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December 14, 2008

Prospectus Today

Set Free

by Joe Sheehan

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The decision whether to offer a player a contract by the December 13 deadline is automatic in most cases. Where it is not, or more accurately, when the team declines to offer a contract, it makes for an interesting statement on that player. "We don't want you, we'd rather have the roster spot." You can argue that in some cases the decision is designed to avoid an arbitration award that the team may deem excessive, but since an arbitration-determined salary is almost always below market value, that doesn't carry much water.

The list of players, 42 in all, who were cut loose by their teams isn't sexy. There are some highlights, but for the most part it's a group of players who haven't been able to get their careers going, either for performance or health reasons, and who have moved from "exciting" to "disappointing" in just a few short years. A number have been regulars on the transaction wire, such as Denny Bautista and Wil Ledezma. Injury cases, where a team seems to have decided that it won't pay a player to not play or play poorly as they work back from injury, include Takashi Saito, Scott Proctor, and Chris Capuano. There are players who have played in the World Series recently, such as Willy Taveras, and a bunch who have rings: Aaron Miles, Tyler Johnson, and Randy Flores.

The biggest surprise, in my eyes, was the Orioles giving up on Daniel Cabrera, Cabrera has never come close to meeting the expectations set by his talent and his performance in 2005 and 2006, when he was a strikeout/ground-ball machine who needed just an improvement in his command to become a number two starter. That improvement never came, and in chasing it, Cabrera lost what he did well and watched his strikeout rate fall to half of its peak last season, his second straight with an ERA above 5.00. The innings he threw and his service time would have led to a mid-seven-figures arbitration award, regardless.

I can almost understand the decision... almost. Cabrera has shown few signs of improvement, and will be kind of expensive for a fourth or fifth starter. At the same time, the Orioles aren't exactly deep in the rotation. They have prospects coming, and coming quickly, but the major league rotation could use some bodies. To take a pitcher who at the least has established that he can make 30 starts and who retains his upside-if little chance of getting there-and turn him loose just for want of some cash seems a little shortsighted. If this were a different team, one needing to win a lot of games in '09, or one with seven or eight starters, I would feel otherwise. Cutting loose Cabrera denies the Orioles a player they could use, and cuts them off from the chance that he could find his way back. That the Orioles, who know him as well as any team, would let him go is valuable information, but I can't help but think that Cabrera is going to have 425 soft-focus, "they didn't believe in me" features written about him next summer as he starts the year 6-1, 2.66 for a new team.

At least Cabrera was a back of the rotation guy for his team by performance. The Nationals cut their number two starter from last season, Tim Redding, after he made 33 starts and threw 182 innings-both team-leading marks-with a 4.95 ERA. Redding was homer-prone and posted a marginal strikeout rate, but you would think a team that used 13 starting pitchers in 2007 and 11 last year would see the value in keeping a pitcher who can take the ball that often. As with the Orioles' decision, I suspect that both of these cuts reflect a front-office mindset that is overrating the team's short-term future. Both of these teams need to play for 2010 and beyond, and in 2009 they would do well to have some stability at the cost of performance. Given that both teams are chasing Mark Teixeira, they would appear to have delusions of grandeur, seeing Cabrera and Redding not as assets on a bad team, but as below-average pitchers with limited upside. I'm not sure the answer there isn't "both," but I do know that neither team is so deep in pitching that they should be giving away talent.

Where the non-tenders get interesting is when one team says, "don't want him," and a number of others do. Getting non-tendered by the Astros will almost certainly make Ty Wigginton money, as he now becomes a free agent coming off of the best season of his career (.285/.350/.526) as a third baseman and left fielder for the Astros. This has to be a cost-cutting decision; I'm not a big Wigginton fan, but the Astros have just Geoff Blum to play third base in Wigginton's absence, and that's not going to work very well. For the Astros to pinch pennies on Wigginton is just the latest episode in the ongoing saga of baseball's bipolar franchise, as Drayton MacLane flits from wanting to win rightthisverysecond to not quite doing so if it might cost him money. Some team is going to give Wigginton a multi-year deal for a total value north of $12 million, which is a nice contract for a guy being cut by one team.

Of the players not yet mentioned, I'd take flyers on...

  • Chris Britton: The right-handed reliever has never quite caught on in Baltimore or the Bronx, despite a 3.83 ERA in 89 1/3 innings in the majors. He has the stuff to back that up as well, and could be an eighth-inning solution for any number of teams.

  • Joey Gathright: He's not going to hit enough to be more than a marginal regular, but he has so much raw speed that he'd be a bench weapon on a team good enough to care that much about tactical issues. He can pinch-run, be a defensive replacement, and an occasional early-inning pinch-hitter. In a league with room for so much roster dead weight, Gathright brings more to the table than most.

  • Joe Nelson: Nelson had a 2.00 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 54 innings. Granting that he's 33 and not quite this good... what the hell? How can you like money so much that you won't take a chance on going to arbitration with a middle reliever who might get $2 million? The Marlins are a blight on the face of the American sports landscape, and the citizens of Florida are supposed to reward that by coming out in droves to watch and taxing themselves to build a new ballpark? Please.

---

Way back when-the file is named "November 18"-I threw together a piece as a followup to the "Free Agents I Like" column, loosely titled "Five Guys I Wouldn't Sign." I diddled with it on and off and never had it quite ready for publication; I'm not sure why, but it happens sometimes. I suppose after I get hit by a bus, someone can dig through my hard drive and post the unpublished thoughts of Joe Sheehan like a posthumous Tupac album.

Anyway, I mention this because A.J. Burnett has signed, and Burnett was one of the guys in the piece. Here's his section:

A.J. Burnett: Weren't we just here? Three years ago, Burnett was a six-year veteran who'd made 30 starts once and thrown 200 innings twice. Then he got a five-year, $55 million contract, made 30 starts once in three seasons and threw 200 innings once in three seasons, both times the season before he was able to exercise an opt-out clause. So he's on the market again after opting out.

I wouldn't sign A.J. Burnett with Frank McCourt's money. There might be perfectly good reasons why the only times he's made 30 starts have come in walk years, but I'm not willing, if it's my money, to ignore the elephant in the room: that it may be because of the walk years. Moreover, A.J. Burnett isn't one of the best pitchers in baseball, and has never been. His career ERA is 3.81, and his lowest mark ever is 3.30 with the 2002 Marlins. He has never, not once, picked up a single vote for the Cy Young Award. That has something to do with run support-Burnett has poor win totals for a pitcher with his run prevention-but also something to do with his not being durable or that far above average.

If I'm spending $15 million a year on a pitcher, he has to pitch. A.J. Burnett has three 200-inning seasons in a 10-year career. If I'm spending $15 million a year on a pitcher, he has to pitch well. Burnett has been one of the best starters in his league twice, both times in the NL, none since 2005.

Maybe this works out, but the Yankees have committed to him for five years, which is two more $16 million seasons-yes, $82.5 million-than he's had in his life. This isn't going to end well.

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:  A.J. Burnett,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury

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