One of the effects of the depressed labor market is that there are fewer bad signings by teams. The game’s middle class, that group of players with more service time than value, has been taking it in the shorts the past couple of winters, and that’s the subset that usually produces more howlers than any other.

Nevertheless, we can still point to some free-agent deals and scratch our heads. Some things, I’d imagine, will never change.

  • Kelvim Escobar, Angels. New Angels owner Arte Moreno scored big late with his signing of Vladimir Guerrero, but his opening salvo has less going for it. Escobar agreed to a three-year, $18.75-million deal with the Angels at the end of November, making him one of the first free agents to sign. His contract seemed exorbitant at the time, and only looked worse as pitchers with much stronger track records signed for fewer years and less money throughout December.

    In six major league seasons, Escobar has never been successful for longer than a few months at a time. He’s never held a role for longer than one season, jumping from closer to the rotation and back, and frustrating the Blue Jays in both roles. His career ERA is 4.58, and his lowest full-season figure is 3.50, set back in ’01.

    His second-half 2003 performance, which was largely what made him attractive as a free agent, was hardly that impressive: a 3.89 ERA, 73 strikeouts and 40 walks in 92.2 innings. Overall, his performance record is unimpressive for a pitcher who will now make nearly $7 million a season. The Blue Jays replaced him with Miguel Batista, a better pitcher, at nearly $2 million a year less.

    Escobar looks for all the world like a Venezuelan Willie Blair. Blair, who also bounced from role to role in his first six seasons, put together a strong second half for the Tigers in 1997, and picked up a three-year, $11.45-million deal from the Diamondbacks for his troubles. The Snakes dumped him four months into the season, and Blair posted an ERA of 5.48 over the life of the deal. Escobar has established himself as a mediocre pitcher, and is likely to be a huge disappointment to the Angels.

  • Raul Ibanez, Mariners. The Mariners drafted Ibanez in 1992 and carried him in the majors through 2000. They had to be a little frustrated by watching him go to Kansas City and have three good seasons for the Royals. Bringing him back wasn’t the answer, though; he’s 32 years old, and while his performance in K.C. looks good, it’s actually inflated by Kauffman Stadium’s emergence as a Great Plains version of Coors Field. Ibanez is basically a middle-of-the-road corner outfielder, worth three to four wins a season in his prime, and probably less than that as he exits it.

    Moreover, Ibanez was exactly the kind of player the Mariners didn’t need. With Mike Cameron likely headed elsewhere, the M’s needed to use the opportunity to add, by trade or signing, a big bat in left field, sacrificing some defense in the process. Instead, Ibanez is basically a slightly better version of Randy Winn, and won’t provide the .540 slugging that this team needs in the middle of the lineup.

  • As long as I’m picking on the Mariners, their decision to bring in Scott Spiezio on a three-year contract is inexplicable. They’ll use him at third base in 2004, a position he doesn’t play that well or hit well enough to be an asset while playing it, with the apparent intention of having him replace John Olerud in 2005. Spiezio is basically Ibanez at the plate, and while he does play a mean first base, that’s not a skill the Mariners have much use for in the short term.

    Derek Zumsteg and David Cameron have just been all over this stuff this winter at U.S.S. Mariner. Their coverage of Bill Bavasi’s machinations has been both dead accurate and wildly entertaining. Check it out.

  • Javy Lopez, Orioles. Every winter, you can usually count on one team putting too much weight on a fluke season. The Orioles gifted Lopez with a three-year, $22.5-million contract. Lopez’s 2003 performance goes on the short list of greatest catcher seasons ever, but he’s 33 and had been in free fall for the three years prior. While even Lopez’s decline phase might look good to a team that’s been using Geronimo Gil and Brook Fordyce behind the plate, Lopez is much more likely to be the three-win player he was in ’01 and ’02 than the MVP candidate he was in ’03. Comparisons to Todd Hundley‘s 2000 season for the Dodgers are frighteningly apt.
  • Jay Payton, Padres. It would be too easy to compare Payton to Jeffrey Hammonds, another average outfielder who went to Denver and left for millions elsewhere. Payton hit fairly well on the road in ’03 (.281/.330/.483) and, like most bipeds, is more durable than the ex-Stanford star. The Padres also avoided pulling a Bando, signing Payton for two years and $5.5 million.

    Nevertheless, Payton isn’t likely to be a solution for the Padres’ center-field problem as much as a stopgap. Being better than Terrence Long isn’t much to hang your hat on, and since neither player has a big platoon split–and T-Long is a lousy center fielder–a platoon doesn’t make much sense. Payton was a consolation prize for the losses of Mike Cameron and Kenny Lofton to various boroughs of New York City, and an expensive one at that. When Payton hits .265/.320/.380 with no impact on the bases and an inability to bridge the yawning chasm between Brian Giles and Ryan Klesko, losing out on Cameron is going to hurt that much more.

  • Braden Looper, Mets. In a winter when the Mets did a lot of things right, this one was a real head-scratcher. They signed the non-tendered Looper to a two-year, $6.15-million contract. By comparison, LaTroy Hawkins, who does everything better than Looper, will average just $3.67 million per year over the life of his three-year deal with the Cubs.

    As with Escobar, it’s hard to see why Looper was the beneficiary of such largesse. Other than falling into the Marlins’ closer job last year and picking up 28 saves, his performance in ’03 was pretty much exactly as it had been since he reached the majors in 1999: He doesn’t strike out enough batters (56 in 80.2 innings in ’03, 5.66 K/9 in his career), and his 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in ’03 was actually unimpressive for a top-tier reliever.

    The fun ending to the story is that the guy Mets fans loved to hate, Armando Benitez, does just about everything better than Looper…and he signed with the Marlins for one year and $3.5 million.

               IP   AVG   OBP   SLG   K/9   BB/9   K/BB   HR/9   ARP
    Looper   80.2  .264  .323  .363  6.25   3.24   1.93   0.45   3.2
    Benitez  73.0  .218  .319  .325  9.25   5.05   1.83   0.74  10.3

    The Fish got a better pitcher for roughly the same amount of money and a shorter commitment, which allowed them to non-tender Looper and avoid overpaying for those 28 saves in ’03. That’s one way to win on a budget.

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