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“This is a joke, right?”

That was my reaction to Tuesday’s e-mail informing me that Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman were the first new members of the third–and still, to my mind, theoretical–Washington franchise, at a total cash outlay of more than $23 million. Castilla earned a two-year commitment, while Guzman, who was going to be non-tendered by the Twins, signed a four-year deal.

Two days later, I have no idea what Jim Bowden was thinking. None. The two players occupy the netherworld between average and replacement level, and they get there largely on the basis of good defensive numbers in ’04. Castilla has been a Coors-inflated phony for years; away from altitude last year, he hit .218/.281/.493, in the same sphere as his .254/.289/.405 line while playing for the Braves in ’02 and ’03. Both the Davenport numbers and Ultimate Zone Rating agree that he had a good defensive season, but Castilla is going to use up so many outs at the plate that he’d have to be the love child of Eric Chavez and a black hole to suck up enough balls to make up for it.

It’s strange that the Expos, having employed Tony Batista for a year, managed to bring in a player who is of the same type, yet worse. That’s not easy to do. The two-year commitment is baffling, although there was probably a market among GMs for Castilla based on his league-leading RBI total. There’s a symmetry to that, actually, the point at which blind spots about the value of RBI and the effect of Coors Field on offensive statistics converge. If you squint, you can almost see art and beauty in it.

What D.C. baseball fans will see is 450 or so outs.

Of course, as one BP author put it, “How damning is it that you can sign Vinny Castilla to a multi-year contract and have that be the ‘good’ deal you made that day?” The Guzman deal is twice as long, more than twice as expensive, and easily twice as inexplicable. At least with Castilla, you can argue that Bowden was fooled by Coors Field. Guzman, however, has established beyond any reasonable doubt that he’s a known quantity, a below-average player.

Since his flukish 2001, when he hit .302/.337/.477 with the best defensive numbers of his career to that point, Guzman has settled in to be a .270/.310/.370 hitter with declining speed and a tendency to miss three weeks a year with minor injuries. His last three EqAs are .236, .242 and .243; even though he’s just 27, the loss of speed (steady decline in stolen bases, an uptick in double plays and a downward, if inconsistent, tendency towards fewer triples) doesn’t bode well for Guzman to show improvement at the normal peak ages. Guzman’s defense is hard to evaluate; he had a peak season in ’04 by both metrics, a year out of line with his previous work, which had been average and below. As with Castilla, there’s virtually no amount of defense that will make up for his offense.

You know what this contract is? It’s Pat Meares all over again. Meares, like Guzman, was the starting shortstop for the Twins until they didn’t want to pay him any longer. They non-tendered him after the 1998 season, and the Pirates signed him to a minor-league deal, then quickly gave him a four-year contract in early 1999. Meares missed most of ’99 and all of 2002 with injuries; when healthy, he was barely a replacement-level shortstop. The contract was a burden on the Pirates for years.

Guzman may have a slightly better outlook than Meares did; he’s younger, a better player, and some of Meares’ problems can be traced to major injuries. Nevertheless, the similarities between the two deals are eerie, more than enough to scare the fans in D.C.

What’s especially frustrating is that the Expos didn’t have to make this kind of financial commitment to get the performance they’ll get from Castilla and Guzman. The in-house options available to play on the left side of the infield are comparable to what you can expect from those two, and they come at 1/10th the cost. I’m not a big Brendan Harris fan, but the ex-Cub farmhand, acquired in the Orlando Cabrera trade, had enough of a year at Triple-A (.303/.350/.515) to justify a full-time shot. We don’t have PECOTAs yet, but I’m willing to bet that the difference between the weighted means for Castilla and Harris are within one win of each other. Heck, plugging in Jamey Carroll and his career .279/.350/.370 line would be a better idea than Castilla, especially given the two players’ salaries.

Over at shortstop, Maicer Izturis isn’t really a .330 hitter, but he’s considered a good defensive shortstop and he had a huge spike in his walk rate at age 23 (56 unintentionals in 443 PA at Triple-A Edmonton). Like Harris, he didn’t play well in limited time in the majors in ’04, performance that probably carried too much weight in determining next year’s roster. Allowed to play, he’d probably be a good comp for Guzman, with more OBP and defense, but less speed and power.

Harris and Izturis are most likely exactly comparable to the two players the Expos signed, and much more likely to overperform both projections and costs. Signing Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to play for millions of dollars instead is the kind of move that separates the organizations that haven’t moved forward from the ones that have. The Expos are spending $23 million for service time, and that’s wasted money. For a fraction of that, they could have employed Izturis, Harris, Carroll and maybe made a one-year commitment to someone like Jose Valentin, who has the kind of left-handed power that is expected to play well at RFK Stadium. The veteran’s experience at third base would have provided insurance and flexibility as well.

The costs of this deal go beyond games and money. Because Bowden didn’t wait until after Dec. 7 for the Rockies and Twins to non-tender the two players, the Expos will have to sacrifice their second- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft. For an organization that, even in its new home, will need to have a productive farm system, that’s an egregious waste of resources.

Twenty-three million dollars and two draft picks are gone, and the 2005 Expos haven’t improved one whit. Welcome back to baseball, D.C.

Thank you for reading

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