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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

Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  Year Of The Injury,  Juan Abreu

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

WCE

Here's my question on Dunn, what's the difference between him and Ryan Howard, other than Dunn being better defensively, and believe it or not, faster on the bases? Look at the stats. Is Howard really worth that much more?

Feb 12, 2009 16:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Hendo

PECOTA projects Howard almost neutral (-1) at 1B next season. Lord knows where they'd rate Dunn at the position.

Not that I'm not pleased with the Nats having signed Dunn, but I hope he finds time in the next week to take a fielding clinic.

Feb 12, 2009 17:56 PM
rating: 0
 
WCE

- I think Dunn might play 1b ok. I sometimes got the idea that he was perhaps an... unenthusiastic 1b. He clearly wanted to avoid a move from the OF. Now that he's agreed to play 1b, I imagine he'll be ok. Dunn is a lot better athlete than people give him credit for being. He was a top football recruit at Texas at QB.

Feb 12, 2009 18:42 PM
rating: 0
 
Fresh Hops

Dunn is lousy defender. "Lousy" is a nice word for it.

Feb 15, 2009 11:01 AM
rating: 0
 
charlesford

I totally agree on the assessment on the Dunn signing in terms of the log jam, but I think buying cheap assets for trade value can not be underestimated in the Nats case. However, as I Nats fan, I remember how much I wished that Bowden would turn Soriano into some stud prospects, but that never happened. I can only hope this is a new era.

Feb 12, 2009 17:10 PM
rating: 0
 
amazin_mess

You need to get rid of Bowden pronto.

Feb 12, 2009 18:37 PM
rating: 0
 
akw4572

I think comparative to Dunn, Howard is obviously going to be GROSSLY overpaid in the next 3 years.

Feb 12, 2009 17:42 PM
rating: 0
 
West21

Howard hit .313 once, an MVP, hit 58 homers and he has a World Series ring.......all sexy things that earned him $$$$ I think he's worth a little more than Dunn because he has shown that he can hit for a better average. Dunn will be get another shot at a big contract. I think Dunn will hit fitty one of these years.

Feb 12, 2009 18:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Nick Smith

A Jim Bowden team with more outfielders than it knows what to do with? Never!

He's even managed to reassemble the Reds outfield of the future, circa 2001.

Feb 12, 2009 19:06 PM
rating: 2
 
West21

the 04 Reds had an occasional OF of Dunn, Wily Mo, and Kearns......... scary bad

Feb 12, 2009 19:12 PM
rating: 0
 
Lou Doench

Hey! at the time Kearns was a really good rf. Ok we were playing him in center...

Feb 13, 2009 05:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Richie

The player most likely to take playing time away from Elijah Dukes is Elijah Dukes.

Feb 12, 2009 19:58 PM
rating: 3
 
James Martin Cole

Pretty much.

And I can't believe that someone would suggest Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena should not take playing time away from Willie Harris... and I really can't believe that I agree with the person that suggested that. Willie Harris dismal 2006 with the Red Sox did not lead me to believe he'd end up as a pretty decent 4th outfielder, or even every day CFer.

The Nationals have kind of an island of misfit toys vibe going.

Feb 13, 2009 06:10 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Clay Davenport
BP staff
(7)

I think you misunderstood - Kearns, Pena, Harris, and Willingham should not take time away from Miledge and Dukes.

Still a nightmare for the depth charts right now.

Feb 13, 2009 07:17 AM
 
James Martin Cole

Yeah, you're right. Still, it's pretty clear that, at this point, Harris is likely to be more productive than Kearns or (UGH) Mo Pena. Kind of a strange career arc for Willie Harris.

While we're on the subject of Wily Mo Pena... he's probably the best batting practice hitter I've ever seen. I remember, during his Red Sox days, he got a reputation as always swinging at the first pitch. Red Sox management said they were working on getting him to be more selective. For the rest of his Red Sox career, Mo Pena would take the first pitch and swing at the second pitch, no matter what. He was the king of the 0-2 count. Lowest baseball IQ I've ever seen.

Feb 13, 2009 07:32 AM
rating: 0
 
Dan

And good news for Bowden... Griffey is still available!

