Posts Tagged ‘Free Agency’

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Varitek and Boras

January 26, 2009

After leaving him (fairly deservedly) out in the cold for months, the Red Sox have decided to make Jason Varitek an unconventional offer. The deal, as reported by Tony Massarotti of the Boston Globe, would pay Varitek one year at five million, with two 2010 options: a club option at five million, and a player option at three.

The idea here is probably to gradually reduce Varitek’s playing time. Peter Gammons mentioned this weekend that only six catchers have ever caught over 100 games at age 37, and the Red Sox are not the kind of team to try to make Varitek number seven. If Varitek is OK with a reduced role, he can come back with the player option. If Varitek defies his clear aging trend and decline in performance, then the Red Sox can bring him back. 

The offer smells like a sympathy/public relations move. While the Red Sox did not have terribly compelling catching options in-house between Josh Bard and George Kottaras, those two did have the virtue of being cheap. Varitek, even if he plays 2009 like the average of 2006-2008 seasons, does not figure to perform far above the level of Bard, and a return to form would be blindly optimistic.

It’s not as if Varitek has other options. Since he and Scott Boras stupidly turned down salary arbitration (which likely would have netted Varitek at least $10 million), no team has been willing to take a look at Varitek, for fear of losing their first-round draft pick as compensation. Knowing that teams were unwilling to pay for Varitek at any price, the Red Sox had no need to give Varitek more than it would take to prevent him from retiring or sitting out the season. Theo Epstein and Co. may have judged five million dollars to be a sum that will bring Varitek back and shields them from being called stingy in the media if Varitek were to refuse, but Epstein has not appeared to care much about media opinion in the past.

Boras (and Varitek) badly misread the market here. In 2004, when  Varitek posted an .872 OPS and was the toast of baseball for managing Boston’s top-flight stable of pitchers to their “curse-breaking” world championship, they had most of  the leverage. Now, after three seasons of poor play and a poor gamble, the Red Sox have all the leverage. The Sox’ deal apparently has a deadline. It would behoove Mr. Boras and Mr. Varitek to swallow their collective pride and accept before the deadline passes.

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Battered in Arlington

January 21, 2009

Keith Law, ESPN’s chief scouting analyst, published his rankings of MLB farm systems today. As expected, the Texas Rangers, who have been stockpiling talent for years, ranked first. (Sorry, soul sucking membership on ESPN Insider required. ) The last section of Law’s breakdown of Texas’ minor league system got me thinking:

Whether this translates into major league success for Texas largely will come down to the young pitching: Can these pitchers succeed in the Rangers’ ballpark, and can they stay healthy? If so, the wave of arms coming through Texas over the next five years will give the Rangers the best chance in their history to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.

This comment got me thinking about the difficulty of building a pitching staff in a hostile run environment. Based on ESPN’s park factors, The Ballpark at Arlington/Ameriquest Field is the most offense-happy park in the majors, beating out the bandboxes in Cincinnati and Philadelphia (indeed, this year Philadelphia was almost neutral!) and the notorious Coors Field in mile-high Denver. Arlington produces 14% more runs than an average park, and 23% more home runs. It’s not a fun place to be a pitcher. Is winning in a hostile pitching environment much harder?

This question might seem silly, because the run environment affects both teams. Why should it be harder to win in Texas or Colorado than in a more neutral park such as Cleveland or an extreme pitcher’s park such as PETCO in San Diego? I think winning in extreme hitters parks is more difficult because of the difficulty in acquiring premium starting pitching these  organizations face.

Crowded rotations

What makes pitching different than hitting? Having a star makes a bigger impact in a pitching rotation than in a lineup. A stud starting pitcher plays more than his rotation peers (by virtue of contributing more innings), and occupies one of a smaller number of spots than would a batter/fielder. The effect of this limited number of spots is amplified in the playoffs, when teams shorten their rotations and sometimes go with as few as three starters.  A team can earn an extra win in value with a ninth (or eighth in the NL) of a win in contribution from each of their batter/fielders, but in the regular season they would need a fifth of a win from each starter. The necessary contribution becomes that much more in the playoffs, where a team would need a third of a win per starter (I’m leaving relievers out for the time being to simplify the discussion, but even if we included them, each starter would still need to two ninths of a win in the playoffs). Having an elite starting pitcher lets you get that much more contribution out of a very scarce roster spot.

The future for Texas

Teams can acquire players by three means. They can sign them as amateurs (via draft or international signing), they can trade for them (using major- or minor-league talent), or they can sign them as professional free agents (including posting from Japan).  Texas has done a great job of acquiring top prospects through signings and trades, but they have not been able to acquire any elite free agent starters in quite a long time. Part of this problem is due to Texas’ bad play, which has made the team an unpopular destination for free agents of all stripes. I think there is a bigger factor at work here, however.

Imagine that Texas had made the playoffs last year (as I expect them to do in 2011) in a manner similar to the Rays. Their young arms overperformed, and the team rode hot hitting to take the AL West. In the offseason, Texas decides that what they need to get over the hump is a veteran ace starter. They offer an enormous deal to C.C. Sabathia, who is weighing his options. If I’m Greg Genske, who is Sabathia’s agent, I’m discouraging him from signing in Texas.

Playing in a hardcore pitcher’s park is an earnings and awards killer. Five years in Texas would kill C.C.’s potential earnings in his next contract, as the raw, non-park-adjusted stats he would accumulate would make negotiating a big future deal difficult. C.C. would get cheated out of Cy Young and most importantly, Hall of Fame voting, as writers would use his Texas-inflated ERA or lowered win totals as evidence that he was not as good a pitcher. (the high run environment means that leads swing more often, so he’d likely lose more wins after being relieved in Texas than elsewhere) If I’m a guy with a claim to be The Best Pitcher in Baseball(TM), I would only want to play in places that help or at least don’t hurt my chances for riches or fame, all things being equal. Texas would have to make a much better offer than any other suitors to convince me to face that ballpark once a week. If writers and (most) front offices really thought hard about the effects of park environments on performance, this kind of consideration wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately, the age of ignorance is upon us.

