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Monday, the Blue Jays announced that they’d signed both Eric Hinske and
Vernon Wells to five-year deals in the neighborhood of $15 million. The
deals take both players through their arbitration seasons, while not buying
out any years of free agency. More importantly, the deals tie each player to
the Jays through their probable peak; Hinske is under contract through age 29,
Wells through age 28.

My first reaction to the deals was positive. Hinske should be a good player
through the life of the deal, although he lacks the potential of, say, Eric
Chavez
or Hank Blalock. Hinske’s defense improved enough during last
season to scotch the idea of moving him off of third base, which leaves just
his performance against left-handers (.202/.293/.339) as a major flaw in his
game. Wells has a higher upside and considerably more defensive value than
Hinske does, although his lousy OBP means that he hasn’t been as good a player
to date.

In thinking about it, though, I really didn’t have a sense of whether
contracts like these turned out well for teams. While the Cleveland Indians
popularized signing players through their arbitration years, they tended to do
so when players were further along in their careers. Five-year deals for guys
with less than two years of service are rare; only Nomar Garciaparra
has received one, and it turned out very well.

To get a sense of what the Jays might expect, I used the Sabermetric Baseball
Encyclopedia
to find players of comparable age and accomplishment in recent
years–basically, the guys you might have considered giving these types of
contracts to. I used a broad definition of “comparable,” as you’ll see below,
but I wanted to find as many players as possible to get a sense of whether
five years and $15 million was a bargain or a bad buy for the Jays.

I’ll spare you the suspense: the Jays should make out very well here. Most
players who had a year like Hinske’s 2002 at age 24, or Wells’ at age 23,
would go on to be, at worst, solid major-league players for the next few
years. In many cases, a five-year, $15-million contract (adjusted for the pay
scale of the time) would have ended up being an amazing bargain.

Here is a list of the players aged 23 and 24, with no more than 300 at-bats
prior to the season in question (to eliminate players clearly superior to
Hinske or with more service time) who posted at least 6 RC/G (Hinske had 6.46 last year)
with a secondary average of at least .300 (Hinske’s was .359) in the years
1986 through 1997:


Player                Season       Age     RC/G    SecAvg

Eric Davis               1986       24     8.10     .576
Dan Pasqua               1986       24     8.07     .407
Lenny Dykstra            1986       23     6.67     .341
Chris James              1987       24     6.70     .313
Kal Daniels              1987       23    10.38     .495
Fred McGriff             1987       23     6.90     .464
Mark McGwire             1987       23     8.54     .456
Matt Nokes               1987       23     6.28     .325
Mike Greenwell           1987       23     8.35     .330
David Justice            1990       24     7.58     .410
Frank Thomas             1991       23     9.47     .479
Mike Piazza              1993       24     7.63     .325
Tim Salmon               1993       24     7.50     .410
Ryan Klesko              1995       24     8.59     .444
Carlos Delgado           1996       24     6.02     .338

Note: Deion Sanders also qualifies, although the circumstances
surrounding his baseball career make him a questionable data point.

These are the best offensive comps for Hinske, and the fact that all but two
of these players is an outfielder or first baseman gives you an idea of how
impressive his first season was. If you’d offered to buy out the next five
seasons of all these careers, avoiding arbitration or future negotiations on a
long-term deal when the player had more leverage, you would have done well
with all but Dan Pasqua, Kal Daniels, Chris James and
Matt Nokes. Of those, only Daniels and Nokes would have been reasonable
candidates for Hinske/Wells-type deals.

Hinske is clearly inferior to some of the players above: he has platoon issues, a
high strikeout rate and lacks the power that some of them possess. On the
other hand, he has more defensive value and speed than almost all of his
comps.

Hinske’s PECOTA comps are a mixed bag, with some scary names like Mike
Pagliarulo
and Jack Howell mixed in among Larry Walker,
Paul O’Neill and Mo Vaughn. I think the odd collection of comps
is a point in Hinske’s favor. Unique players tend to be hard to find direct
comps for, so you get a mix of inferior players who have his attributes and
superior ones at easier defensive positions who better mirror his performance
at the plate.

The case for signing Wells is a bit fuzzier. He hasn’t shown Hinske’s skill at
the plate, in particular showing little discipline. On the other hand, he’s
younger, a very good center fielder, and has been a top prospect for more than
three years. There haven’t been many young center fielders since 1985 with his
2002 stat line; a couple of Andruw Jones seasons (1998 and 2001) and
Juan Gonzalez‘s first two full campaigns in 1991 and 1992, as well as
Torii Hunter‘s 2001. Gonzalez and Jones, younger than Wells at the
time, would go on to walk more as they aged. Hunter, however, is probably the
best comp, and if Wells follows the Twin’s development path, he’ll be well
worth the money.

PECOTA’s comps for Wells are all over the map, mostly injury-prone or
disappointing outfield prospects like Rondell White, Jeffrey
Hammonds
and Rick Reichardt. While his comps aren’t encouraging, I
think Wells is the safer of the two signings, because he has more growth
potential and defensive value than Hinske does. Even if he doesn’t develop
much more as a hitter, his excellent range in center field and good power will
make him an asset, and I don’t think there’s much chance that he’ll be worse
than he was in 2002. Hinske doesn’t have Wells’ upside, and may have been at
or near the top of his range last year. He’s more likely to decline from his
2002 performance, at least in 2003.

In both cases, though, I think the Blue Jays have done well to commit to these
players. There are reasons to do so that go beyond the specific merit. The
Jays can now sell Wells and Hinske to their fans as the cornerstones of what
should be an exciting team, a contender. They get cost certainty, as well as
roster certainty, with two of their best players through 2007, enabling them to
budget around the pair. If the two develop as hoped, they’ll provide the kind
of low-cost core that enables J.P. Ricciardi to sign the right free agents in
2004 and beyond, when the Jays should be overtaking the Red Sox and Yankees
for AL East superiority.

Overall, the signings are a calculated risk with minimal downside and
significant upside.

Trip to Japan Cancelled

Baseball cancelled the season-opening series in Tokyo between the Mariners and
A’s
, citing concerns over the imminent war in Iraq. The games will be rescheduled and played stateside later in the year.

It’s a difficult decision for MLB, which has made a significant investment in
this series, its second Far East season-opener in four years. However, the
concern about sending personnel so far from home with a war about to start,
and worries about how secure the players, front-office people and their
families might be, carried the day.

I don’t believe there was a bad decision to be made here, as there are
arguments in both directions. I can’t blame Bud Selig for erring on the side
of caution, and perhaps the side of a great number of people in the Mariners
and A’s camps who were approaching the trip with trepidation.