The most boring standoff in baseball history continues. Manny Ramirez and agent Scott Boras still seek a four- or five-year deal worth at least $100 million working in a bleak financial landscape that has teams looking to cut costs while players prepare to settle for lesser deals than they’d have received via arbitration. Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti hasn’t budged beyond an initial two-year, $45 million offer (plus club option), posturing with All-Star form at Boras’ failure to dignify his advances with a response. Boras claims to be negotiating with several unnamed and probably fictional teams (the Gas House Gorillas‘ GM could not be reached for comment), having failed to lure Giants‘ GM Brian Sabean, the rare exec to publicly express interest in Ramirez, into sparking a bidding war. Yaaaaaawn.
With spring training rapidly approaching and Baseball Prospectus 2009 in the pipeline, we can use our fresh PECOTA projections to estimate the marginal gains several teams would make if they signed the free-spirited free agent. The PECOTA forecasting system (invented by Nate Silver before he began predicting the outcome of presidential elections) compares a player’s track record, age, and body type to the most similar players among a database of more than 20,000 major league player-seasons dating back to World War II, generating a range of performance possibilities which are expressed as percentile scores and centered around a weighted mean.
Ramirez’s weighted mean forecast for 2009 is 4.3 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), a figure that encompasses his offensive and defensive value (or on that latter score, at 13 runs below average, his lack of same) relative to a high minor leaguer or bench player. That may seem like a conservative figure given that he totaled 7.8 WARP last year between Boston and LA, but keep in mind that he’ll turn 37 in May-and age carries injury risk as well as the strong probability of a more gradual decline-and that he accumulated just 7.3 WARP in 2006 and 2007 combined due to injuries and poor defense. His 90th-percentile forecast for 2009-a best-case scenario, if you will, and essentially the equal of what he achieved last year-calls for a .324/.417/.609 performance with 38 home runs, good for 6.9 WARP, while his worst-case, 10th-percentile performance comes in at .257/.356/.444 with 17 home runs and 1.5 WARP.
Bearing in mind that great players are more likely to beat the odds of a system like PECOTA, thus increasing the gains estimated by this relatively simplistic approach, here are five potential landing spots for Ramirez:
Dodgers: Still the favorites to re-sign Manny given the huge financial advantage they enjoy over the Giants and their NL West brethren, the Dodgers could easily fall back upon free agents Bobby Abreu (forecast for 3.2 WARP in 2009) or Adam Dunn (3.8 WARP) if Ramirez signs elsewhere. For the moment, however, their left fielder is punchless speedster Juan Pierre, who hit .283/.327/.328 last year, and who is owed $28.5 million over the next three years thanks to Colletti’s insane largess. Pierre won’t go away easily unless the Dodgers can restructure his contract along the lines of recently-released Andruw Jones, spreading out that sunk cost over a series of deferred payments which lower the team’s 2009 payroll. Failing that, Juan-Be-Gone forecasts for a more-of-the-same 1.7 WARP, meaning that Ramirez would be worth an additional 2.6 wins in a division where the races have been decided by two games or less in four of the past five seasons.
Giants: Given that they finished dead last in the league in scoring and second-to-last in both homers and slugging percentage, San Francisco’s offense could use the thunder that Ramirez’s bat would generate, providing a potentially strong rotation (including Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Randy Johnson) with run support just like grownup teams do. Furthermore, the Giants’ box office would certainly welcome a new superstar after attendance plummeted by 12.5 percent in the first year following Barry Bonds‘ departure. Beyond the question of whether the team can actually afford Ramirez given their long-term commitments to Barry
ZeroZito and Aaron Rowand, incumbent left fielder Fred Lewis actually ranks among the team’s most productive hitters, though speed and OBP are his game, not power; he stole 21 bases last year while hitting just nine home runs. While his .277/.354/.436 forecast (2.3 WARP) doesn’t impress at a position where the offensive bar is higher than anywhere but first base (or DH), the two-win gain Ramirez could provide wouldn’t be enough to close the gap between the Giants and the Dodgers.