Conclusion

Texas will likely assemble a very good pitching staff at some point in the next three years just from their farm, but it will be very difficult to create a staff that is consistently good solely from farm products. When elite free agents are not an option, your farm has to be very bountiful, and you need a little bit of luck. Young pitching is a very uncertain commodity, and it’s risky to rely heavily on it. A perfect example of the consequences of bad luck would be the 2008 Yankees. They decided to rely on two young, untested, but highly regarded pitchers, both of whom had a solid minor league track record. Their plan placed them out of the playoffs for the first time in over a decade as Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy were no-shows, and the Yankees had no suitable  fallback options.

Tampa was lucky this year, when all of their very good young pitchers played well in the same season. If Tampa wants to remain competitive year after year in the next five or six years while they have this current cohort of players under their control, they will probably have to add a free agent starter or get lucky with someone else’s waiver trash. Texas will probably have at least one or two years where their pitchers will all click at the same time, but relying on their stocked farm alone will make consistently contending in the AL West a difficult venture.

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Talent Show

January 16, 2009

DD writes:
Wasn’t there an argument that the expansion of the ’90s diluted the MLB talent pool a bit? The glut of still-available, decent-performing free agents speaks more to the economy than anything else, but is it a sign that the league’s talent level is as high as it’s been?

I think the glut of still-available free agents is due to a couple factors. The first of which is baseball’s extremely flawed draft-pick compensation system. Originally conceived to put some friction on the inflation of star salaries and to compensate small- and mid-market teams that could not afford to keep their home-grown superstars, it is now penalizing middle-tier players AND lower-market teams. 

Here’s how the system works. The Elias Sports Bureau ranks the available free agents every year. Players are assigned to three ranking categories (Type A, Type B, and unranked) on the basis of Elias determination of their performance over the past two years. Type A free agents are supposed to represent the cream of the crop at their positional group (middle infielders, corner players, catchers, relievers, etc.), Type B represent above-average players, and unranked players are at the bottom. The rankings are extremely flawed due to their reliance on past rather than future performance, and because the statistics used are often things such as RBI, pitcher wins, batting average, and errors. These stats are often highly context dependent (players on good teams have more RBIs and wins), and so are unreliable predictors of future performance. Because the rankings are based on the past two years, the rankings produce some very poor results. 

Teams that sign a Type A free agent have to give up their first round draft pick, unless it is protected (in the top 15 slots), or it has already been given away to another team by signing a better player. The success of the Rockies, Rays, and Red Sox, and Indians with large home-grown cores supplemented by free agents has forced teams to reconsider the value of their first-round pick. Jason Varitek, who while not a great player is at least serviceable at catcher, can’t get a job because as a Type A free agent, no team is willing to give up a potential home-grown stud in exchange for a year of an old, declining (but still useful) player. Rather than compensate a small-market team losing a star, the system is giving the Red Sox management a very powerful piece of negotiating leverage to prevent Varitek from looking for anything better than the Red Sox low-ball offer.

Now that teams are carefully guarding their draft picks, Type A free agents who are not elite superstars are in a terrible predicament. The only teams with interest in marginal Type A players would be teams that already gave up their first round pick due to a Type A signing, such as the Yankees with Mark Teixeira. I’m not going to argue that the system is designed to bolster the Yankees (the Red Sox have gone on their own Type A spending sprees in the past), but this sort of arrangement prevents a team like Kansas City from using Varitek’s knowledge for a year and gives the Yankees more leverage with certain kinds of free agents. Clearly the intent is not being served.

I suspect a second factor that is amplifying teams reluctance to give up draft picks is a better understanding of defense (and the cost of poor defense). Many of the veteran players we see hanging around on the market (Manny, Abreu, Dunn) are poor defenders. I wonder if teams are placing more weight on defense in their player projections, which might narrow the perceived gap in the projected value between a player such as Bobby Abreu and a young, minimum salary outfielder with a better glove.

So to answer your question in an indirect way, I think the talent level in MLB IS as high as it’s ever been, but that is somewhat difficult to prove with quick-and-dirty math. I think the swarm of unsigned free agents is a symptom of the poor economic outlook and the realization by teams that the contributions of young minimum salary players may provide more bang for the buck than those of aging veterans. Paying for past performance is quite expensive.

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2010 free agent overload?

January 15, 2009

Joel Sherman said on XM’s Home Plate station this morning that there remain over 100 free agents without jobs. If a large number of these players end up going into February without deals, is it possible that most of the remainder get 1-year contracts? Players may want to hold out rather than sign a depressed-value multi-year contract, with the hope that the economy will recover and they can earn more per year in a deal starting in 2010. Could we see a huge number of FAs in 2010 if this signing pattern occurred?

Right now, the big ticket players expected to be on the market in 2010 look to be John Lackey, Matt Holliday, and Jason Bay. Lackey and Bay are negotiating extensions now, and are expected to work out deals with their current teams (Angels and Red Sox). If the economy stays the same or only gets marginally better, Matt Holliday could be in trouble. With the Red Sox out of the market (full outfield with Bay, Ellsbury, and Drew), Holliday and Boras will have a hard time driving up Holliday’s price if the current crop of all-hit, no-field outfielders (Dunn, Abreu, perhaps even Manny) end up trying their luck again on the market. Holliday is probably a more valuable player than these other options, but cheap alternatives will likely prevent teams from paying huge premiums for marginal improvement and increased risk from a multi-year contract.