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December 14, 2009

Prospectus Today

Getting Talent For Less Than It's Worth

by Joe Sheehan

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Baseball's off-season calendar is something of a mess now, with the deadline to offer arbitration to your free agents coming before the Winter Meetings, the deadline for the free agents to accept coming during them, and the deadline for tendering contracts to players on your 40-man roster coming after everyone leaves town. (In this year, that deadline was a Saturday, which is something that should really be avoided if possible.) There should be some top-down effort to align these dates in a way that dovetails better with the meetings-even if they are something of an anachronism given modern telecommunications. If you're going to bother bringing everyone together, you should do so when teams have the best set of information for making trades and signings. Having a major deadline two days after the meetings is at best counterproductive, and at worst, silly.

As it turned out, Saturday didn't yield any big news. The best players who might have been non-tendered, such as the Marlins' Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson, were offered contracts. For the most part, the best players who were not, such as the A's Jack Cust and the Pirates' Matt Capps, were cut loose for good reasons having to do with expected performance and expected price.

Among the others, I get most excited about Kelly Johnson, who had a lost season while Martin Prado had a strong one, making Johnson a luxury. Johnson didn't hit as well as he had in '08, with line drives turning into fly balls, but the result, a nearly 100-point loss in BABIP that destroyed his rate stats, wasn't entirely reflective of how he played. Given the wrist injury he played through and loss of his regular status early in the year, I'm inclined to look at his 2009 and give him a mulligan. Johnson is a .270/.340/.440 guy who can play second base at about an average level. He does have experience in left field and can play some third base, so he's useful as a bench option. Of the newly-minted free agents, he strikes me as the one likely to have the most value in '10. The Dodgers need a second baseman, and any number of bad teams like the Padres, Nationals, and Pirates could be improved with the addition of Johnson.

It doesn't seem like that long ago that Ryan Garko was a highly-regarded prospect, and even at last year's trade deadline, the Giants wanted him enough to deal a prospect to the Indians for him. At the time, Garko was hitting a serviceable .285/.362/.464 and had been better than that when getting regular playing time in the month leading up to the trade. Garko didn't get off to a great start with the Giants, however, and saw his role reduced in September, with Travis Ishikawa getting most of the playing time. The Giants may want to sign a third baseman and use Pablo Sandoval at first, and even without that would be inclined to play Ishikawa's glove, so Garko was turned loose. Garko is just 29 and has a career .313/.392/.495 line against left-handers; I'd certainly rather have him than, just to pick one name out of a hat, Mike Lowell. Heck, I might prefer to stick him back behind the plate twice a week-Garko was drafted as a catcher but last played there regularly in 2005-instead of signing Jason Kendall.

If anything, I suspect teams were a bit generous in handing out contracts. I'm not sure that tendering Mike Fontenot got the Cubs anything they couldn't find elsewhere. Johnson's value is shaped differently, but he'll probably be a better, less expensive player in 2010. The Twins tendered both Jesse Crain (who finished the season strongly) and Francisco Liriano (who did not), and while they should get a revenue boost in '10, they have a lot of spots on the roster for which the inputs are greater than the outputs. Crain and Liriano could well add to that. The Royals kept Brian Bannister, although I suspect Joe Posnanski is financing that one, especially after the ridiculous Kendall contract.

I keep coming back to the trend line of the last few offseasons. The industry is getting smarter, valuing things that matter-expected on-field performance, applied skills, proper evaluation-over a knee-jerk preference for experience. Teams are coming around to the idea, first expressed by Bill James in the 1980s, that talent in baseball is not normally distributed, that for every great player there are multiple above-average ones, and for every above-average one many average ones. There's no reason to pay extra money for average performance, and the vast majority of players are at that level or below. The majority of baseball players, even major leaguers, are fungible. If you pay $4 million each for three players who will produce $2 million worth of value, you've wasted six million that could be better spent on high-impact players. The key mistake that continues to be made-and we've seen it with Kendall and the Royals, Ivan Rodriguez and the Nationals, Brandon Lyon and the Astros-is money wasted in dribs and drabs on players who are fungible by teams that have no reason to chase wins.

At the same time, most teams are correctly assessing that keeping a good player eligible for arbitration but not free agency is a good deal for them. For all of the industry complaints about arbitration, teams are well aware that a good player will make less in arbitration-and have corresponding trade value-than he will on the market. Arbitration does not inflate salaries above what the market would pay, it merely inflates them above the good ol' days of "play for this or stay home." The illusion of huge raises through arbitration is an innumerate construct sold by teams and bought by the media, which will report only that Bobby Fireball got a 600 percent raise by losing his arbitration case, and not that that salary represents about half his market value for next year, or that he was making maybe five percent of his market value the previous year. Even the Marlins, theoretically paying front-office employees in scrip while asking that everyone use both sides of the toilet paper, know that offering Uggla and Johnson arbitration is better for the franchise than letting them walk away.

The exclusive rights to employ good baseball players without competing for their services and the exclusive rights to stage Major League Baseball games within a particular geographic area are, in fact, 99 percent of the value of a franchise. You don't just give some of that away, no matter if your fan base can cater a meeting with a bag of microwave popcorn and a six-pack of Squirt.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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