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November 28, 2006

Prospectus Today

Stay Away

by Joe Sheehan

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The early signing season has cut the knees out from under some column ideas. For example, I've been wanting to follow up the piece on stealth free agents with one on some guys I wouldn't sign with my worst enemy's money. Then the Angels-not my worst enemy, at least not since I got over the 2002 Division Series-go ahead and give the top name on my list, Gary Matthews Jr., a five-year deal for $50 million.

This contract may be the most perfect example ever of a bad free-agent contract. It's a ton of money for and a long commitment to a player with a vanishingly small track record of success. Eight months ago, the idea that Gary Matthews Jr. might command a five-year contract would have been laughable. It's no less so today, but here we are. We're here because baseball teams remain incapable of distinguishing between the best four months of a player's life and a sudden change in ability at 31 years old, despite the fact that the latter is as rare as a bad "How I Met Your Mother" scene.

Prior to 2006, Matthews had established himself as a decent fourth outfielder, a player with some speed, some power, a reasonable walk rate and a propensity for striking out. He was a classic tweener, with a bat good enough to be a contributor in center field, but a glove that was only an asset on the outfield corners. In 2006, he was essentially the same player, with three key differences:

  1. He had a spike in his batting average on balls in play, leading to a career-high singles rate and a career-high batting average;

  2. In part due to 1), he got 620 at-bats;

  3. He made a great, home-run-stealing catch.

Matthews' high BA got him playing time that ratcheted up his counting stats, and The Catch gave him a reputation as a great defensive center fielder. Add water, boil, and you make $50 million. How is is possible for people to hate America?

The problem, of course, is that Matthews is the same player he was a year ago, a toolsy fourth outfielder who isn't going to hit enough to carry a corner or field enough to play center. Clay Davenport's numbers put Matthews at eight runs below average last year in center, and both Chris Dial's and John Dewan's zone-based metrics are in line with that assessment. Put simply: Matthews wasn't a center fielder at 31, and thinking he's going to be one through age 36 is just a huge mistake. Paying him $50 million based on that idea is even worse.

Matthews is the latest in a long line of players who have had the best few months of their lives at the right time and gone on to become wealthy busts. It was a different era, but Matthews is essentially an update on Jeffrey Hammonds, a very comparable player-toolsy failed prospect-who had a big year at 29, altitude-aided no less. The Brewers signed him to a ill-conceived three-year, $21-million contract after that, and got 660 at-bats and 16 homers from him. Total. We see this kind of deal all the time, where a player's peak is mistaken for a new level, and the result is almost always the same: the player regresses to his established level and disappoints his new team.

The frustrating thing is that it should be obvious that Matthews is the same player he was a year ago. It's not like he added power or dramatically changed his plate discipline or got faster or suddenly became a Gold Glove outfielder. All he did is have a few more hits fall in and get additional playing time because of it. His isolated power has been constant for three years and his walk rate is actually slipping over that period, as are his defensive numbers. There's probably more evidence that he's declining than that he's improving.

Despite all of that, the Angels are full of talk about how, at 31, Matthews suddenly improved his game. Bill Stoneman was quoted by AP: "Guys learn at different times in their careers. Gary's coming into his own." Mike Scioscia, same source: "He plays center field on a Gold Glove level. I think his experience has helped him to understand this league and understand his talent. He can lead off or hit in the middle of the lineup."

This isn't just happy talk at a press conference. These are the guys who decided to pay Matthews $10 million a year. These are the professionals, folks.

I honestly didn't think the Angels could follow up the last deal they reached with an overrated center fielder-the Darin Erstad contract-with a worse one, but here we are. I'm the last guy to praise Erstad, but the Angels would be much better off with him roaming center field on a one-year deal or something similar than they will be with this commitment to Matthews. At least Erstad is a plus defender.

So as you might guess, Matthews was the lead man on my list of free agents I wouldn't touch. Another one, Carlos Lee, signed a six-year, $100-million contract with the Astros. For the life of me, I don't get the fascination with Lee, a poor defensive left fielder with a bad body who's past his peak and who was never that good during it.

OK, that's a little hyperbolic. My objection to Lee isn't that he's a bad player-he's much better than Matthews, for instance-but that he's not one of the best hitters in the game and he never has been. He was 44th in MLB in Marginal Lineup Value in 2006 (min: 300 PA), 92nd in 2005, 36th in 2004. He's very durable, which has led to excellent counting stats and, now, a heck of a lot of money, but he's not a great player, he's not an impact hitter. Add in that he's put on a lot of weight and he's signed from 31-36, and the chances are that his playing time will take a hit. Lee is being paid like a superstar when he's never been one, and any loss in performance or durability is going to expose this contract as a terrible one. With no baserunning or defensive value to speak of, Lee has to be worth $17 million a year with the bat. Even in a park that caters to his skill set, I doubt he'll reach that mark more than once during the deal.

The contract made little sense for the Astros, who after this signing still have OBP sinks at four lineup spots and a starting rotation consisting of Roy Oswalt and David Carr. Left fielders who can hit for power and not play any defense are a dime a dozen; consider that the Indians added David Dellucci for nearly $90 million less than the Astros will pay for Lee, and they will get a decent approximation of Lee's output by platooning Dellucci and Jason Michaels, with much better defense. The Astros will struggles to score runs next year even with Lee, because no team can carry Brad Ausmus, Craig Biggio, Willy Taveras and Adam Everett and have a credible offense.

