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February 12, 2009

Prospectus Today

Veering to the Left

by Joe Sheehan

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February 11 may have been the strangest day in what has been an extraordinary baseball winter. On that day, Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu signed contracts that will pay them less guaranteed money, combined, than Raul Ibaņez will earn with the Phillies in a deal he signed just three months ago.

There may be no better encapsulation of the bizarre free-agent market we're in this year. Milton Bradley, who probably can't play 90 games in the outfield, got a better deal than those two players combined. So did Oliver Perez. Jose Guillen, whose contract is admittedly a winter old, has a more lucrative deal. Dunn and Abreu, more valuable, more durable, and in Dunn's case younger and ranked more highly coming into this offseason than those players, aren't just two of the winter's best bargains; they might be two of the best bargains in baseball history.

Dunn's signing was probably the more surprising of the two, since he had expressed reluctance to sign with a team that would use him at first base. The Nats, with an outfield logjam, have no choice but to play Dunn at first despite prior commitments of $10.5 million to the infirm (Nick Johnson) and rotund (Dmitri Young) to fill that role. With camps opening this weekend, Dunn may have felt that the Nationals' offer was the best he would do, and given that he was being pursued by the GM he came to the majors under, Jim Bowden, it probably felt like a safe space.

Without questioning Dunn's decision, I will admit to some surprise. The money here isn't overwhelming, and the Nationals, with a wretched pitching staff, are unlikely to contend in the next two seasons, even in the weak National League. Dunn will spend two critical seasons, at ages 29 and 30, toiling in obscurity in both profile and the standings, playing a position he doesn't enjoy, for a salary that doesn't seem to make up for those factors. Given all that, I'm a little surprised that Dunn didn't punt and take the Andre Dawson path: sign a one-year deal someplace he would want to play-my god, how many teams could make space for Dunn for one year at $10 million? 20? 25?-and hit the market a year from now hoping for better conditions. If nothing else, he wouldn't be out there with Manny Ramirez. This contract seems to have nothing going for it: multiple years, unimpressive money, bad team, and wrong position.

The deal makes the Nationals better, but signing Dunn does call attention to just how many outfielders are floating around DC. Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes stand out, and should play every day. They traded, cheaply, for Josh Willingham to nominally play left field, then re-signed Willie Harris, who looks like a bench guy but has ridiculously great defensive numbers in left the past two years. Then there's the disappointing Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Peņa. I'm not sure how you play all of these guys, or even roster them, but one thing is clear: if the last four guys I mentioned take any time from the first two, it's a mistake.

Adding Dunn should elevate the Nats' offense to above average this year, though the team lacks a leadoff hitter and might have some OBP issues in spots. However, even an above-average offense with a brilliant manager won't make this team a contender; the pitching won't be good enough. PECOTA has them 12th in the league with 817 runs allowed, and I think that may be generous. The defense, especially in the outfield, could save some runs, just not enough. The Nats have money to spend, and in a vacuum, signing Dunn is a good move, but it's not going to change the narrative about this organization. They need to draft and sign a ton of talent, a multi-year process they're only now embarking upon. If in 17 months they use Dunn as a chip in that process, this signing will have had its most significant effect on the franchise.

The Bobby Abreu signing is an even better deal for the team, and closer to the Dawson parallel. Abreu agreed to a one-year deal for $5 million with incentives that could push it much higher, but which would make him a bargain in any case. The Angels get nearly a perfect player for them, one who addresses their permanent need for OBP, who helps balance a righty-heavy lineup, and who adds speed to what has become a very slow team-one whose entire offensive philosophy is predicated on speed. We saw what happened last year when the high-average, good-ISO Angels added a high-OBP player in the middle of the lineup. Getting Abreu, though he's no Mark Teixeira, is the same kind of fit.

This is another case of 20-odd teams just falling down. I was asked in a chat if the Yankees should sign Abreu, and I argued that they shouldn't because they didn't have room for another corner outfielder. At this price, they should have signed him and figured it out later. Where were the Mets? Where were the Braves, who might have taken over as favorites in the division had they signed either of these two players? Where were the Indians? The Angels rightly took advantage of the passivity of their peers, and re-established themselves again as the easy favorites in a weak division.

It has to be pointed out that the best thing to happen to the Angels this winter was Gary Matthews Jr.'s injury. The torn patella tendon in Matthews' left knee gave the team cover to sign a left fielder to nominally replace him. Of course, even healthy. Matthews needed replacing; he's 34 and he can't hit enough to play left field in the majors. His signing was a huge mistake by the Angels, and they're stuck with his contract for another three years. They likely would have played him and suffered, as they did the last two years. Now, they have a significant improvement in left field as a result of his knee injury, and given the durability of Abreu and his clear superiority to Matthews, little reason to expect to have to play Matthews-who will also be behind Juan Rivera for playing time-even when he comes back.

It was a bad day for Ned Colletti, who saw his two best fallback positions from signing Manny Ramirez disappear in the span of a few hours. The Dodgers have played hardball for much of the winter, a tack that was easier to take when there was a glut of outfielders seeking employment. Now it's just Ramirez-guys like Garret Anderson and Ken Griffey Jr. wouldn't make enough of a difference-and it's no secret that the Dodgers need another bat to contend. They added yet another homer-prone pitcher yesterday, inviting Eric Milton to camp, the latest in a series of transactions that will do nothing to hold off the Diamondbacks and Giants in the NL West.

It's fairly simple for the Dodgers now. They have very little leverage with Ramirez, who seems content to sit out most of spring training, play for the Dominican Republic in the WBC, and see where he is in late March. That this is a WBC year actually is a small edge for Ramirez; he will have the opportunity to train and play in live games even as he waits for the right offer, which should lessen the pressure he feels to sign. He won't be missing spring training and getting rusty, or getting nervous. He actually has an opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on the teams chasing him, as clips of him hitting towering homers to lead the D.R. in the Classic will no doubt get lots of play in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and anywhere else a baseball team with improvements to be made and cash to be spent exists. The signings of Dunn and Abreu most likely end up making Ramirez more money and validating the hard-nosed negotiating by Scott Boras.

This was supposed to be a notes column, but it's 6 p.m. ET. I'll be back with a review of interesting AL NRIs on Friday, before heading to Long Island for Opening Day 2009.

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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