I actually am sitting here at my desk at work looking at a Reds souvenir cup from 2002, showing Dunn, Kearns, and Griffey driving the Big Red Machine Zamboni (from Riverfront astroturf days) boldly toward their new home at Great American Ballpark! (They're "Rounding third and heading towards our new home.") Kearns is even boldly pointing forward. (Griffey is driving but not watching where he's going, and Dunn appears to be in a bit of a fog, gazing into the distance.)

Maybe they've just been driving that thing for the last 6.5 years and wound up about 500 miles east of their intended destination!

Come on Junior... make it happen! ;)

Feb 13, 2009 07:28 AM
rating: 4
 
ElAngelo
(942)

The Dunn signing makes baseball sense with one more move, i.e., the Nats flipping Milledge for a player at another position that can help them. For example, a swap like Milledge for Ryan Rowland-Smith would make sense for both teams. The odds of them doing this, obviously, are slim.

Feb 13, 2009 07:31 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

Jack, is that you?

I like RRS. I do. I think he'll be a capable starter in the majors.

That trade, however, would be violently underselling Milledge.

You don't solve this problem by trading your best player. You solve it...well, by hoping Willingham, Kearns and Pena play well enough to have trade value.

Feb 13, 2009 09:00 AM
 
Lindemann
(852)

If Johnson is healthy, Dunn will play in left, so a bunch of Joe's analysis goes out the old window:

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/nationalsjournal/2009/02/if_johnson_is_healthy_dunn_wil.html

Sounds like Dunn, Milledge, and Dukes with Johnson at first until a butterfly lands on his collarbone, breaking it and leaving him out for the season. But in the event that Johnson is playing, Dunn will apparently be patrolling the green pasture.

Feb 13, 2009 07:52 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I never even considered Nick Johnson in this analysis. It's like speculating as to what the Padres' rotation will be if Mark Prior is healthy, or what impact Dave Stieb might have the Blue Jays this year.

Feb 13, 2009 09:03 AM
 
West21

I can confidently say I could be a better general manager than Jim Bowden..... as would 90% of BP readers and 100% of BP's staff..

Feb 13, 2009 08:01 AM
rating: -1
 
cynichasm

"The signings of Dunn and Abreu most likely end up making Ramirez more money and validating the hard-nosed negotiating by Scott Boras."

I don't agree with this. The Dunn and Abreu signings not only established a market price for good to great outfielders, but they virtually eliminated two of Manny's potential landing spots. Ramirez is worse off this week than last. Boras should be flogging himself right now.

Feb 13, 2009 10:42 AM
rating: 0
 
DWrek5

Because Manny is the only option to sign if you need an impact bat. If the Dodgers dont sign Manny, then they are without the slugger they wanted b/c Dunn and Abreau are gone. Sure they could trade, but they are still giving up assets. So they have a choice of either paying Manny, trading players, or going without. They do not have an option of signing a "slugger" not named Manny.
The options for the Didgers are now fewer than they were before, but the options are not fewer for Manny.

Feb 13, 2009 19:35 PM
rating: 1
 
eighteen

If the Dodgers were really looking for an "impact bat" they would've signed Abreu or Dunn - either one would've tipped the balance to them in the NL West, and they could've beat the offers those players got.

The Dodgers seem to be looking at Manny as a business proposition, not a baseball one - will he put enough fannies in the seats to justify the coin outlay? Their judgment to this point has put the break-even somewhere between $20-$25 million per year. Unless something in that calculus changes, they're not going higher.

So as far as the Dodgers are concerned, having Abreu and Dunn off the market doesn't affect Manny's signability at all.

Does San Fran really have the kind of coin it'd take to sign Manny? I doubt it. And if I'm SF's owner, there's no way I let Brian Sabean off the leash long enough to make a FA signing like this. I'd be e-mailing Sabean pictures of Barry Zito every 15 minutes.

Of course, if I was the Giant's owner, Brian Sabean would be lookin' for a job.

Feb 14, 2009 07:19 AM
rating: 0
 
rrvwmr

Why would Manny make MORE with these signings? The market value of corner OFs went down and there are still many teams with a glut. The Cardinals, Nationals, Twins, and Yankees have players to give at now reduced prices...though also admittedly reduced production. You have to explore trading for Ludwick (3.1 WARP vs Manny's 4.3) or Delmon Young (best prospect in the land a short time ago) before going at Manny with blinders on.

Feb 13, 2009 11:06 AM
rating: 0
 
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