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Career Year, Meet Gary Matthews Jr.

Following the 2006 season, Gary Matthews Jr. signed a much maligned 5-yr/$50 mil contract with the Los Angeles California Angels of Los Anaheim. The deal was predicated on the assumptions that Matthews’ performance level over 147 games in 2006 could be sustained, and that he had finally come into his own, increasing his win values total from +2.1 to +3.1 to +4.4. Ironically, Matthews went from being a somewhat underrated player to arguably the most overrated player in the game thanks to his tremendous career year.

What happened in 2006 should have been taken with a bit more than a grain of salt, though, as Matthews defied his general modus operandi. Up until that point, he had been a solid example of a no-hit, all-field player. Since a run is a run is a run, Matthews still produced at an above average clip from 2002-05, averaging +2.3 wins/yr. In 2006, though, Matthews became the full time centerfielder for the Rangers and saw his UZR drop significantly. Normally the difference could be written off thanks to positional adjustments but since Matthews had played centerfield for extended periods earlier in his career and had spent plenty of time at all three outfield spots, his adjustment swing was not nearly as dramatic as the -7.5 runs for LF/RF compared to the +2.5 for CF would suggest.

Despite the defensive dropoff, Matthews made “the play” that season, a majestic home run robbing catch that likely needs no further explanation. Offensively speaking, Matthews and his .349 BABIP produced one heck of a season with the bat, putting together a .313/.371/.495 line with a career best .367 wOBA. So now it makes perfect sense: he had cemented himself with a reputation for being a great fielder the previous several seasons, benefited from insane highlight reel catches despite an overall defensive decline, and put up very appealing offensive numbers. This isn’t to say that the aforementioned reasoning completely justifies the acquisition, but at least we can see how the decision may have come to be.

In his first season with the Angels, Matthews saw his defense slip further, this time to -9 runs. Couple that with the expected offensive regression hovering around the league average and a +0.9 win player emerges. Perhaps convinced that the signing was a mistake, the Angels decided to rectify the situation by signing Torii Hunter to a 5-yr/$90 mil contract that very offseason. With Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero already in the mix, Matthews lacked a permanent position last season, splitting time between the three outfield spots. His aggregate defensive mark stayed poor, at -7 runs, and his hitting worsened to -10 runs, making Matthews the fourth least productive position player in baseball last season (min. 450 PA).

This season, the Angels will return Hunter and Guerrero, have replaced Anderson with Bobby Abreu, and will also need to delegate plate appearances to the re-signed Juan Rivera. Matthews has virtually no shot at an everyday job but has expressed his distaste for anything but such a role. Even though Abreu, Guerrero, and Hunter are all in their decline phase, they are more productive players than Matthews. Unfortunately, Matthews projects to post offensive numbers similarly to his first year as a Halo, placing his upside somewhere in the +1.2 to +1.4 wins range. With 3 yrs/$33 mil remaining on the deal, teams are simply not going to be inquiring about Matthews’ availability unless the Angels pay a big chunk of the salary.

Raul Ibanez, a more consistent player, received a similar contract this offseason and even that was considered to be in poor taste relative to the market. Matthews benefited greatly from a career year and will be paid handsomely to boot, but if the past two seasons are any indication he is no longer a major league starter and his ego needs to regress just like his numbers.