Posted by: mdegeorge | December 6, 2010

Time for a collective dose of the reality potion for MLB

What started as an innocuous if catchy comment by a source close to the Derek Jeter negotiations has become a theme of Major League Baseball’s winter free agency market.

That comment, proffered by an anonymous source close to the negotiations between Jeter and the Yankees to ESPNNewYork’s Wallace Matthews, has become emblematic of dealings and rumors the league over so far in the free agency period. The GM winter meetings have provided a plethora of gargantuan deals and a brand of inflation the economy hasn’t seen in a while. The last time this reckless of financial decisions were made in such a widespread manner, it was Lehman Brothers calling the shots.

Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (L) screams in the dugout next to teammate Carlos Gonzalez after hitting a three-run home run during the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres at Coors Field on September 13, 2010 in Denver.    UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

It’s easy to posit Jeter as the poster child for this rampant over speculation. The notion that the 36-year-old was at one point seeking a six-year contract worth around $15 million a year was utter lunacy. Even the three-year, $45 million pact that may include a player option for a fourth year that the two sides are close to seems excessive for an aging superstar (who was overpaid to begin with, but that’s a topic for another post) whose productivity is falling off a cliff in the twilight of his career. Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner offers some creative alternatives, though it appears a more traditional deal will be in place.

His 179 hits, 10 home runs, and 67 RBI are the lowest for a game in which he has played at least 150 games since 1997, while his .270 batting average and .370 on-base percentage are the lowest of his career. His numbers last year ranked him as a middle-of-the-road shortstop, while the further limiting of his range will render him a part-time field player within two years—part of a mounting parade of aging Yanks no longer fit to play the field.

While the days of Captain Yankee being an all-star shortstop are likely over (if the voting populous comes to their senses) he’ll still be paid as one for his iconic contributions to Yankees’ lore, if not his actual on-field exploits.

One of the factors in Jeter’s new agreement has to be the big bucks thrown Troy Tulowitzki’s way in his seven-year, $134 million extension, which will pay him an average of $15.75 mil per season for the next decade. The emerging face of the Denver sports scene is just entering his prime at age 26, the age many pundits felt Jeter’s agent Casey Close was deluded into thinking his client was.

A comparison of their numbers makes the Tulowitzki’s new contract look like a bargain for the Rockies. The difference in their numbers (.270/10/67 and falling for Jeter, .315/27/95 and rising for Tulowitzki in just 122 games last season) makes the $700k disparity in salaries alarmingly small. The only drawback on T2, who incidentally grew up idolizing Jeter, is his susceptibility to injuries—he missed 61 games in 2008 and 40 last season—but he projects as a 35/110/.300 guy for the next decade when he’s healthy.

Philadelphia Phillies Right Fielder Jayson Werth watches the game between the Phillies and the San Diego Padres from the dugout at Petco Park in San Diego on August 27, 2010. The Phillies beat the Padres 3-2 in 12 innings. UPI/Roger Williams Photo via Newscom

– While discussing the dubious grasp certain execs may have on reality, a trip to our nation’s capital to analyze the Nationals’ capture of Jayson Werth for seven years and $126 million is vital.

The reaction to the contract by those more informed than Ipretty much says it all. New Mets’ General Manager Sandy Alderson, a veteran of the free agency merry-go-round, quipped, “I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.” ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick quoted an unnamed and incredulous executive as saying, “Did I hear right on the Jayson Werth contract, or was I hallucinating?” And Ken Rosenthal found one general manager who called the move “absolutely bats–t crazy.”

It’s not news that small market/bottom dwelling teams often need to overpay to draw in big name players (see Jason Marquis, Carlos Silva, Gil Meche, and countless others). But Scott Boras’ latest bit of graft in securing Werth $18 million a year until after his 38th birthday despite him being a 32-year-old late bloomer with fewer than 700 career hits to his name is still exceptional.

You can’t blame Werth for eschewing his place in the perennial NL East champs’ lineup for his first, last, and only big contract as a pro. The Nats, however, have plenty of culpability it what likely will turn out to be an expensive mistake. Werth, for his hot streaks in which he carried the Phils for weeks at a time, has batted cleanup seven times in his big league career. He’s never experienced being the focal point of a team the way he will be in Washington, and has never been surrounded by such a paucity of sporting players. He and Ryan Zimmerman could be a dangerous one-two punch for a while to come. But in Nats’ speak, that translates to maybe a couple third place finishes in the NL East and some early-September wild card intrigue.

The dollar figure given to Werth is a sum reserved for marquee, MVP types. Werth isn’t that kind of player.

Yet his exorbitant deal is ratcheting up the market value for others beyond its already ludicrous heights. Werth’s $18 million per annum must have the likes of Carl Crawford salivating. The 29-year-old, who priced out in the $12-$16 mil range early in the season has been rumored to be in the eight-year, $170-$180 million dollar range from either the Yankees or Red Sox (though the Sox interest may have waned with their acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez; more on that later).

Crawford is certainly an underrated player looking for his one big pay day, but I would think there’d be concerns over guaranteeing $20 million to him at 37, especially if his speed dries up on the down side of 30.

San Diego Padres' first baseman adrian Gonzalez looks over to the Mariners dugout in the fourth inning at SAFECO Field in Seattle May 23, 2010. The Padres beat the Mariners 8-1. UPI/Jim Bryant Photo via Newscom

– The final rapidly expanding market this offseason has been the first baseman industry, which has long been of interest with the litany of superstars maturing into new contracts over a three-year span. Mark Teixeira struck the first blow when he got the Yanks to pony up $180 million over eight years—still one of the eight largest contracts of all time. The Phillies upped the ante by giving Ryan Howard a $125 million ankle weight…I mean contract extension…over five years. Then there’s the Gonzalez pact currently under negotiation, which sources peg at either seven-for-$154 mil or eight-for-$161 mil.

The hefty pay days are sure to continue. 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto has three more arbitration eligible seasons, but you’d think the Reds are going to try and break the bank to tie him up long term. Prince Fielder is lurking on the horizon as a free agent in search of his windfall/get-out-of-Milwaukee-free card.

It all begs the question: What on God’s green earth is Albert Pujols worth? If a straight slugger and poor defensive player in Howard fetches $25 million annually, and an aging Alex Rodriguez who should be a part-time designated hitter by August, 2011 is worthy of $32, is it crazy to say Pujols is worth $40 million a season? He’s a Gold Glover, a perennial Triple Crown threat, one of the best clutch hitters in the game, and a feared team leader who’s the portrait of consistency the likes of which the game has rarely seen.

Perhaps the bigger question is who can afford that? At the rate the market is exploding, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Pujols fetches $35 million. The pool of potential suitors for that kind of price tag is quite shallow. And unless he takes a major hometown discount, St. Louis may not warrant inclusion in that group.

With contract talks set to begin anew in the coming weeks between Pujols and the Cards, John Mozeliak and the St. Louis brass (who aren’t immune from blame with the inflated deal they handed Matt Holliday last year) can only hope the reality potion takes effect as soon as possible.

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Responses

  1. Word here in DC is that Werth will likely be the 5 hitter, they will likely pursue a first baseman such as Adam LaRoche or Derek Lee to become the cleanup hitter.


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