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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

33 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Ben K.

It might not end well for AJ and the Yanks, but I think right now the Yanks are way more concerned with how it will begin than with how it will end. As long as it begins well, the team will be happy.

Dec 14, 2008 11:20 AM
rating: 1
 
ostrowj1

I think it will will begin and end very well for AJ, $82.5 million is a lot of money...

Dec 14, 2008 11:58 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt Kory

When you give someone a five year contract worth $80 million you need to pay attention to how it beings and how it ends.

Dec 14, 2008 17:00 PM
rating: 0
 
jetson
(660)

Joe hates him some AJ Burnett.

Dec 16, 2008 14:57 PM
rating: 0
 
Matt Hunter

I am a Marlins fan, and resent the "blight on the American sports landscape" comment although the underlying arguments I agree with (both the ballpark, and Joe Nelson.)

They have had 4 winning seasons in 6 years, and won 2 championships in their short existence. They put a pretty good product on the field most years of late. Without writing a dissertation on the subject of my favorite team, they are hardly one of the worst run teams in any sports environment.

Dec 14, 2008 12:10 PM
rating: 2
 
psugator01

Any organization that uses revenue sharing earmarked for roster talent and uses it to pay operating costs needs to be sold forcefully or retracted. Woops, Loria never really bought the Marlins in the first place so Selig would just have to call in MLB's loan.

If you've been to any other major league stadium, even during bad times, you would understand just how pathetic the Marlins handle their business.

Dec 15, 2008 06:41 AM
rating: 0
 
J. Eldred

Ha! If you are channeling your inner Tupac, then you might have 3 or 4 books come out after that tragic bus accident.

But to speak to FSUMatt's comment above, perhaps Joe should have been a tad more specific in his "blight" comment. I'm consistently impressed with their front office and management. Beinfest and Fredi Gonzalez seem to represent a franchise getting the most out of what its got, but the fact that they always have to do so points the finger squarely at the ownership. I'd love to take a look at their books and see how much Loria is scraping directly into his pockets from revenue sharing etc. Perhaps their owner is a blight on the American sports landscape, even if the franchise is not?

Dec 14, 2008 12:29 PM
rating: 1
 
whichthat

IMO, the worst organizations are Washington and Pittsburgh: dumb, cheap and hopeless. Don't know where the Marlins would rank above that, but their teardowns strike me as a little more crass than absolutely necessary. How are those presented in Florida? I might feel a little better if the message is "give us three years," rather than "stadium stadium stadium poor poor poor."

Dec 14, 2008 12:35 PM
rating: 3
 
Fresh Hops

Yeah. I don't think I'd say the Nats are cheap, but they are dumb. Sure, if he accepts (and that's a big if), you get an very good defensive first baseman that is among the best hitters in the majors. But even a guy as good as Teixeira you can't be certain he will be anything other than average in 5 years. Not even a budget the size of New York's could fix a team like the Nats through free agency. Save your money for the signing bonus that Scott Boras will insist that Steven Strassburg deserves, find some cheap quality defense to fill your holes for awhile, nab Daniel Cabrera and hope that pans out. Don't blow 20-40% of your budget for the next eight years on a superstar.

Dec 14, 2008 13:01 PM
rating: 1
 
gaborde

my impression has been that the decisions are not sugar-coated

it's generally just like: "this was a good baseball decision."

Dec 14, 2008 13:10 PM
rating: 0
 
gaborde

"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."

I kind of resent this. The Marlins may be cheap but they kept a number of players this year who are getting more expensive. I think there has to be another reason to have cut Nelson -- whether AAA replacements (like Nelson last year) or because Nelson is hurt.

I'm sure the Yankees are fun to watch too, but I'll take my Marlins any day.

Dec 14, 2008 13:08 PM
rating: 0
 
Doug Thorburn

They also dumped a number of guys that were due raises via arbitration, like Willingham, Olsen, Jacobs, and Gregg. No other team has made such blatant cost-cutting moves on that low end of the spectrum.

I'm not faulting management, but it's tough to defend ownership that routinely shells out half as much on the roster as they receive through revenue sharing ALONE. The Marlins could close the gates on game days and still make a profit! If I was a fan that paid admission and bought concessions, I would hope that some of my money would go toward the product on the field. I also wouldn't be too ecstatic about paying more taxes to fund a new stadium for that franchise.

