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December 16, 2004

Prospectus Today

Post-Meetings Spree

by Joe Sheehan

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So not only were the last couple of days of the winter meetings a bit of a dud, but I managed to catch something while meandering the halls of the Marriott that has made the last few days as unpleasant as the idea of paying a 34-year-old Russ Ortiz nine million bucks.

As seems to be the case every year, there was a flurry of action after everyone left Anaheim. The highlights:

  • The Mets signed Pedro Martinez to a four-year deal worth $53 million.

    This isn't a baseball deal. Or more accurately, it isn't just a baseball deal. New Mets GM Omar Minaya wanted to make a statement signing, wanted to re-establish the Mets as players in the NL and the NY. Whether this investment in one of the game's highest-risk, highest-reward properties was the best way to that is open to question, but I do think you have to evaluate the contract in the context of those desires.

    Martinez has been in decline for years now, as a peek at his performance record shows. That he's still among the top starting pitchers in the game after four years of decline is a testament to how otherworldly he was during his 1999-2000 peak. Martinez struck out more than a batter per inning in '04 and had more than three strikeouts for every walk allowed. Since missing half of the 2001 season, he's averaged 31 starts and 201 innings a year. For all the legitimate concern about his shoulder, Martinez was the best pitcher on the market and the only one about whom there are only health issues, not performance ones. I've been as skeptical as anyone about his ability to stay healthy, but the more I look at his recent performance and where the market has gone for pitchers, the more I've come to like Martinez.

    Moving to Shea Stadium is likely to save Martinez some effort. Facing pitchers once in a while, pitching in a park that drives down runs and drives up strikeouts, will be worth a couple of pitches per start. Given Martinez's known problems after reaching 100 pitches, the less work he has to do, the better. I doubt that the Mets can keep him on a six-day rotation, but a strict five-man will allow him an extra day off in maybe half of his starts, and he's pitched better with extra rest.

    My best guess is that Martinez makes 90 starts and throws 600 innings over the life of the deal, putting up an overall ERA of around 3.00. I think he'll have two full seasons, one partial and one write-off, but there's little backing that up, especially when you consider his last three years.

    The Mets are better today than they were yesterday, and in a division as weak as the NL East, that has value. They still need to add a bat to play right field or first base--J.D. Drew would be a much better idea than Carlos Delgado--and sort through their bullpen options, but if 2005 is one of Martinez's healthy seasons, they could take the division with 88 wins.

  • The Red Sox wasted little time in spending the money not given to Martinez by signing Edgar Renteria to a four-year deal worth $40 million. In the same way that I've come around to liking an investment in Martinez, I've become less enamored of Renteria as a high-dollar signing.

    Other than in 2003, when he was 27 years old and peaked in just about every way, Renteria hasn't played at a star level in any season. Outside of '03, he's been a consistent 3-4 win player, albeit with contributions of different shape from year to year. He's a good offensive player, but one who lacks the secondary skills--power, walks, great SB rates, defense--to justify an eight-figure salary.

    Renteria's defense is a mystery. Observers give him high marks, including Gold Gloves in 2002 and 2003, but Clay Davenport's system has him well below average in two of the last three years. Mitchel Lichtman's Ultimate Zone Rating had him above average from 2000 through 2003, and dead average in '04. I trust the numbers--and the fact that Renteria lost the Gold Glove in '04, something it's not easy to do once you've won it twice--enough to be skeptical that he's not a superior defender, and likely to lose range over the life of the deal.

    Miguel Tejada is signed for the next five years at $12 million per year. When you put Tejada next to Renteria, it's clear that one of them isn't being paid commensurate with performance. Renteria isn't going to hurt the Sox, but he's not a superstar, and expectations that he'll play like one because he's being paid like one are outsized.

  • The head-scratcher of the week was the deal the Mariners gave Richie Sexson, a four-year contract worth $50 million. Sexson hasn't played since suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in May, and while he insists the shoulder is fine, skepticism is warranted until we see him play for a month.

    Even healthy, Sexson isn't likely to be worth the heavily-backloaded investment. He's past his peak, during which he was a very good player who fell short of stardom. His top statistical comps are a bunch of guys who were massive disappointments in their early thirties. Safeco Field, which is harder on right-handed batters than lefties, isn't going to make him look good. Come '07 and '08, the Mariners are going to be paying $14 million to a 32-year-old first baseman who might be hitting .260 with 25 home runs, and that's if things go well. I'm eager to see Sexson's new PECOTA card, myself, but I don't think it's going to change my mind. This is a bad signing for the Mariners. Someone I trust agrees.

    All I keep hearing is "Pete O'Brien"…

  • The Brewers made their second good deal in a week, picking up Carlos Lee from the White Sox in exchange for spare parts in Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. I'm not a big Lee fan, but this was something-for-nothing for Doug Melvin, who swapped a fifth outfielder masquerading as a starting center fielder and a serviceable reliever for a player who becomes his team's best hitter.

    Other than shave money from the payroll, I don't know what this deal does for the White Sox, who added a low-OBP center fielder and a reliever who might be their third-best if Neal Cotts doesn't come around. I've argued that they need to address their balance problems, but doing so by swapping a good player for a bad one--Podsednik is never seeing his 2003 batting average again--isn't what I had in mind. Unless this deal frees up money for someone like Carlos Beltran--a highly unlikely scenario--it only benefits Twins fans and Jerry Resindorf's bottom line.

I'm not through half the things on my list…back with the rest, and some winter meetings e-mails, tomorrow.

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

Related Content:  Carlos Martinez,  The Who

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