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The insanity of the free agent market
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Author:  Wabberjocky [ Mon Nov 27, 2006 10:02 pm ]
Post subject:  The insanity of the free agent market

Hopefully the team you care about most is doing the smart thing and sitting out this year's free agent market. Because too many teams have money burning holes in their pockets and there are too few quality free agents available, the reckless overspending that has already taken place was sadly inevitable.

The worst deals include:

— Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs, 8 years, $136 million. Soriano is somewhat akin to Sammy Sosa, in that his assets are all tied up in one thing — his bat speed. Because he has horrible plate discipline, once that goes — as it did for Sosa around age 34 — the batting average and power will go. Soriano will be 31 next season, and my guess is that the last 4-5 years of his contract will be a millstone around the neck of the franchise that will destroy any chance the Cubs have to contend for more than a decade. They'd better win by 2010 if they're going to win at all.

— Gary Matthews Jr., Los Angeles Angels, 5 years, $50 million. So this is an appropriate reward for one good season that wasn't really THAT good? Before 2006, Matthews was a decent part-timer, but wasn't particularly valuable to anyone. Then he had a superficially impressive season in which his career home-run, line-drive and walk rates all saw a decline. He's going to be 32 next season, playing in a pitcher's park, and there's almost no chance he comes anywhere close to repeating his 2006 season. It's likely he'll have to be replaced as a regular within two seasons.

— Juan Pierre, Los Angeles Dodgers, 5 years, $44 million. This isn't as bad as the other two deals, as Pierre's a bit younger (he won't be 30 till next August) and he is actually an OK defender in a park that needs one in center field. But he is nothing special on offense, and not really getting better. He's badly miscast as a leadoff hitter, as his .330 on-base percentage in 2006 really doesn't help a team get cranking. He steals bases, but his base-stealing is actually a negative because he gets caught so much (20 times in 78 tries last year). He has no power, and Dodgets Stadium is likely to negate his Wrigley-aided doubles-and-triples stats from last year. His speed-based skills set doesn't typically age well. Another guy who will need to be replaced as a regular in 2-3 years.

And all reliever contracts:

— Danys Baez, Baltimore Orioles, 3 years, $19 million.
— Jamie Walker, Baltimore Orioles, 3 years, $12 million.
— Justin Speier, Los Angeles Angels, 4 years, $18 million.

Those are all absurd because the minor leagues and low-level free agent ranks are flush with pitchers who can do the job these guys can do for major-league minimum salaries. There are at least 50 non-roster spring-training-invite types who could give roughly equal levels of performance to these guys. The only thing they lack is opportunity.

Whenever and wherever Barry Zito signs ... THAT will probably be the worst deal of the offseason, followed closely by Jason Schmidt and Gil Meche.

Zito is largely an illusion of his cavernous Oakland ballpark, where his higher-than-league-average flyballing ways will get him into trouble in most parks around the league. He's steadily given up more home runs each year. And his strikeout rates have steadily trended downward, while his walk rates have drifted in the opposite direction. He's durable and by no means bad, but he's nowhere close to an ace, and he's going to command ace-plus money someplace.

Schmidt won't get quite as much money, but he's five years older, has some scary injury history and his numbers have been following the Zito trend for a while. He's gotten lucky the last few years with runner-strand rates and batting average on balls in play, but history and research has shown these aren't repeatable skills. And with Boras rumored to be seeking a 5-year deal in the neighborhood of $50 million, he's a big risk to be a future Carl Pavano or Matt Clement.

Gil Meche is the only player in major league history thus far to re-establish himself from shoulder labrum surgery. But he sucks. He can't sustain any string of good outings, and people have been excusing away his numerous crappy outings for years by raving about his "stuff," which include a 90-plus fastball and decdent curve. But he's never demonstrated any sustained command of them, and as such has driven Mariners fans crazy for years. He's the type of pitcher about whom you say "he just needs the right pitching coach to straighten him out." But the same could be said for hundreds of washed-out talents over the past few decades. It takes more than "stuff" to be a good pitcher. It takes actually knowing how to pitch.

If you love your team, hope like hell it looks to fill its needs via savvy trading. Stay away from this year's whackbag free agent market and the peer and fan pressure to make superfluous "statement signings."

Author:  Connfused [ Mon Nov 27, 2006 11:47 pm ]
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It's starting to look like Zito may be going to the Mets -- a good move for a team in a notorious pitcher's ballpark.

And speaking of the Mets, what they and the Cards did with their bullpens shows that you can't get by with one top closer and a bunch of washed-up starters in your pen anymore.

The market for relievers has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. Last offseason the Yankees paid through the nose to bring in Kyle Farnsworth as a setup man. And the Reds gave up two very good players to the Nats to bring in middle relievers.

Author:  Wabberjocky [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 12:20 am ]
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True, Zito-to-the-Mets is the best possible fit for both team and player. As long as their expectations for him are realistic, he could settle in as a nice 15-win-a-year No. 3 starter for a few years before he starts getting in touch with his inner Steve Trachsel.

One free-agent signing that might look good is Carlos Lee's 6-year, $100 million deal with Houston. Lee isn't as great a hitter as he's been touted, and he's defensively bad, but he's a righthanded pull hitter in a park with a Little-League-depth porch in left field. Carlos the Jack could have 45-50 dingers next year. He's not likely to do much by Year Five, but maybe in some weird way the Astros wouldn't look askance at swallowing $33 million or more at that point.

