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December 10, 2004

Prospectus Today

Full Speed Ahead

by Joe Sheehan

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Rumors are fun, but they don't lend themselves well to analysis. I'll stick to what's actually happened so far, in a quick trip around the pre-winter meetings chaos:

  • The Diamondbacks' signing of Troy Glaus is a strange move. Given how bad they're likely to be up the middle, he certainly doesn't fill a hole for them or make them likely to contend. He might not be able to play third base, which leaves him locked in at first base, a position he has very little experience playing. His contract--I'll call this one now--is untradable the moment he signs it, which means in two years he'll be blocking a spot the D'backs may eventually need for Conor Jackson or Jamie D'Antona.

    Glaus is a heck of a hitter, but given the questions about his shoulder, a four-year commitment for $11 million a year is far too much time and money. He missed more than a full season over the last two years with shoulder problems, and he didn't play third base at all after coming off the DL in September. He's insisting that the shoulder is fine, but the Diamondbacks have made a $45 million commitment that hinges entirely on that joint. If Glaus can't play third, he's not a special player, just another slugging first baseman.

    Even if Glaus can play third base, this deal isn't optimal. The Diamondbacks didn't need a slugging corner man; they needed OBP up the middle and some help at the back of the rotation. When you consider that the Diamondbacks have the dead weight of millions each year in deferred money to the 2001 championship team, and a city that seems to be losing interest in a failing ballclub, it's hard to see how this deal is going to be anything but a burden on a .475 team.

  • Speaking of right-handed power hitters, the Dodgers signed Jeff Kent to a two-year deal worth $17 million. I didn't think Kent would get close to $8.5MM/year in this market, but looking around at what comps like Bret Boone and Alfonso Soriano will make, it's a reasonable figure. Kent is in the midst of his decline, and the change in run environments could take enough off of his batting average to drop his OBP into the .330s, so the contract isn't without risk. Kent may have dual roles in L.A., playing both second base and first base, depending on how the rest of the Dodgers' winter goes.

    Increasingly, I'm coming around to the idea that it's hard to make a bad free-agent signing if the commitment is for no more than two years. What kills teams is the backside of a long-term contract, when the player is three, four or more years removed from his peak, but making the highest salaries of his career. He's not producing, he's a huge part of the payroll, and he can't be traded.

    If you limit your signings to two or fewer years, not only can you better project what you'll get, but you eliminate the risk of carrying dead weight. Consider the worst-case scenarios for the Dodgers with Kent and the Diamondbacks with Glaus; there's no way the Dodgers can get as badly burned. In many cases, it's worth it for teams to commit a higher average salary over a shorter time frame; two years and $17MM versus three years and $22MM. The marginal dollars mean less than the extra year when it comes to evaluating risk.

  • Not all two-year contracts are a good idea. The White Sox brought Jermaine Dye into the fold for $10.5 million across '05 and '06. Dye just hasn't been the same since breaking his kneecap in 2001. In 2004, his best year since the injury, Dye put up a .274 EqA and three wins above replacement. A smart team can get that kind of performance from good work in the free-talent markets.

    Just like the Glaus signing, the Dye pickup doesn't address the team's needs. The White Sox have been heavily right-handed for years, and an outfield corner is exactly the place where you can address that problem. Moreover, Dye is slow, has lost a lot defensively and can't be counted on for a good OBP. He's 31, so expecting a bounceback to even his 2001 level is asking a lot. The White Sox need help from the left side and some OBP guys to bat in front of their power core.

  • One reason the Padres didn't win the very winnable NL West last year was Kevin Towers' inability to make the team better in-season. He made up for some of that yesterday by signing Eric Young and Woody Williams to one-year deals. Young has gone from being overrated--thanks to playing in Colorado and stealing a lot of bases--to being underrated as a bench player who does a lot of different things. The Rangers got great work from him last year, and he's probably more valuable on an NL team.

    Williams and the Padres are as good a match as we'll see all winter. He's a flyball pitcher who's biggest problem is the long ball, now pitching in the place homers go to die, Petco Park. Getting him for one year at $3.5MM is a steal in a market that gave Jaret Wright and Kris Benson more than $20 million each. Williams may not be the best signing we see this winter, but he'll be on the short list.

  • Just one note about the Marlins negotiating with Las Vegas about a potential move: once the ice is broken on something like this, the next one becomes a lot easier. One of the things that made getting the Expos out of Montreal so hard was the fact that no franchise had moved in 30-odd years, during which time the NFL map had been redrawn a number of times. But with that move accomplished, it's hard to stand in the way of an owner who wants to head for the mountains of cash.

    I'd be surprised if at least one other team didn't relocate in the next five years. The demand for major league status is still high among cities, just as the demand for large chunks of taxpayer dollars is high among franchise owners.

    From MLB's standpoint, a couple of franchise moves could be just the thing to reinvigorate the process of municipal extortion. The threat of relocation works a lot better in an environment where relocations are permissible. If a couple of cities lose their teams the way Montreal did, then the remaining clubs have a lot more leverage in demanding public financing for new parks.

I'll be back tomorrow with analysis of Friday's moves, and Will Carroll will be updating a "Winter Meetings Diary" all weekend.

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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