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January 12, 2012

Transaction Analysis

Off-Brand Bargains

by Ben Lindbergh

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

TAMPA BAY RAYS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed 1B/OF-L Luke Scott to a one-year, $5 million contract with an option for 2013. [1/11]

We’ve all experienced the agony of buying off-brand. Maybe you’ve had to decide between filling a prescription with a medication you’ve seen smiling imitation doctors recommend on TV and opting for the unfamiliar generic form. Maybe you’ve waffled over the skin cream with the fancy French name stocked next to the cheaper, store-brand version with the same active ingredient. Which one you walk out of the store with depends on how susceptible you are to marketing and packaging, how much you care about a product’s reputation and cachet, and how highly you value savings.

Not all general managers moisturize, but most of them face the same sort of choices when browsing for baseball players. It takes guts to buy off-brand when there’s more at stake than dry skin, dandruff, or a stubborn zit. Of course, for some teams, searching for bargains isn’t about the satisfaction of getting a good deal. It’s about survival.

In some ways, the small-market life is simpler. As Jonah Keri detailed in The Extra 2%, blowing $16 million on Pat Burrell was a mistake the Rays couldn’t shrug off as easily as most teams might have. The Rays are always operating on a knife-edge; a move or two more like that one, and their carefully constructed roster would become too expensive to be profitable and too unproductive to make the playoffs. It wouldn’t even have to be an overpay to be deadly; anything short of a steal would do the trick. If the Rays are paying market value, they’re paying too much.*

*You know, because of their, uh, market’s value.

As a result, the Rays can simply rule out most available free agents. Sure, Andrew Friedman probably likes Albert Pujols as much as the next GM, but he can’t afford to pay Pujols what he’s currently paying his entire team. At $13 million per season, Carlos Beltran might not be overpaid, but he is making almost twice as much as any other player on Tampa Bay’s roster. The Rays have no choice but to go cheap. Fortunately, going cheap is something they’re good at.

Take a look at this winter’s crop of free agent corner outfielders, ordered by projected 2012 TAv. (Don’t pay too much attention to the WARP values, since these playing time projections are very rough. Fortunately, with the exception of DeJesus, TAv is what we care about, since these guys are mostly known for their bats and bad knees.)

Name

Team

Guaranteed Years

AAV ($m)

Proj. PA

Proj. TAv

Proj. WARP

Carlos Beltran

Cardinals

2

13.0

470

.284

2.3

Luke Scott

Rays

1

?

450

.282

1.7

Josh Willingham

Twins

3

7.0

494

.279

2.0

Michael Cuddyer

Rockies

3

10.5

534

.269

1.5

Jason Kubel

Diamondbacks

2

7.5

450

.268

1.1

David DeJesus

Cubs

2

5.0

450

.258

0.8

Juan Rivera

Dodgers

1

4.5

457

.252

0.4

This table might make my point better if there were something other than a question mark listed for Scott’s salary, but terms haven’t yet been announced.* Still, we know it’s a one-year deal, which sets it apart from all but one of the others, and it’s unlikely that he’ll make as much as anyone else on the list (with the possible exception of Rivera/DeJesus). The contract does include an option for a second year, but it’s almost certainly a team option. The Rays’ next player option will be their first.

*On the plus side, it’s more mysterious this way.

*UPDATE* According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the money is roughly what we expected. Scott will make $5 million this season. The 2013 option is for $6 million, with a $1 million buyout.

Scott is the offensive equal of most of the other corner outfielders signed this winter. (David Price agrees!) However, that only applies when his shoulder works, which wasn’t the case for much of last season. Scott was fairly durable as a younger man, but he missed 128 days last season. As far as PECOTA knows, he was taking time off to find himself or see the world, but instead of an inward journey of self-discovery, he made an outward one to Florida for surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder that he’d tried and failed to play through without pain.

As ESPNFlorida’s Tommy Rancel noted, Luke Scott’s surgeon last season was Dr. James Andrews, who also happens to be the Rays’ medical director.* That means they know what they’re dealing with. Scott says he’ll be ready for Opening Day, though reduced arm strength may keep him out of the outfield early in the season. Even once he has made a full recovery, the Rays will probably opt to DH him to minimize the stress on his increasingly fragile 33-year-old body.

*Does it surprise anyone else that James Andrews is the Rays’ medical director? You’d think they’d have some unknown medical director with a lot less service time who’s cheaper and just as good, not the closest thing the sports medicine community has to a household name. Then again, maybe medical directors offer the best bang for the buck and Andrews is an inefficiency. But you’d have to ask someone else about that. I’m a Yocum man, myself.

As Steve Slowinski showed, Scott could be in for tougher times even with a fully functioning shoulder; the Trop isn’t nearly as friendly to left-handed power hitters as Camden Yards, where he’s done most of his damage over the past few seasons. (That .282 TAv projection assumed that Scott was still an Oriole.) The newest Ray also holds some potentially polarizing political views; presumably, he’s still searching for a President with a birth certificate he can believe in. Given that the Rays had no qualms about trading for Josh Lueke last November, though, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they weren’t scared away by a little staunch support for the Second Amendment.* In Moneyball, Billy Beane revealed that the A’s targeted “players with warts” who would be productive despite their weaknesses. Sometimes, those warts can be bad bodies or a slow 60-yard dash. At other times, they can be criminal records and a tendency to wield Weatherby Magnums. Presumably, the same principle applies.

*While Scott has alienated his fair share of observers and opponents, he was well-liked by his teammates and Orioles fans, which is probably more relevant to the Rays. In many ways, he may be a very good guy. It just might take a full-time PR person to do damage control if he sits down for another interview.

