as some additional data that highlight his development:

     
    Year      IP    K/9  BB/9  K/BB  HR/9    G/F
    2001   139.1    4.8   3.8   1.3   0.7   1.35
    2002   184.2    4.7   3.0   1.6   0.6   1.74
    2003   193.1    5.9   2.4   2.5   0.6   2.04
    

    Batista has become one of the game's better command right-handers, a strike-throwing groundball pitcher whose primary statistics belie his underlying performance. The Jays took advantage of this divergence to get him for just over $4 million a year for the next three years.

  • Kazuo Matsui, Mets. This is an underrated signing, putting aside the subsequent shift of Jose Reyes to second base. Miguel Tejada got a bit less than twice the money for twice as many years as Matsui, and I don't think there's any way he's twice the player. Conceding that the two Japanese hitters who have come over have lost a lot of their power, Matsui still projects as a decent comp for Edgar Renteria in his non-peak seasons. That's .290/.350/.440 with 20-25 steals, a good success rate and above-average defense.

    PECOTA projects .281/.339/.456 for Matsui, with 14 steals in 19 attempts and a VORP of 39.1. By comparison, Tejada checks in at .280/.341/.472, 7/3, and a VORP of 46.1. That's a difference of less than one win, some of which Matsui should make up on defense (PECOTA projects him at -1 run, and Tejada at -7). Given the cost and length of commitment, the Mets made one of the best signings of the winter.

  • Roger Clemens, Astros. I'll concede that this is cheating, in that the Astros weren't competing with anyone but a wife and four kids for Clemens' services, and they'll make some concessions to Clemens to make this work. Nevertheless, adding a #2 starter for $5 million is a great deal. Clemens is still one of the top 30 starters in the game--20th last year--and he struck out nearly a batter an inning while posting better than a 3-to-1 K/BB in 2003. Given his continued excellence and his commitment to conditioning, Clemens could be another Nolan Ryan, striking out eight or more men a game well into his 40s. He doesn't seem to want that, but it is within his reach.

    The Yankees paid $21.6 million to Clemens and Andy Pettitte last season. The Astros will pay them $10.5 million. That's the new market at work, but it's also some good fortune and some creative financing. If the Astros do win the Central, it will be these two pitchers, replacing what was a lousy back of the rotation for the Astros in '03, who will be the reason why.

  • Matt Stairs, Royals. The guy hit .292/.389/.561 last season, he's always been productive against right-handers, and the Royals desperately needed to add some left-handed power. What's not to like? Given a choice between Stairs at $1 million and Raul Ibanez at $3.4 million per for three years, there's no comparison. Stairs will probably put up 400 PAs with a .290 EqA, be worth three or four wins, and get very little notice. (I should note that PECOTA doesn't share my enthusiasm, projecting him to post a .249/.357/.459 line in sharply reduced playing time.)

  • Rafael Palmeiro, Orioles and Orlando Palmeiro, Astros.

    Palmeiros were going cheap this winter, as the cousins will combine to make $5.2 million in '03. Orlando has always been a favorite of mine, a good fourth outfielder who gets on base, runs well despite not stealing bases, and can play center field. He's usually good for a .360 OBP, although his 2003 line of .271/.336/.347 was dragged down by a bit too much playing time against left-handers, against whom he's fairly hopeless. Given the Astros' lack of a center fielder, Palmeiro could fill an important role for them.

    The better-known of the baseballing Palmeiros, Rafael had to wait until January to find a suitor, signing with the Orioles for just $4.5 million. It was something of a surprise, in that his traditional stats are still very good--38 home runs 112 RBI in '03, his ninth consecutive 30/100 season in those categories--and which usually means a big payday. The Ballpark in Arlington has masked a decline, as Palmeiro's contributions have become more heavily weighted toward walks and homers. His 2003 EqA of .290 was his worst since 1997, and one of just three sub-.300 seasons since 1989.

    With all that said, Palmeiro should still be a productive player in '04. He's been durable, he's shown little degradation in his core skills--patience and power--and he's the type of hitter who can bat .250 and still put runs on the board. For a longer commitment or for more money, you would worry about risk, but this is essentially a no-lose situation for the Orioles. Palmeiro isn't likely to hurt them, and he's as safe a bet there is to be worth five wins.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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