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January 26, 2004

Prospectus Today

Bustin' Out the Cripple Stick

by Joe Sheehan

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I'm going to pull some of the good stuff from my Inbox for today's column. Before I get into it, though, I want to thank all the people who wrote in with feedback on the Pete Rose piece. I meandered into that minefield with some trepidation, but the response from the readership was tremendous.

I can only hope that Bud Selig is hearing the same kind of groundswell against reinstating Rose that I am.

On to the more interesting stuff.

Arbitration

Good article. Now that I've read it, I'm less suprised at Johan Santana's requested salary of $2.5 million. Even if the Twins completely lose the case, and pay the entire $2.5MM, that's a bargain-basement price for their staff ace.

-- M.S.

Thanks, M.S. You've pointed out an excellent example of how arbitration is a less-costly system for management than the free market is. Let's say that Santana wins his case and makes $2.5 million for 2004. It seems like a lot of money, and it will be a huge raise over the $335,000 he made in 2003, but does it approach his market value?

Over the last two seasons, Santana has an ERA of 3.04 in 266 2/3 innings. He would have pitched more, but the Twins' have been quite stubborn about letting other people fail before turning to Santana. He has 306 strikeouts and 96 walks in those two seasons, during which time he's been the Twins' best pitcher.

The following pitchers, all of whom were available on the free-agent market this winter, will make more than Santana does this year or just slightly less:


2002-03 stats        IP    ERA     WARP     Age    '04 salary
-------------------------------------------------------------
Johan Santana     266.6   3.04    10.6       25     <=$2.50MM

Kelvim Escobar    258.1   4.29     9.8       28       $5.75MM
John Thomson      271.3   4.74     5.9       30       $2.25MM
Jeff Suppan       412.0   4.76    10.3       29       $3.00MM
Cory Lidle        384.2   4.82     8.0       32       $2.75MM
Jason Johnson     321.0   4.35     7.2       30       $3.00MM
Kenny Rogers      405.2   4.19    11.2       39       $2.50MM
Brian Anderson    353.7   4.22     7.6       32       $3.25MM

'04 salary includes pro-rated signing bonus, as applicable. Suppan and
Anderson's salaries reflect average annual value of two-year deals.

Santana has been by far the best pitcher of this bunch--Rogers' slim WARP edge over him is entirely due to the whims of Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire--and will be no better than the sixth-best paid of the group. It's fair to say that he would get considerably more than a one-year, $2.5-million deal on the open market, which is why the Twins never once considered non-tendering him.

I don't mean to give the impression that I think arbitration is some kind of bad system for the players. Because of their significant investments in talent development, teams should retain exclusive negotiating rights to players for a period of time. The current six-year window is a good one. Rather than demonize the arbitration process, however, people should see it for what it is: a middle ground that has significantly more positives than negatives.

Given the choice between arbitration and a lower threshold for full-fledged free agency, management always chooses arbitration. Johan Santana is just one more reason why.

I realize you were focusing on free-agent signings, but as "dumb decisions" go, where does the Dodgers' decision to tender a contract to Adrian Beltre rate? As you're probably aware, this decision effectively flushed $5 million down the toilet. If he were non-tendered, I don't know if he could have gotten $2 million per year on the free market.

-- D.R.

Well, as you can see from the charts above, the ability to negotiate on the open market can get you a lot more money and years than you would think. It was pretty lousy market for third basemen, and a 26-year-old Beltre would have looked like a pretty good option for any number of teams.

Here are this winter's FA third basemen, and their 2003 stats:


                   AB   AVG   OBP   SLG   WARP   Age  '04 salary
----------------------------------------------------------------
Adrian Beltre     559  .240  .290  .424   3.5     26     $5.00MM

Vinny Castilla    542  .277  .310  .461   3.1     36     $2.10MM
Scott Spiezio     521  .265  .326  .451   3.7     31     $3.05MM
Chris Stynes      443  .255  .335  .413   1.8     31    $975,000
Tony Batista      631  .235  .270  .393   2.6     30     $1.50MM
Joe Randa         502  .291  .348  .452   3.5     34     $3.75MM
Robin Ventura     392  .242  .340  .401   2.4     36     $1.20MM

Spiezio's salary is average annual value of a three-year deal.

