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April 14, 2005

Prospectus Today

Credit Where It's Due

by Joe Sheehan

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It's funny the way things happen. The article I wrote for The New York Sun includes a passage about the efficacy of signing Travis Hafner to a long-term contract. What shows up in the piece is actually a watered-down version of some e-mails I've sent out on the subject. To wit:

[H]e's 28, likely to have peaked, no defensive/positional value, the Indians have a better player [Michael Aubrey] coming up behind him. Pretty much the poster boy for not doing this. Think Hinske or Grieve.
Now, I'll stand by that analysis. It's all true, and all of those things make Hafner a poor candidate for a long-term commitment. You want to lock up players younger than this, generally, and ones who have their best seasons in front of them. I don't think Hafner will improve upon, or even match, his '04 line (.311/.410/.583), and it's going to be a race to see whether he or Aubrey will be the better player in 2007, much less '08. I just don't see the need to lock up the DH spot for players below the level of peak Frank Thomas.

In reality, though, the deal that the Indians made for themselves--about 15 minutes after the Sun article was posted here yesterday--isn't bad. Hafner will make $500,000 this year, $2.5 million in '06 and $3.75 million in '07. The team holds an option for '08 at $4.75 million, with a $250,000 buyout. The '06 salary is almost certainly less than what Hafner would have made in arbitration; just going from "no leverage" to "arbitration eligible" is usually worth that much. Even a Hafner who hits at 80% of his peak for the next two years would have made more than $4 million if arbitration, so the '07 salary is probably a bargain, too. The low '07 salary also makes him a very tradable commodity if Aubrey and Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Cooper begin to crowd the outfield/DH mix.

I wouldn't have made this kind of commitment to Hafner. I can't argue, though, that the deal seems like a bargain for the Tribe, and contains very little downside for them.

Pet peeve: the signing, just like the Victor Martinez and Rich Harden ones, is being reported as the Indians "rewarding" Hafner. I really hate this; it perpetuates the concept of teams as these benevolent entities eager to write checks. Actually, the contract is just a risk exchange, one in which the player gets a guarantee and the team gets some cost certainty.

An actual "reward" would be the Indians paying Hafner the $6 million or so his 2004 performance might have earned him had he been able to negotiate a market rate for his services on a one-year deal. (Prior to yesterday, Hafner was making $377,400 this year, $60,000 above the minimum and not much "reward" for being one of the ten best players in the AL in '04.) The Indians are getting something for their money here; it's not a reward for Hafner.

Just once I'd like to see, "[player] gets team off hook for huge future salaries, agrees to four-year deal."

--

The Marlins got their fourth complete game in the season's first nine games yesterday, as Dontrelle Willis went the distance to beat the Phillies. In the big-ball, take'n'rake era, this is a noteworthy feat. The Marlins are the first team since 1992--before the current hitters' era began--to have four CGs in the first nine games of the year (Red Sox). The last teams to have more than four were all the way back in 1981, when the A's had eight of their first nine starters go the distance (ah, BillyBall) and the Indians had five. (A nod to James Click for digging that up.)

You might expect us pitch-count screamers to dial it up to 11 over this kind of handling. After all, three of the four CGs have been posted by the 23-year-old Willis and the 24-year-old Josh Beckett, who hasn't exactly been Livan Hernandez in his short career. Actually, though, the Marlins' starters have been able to go the distance because they've kept their pitch counts down in these games. Willis' 114 tosses yesterday were the most in any of the four CGs, with 110, 103 and 97 the other four counts.

Because the original Pitcher Abuse Points system used 100 pitches as a starting point, many people have gotten caught up in the idea that 100 pitches is an important figure. As later research showed--and as watching the game should demonstrate--the important range is the 120s. It's when pitchers are working into the 120s and 130s, and doing so repeatedly, that the dangers of ineffectiveness and injury increase. That kind of usage is potentially abusive. Working your rotation into the 110s on a consistent basis--Ozzie Guillen did this last year with some success, and Johan Santana was at that level throughout his dominant second half--isn't likely to be dangerous.

"Pitch efficiency" is a phrase you're going to see a lot this year, and it's just a fancy term for a pitcher's ability to get through innings quickly. Most pitching coaches like to see guys use 15 pitches an inning. That's not going to get you many complete games (it would be 135 pitches). The Marlins' hurlers, at least the top three, have hung around 11-13 pitches an inning. If they can maintain that pace, Jack McKeon will be able to get more innings from his best pitchers and be less reliant on a bullpen that, outside of Guillermo Mota, is weak.

So no ranting here, just a nod of admiration to young pitchers throwing strikes, and a silent prayer that the NL East is as good a race as I think it's going to be.

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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