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January 30, 2013

Skewed Left

The Sunk Costs of 2013

by Zachary Levine

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In some ways, the team-specific strengths and weaknesses that metrics like wins above replacement player (or wins above replacement, in more ink-frugal corners of the internet) don’t attempt to account for is what drives much of baseball’s commerce. Every team’s actual replacement player, as opposed to the generic hypothetical, varies. Yes, the Justin Upton trade was about each team’s view of talent and probably grit, but even though the Diamondbacks don’t value Upton like the market may, the situation would have been totally different had Arizona’s roster included only two competent outfielders rather than five.

As much as the identity of each team’s easily available replacement player comes into play in the penthouse of the market, we will see throughout the year that it matters where the worst contracts are concerned, as well. Sunk costs take up space on rosters and even more space on payrolls when there is no suitable replacement. But when there is, we sometimes see action.

Sunk costs are a fixture of the contract landscape, either because players don’t perform as anticipated or because teams have to overpay for the later years of a contract in order to take advantage of the earlier years at what they think will be a below-market salary. It was Kevin Youkilis last year when Will Middlebrooks was ready to replace him at lower cost; it was Carlos Lee with Brett Wallace, and both the Red Sox and the Astros, respectively, ate most of their veteran’s money just to free up the spot.

Many players have been in the sunk cost zone for years, with their teams unwilling or unable to eat the money and run. Alfonso Soriano and Vernon Wells belong in the Sunk Cost Hall of Fame, maybe even with a waiver of the five-year waiting period. Barry Zito might be provided a pass, but only because there is no obvious replacement for him on San Francisco’s staff, even if you aren’t buying his dramatics at the end of 2012. But the rosters shaping up for 2013 have presented some additional candidates to add to the list of sunk costs, since their roster spots would be more valuable in somebody else’s name.

Ted Lilly, Dodgers LHP
Contract: Final year, $12 million
Blessed with one of the biggest appetites for eating contracts, the Dodgers would be wise not to let this one stop them from putting forth their best five starters in the treacherous National League West. Lilly had an eminently replaceable season in 2011 and a brief recovery in 2012 that was derailed by shoulder surgery.

This is less because of the flyball-prone lefty’s performance, which has been unpredictable, than it is the richness of the Dodgers’ rotation. Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke take up the top two spots, Chad Billingsley is healthy, Josh Beckett and Aaron Harang are closer to Lilly’s category, Chris Capuano is still there and Hyun-Jin Ryu makes seven. Lilly makes eight and could very well be making his way out of town either as a good trade chip if he recovers well or just an arm who could eat innings for someone at a discount, with the Dodgers paying most of what’s owed him.

Johan Santana, Mets LHP
Contract: $25.5 million plus $25 million club option for 2014 or $5.5 million buyout. Option becomes player’s with 215 innings or the Cy Young Award. Full no-trade clause.

Santana is solidly in the Mets rotation, as he should be, even though the Mets’ first ever no-hitter was just makeup on an ultimately ineffective season that followed a lost year at the tail end of a big contract. The addition of Shaun Marcum to a rotation of Santana, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and the promising Matt Harvey means no spots for Jenrry Mejia, Jeremy Hefner, and Collin McHugh if you’re into any of those less sure things.

Santana’s innings could serve the Mets well as a hedge against tired young arms, but it works the other way, too. Getting their many young pitchers major-league innings should mean more to a non-contender by August than Santana’s would, and the Mets would suck up what little money remains if Santana waives his no-trade.

Kendrys Morales, Mariners DH
Contract: $5.25 million, free agent for the first time in 2014

Paradoxically, even if though it would mean that he’d played poorly, it might work in the Mariners’ favor if Morales were to become an annoying, albeit short-term, sunk cost. On a team loaded with designated hitters, it would mean three things would have happened that would be much more important to the long-term future of a likely non-contender than Morales’ production as his salary escalates. It would mean that Mike Zunino had pushed himself onto the roster at catcher, either with a surprisingly strong spring or, more likely, an effective start to the season. It would mean that Jesus Montero had hit well enough to take DH at-bats. And lastly, it would mean that Justin Smoak had figured something out and handled first base, both of which would be welcome developments after last year’s disasters. (Another option is that Seattle figures out that Michael Morse is such a liability in the outfield that he has to take first base or DH or even becomes the sunk cost himself.)

Morales isn’t making huge money, but he takes up a bad spot on that poorly constructed roster and should be traded for someone—anyone—who can play some defense even if Seattle takes the salary hit.

Brian Roberts, Orioles 2B
Contract: Final year, $10 million, full no-trade

A 10-and-5 player for the first time, Roberts is in the fourth year of his $40 million deal, during which he has played an average of 38 games per season and hit .244/.308/.340. Even if he comes to camp healthy and stays that way, there’s little argument that he should see time ahead of Alexi Casilla or Ryan Flaherty, who performed poorly in 77 games as a utility man and will turn 27 in July.

That’s how far it’s gone downhill for Roberts, who would struggle to get a major-league deal in the open market this offseason. It’s a quandary for the Orioles and the most likely of these scenarios to result in a straight release.

Luke Hochevar, RHP, Royals
Contract: $4.56 million, free agent for the first time in 2015

Hochevar’s stuff can appear good enough that every year, somebody’s going to keep wanting him, and every year so far that somebody has continued to be the Royals. After watching him post a 5.73 ERA with uninspiring peripherals, they tendered him a contract again. But really, do you want him on the roster when your rotation is James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, Bruce Chen and Wade Davis? Eventually, Kansas City has to give up, and in light of the team’s moves this offseason, this is the year.

If the Royals can find another willing partner with their own mess to get off their hands and a pitching coach who thinks he can harness what the Royals couldn’t in Hochevar, it will be like the Jonathan Sanchez trade all over again. If not, Hochevar will have finally passed Jeff Francoeur (with the aid of the Wil Myers trade) as the deadest of KC’s dead weights.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

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