Dec 14, 2008 17:50 PM
rating: 4
 
Matt Hunter

Just for the record, they got a better pitcher than Gregg by leveraging his save totals, and Mike Jacobs had a .299 OBP and -27 +/- rating.

I agree with your premise (hard to defend the ownership) and I'd love to see them spend some money, but the sweeping statement by Joe is just wrong, and quite frankly below the standards in which his writing has set for itself.

Dec 14, 2008 18:34 PM
rating: 0
 
Doug Thorburn

I like listening to that record - I'm not questioning the moves, in fact I think Cerda was a relative steal. I'm just pointing out that the primary motivation seemed to be $$.

Dec 14, 2008 18:54 PM
rating: 2
 
Aaron/YYZ

Agreed. If teams aren't going to spend the revenue sharing money (or at least re-invest it in things like scouting, the draft, international signings and minor league talent) then they should not be receiving that money!

Dec 14, 2008 18:37 PM
rating: 1
 
Matt Hunter

Well they couldn't really close the doors and still make money. They could pay their players with that money but they still have to pay executives, scouts, fund their latin american endeavors, pay rent at Dolphin Stadium, etc.

Dec 14, 2008 19:12 PM
rating: -1
 
Aaron Cameron

Sheehan's entire Joe Nelson blurb sounds like it was filtered through the vocal cords of Stephen A. Smith. Nicely done! Now, do Eric Young!

Dec 14, 2008 13:13 PM
rating: 0
 
GBSimons

"The innings (Daniel Cabrera) threw and his service time would have led to a mid-seven-figures arbitration award, regardless."

That would be reason enough for me to cut ties with Cabrera. Why pay $6 million or so to a mediocre pitcher whom maybe, just maybe, will get back to being pretty good? The O's can pay someone else the minimum to be a bit worse than Cabrera. They're going nowhere in (at least) the next couple of seasons, so why waste the money?

Dec 14, 2008 15:15 PM
rating: 0
 
DJBaker1619

Also, Cabrera was velocity was noticeably down in the second part of the season; on top of that Carbrera has always been a thrower and not a pitcher. I am an injury expert by any stretch, but his delivery always seemed very wild as well.

In my mind, the Orioles are really looking for replacement level innings eaters, while waiting for the young pitchers to develop - Cabrera, being so wild could never get out of the 5th inning - a team can do better than $6 mil that they would have had to pay Cabrera.

Dec 14, 2008 16:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Drungo

Cabrera was almost certainly hurt last year. Either that or his arm just doesn't do what it used to. He was barely hitting 90 in September. It was fine to go to camp every year with a guy who threw nearly 100 mph even if he had no concept of the strike zone, uneven temperment, horrible mechanics, and fielded his position like a newborn giraffe.

But when that same guy has a 1:1 K:BB ratio, a plummeting K rate, and is only throwing a tick harder than Jamie Moyer it's time to move on.

Dec 15, 2008 08:37 AM
rating: 1
 
Doug Thorburn

Cabrera made $2.875M last season, after signing a 1-year deal to avoid arb (he wanted $3.3M, team offered $2.6M). After the season he had in '08 (K:BB of 95:90!), there was no way he'd make $6M in arb. He might dream of about $4M, but even that's a stretch.

Given the O's projected rotation and lack of ML-ready internal options, I have to agree with Joe on this one. If the lack of quality in the ML rotation ends up accelerating the timetables and service clocks of Matusz, Liz, Arrieta, et al., then not having Cabrera in 2009 could actually cost them down the road, when contention might be a possibility.

Besides, why not take the chance that Cabrera regains some of his old stuff, and becomes a tradeable commodity at the deadline to some team that lost a couple arms to injury?

Dec 14, 2008 17:34 PM
rating: 3
 
kriscolic

I'm having trouble finding a complete list of non-tendered players. Can anyone help?

Dec 14, 2008 17:17 PM
rating: 0
 
Doug Thorburn

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20081213&content_id=3716347&vkey=hotstove2008&fext=.jsp

Dec 14, 2008 17:37 PM
rating: 1
 
kriscolic

Thank you.

Dec 15, 2008 09:04 AM
rating: 0
 
bprocks1

A. J. Burnett is too emotionally volatile to survive in New York, especially the cauldron known as Yankee Stadium.

If he tips his hat to the docile fans in Toronto when he stuggles, what will he do when he has problems in New York?
Emotional meltdown coming soon.