Mets: After another agonizing near-miss of the playoffs, GM Omar Minaya addressed the team’s biggest shortcoming, its bullpen, by signing Francisco Rodriguez and trading for J.J. Putz. However, Minaya has yet to substantially upgrade his corner outfielders, who ranked fourth-to-last in the league in homers (27) and OPS (747) via a combined .278/.338/.409 line amid a plague of injuries. Rookie Dan Murphy hit a promising .313/.397/.473 in 151 plate appearances, though almost exclusively against righties, but PECOTA isn’t sanguine about a repeat, forecasting .263/.327/.405 and just 1.8 WARP. The system doesn’t see fellow rookie and platoon-mate Nick Evans as much better (.256/.319/.428, 0.5 WARP), and keep in mind that both players’ figures are projected over more than 500 PA apiece. Furthermore, Fernando Tatis, who rose from the dead to hit .297/.369/.484 in 306 PA, forecasts for just a .245/.325/.402 line and 0.7 WARP in part-time duty, while Ryan Church, ostensibly the starting right fielder, is penciled in for 1.2 WARP, again in part-time duty. If we assume some positional flexibility and project those four players’ combined performance over 1200 PA, that comes out to 1.6 WARP apiece at each corner, making for a gain of 2.7 wins if the Mets instead sign Ramirez. When you’ve missed the postseason by a single game in each of the past two seasons, that ain’t hay.
Angels: Having lost Mark Teixeira to free agency despite a $160 million offer, the Angels apparently have money to spend, as well as a gaping hole in their lineup. Their .413 slugging percentage was ninth in a 14-team league last year; without Teixeira’s video game-like .358/.449/.632 performance for them over the final two months, they’d have slipped to 11th. PECOTA loathes Teixeira’s underpowered replacement, Kendry Morales (.253/.295/.389, -0.2 WARP), and it’s none too keen on Juan Rivera, who will be given first crack at the everyday left-field job after signing a three-year, $12.75 million deal. Extrapolating the forecasts for Rivera, Gary Matthews Jr. (the world’s most expensive fourth outfielder, with three years and $33 million remaining on his deal), and forgotten man Reggie Willits across left field and the otherwise-vacant DH slot yields 2.2 WARP apiece at two premium offensive positions. Adding Ramirez in either slot thus gains 2.1 wins, with the difference between bad left-field play and DHing coming out in the wash mathematically, but nevertheless proving a solid win on aesthetic grounds. Alas, given that the Angels won the division by 21 games last year, they’ve likely got less incentive to pursue Ramirez relative to the more tightly clustered NL teams.
Indians: Could the prodigal son return to the team where he made his name destroying AL pitching from 1993 through 2000? It’s an admittedly far-fetched scenario with little basis in reality, but such a homecoming makes some sense on paper. Ben Francisco is Cleveland’s incumbent left fielder, and his forecast for .260/.328/.424 and 1.7 WARP, paired with that of platoon-mate David Dellucci (.254/.316/.425, 0.2 WARP) offers little hope that the team’s seven-year trend of mediocrity from its corner outfielders-a topic spotlighted in this year’s edition of our annual-will end. The drawback is that with a supposedly healthy Travis Hafner at DH, Ramirez would lose that potential alternative for playing time. Marginal gain: 2.4 wins in a division that needed a one-game play-in to be decided last year, though the Indians aren’t going to show Manny any money.
The rest: The Yankees have Johnny Damon (3.3 WARP) and Hideki Matsui (1.4 WARP) in left field and at DH, but with each making $13 million and enjoying some amount of no-trade protection, they won’t go away easily, a problem given a team payroll pushing $200 million. Though the Red Sox won’t pine for their departed man-child, it’s worth noting that PECOTA does not love Jason Bay (2.2 WARP, including 15 runs below average on defense). The Diamondbacks, who lost Dunn, would seem to be an ideal home for Ramirez, and while the gain over Eric Byrnes (1.4 WARP) would trump the Dodgers, the Snakes are on the hook for $22 million worth of Byrnes over the next two years, and they’ve already made a conspicuous show of belt-tightening this winter by foregoing the Big Unit and laying off 31 employees back in November. Atlanta’s Matt Diaz/Brandon Jones platoon (1.9 WARP) appears ripe for an upgrade, but the Derek Lowe contract likely represents the end of their big spending this winter.
The feeling here is that the inflexibility of both Boras and Colletti will lead Ramirez into the arms of the Mets. Don’t bet on this drama to end anytime soon, however.