Matthews and Lee topped the no-sign list. The others on it include:

Jeff Suppan: I list him here with this caveat: if you have a great defensive team, you can roll the dice on him. Suppan has been a credible six-inning guy the past three years with the Cardinals because the Cards suck up balls in play like…oh, man, I'm not going to finish that thought. His peripherals have been fairly consistent; his translated strikeout and walk rates are basically the same across the three seasons, and he's actually gotten better about the long ball. However, when you strike out less than a man every two innings and you don't have incredibly low walk and/or home-run rates, you need help. Suppan rides a knife edge, and without the support of a top-tier defense, he'd see his ERA jump by a run overnight.

Jay Payton: Think Matthews, but without the hype. Payton isn't a plus center fielder any longer, and without that, he's just another guy. He's coming off a .296 batting average, despite which he still only had a .325 OBP and a .418 SLG. He walks less than once a week, but he makes silly baseball plays a bit more often than that.

Take the following with a grain of salt. Late last season, I was watching the A's and Angels play, and Payton grounded into a double play. Here's the e-mail I sent out after seeing the action:

1) Payton takes a ball, the last pitch he takes in the at-bat. (In case you missed it, Ervin Santana has JUST WALKED BACK-TO-BACK BATTERS.) He then fouls off the 1-0 and the 1-1.

2) On the 1-2, he takes a lame swing and hits a double-play grounder to short. A great slide by Nick Swisher induces a weak throw by Kennedy, soft and offline, but Payton--theoretically fast--isn't anywhere in position to take advantage. He makes a token dodge, and is doubled off. A replay from behind the plate shows him going into a jog 30 feet down the line.

3) DP completed, Payton takes off his helmet and starts to toss it into the dugout. He thought the inning was over, but this not being co-ed kickball, there was one more to go.

So in one play, Jay Payton showed poor decisionmaking at the plate, a lack of hustle, and cluelessness as to game situation.

Far too much information? Perhaps, but players get reputations based on nothing. This is three "dumb baseball" moments in 45 seconds, where any halfway-decent student of the game could tell you that the player was hurting the team.

Jay Payton's a millionaire, by the way.

What I found interesting was what followed: a string of e-mails from other BPers describing similar incidents involving Payton. I can't say I've watched his career carefully, but a half-dozen people responded with their own impressions of bonehead plays Payton had made over the years. So in addition to a mediocre statistical record, Payton doesn't appear to be adding a whole lot of value that's not showing up in his stat line. Pass.

Pedro Feliz: Think Carlos Lee, but without that pesky .300 BA. Feliz is probably my least favorite player in the game, a hacktastic right-handed batter who never met a slider he wouldn't swing and miss at and who is always a threat to go through a season with more double plays than walks. His career-high OBP is .305. However, he's become a "consistent" 20-homer, 80-RBI guy, he nearly had 100 ribbies in 2006, and he's missed just nine games the past two years. With a number of teams looking to fill holes at third base, and the market simply having gone nuts, there seems to be a good chance that Feliz will get a significant contract. Pray it's not from your team.

Feliz's teammate-for-a-spell Shea Hillenbrand fits almost all of the above, and is also a player who I wouldn't want any part of. The era of Pat Tabler ended 20 years ago, and corner infielders have to do more than hit for an empty batting average to play these days.

Ray Durham: Six of the nine Giants' starters last season are free agents, and the only one worth bringing back is Barry Bonds. (Well, Moises Alou, too, given that he signed the best contract of the offseason.) Durham has the potential to be a huge mistake for some team. Not only did he have a fluky power spike in his walk year, but he's completely lost the ability to be a major-league second baseman. I might take a gamble on him on a very short deal, but he's going to cost you a win in the field, which means that if he loses that power, he's unliklely to be better than average overall.

I will say this: I hated the free-agent contract Durham signed in 2003, and while he wasn't durable and lost all his defensive value over the course of it, he didn't decline at the plate at all. In fact, he had two of the three highest EqAs of his career for the Giants, and was never below .274 in the four years of the deal. Signing Durham was one of the best decisions Brian Sabean has ever made.

--

Last Wednesday's piece made frequent references to the "BBRAA." That wasn't a typo. The organization of professionals who cover baseball games and lay claim to the voting process for the major awards and the Hall of Fame is, to me, the Baseball Reporters Association of America. That's not to denigrate what those people do; it's to better describe it. The organization has made it clear that it exists as an advocacy group for the people who cover baseball games on a daily basis for print publications.

My argument is simply that they don't get to co-opt the term "writer," not in this era, not when they actively exclude talents like Rob Neyer and Steven Goldman and Christina Kahrl and Alex Belth and so many other people who cover baseball by means other than traveling with teams and relaying quotes to the public.

I don't think I'm on unsteady ground here, and I hope that my renaming of the organization serves only to point out that the definition of "baseball writer" can be as expansive as you want it to be. Limiting that term to a subset of people who write about baseball does a disservice to those on both sides of the line.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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