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Big Red Letter Bartlett

After destroying the internets with the title on my last post about Jason Bartlett (Break the Reimold as it were), it’s only fitting that I follow it up with a title just as putrid. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t think the Padres were acting rationally when they signed their new shortstop to a two-year, $11 million contract that buys out his last year of arbitration and his first year of free agency. It may not have been a big-red-letter signing – instead, it could possibly be as solid as this title was bad.

Year one should come at about a 20% discount given the structure of salary arbitration, so this contract is sort of the same as valuing Bartlett as about a $12.2 million player over two years. Look at Bartlett’s six-year career, and you’ll see that only once has he failed to live up to being a player worth about six million a year. He’s managed better than 1.8 WAR every year… except last year.

Look a little closer at the ways he has offered value, and you’ll see that most of his drop-off last year came from his worst UZR/150 rating of his career, by far. After having a positive Range component in his UZR every year of his career, he suddenly showed a -9.3 in that statistic in 2010. We know that UZR/150 works better in three-year samples, and that it’s unlikely that a 30-year-old shortstop would suddenly lose all of his range as Bartlett did last year. Just look at Edgar Renteria‘s recent UZR history, and you’ll see that though he’s generally been declining, he’s never swung as many as ten points in the Range category. Yuniesky Betancourt, who was once thought of as an okay defender and was yet the worst-rated shortstop by UZR/150 since 2007, has never seen a swing that large. It’s a big swing for Bartlett, one in which luck may have had something to do with it.

What’s a little more worrisome is that some who watch Bartlett play also feel that he’s losing some range. Our own R.J. Anderson has watched plenty of Bartlett (on purpose, no less) and feels that the range is slipping and some of the throws are being forced. R.J. pointed to Bartlett’s lower body injuries as a sign that his athleticism is fading – the former Rays shortstop has hit the 15-day DL in each of the last three years, once with a right hamstring injury, once with a left ankle sprain, and once with a left knee strain. Perhaps last year’s hamstring strain was the ’cause’ of the bad defensive numbers, but it’s part of a pattern of missed time.

Still, there’s the bare fact that Bartlett has shown the tenth-best WAR at shortstop since 2007, and with Michael Young moving off the position, he’s actually ninth on that list. Yunel Escobar is only a couple years younger and has only produced two wins more over that same time frame, so it’s not like Bartlett has been massively out-produced by the peers close to him on that list. Miguel Tejada has produced about a half win less than Bartlett and has a checkered UZR/150 past of his own – and he got $6.5 million from the Giants. Bartlett is also four and a half years younger than Tejada.

Bartlett’s career suggests that two-win seasons are easily within the range of his upside. If he produced two wins both seasons, he would produce six to eight million dollars in surplus value. If he hit his basement as defined by last year, he would still be worth about seven million dollars over the two years, meaning the team would lose about four million dollars on the deal, plus the potential surplus value of the two relievers the team gave up to get Bartlett. Given the relatively low career upside for relief prospects (as defined by WAR), the team is likely risking less than they can win. For what it’s worth, if he hits his fan projections (which are about the same as Bill James’), he’ll be a bargain and worth as much as twice his deal.

The crowd has it: it’s a good deal. It may not be a big ole’ signing in big red letters in the national papers, but it’s smart baseball.