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December 10, 2008

Prospectus Today

Gob Smacked in Vegas

by Joe Sheehan

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The layout of the Bellagio makes the Opryland Hotel in Nashville look like a Holiday Inn Express. The meetings are technically in the convention center, while the socializing and networking with the people within the game occurs toward the front of the hotel. The reporters who make their living getting information from the latter and taking it to the former-the media work-room is all the way at the back of the hotel-are earning their keep this week tracking back and forth between the two. Reporting is not what I do by temperament or profession, but it is something to watch the national guys-our John Perrotto, Fox's Ken Rosenthal, Sportsline's Scott Miller, ESPN's army, led by Peter Gammons-work to beat the other guys to the latest. They get insider information, verify and filter it, and send it out to baseball fans, who eat it up with a spoon.

The difference between insider information and what I present has been on my mind this week, and more so this morning as the baseball world woke up to the strong rumor of CC Sabathia's signing of a seven-year deal with the Yankees. At 3:30 a.m. local time, I was at the Bellagio talking baseball with a National League team's exec. I had been there a while, and no one had been using the word "Sabathia" in any context other than that he was holding up the market. Four hours later, my Blackberry-crippled by a trackball that won't head north-was waking me with the news. In seven trips to the Winter Meetings, I cannot remember a story ever breaking this early in the morning, but then again, I also can't remember a 290-pound pitcher getting a seven-year commitment to become the highest-paid hurler in the game. Joel Sherman, it appears, got the story first.

The Winter Meetings are for reporters; it's their World Series. Put all the baseball newsmakers in one place, and challenge the field to beat one another. It's Darwinian, Draconian, and damned entertaining to watch. A guy like me has it easy: take some meetings, play a round of golf, shake a lot of hands, and wait for the news to happen so it can be broken down in detail. What the reporters do, from the national guys above to the beat guys like Peter Abraham and Joel Sherman and Kat O'Brien, is harder in many ways, certainly more of a grind, but as much a part of the fabric of coverage. Baseball fans-hell, people-love rumors, and as Tim Dierkes has shown, you can never sate the demand for that kind of information. When you can deliver not just the rumor, but the news-as Sherman appears to have done this morning-you've earned the right to drop to your knees, Brad Lidge style, and shout. Not that I'm hinting or anything, Joel. Or would pay good money to see you do that.

As far as the news itself... it is something shy of surprising. The deal as reported includes more guaranteed money, by at least 20 percent, than any other offer that had been mentioned. There was never any question that if Sabathia was going to choose any team other than the Yankees, he was going to end up leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table. Whether that reason or others is what swayed him is unknown, but the Yankees clearly felt like their best chance with Sabathia was to keep naming numbers until he cracked. It appears to have worked. The deal will make Sabathia the highest-paid pitcher in baseball, slightly surpassing Johan Santana's average annual salary.

This isn't the Barry Zito contract. Zito was never the best pitcher in baseball, and by the time he hit the market, he was basically a mid-rotation innings eater with significant question marks. Sabathia has a different set of question marks, but he has established himself as one of the game's top starters, arguably its best over the past two seasons. Beginning in early 2006, after a DL stint led him to alter and streamline his mechanics, Sabathia has harnessed his power stuff and blown away both leagues, and the improved command has enabled him to become a much more durable pitcher.

I remember seeing him on May 19, 2006 in Cleveland, the night of BP's first ballpark event at then-Jacobs Field, and being wildly impressed with the newer version. Sabathia's career breaks down pretty much along the lines of his April trip to the DL that year: prior to that, he'd struck out 764 men and walked 374 in 975 innings, while averaging just barely six innings per start. Since that DL stint, after coming back with a delivery that featured less wasted motion and a more direct route to home plate, he's bumped up his command (1.98 K/BB to 2.21 K/BB) by both lowering his walk rate and raising his strikeout rate. He just pounds the zone much more impressively now, and by throwing fewer pitches to each batter, has averaged more than seven innings per start since May 2006.

Concern about Sabathia's fitness for this kind of contract have nothing to do with whether his established level is good enough, but rather with how much longer he'll be able to pitch this well. Above and beyond the standard concerns that come with any pitcher-his arm, his performance, the inscrutability of player performance more than a few years out-there's the issue of Sabathia's physique. I've said repeatedly that I don't think a pitcher with Sabathia's size is a good investment. We had a great discussion about this on the BP internal list, with Jay Jaffe getting in the final word:

You've already decided that Sabathia won't be a good investment due to his size (as you just wrote and as you've written before) and look to be reaching for something to support that beyond your gut instinct about his gut.