I think keeping Beltre is a good gamble for the Dodgers. They otherwise would have been left with Robin Ventura at third base, and he started to look very, very slow last year. Beltre's performance was right in line with the top of this group, and he is the only one of the bunch with much chance to improve to the five- or six-win level. Based on that, I think Beltre would almost certainly have received a multi-year contract for at least $4 million a year had he been on the market, making his one-year, $5-million contract an acceptable risk.

Foulke, Free Agent

A "Best Free-Agent Signings" list sans Keith Foulke. I suppose I will just chalk it up to oversight, right? Right?

-- P.S.

Regarding your "best signings"...I'm genuinely surprised. No Keith Foulke? The Red Sox didn't break the bank to get him, and he's clearly one of the best three or four relievers in the game right now (and easily the best one available on this year's free agent market).

-- R.L.

Five reasons why I don't think the Keith Foulke signing was anything special:

  1. Foulke relies on his change-up to get outs. As his fastball loses some speed--and it should over the life of the deal--that change-up is going to be less effective.

  2. Foulke is a flyball pitcher moving to a place in which fly balls to left field become hits with greater frequency than they did in his first two home parks. That alone is going to be worth some runs.

    The first two factors alone should make Sox fans very nervous. It's not necessarily about 2004, but about the last two years of the deal, when they could have a high-leverage reliever giving up 20 doubles and 10 home runs for his $6 million.

  3. The Red Sox didn't exactly get him cheaply. Four years and $24 million for 80 innings of work a season is exactly the kind of commitment no team needs to make, not in a world filled with Brendan Donnellys and Guillermo Motas.

  4. Because the Red Sox have other options for the late innings--Scott Williamson, Bronson Arroyo (who I think is a huge sleeper for '04) and perhaps even Byung-Hyun Kim--I don't see Foulke breaking too far out of the modern closer role. You would think that the team which employs Theo Epstein and Bill James would try and bring back the ace reliever of the 1975-83 period, but even after acquiring two of the best candidates for the role last year in Williamson and Kim, the Sox stuck to a fairly pedestrian usage pattern.

    I could be very wrong on this point, but until I see evidence that Foulke is going to trade 15 easy ninth-inning, three-run-lead saves for 15 extra high-leverage seventh and eighth innings, I don't think his potential value is going to be maximized.

  5. It is rare for any reliever to be effective over the course of a full decade. The two guys who I most associate with Foulke, Trevor Hoffman and Jeff Montgomery, were worth much less in their 30s, and Montgomery experienced a very steep decline after a huge age-31 season:
    
                    WARP1
    
    Age    Foulke     Montgomery     Hoffman
    25      1.9          0.0           2.7
    26      5.1          2.6           4.6
    27      4.8          6.5           3.2
    28      8.0          4.8           7.8
    29      3.7          5.3           6.2
    30      7.6          5.9           7.5
    31                   8.2           4.7
    32                   2.7           5.5
    33                   3.7           4.1
    34                   4.0           4.7
    35                   2.8           0.2
    
    
    I haven't looked too deeply at this yet, but I don't think you can find a lot of relievers who stayed at Foulke's recent level for a seven- or eight-year period. I think the best relievers in the modern era have short, high peaks before slipping. Mariano Rivera is the exception to this, but when you look around at the best relievers in baseball, by any standard, there just aren't guys who are worth five or more WARP a year for most of a decade.

    Just looking at some names, there are a lot of guys who had a brief monster peak, then settled in at a lower one. Troy Percival, Armando Benitez, Billy Wagner and Robb Nen probably have the best performance records aside from Rivera, but each missed a season due to injury, as did Hoffman. There's just not a lot of history to support the idea that Foulke is going maintain his level of performance and his durability throughout the contract.

I think at best, the Red Sox will have a good pitcher in their bullpen for the next four years at a market price. But Foulke isn't a bargain, and there are enough...we won't call them red flags, but how about pink ones?...around him that he can't be considered one of the winter's best signings.

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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