Dec 14, 2008 17:46 PM
rating: -1
 
eighteen

September 24, 2007 - Burnett misses his start against the Yankees in the Bronx. Jesse Litsch is moved up a day.

September 25, 2007 - Burnett makes Litsch's scheduled start against Baltimore.

Burnett is gutless, and clearly only tries when there's another lucrative contract at stake.

Dec 15, 2008 11:03 AM
rating: 0
 
jetson
(660)

Yeah sure, he can't pitch against the big boys, check out those terrible numbers against the Yanks and Sox.

http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/players/splits?playerId=4153&type=pitching3&three=1

Dec 16, 2008 14:59 PM
rating: 0
 
Aaron/YYZ

I still think Burnett's injury issues are as much a usage issue as they are him lacking the 'health skill'.

Riddle me this: when you sign a talented pitcher with the injury-prone label to a market setting contract, do you:
a) treat him with kid gloves a bit to avoid injury so you get return on your investment?
b) ride him hard up over 120 pitches (when anyone watching tv can tell that he's gassed) for 5 straight starts in the second year of his contract so you can then complain that he's a wimp for getting hurt?

If you said B, you're the Toronto Blue Jays of 2007.

Dec 14, 2008 18:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Degerman

As a fan of the Cardinals, I would love to see John Mozeliak take a gamble on Cabrera and let Dr. Duncan provide him the prescription often turns into success in St. Louis.

Dec 14, 2008 18:37 PM
rating: 1
 
calhounite

McLain and McCourt are name-crazed head stuckees until the receipt of the bill pries them out, but Loria..well Loria's definitely got his head stuck somewhere..but not there

Dec 14, 2008 22:21 PM
rating: -1
 
yourmom

What I want to know is how a guy like Wigg--who is pretty useful with the bat, pretty bad at some positions (any INF), and decent at others (LF/RF)--gets moved around so much positionally. It seems that teams might value him at 3B because they know they can plug him in other places as well, but his UZR/150 (e.g.) is pretty awful at 3B (-14.8 career) and above average in LF (10.5 career).

Yes, of course his offensive value is greater at 3B than it is in LF, so teams will want to play him at 3B, but when there's that big of a difference in defensive value, you have to start considering it, don't you? Are defensive metrics that far behind that teams wouldn't trust them? Seems like his defense is a boon in LF.

I don't want to say this about Wigg specifically, because it seems his defense at 3B might be getting better and he could be a near-average defensive 3B for the next couple of years, which would make him pretty valuable, considering his bat. But there are other players that are like him that move around defensively when they aren't good enough anywhere, really. What is up with that?

Dec 15, 2008 01:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Drew Miller

If the Red Sox miss out on Teixeira, I'd like to see them pick up Wigginton as Lowell insurance...

As for the Marlins, well, Loria might be reprehensible, but the team still manages to put a competitive product on the field. Maybe the Marlins have found the newest inefficiency--namely, if they are the best finder of talent in MLB, they don't have to pay *anybody*.

It's worked out so far, in a way.

Dec 15, 2008 09:12 AM
rating: -1
 
calhounite

worst owners

1) Loria. When the owners were bucking the players, they figured there was only enough for one pig at the slop trough. That's when you could take your kid for 50 cents bleacher seats..(extra seats built in to scape up whatever other nickel was out there..and they like weren't filled up..right)...Well, after the other pig (players) forced his way in, found out there was really no limit..the public was like no limit to their suckerability. Notice on all these taxpayer funded stadiums, there AREN't any bleachers..

But Loria, well, no matter how big the slop trough, when he's the pig at the trough, still only room for ONE pig. Bear to note that on the contest to sucker the public to fund a stadium that seats max of 10 (luxury suits 10 mil per), Selig's got his buck on Loria. Loria really does go straight to the jugular..Personally prefer the hypocrites (next group)

2) Hicks, McCourt, McLane, et al. These are basically one piggers, BUT they kind of pay lipstick-on-a-pig service to feeding the other pig...and they do it BADLY..kind of like how your brother of law plays fantasy baseball..prospect..aw never done nothing..prime..well, let 'em repeat it before I buy in...ready to retire, retired, or dead..that's my baw, hey whatyawant. ill pay anything..

3) Steingroup. basically 2 above but throws so much lipservice mo' around, gets points for missing..need 1stbaseman, Tex out there....well how about a broken down pitcher instead

Dec 16, 2008 05:04 AM
rating: -3
 
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