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July 2, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Non-Transaction Analysis: New-Money Ball

by Sam Miller

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Los Angeles Dodgers
Did not acquire 1B-R Carlos Lee and cash for RHP Garrett Gould. [6/30]

***

***

“Ned, it’s Brian. Listen, I saw you got blocked on Carlos Lee this week. Yeah, I got a player who’s almost as good, and costs quite a bit less. Contract expires this year. We don’t even want any prospects back. And he can play center field! Yeah, definitely. Aaron Rowand. Good guy. Good hustler. Face like a skillet. No, right, we did waive him, so you just pick up the money we owe him and we’d do our best to encourage him to...”

***

Gosh, it’s hard to do an analysis of a deal that didn’t happen. It’s hard to do an analysis of a deal that does happen; without being in the rooms, without knowing each team’s budget forecasts, cable contracts, scouting assessments, ambitions, etc., what can we say for sure? Now throw in the facts that are obscured in a deal that doesn’t happen: how much cash was coming over, most notably, but also whether there were other players involved that never made it into the rumors, and whether there were any further plans for the players who would be replaced. So let’s start with that big ol’ disclaimer: we don’t, at this point, know how much cash the Astros were going to pick up. If the deal was Carlos Lee plus all the money, well, that’s a lot different than Carlos Lee plus none of the money. Did you know the money is an important part of analyzing a deal? It is! Now you know. We don’t know the money, so we don’t really know the deal.

But here’s what we know: the Astros “will do cartwheels” if the deal goes through, wrote Jon Heyman when the deal might still have gone through. The Astros “would be expected to pay the majority of the $10 million” Lee is still owed, Heyman also wrote. Let’s say that both of those things are accurate. The Astros would pay at least $5.01 million. And they would do cartwheels. Men in polo shirts don’t do cartwheels because they get to do a whole bunch of paperwork. They do cartwheels because they saved a whole lot of money and can maybe use that money to buy a falcon. So the Dodgers would pay a substantial portion of Lee’s contract, but not more than $4.99 million. Let’s just assume all that, and acknowledge that what we’re doing here is dumb.

That leaves us with the merits of the deal, and what it says about the Dodgers, about the National League, and about baseball. Taken one at a time.

***

“Ned, it’s Jerry. I was just looking around on Baseball-Reference, and did you know that Carlos Lee is the no. 9 most comparable player through age 30 for Vernon We...”

***

1. Carlos Lee would presumably have replaced James Loney. Carlos Lee is a better hitter than James Loney, but only vastly overvaluing the current year against other recent years would convince you that he’s a vastly better hitter than James Loney. Since 2009, Lee has a 108 OPS+, and Loney has a 100 OPS+. Since 2010, Lee’s edge is 104 to 98. PECOTA forecasts a .275 TAv for Lee the rest of this season, and a .272 TAv for Loney. There’s also some concern that Lee’s park-adjusted stats don’t fully reflect how much his production depends on his home turf. Over the past three seasons, the Astros as a team have an OBP about 15 points higher at home, and a slugging percentage about 27 points higher. Lee’s OBP in that time is 27 points superior at home, his slugging percentage 58 points. In fact, if we want to just keep adding up numbers until they create a striking dichotomy, we could look at Lee on the road over the past three years and compare that slash line to the man he’d be replacing. Let’s do that!

  • Lee, road, 2010-2012: .260/.306/.397
  • Loney, road, 2010-2012: .261/.315/.395

And then there is defense. First baseman Carlos Lee’s positive integers on advanced defensive metrics never seemed believable (especially in his first exposure at the position), and they have dissolved this year; Loney, meanwhile, still fares well on the major metrics, including ours. (Tom Tango’s fans scouting report pegs Loney as about 10 runs better than Lee, if you prefer the assessment of a few dozen pairs of eyes.)

At least the deal would get Loney off the basepaths. He’s been worth 3.4 runs below average as a runner this year and has been below average every year of his career but one. Whoops. Lee is at 3.6 runs below average this year and has been below average every year of Loney’s career but one. It’s just not clear where the upgrade is, unless.

Unless you want to vastly overvalue this year compared to other recent years. And, from the Dodgers perspective, from the perspective of watching James Loney every single freaking night, that would be understandable. It might not be recommended. But it would be understandable, and that’s all we really want in this life, right? To be understood? And maybe to win a World Series? Those two things?

***

“Mr. Colletti, yes, hello, this is the Greek government. We are prepared to offer you one certified God of Walks if you will pick up the remaining money that we owe. I should tell you that we owe a lot.”