On the face of it, no pitcher is a good investment due to the injury risk, so you're at least half right, but it's important to separate skittishness about giving a long-term contract to any pitcher from the specifics of Sabathia's case. All we really know is that Sabathia is very good now, with a strong track record of successful performance-including an impressive uptick over the past three years-and a negligible history of injuries, particularly arm injuries. Despite his immense size, he's a very good athlete, and unless I'm wrong he doesn't have any red flags regarding his delivery.

Jay is correct. I cannot back up my conservative opinion of Sabathia with data, in part because Sabathia is a rare case in baseball history, an ace pitcher of his size in the prime of his career. Most heavyweight pitchers have been softer and shorter than Sabathia is, with almost no pitchers tipping the scales at Sabathia's listed 290, or whatever number pops up when he takes his physical in February. He is unique, and in evaluating him, I'm personally weighing what I know about weight's effect on the back and on joints in deciding that he's too big a risk. His performance level, durability, and athleticism argue for the signing, though I've become fond of noting that you're never signing a free agent's past. Put it all together, and what you have is an opinion-Sabathia won't be durable enough over the length of his deal to make his signing for six years or more a sensible decision-that there aren't enough facts to support.

The Yankees, of course, have the wherewithal to make big mistakes, and if Sabathia is unable to pitch or pitch well on the back end of this deal, well, it will cost them cash, but perhaps not post-season appearances. Despite the perception around the Yankees that pitching was a problem last year, this contract gilds a reasonably attractive lily, making the rotation strong and decreasing the pressure on the bullpen due to Sabathia's tendency to work deep into games. On the other hand, signing Sabathia puts $23 million a year in a place other than the offense, which was the team's real problem in '08 and projects to be something less than dominant in 2009. The Yankees needed a big bat more than they needed a big arm, and while the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive for a team with the Yankees' money, if signing Sabathia makes it even slightly less likely that the Yankees sign Mark Teixeria, it was probably the wrong move for them.

With Sabathia locked up, the next day or so here in Las Vegas could be crazy. Everyone has been waiting and waiting for him to sign, to give the players behind him in line a chance to negotiate off of his number, which is now as high as it could have possibly been. That bodes well for Derek Lowe and A.J. Burnett, and even for Teixeira, as they pick from among their suitors for long-term, high-dollar deals. Who knows? They might even reach agreements at an hour fit for humans.

---

I feel like we've seen the maturation of an industry this week. Francisco Rodriguez, rumored at one point to make as much as $75 million in a five-year free-agent deal, signed a three-year deal with the Mets for $37 million. It's not just a reasonable contract, it's a surprisingly good one for the Mets, who neither overpay for nor overcommit to a pitcher who fills a dire need for them. Rodriguez is a power arm who misses bats, and though his command has been backsliding a bit the last few seasons, the upgrade on the available options for the Mets is significant. At a bit more than $12 million per season, Rodriguez needs to be worth about four wins above replacement to justify that cost, and he's never been worth less than 4.6 WARP in any year. The Mets got a good, if risky, player for a good price.

It may seem strange that I'm praising this deal when I've been killing Rodriguez for some time. It's all about context. A year ago, I was advocating against signing Kyle Lohse because a market-level contract for him made no sense. Three months later, I praised the Cardinals for their one-year pickup of Lohse, who was more than worth the $7 million he signed for. At the expected level, Rodriguez would have been a lousy signing because the deal would be too many years, and too much money, for a guy who throws 75 innings a year. At the above numbers, he's arguably undervalued.

Kerry Wood is coming in on Rodriguez's heels-a phenomenon we may now see with starting pitchers very shortly-with reports that he's close to signing a two-year deal with the Indians. Given that I would rather have Wood's next three years than those of K-Rod, any contract that pays Wood less than $37 million is going to be a winning one. Wood makes the Indians' bullpen significantly better for the same reasons that the Mets needed Rodriguez: he misses bats and allows everyone else in the bullpen to be used in roles more appropriate to their skills.

The two deals, taken together, indicate that MLB teams are coming around on the idea that closers are made, not born, and therefore do not need to be compensated or pursued the way position players and starting pitchers are. This is a big step forward, and should not be minimized. More and more, MLB as a group is run efficiently, as GMs with business backgrounds take over, and people like Dan Fox, Keith Woolner, and James Click get hired by teams looking for an edge over the competition.

I wrote this a long time ago, but I'l repeat it here. Despite the nagging perception that analysts are "pro-player" due to their collective reality-based position during recent CBA talks, a world in which statheads ran baseball would be aggressively bad for players. Even conceding that a stathead front office would have to be something less than completely Spock about decisions, simply taking the position that most players are fungible would change the game entirely.

It's collusion if everyone cheats off of the same paper. That's not happening now. Everyone's just getting a little bit smarter.

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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