If the rumor mill is accurate, one minor subplot of the off-season is an ongoing, bizarre, and (sadly) predictable bidding war involving many the usual suspects over a rather horrifying group of thirty-something catchers ranging from the Somewhat Acceptable Stopgap (Rod Barajas) to the Corpse of a Legend (Ivan Rodriguez) to the Virtually Worthless Veteran Leader (Jason Kendall). Things look like they are going to get ugly, and although it’s easy to find a perverse pleasure in mocking foolishness, when it’s unabated, the charm wears off.
That’s why I was happy to read that the Colorado Rockies bought out Chris Iannetta‘s three arbitration years for a reported $8.3 million with a five million dollar club option for a fourth year. It was good to be reminded that some clubs realize that they are allowed to give a catcher a multi-year contract even if he isn’t 35 with a projected on-base percentage south of .300.
What are the Rockies paying for? $8.3 million guaranteed over three years isn’t all that much on the open market, but remember that the Rockies are buying out arbitration years in which Iannetta would be paid less than his supposed market value. As a general rule, the three years of arbitration are assumed to be paying the equivalent of 40, 60, and 80 percent of the player’s free agent value. Spreading the money evenly over the three years and dividing by 40, 60, and 80 percent, we get an “open market equivalent” of about $15 million. Assuming that a marginal win currently costs $4.4 million, a half-win per season decline and 7% salary inflation, Iannetta is getting paid as if he’ll be a 1.5 WAR player in 2010. Is he worth it?
Catcher defense is notoriously difficult to measure. CHONE does defensive projections for catchers, and Ianetta comes in at three runs below average. That seems fair, although it’s worth noting that my own take on catcher defense had him above average for 2009, at least. The Fans Scouting Report for 2010 also has him rated slightly above average. I’ll stay with Rally’s minus 3 to be on the conservative side — he probably isn’t worse that that.
Offense is easier to measure and project. CHONE projects Iannetta to hit .259/.370/.463 in 2010. My own projection gives a similar line: .254/.373/.477. ZiPS is a bit less optimistic at .241/.353./.437, but is in the same general neighborhood. The CHONE projection (as well as mine) would be about 20 runs above average per 150 games, but we also need to adjust for park and league. CHONE gives us neutralized linear weights of 8 runs above average per 150 games.
Adding it all together with the prorated positional adjustment for catcher, per 150 games Iannetta projects as a 3.7 win player. Almost no catchers play 150 games, and Iannetta has only played more than 100 once in the last three seasons. Conservatively assuming he can only play 100, he still projects as a 2.5 WAR player, and given that the new contract (hopefully) means that the team is over Yorvit Torrealba Fever, he should get more playing time in the coming seasons. This is a very good deal for the Rockies.
Iannetta gets the security of a guaranteed contract, but sacrifices potentially larger arbitration awards. The club option also may cost him. No worries, though, Chris. If you manage to stay at catcher until your mid-thirties and absolutely can’t hit, your agent can always convince some general manager that you’re great at handling a pitching staff and get you a series of multi-million dollar deals for replacement level performance.