Between his health woes, his recent road woes, and his outspoken commitment to what he believes to be “the principles our country is founded on,” there’s a lot to dislike about Scott. He wasn’t available on a one-year basis because every other team was blind (speaking of which, Scott got LASIK late last August). There’s also plenty to like, which explains why the Rays have tried to acquire him twice before—once before he went to Baltimore, once at the 2010 deadline—and nearly a dozen teams were reportedly interested in him this offseason. Tampa Bay might have gotten more out of him if the team had made like Luke Scott and pulled the trigger earlier, but there’s reason to think that enough remains in his body and bat to make this a good gamble for a club used to buying as-is.

Of course, one could have said the same about last season’s Opening Day Rays DH

CINCINNATI REDS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart
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Signed RHP Ryan Madson to a one-year, $8.5 million contract. [1/10]

That strange silence you hear is the sound of the internet not loudly decrying a contract given to a reliever. Not calling the GM who handed it out stupid. Not complaining about the number of years. Not snarking about saves. Take a few moments to enjoy it. It might be a while before we experience it again.

You’ve probably noticed that GMs and public-sector sabermetricians can’t seem to agree on how much to pay relief pitchers. According to WARP, the most valuable reliever last season, Craig Kimbrel, was worth just a shade over two wins. Forty-nine starters equaled or surpassed his total, including such luminaries as Bartolo Colon and Livan Hernandez. Think about that. Colon and Hernandez had the same WARP as the best reliever in baseball in 2011.* Colon and Hernandez would come cheap. Both remain unsigned. Meanwhile, the Reds are the toast of Twitter for signing Ryan Madson—whom WARP thinks was roughly half as valuable as Kimbrel/Colon/Hernandez—for the low, low price of $8.5 million. I don’t know who’s wrong here, the bloggers or the baseball teams. Both have been wrong before, but they can’t both be right about late-inning relievers.

*Granted, neither is likely to repeat the feat in 2012.

For the moment, though, let’s table that discussion. (For one thing, I’m not smart enough to settle it.) Whether or not teams should pay a lot for saves—or at least for the pitchers who earn them—it’s indisputable that they do. If the Reds had given $8.5 million to almost any other free agent who, like Madson, was coming off a 1.0-WARP season—Wilson Betemit, Ramon Santiago, or Jose Molina, let’s say—we’d be calling them crazy.* But in an environment in which Jonathan Papelbon got four years and $50 million from the Phillies and Heath Bell signed for $27 million over three from the Marlins, Madson for a single season at a lower AAV looks like a steal. As Eric Seidman discovered, one-year reliever deals often work out. Multi-year relief contract might as well be big sheets that say “Here be dragons,” with a signature line below.

*Actually, there are probably worse ways to spend $8.5 million than on Jose Molina.

R.J. Anderson compared that closer trio earlier this offseason, but here’s how their 2009-2011 statistics stack up:

Name

IP

ERA

Saves

K/BB

WARP

Ryan Madson

191

2.78

47

4.0

4.2

Heath Bell

202.1

2.36

132

3.0

3.7

Jonathan Papelbon

199.1

2.89

106

3.9

6.3

Madson’s stats compare favorably, at least outside of the saves department. (He didn’t become a full-time closer until last season.) So why didn’t he see the same payday? The answer might lie in an anonymous scout’s quote about Madson, which appeared in John Perrotto’s “On the Beat” earlier this week:

The red flag for me is that the Phillies were reportedly gung ho to re-sign him, then suddenly reversed course and signed Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer. Nobody knows players better than their own teams, and it's been a poorly-kept secret for a long time that the Phillies didn't think he had the mental makeup to be a top-flight closer. He pitched well in that role last year, but I'd be hesitant to go past one year on him. I just keep coming back to the Phillies backing off.

It makes sense to be wary of players other teams discard, since those players tend to age less gracefully. It also makes sense to worry about mental makeup. But it’s hard to see how a team could still have concerns about Madson’s mental makeup. Madson is 31 years old. He’s been reliable for several years now, longer than most relievers ever are. If his makeup were going to affect his on-field performance, you’d think there would’ve been some sign of it by now.

Before last season, it was still possible that some perceived weakness in Madson’s personality would prevent him from pitching well at the end of games. But in his first full season as a closer—when, presumably, the pressure was at its greatest—Madson saved 32 games in 34 opportunities, then nailed down another in the NLDS (lowering his career postseason ERA to 2.31, with superb peripherals). Maybe the closer mentality exists, and maybe it’s more difficult to save games without one. But if it does, and if it is, then we’re left with two possibilities. The first is that Madson does, against whatever evidence exists to the contrary, possess a closer mentality. The second is that he lacks one but lucked out enough to be an elite closer anyway. And if a little luck—which in Madson’s case would have had to be something other than the low-BABIP kind—is enough to overcome a non-closer mentality, then how important can a closer mentality be?

Regardless of Madson’s potentially less-than-perfect makeup, the signing seems like a success for the Reds and a rare black eye for Scott Boras, who sniped at Ruben Amaro like an agent spurned yesterday. Granted, $8.5 million is a substantial raise from the middle reliever money he was making before, but it’s a disappointing sum for someone who was reportedly on the verge of re-signing for four years and $44 million a few months ago. If Boras did play hardball with Amaro, it would seem that he misread a market that featured only a few late-inning openings with well-heeled teams. He called the deal he did get his client a “pillow contract,” suggesting that Madson could spend a comfortable season in Cincinnati before testing the waters again next winter. While Madson may sleep soundly with an $8.5 million pillow, he probably would’ve preferred the whole bed.


Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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