March 17, 2009
The Motor City Money Pit
I've been spending a lot of time on this site, looking at bad contracts for a piece that should run this week. It's a fantastic resource for all baseball fans, and one of those reminders that we are incredibly fortunate to live in a time when so much information is available with so little effort. We care a lot about payroll now, mostly because some teams don't seem to care what they spend on it, like the Yankees, and some teams really don't seem to care what they spend on it, like the Marlins. The extremes always make for interesting copy, but there are many stories to be told in between the two.
Take the Tigers, for instance. A year after being hyped as the runaway favorites in the AL Central with their potential for a thousand-run offense, and then falling on their faces in the season's first month and never recovering, the Tigers appear to be a solid contender in a three-team Central race. What's interesting is that despite getting very little attention for their spending, they might have as much dead money as any team in the game.
This year, Gary Sheffield is guaranteed $14 million, $10 million of which will be paid to him now, with $4 million deferred. Sheffield is 40 years old, and coming off of a season in which he batted .225/.326/.400 while playing 47 innings in the field. He was a below-average hitter for the league as a whole, and a sub-replacement designated hitter. Sheffield's last good year was in 2005, though he was adequate in '07. There's very little reason to be optimistic here; Sheffield's leading indicators, like contact rate, K/BB, and isolated power, are all going backwards at a high rate of speed. Even a return to '07 levels wouldn't be enough to make him more than an average DH, and there's every chance he's done. For $14 million.
The rotation is a money pit. The Tigers will pay Jeremy Bonderman $12.5 million this season, less than a year after he underwent a number of surgeries to correct circulatory problems in his arm. Will Carroll is confident that Bonderman can come back, but to what, exactly? Bonderman made 12 starts last year. He made 28 with an ERA of 5.01 in 2007. His peripherals have been going backwards since '06, and the combination of that trend and the questions about his health-he probably won't make Opening Day-make that $12.5 million a considerable overpay.
The Tigers gave Nate Robertson a three-year extension coming off of the lefty's fourth straight innings-eating season in '07. A closer look at his lines would have revealed him to be a poor candidate to continue his success, and he blew up last year, with a 6.35 ERA. Splitting the difference between '07 and '08 would leave the Tigers paying $7 million for 29 starts with an ERA of about 5.50. PECOTA gives him two-thirds of that workload with a 4.72 ERA. In either case, the $7 million is too much money.
That brings us to the AIG of pitching contracts, Dontrelle Willis' deal. After trading for Willis last winter, the Tigers signed him to a three-year, $29 million contract through 2010. He completely fell apart last spring, finishing the season with just 24 major league innings in which he walked 35 batters and allowed 25 runs. He's owed $10 million this season, and there's no indication yet that he'll be able to pitch an inning in the majors. He's allowed five walks in six innings over three outings this spring, giving up eight runs.
All told, the Tigers are paying those three pitchers $29.5 million, and it's entirely possible that the three, collectively, won't throw 450 innings or be worth two wins above replacement combined. That's more than 20 percent of the payroll going down a hole.
When Carlos Guillen signed his four-year, $48 million contract extension in the spring of 2007, he was coming off of an age-30 season in which... hey, we just found the problem. As good as Guillen was in 2004 through 2006, that was his peak. The Tigers committed nearly $50 million to the age 32-35 seasons of a player with known durability issues. Now, Guillen is a 33-year-old left fielder whose combination of talents are nothing special for the position, and PECOTA sees some significant offensive decline in the short term. A bat that might have played in the infield is going to be just another guy in the outfield. For $36 million over three years, and $10 million in this one.
People love Brandon Inge for the things he's done at various times in his career, like hit for power, draw walks, catch, be a multi-position super-sub, and play great defense at third base. He gets credit for all of those things, but for the last two years he's been a lousy hitter with a slightly above-average glove in nearly full-time play at third and some reps behind the plate. Slated to play third full-time, he's not worth the $6.3 million he'll take down.
I suppose we can toss Fernando Rodney into this pile. Since his great post-season performance in 2006, Rodney has thrown just 91 innings, walking 51 men in that time and contributing to the follies that have marked the late innings of Tiger games for two seasons. He'll take down $2.7 million this year, and while PECOTA says he'll be worth a win, the error bars on that prediction are pretty wide. There are a couple of hundred relievers who can provide 55 innings of what Rodney might, and most of them work for scale.
If we just PECOTA-ize all of this using the current Depth Charts forecasts, we get seven players-nearly 30 percent of the roster-taking down $62.5 million and a projected WARP of 12.4, a cost of about $5 million per win. That's a generous estimate, in my opinion, because it projects Guillen as an average defensive third baseman rather than to be a below-average left fielder; it is high on Bonderman's innings; it projects a full performance recovery for Robertson; and it has Inge putting up his best season in years. Even at that, paying $5 million per win for a big chunk of your roster is a recipe for disaster. You have to get a lot of value from everywhere else to make up ground, and while the Tigers could be ahead of the game with Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello, there aren't many other roster spots that will return value for the money.
I should mention Miguel Cabrera here. Has anyone taken a good look at him in the World Baseball Classic? There's no question that he's a terrific hitter, but he's put on a lot of weight over the past two seasons. A lot of weight. Enough to make this commitment look a little bit scary:
2008: $11.3 million
Cabrera will return value this year and maybe for the next few, but given what his body has become at age 26, you have to wonder what he'll be worth at in his age-31 through age-33 seasons, and whether he'll be able to justify those numbers.
This is just a snapshot of one roster of course, and the Tigers have made their share of good signings. Magglio Ordonez turned out better than I ever anticipated; I hated that deal, and it put them in a World Series and hasn't hurt them since. Placido Polanco's four-year extension has turned out well for the team. The Granderson deal, which runs through 2012 with a club option for 2013, will likely work out well. This year, though, the Tigers are burning a lot of money and getting nothing for it. How they manage that problem, whether they're able to call a sunk cost a sunk cost and move on, will be the key challenge facing them as they look to squeeze another post-season trip out of the Ordonez Era in Detroit.