***

2. One trade does not make a trend, but the timing of the near move—late June—is a bit interesting in the context of the new postseason rules. The Dodgers could have waited until mid- or late-July to figure out where they are in the standings, to decide whether they really need another player to make the playoffs, and to save a few bucks on less-important July games when what they really want is to have the player during very-important October games. Last year, there were three deals in June: Mike McKenry was traded, Mark Ellis was traded, Sergio Mitre was traded. Trades in June 2010: Jake Fox, Dontrelle Willis, Conor Jackson, Russ Branyan, and some guys you’ve never heard of. But this year, three fairly substantial deals were agreed upon (and two fully consummated) in June, with Kevin Youkilis and Jim Thome moving and Carlos Lee nearly so.

Is this significant? I think this is significant. Returning to the three reasons I suggested for why the Dodgers could have waited until mid- or late-July:

  1. Figuring out where they are isn’t all that important anymore. Two Wild Card spots mean nearly every over-.500 team is going to be in the Wild Card race late into September.
  2. Deciding whether they really need another player to make the playoffs isn’t all that important, because even a team that is running away with the division has an incentive to keep pushing for the best record in the league (and a first-round matchup with a weakened Wild Card winner).
  3. And the value of July games is now nearly equal to the value of October games, if a team is battling to get out of Wild Card Hell and into Division-Winner Free Swim. A Wild Card team now has to win four series, and one is basically random. Who cares, actually, if it’s random. What's important is that it’s four series! The win a player might be worth over the course of 26 July games is quite possibly more valuable than the win he might earn in fewer than 20 October games, and that player is absolutely more important over the course of 26 July games than in one stupid arbitrary random coin flip close your eyes and point one-game playoff.

So the Dodgers, the White Sox, and the Orioles didn’t wait until the trade deadline. The trade deadline period is now moving forward, basically all the way to the conclusion of the amateur draft. This is very good news for websites that focus on MLB trade rumors.

***

“Yes, Mr. Colletti. My name is Casey, uh, MISTER Casey. Mr. Blake Casey. Yes, I’m the general manager of a team in Canada, near Niagara Falls, you probably wouldn’t know it. But right now we have a tremendous player named Casey Blake who you might be interested in. Oh you know him? Yes, then you know what a winner he is! No prospects needed in return. You just need to pick up his salary. Oh, his salary? It’s uh seven... teen? million. Seventeen million. Yes, no prospects.” 

***

3. I have a friend who is an agent. The thing about this friend is that he will argue almost any silly point to show me why a certain player is worth a big stupid contract. He did this before he even knew I wrote about baseball. It had no relevance to his job, or to the players he represents, but he would still make hysterical observations about left-handedness and winning percentage and moral relativity and all sorts of weird things just to make his point. This, I realized, was not agent bullshit. This was him believing these things because, after some time on the job, agents have to believe these things. It’s in their financial interest to believe these things. Yesterday, I overheard this friend talking about the Dodgers’ deal with Yasiel Puig. “So stupid,” he said. “Way overpaid.”

Like I said, we don’t know how much the Dodgers were going to spend on Carlos Lee, but after Puig, and based on some of the positions they’ve taken, I’m willing to believe that money doesn’t mean much to them. Eventually money means a lot to even the richest teams, but the Dodgers aren’t near that point. The Dodgers are new money. Carlos Lee is a weird painting with art-gallery cred. “Wouldn’t that look nice in our olive oil pantry?”

So we have to ask if this is a rational position. It just might be. Right now, teams with money look like they could get backed into that position where you’re at the end of your auction draft and you have a ton of money and the best player available is Jason Marquis. “Gawrsh, I guess. He did win 16 games that one time.” (No, he didn’t.)

The Dodgers will overspend for somebody this winter, and everybody will say things like, “Well, sure he’s a good player, and he’ll help them in the short-term, but that contract.” Then they’ll overspend for somebody else this winter, and everybody will say things like, “Well, sure he’s a good player and he’ll help them in the short-term, but that contract.” But while good contracts are always better than bad contracts, it’s not entirely clear that in the next few years bad contracts aren’t going to be better than no contracts. Can’t take that money and invest it in the draft. Can’t take that money and invest it in the international free agent market. Can’t take that money and sign Joey Votto, Evan Longoria, Matt Cain, or Jered Weaver. Can’t take it and sign any of the two dozen or so players who this winter signed extensions that bought out free agent years. There are probably good ways to spend/invest money in a market like this, but other than “lock up your Matt Kemps and other good players,” I can’t think of one that a team is doing publicly.

People do make money betting on inflation. The Dodgers, who seem so desperate to spend money you’d swear there is a dead uncle involved, might be betting on inflation. They’re going to make some players very, very rich, and they might just help some team get rid of its own version of Carlos Lee. But if they’re right...

Houston Astros
Did not acquire RHP Garrett Gould for 1B-R Carlos Lee and cash. [6/30]

Almost :), instead :(

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

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