Author:  jjmoney62 [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 9:18 am ]
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Interesting analysis, Wabber. I love it when you kids do your homework.

But how do you figure Wrigley Field invites doubles and triples? I'd think it would be easier to hit a home run in Wrigley (to the short porches in left-center and right-center) than it would be to hit a triple in such an intimate setting.

Author:  wordygurdy [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 9:50 am ]
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Agree with everything Wabber said, and that has been echoed by the Daily News' and Newsday's writers at various points this offseason. (The Times doesn't usually comment on such matters, though given the crazy numbers that have been tossed around lately, you would think even the Times would weigh in.)

At least regarding the Yanks, Brian Cashman finally has the keys to the family truckster and is driving very, very carefully down the free-agent highway. Witness Gary Sheffield's departure (for three young and by all accounts live arms, incredibly) and the fact that Zito is not yet wearing pinstripes. In the past, Steinbrenner would never have let Sheffield go because he puts up the gaudy numbers Steinbrenner loves, and never mind his cancerous personality, atrocious outfielding and dead-pull-hitter tendencies. And Steinbrenner in past years probably wouldn't have allowed Melky Cabrera to blossom this season and would have ordered Cashman to go out and get some 35-year-old on the downside (Raul Mondesi, anyone?) to try to squeeze a few more at-bats out of him.

Yankee fans are cautiously optimistic that Cashman will get a chance to flex his baseball acumen with Steinbrenner in his declining years and apparently less inclined to meddle.

Wabber didn't even mention the $51.1 million the Red Sox paid just to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who throws upwards of 180 pitches a start, even if he starts only once a week because of Japan's six-man rotations. And Japanese starters have not fared all that well in the States; relievers (Kaz Sasaki, Shigetosi Hasegawa, Akinori Otsuka) have done better. But Matsuzaka is going to have $100 million invested in him to be a No. 1 type in a city that doesn't tolerate failure gladly. This is a guy who hasn't thrown a major-league pitch. Good luck! Methinks he might dazzle the league the first time around, but I'll be very curious to see his post-All-Star-break numbers as word gets out on how to hit him.

Most of the spending is probably fueled by the new collective bargaining agreement. In it, the threshold at which the luxury tax kicks in (I believe it's $148 million now) has been raised. Teams have a little more money to spend, and they have been doing so.

Author:  Wabberjocky [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 1:38 pm ]
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I didn't mention Matsuzaka because there's not much empirical foundation on which to project what he might or might not do — and thus not much basis to decide how insane the deal might be. A lot of people seem to think he'll be second only to Johan Santana as an American League pitcher. The analysts have made some inroads in projecting Japanese stats to major league performance, but the work is far from polished or finished.

As I write, the Red Sox appear poised to send Manny Ramirez to the West Coast and sign J.D. Drew to take his place. If the Sox get a strong passel of young prospects for Manny, I will restructure my religious beliefs around Theo Epstein.

JJ ... I'll try to unearth a Baseball Prospectus parks study about extra-base hits I read a year or two ago. I remember being surprised that Wrigley doesn't dampen doubles and triples nearly as much as it's entirely reasonable to think it does.

Author:  Wayne Countryman [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 2:51 pm ]
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Based only on my oft-faulty memory, it seems as if Wrigley might offer an unusually high number of doubles and triples because of the vines and brick in the outfield and the blinding sun during all of those day games. (Has Tribune padded the walls yet?)
Plus, the Cubs tend to have former sluggers in the outfield whose legs are shot. (Maybe I'm thinking too much of the downward slides of Andre Dawson and Sammy Sosa.)
Just a hunch. I too would be surprised if games at Wrigley produced more doubles and triples than the league average.

As a recovering Red Sox fan, I worry about who's going to protect Ortiz if Manny leaves. Drew does not impress me; the fans will eat him alive when he slumps and/or dogs it.
Quite a gamble on a pitcher without MLB experience. The BoSox have an awfully big payroll for a team with a mediocre pitching staff.

Author:  wordygurdy [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 5:38 pm ]
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J.D. Drew's nickname amongst his Dodger teammates was Nancy Drew for his aversion to playing hurt.

Without protection, David Ortiz will walk more than 200 times next year. There will be no reason to pitch to him. Ever.

As a Yankee fan, I am fairly gleeful at the prospect of a Manny-less Boston lineup. The lineup is weak even with Manny and Ortiz in it; I will be surprised if Drew has a productive, injury-free season.

Author:  wordygurdy [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 6:34 pm ]
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And then there's this:

AP NewsBreak: Yankees win rights to Igawa

I hadn't expected the Yanks to get involved with Igawa, given that scouts were not as high on him as they were on Matsuzaka. But Igawa is lefthanded and only a year older than Matsuzaka. Could be a shrewd investment.

Or Igawa, like Irabu and potentially like Matsuzaka, could be a big bust.

Author:  Wabberjocky [ Tue Nov 28, 2006 6:46 pm ]
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I was just thinking how suspicious it was that the Yankees hadn't yet made a big splash in the free-agent market, other than to re-up Moose Mussina for 2 years and $23 million.

One wonders if they're working on Zito or Meche under the media radar. Then again, I see how ridiculous that is ... how can anything be done under the radar of the New York sports media?

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