Contract Retrospective: Lugo in Boston

In the hot news of the weekend, Julio Lugo‘s negotiations for what was probably a minor-league deal with Cleveland have broken down. Things were not always so bleak for Lugo. Lugo had some good seasons with the (then) Devil Rays in the mid-2000s, and after a 2006 in which he was traded to the Dodgers, he was in demand as a free agent middle infielder during the 2006-2007 off-season. The Red Sox were in the market for a shortstop, having let Nomar Garciparra-replacement Orlando Cabrera walk after the historic 2004 World Series victory, and coming off of generally unsatisfying one-year flings with Edgar Renteria and Alex Gonzalez. They settled on Lugo, giving him a four-year, $36 million contract prior to his age-31 season.

While the Red Sox did win another World Championship during Lugo’s first season with the team, on an individual level his tenure in Boston was quite poor. Lugo was traded to the Cardinals during the 2009 season with Boston picking up almost all of Lugo’s remaining salary. When people discuss Theo Epstein’s problems signing free agents during his time in Boston, Lugo is one of the first names that comes up (probably right after J.D. Drew, for most people). However, while it is easy to criticize a contract in hindsight, if we put ourselves back in the Red Sox’ position in 2006-2007, was that an unreasonable contract for a player like Lugo at the time? This is why Contract Retrospectives were born.

What were the Red Sox paying for? This salary chart from the 2006-2007 off-season indicates that given a then-current estimate of $4 million per free agent marginal win, a typical projected rate of decline, and an average annual increase of the price of a free agent marginal win, the contract was based on Lugo’s true talent being somewhere between 2.5 and three wins in 2007. Was that a reasonable assumption for Boston given at the time? Obviously, we do not have access to all of the information available to the team, but we can do a simple reconstruction by looking at the numbers from the time.

A very simple way of looking at things would simply be to average Lugo’s three previous seasons. From 2004-2007 Lugo had averaged 3.3 wins a season, so if even taking half of a win off of that to account for aging, you get something right between 2.5 and three. That would make sense out of the deal from Boston’s perspective, but even in the space of a short blog post, we can be a little bit more exacting and take into account things like weighting recent performance more carefully, aging, and regression to the mean in an estimate of Lugo’s likely true talent given what was known at the time — a “retro-jection.”

Keeping it relatively simple, let’s see what Marcel had to say about Lugo’s hitting. Lugo had been above-average as a hitter for two of the three seasons prior to 2007. Marcel projected him to hit for about a .336 wOBA in 2007, or about three runs above average per 700 plate appearances — good for a shortstop. Fielding is more difficult to measure and thus more difficult to project. While I remember his defensive reputation going back-and-forth during his years in Tampa Bay, it was not always bad — prior to 2006 some metrics have him as above average. Average fielding seems to be a decent assumption (as it usually is when in doubt).

Lugo did have some injury problems with the Red Sox, but unless I missed something, his only trip to the disabled list prior to 2007 was in in May 2006 for an abdominal strain. Prior to the 2006 season, Lugo had played 157 games in 2004 and 158 in 2005, so I do not think he needed to be docked too heavily for expected playing time going into 2007. All together: +3 offense, average fieldling, +7.5 positional adjusment, and +22.5 replacement level all times 85% projected playing time would give us right around 2.5 “retro-jected” wins above replacement for Lugo in 2007.

So it does look as if Boston overpaid, but just by a bit. Moreover, keep in mind that all of the components here are estimates with varying degrees of uncertainty. Being less than half-a-win “off” is not really significant given the multiple levels of uncertainty and the likely differences between this rough retro-jection and the Red Sox’ (hopefully) more sophisticated analytical tools. In addition, given that Boston was in contention and had no in-house alternatives at shortstop (always a difficult position to fill) at the time, spending a bit more for marginal wins could easily be justified. The deal seems close enough to call “fair” given the information on hand and the market at the time.

That is not meant to justify or apologize for either this way of evaluating contracts or this particular contract. Obviously, the Red Sox did not end up doing well on the Lugo deal and ate a large chunk of it. Keep in mind, as well, that when we say that the deal is “market value,” that means is neither particular brilliant nor particularly bad, it is simply average. To put it crudely: an “average” free agent contract it has roughly the same chance of working out well as it does of failing.

If Julio Lugo and his representatives cannot even get a minor-league deal negotiated this off-season, he is probably about done as a major-leaguer. Hopefully he saved some of the $36 million he was paid by the Red Sox (about a third of it to play for other teams). As for a retrospective look after the end of the Epstein Era, while Lugo ended up being as a notable free agent failure, one can at least see how the Red Sox would have seen it as a reasonable deal at the time.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


22 Responses to “Contract Retrospective: Lugo in Boston”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    As a Red Sox fan and a sabermetrics adherent, I’ve always considered the Lugo contract to be one of the more reasonable big free agent signings under Henry/Lucchino/Epstein. It didn’t work out very well, but sometimes that just happens.

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Not that its difficult to be “one of the more reasonable big free agent signings under Henry/Lucchino/Epstein”. Check out the list of free agents who got over $15M:
      Carl Crawford – $142M
      Daisuke Matsuzaka – $103.1M
      John Lackey – $82.5M
      J.D. Drew – $70M
      Edgar Renteria – $40M
      Julio Lugo – $36M
      Matt Clement – $25.8M
      Keith Foulke – $20.25M
      Mike Cameron – $15.5M

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      • Mike says:

        Oh god, make the bad man stop. It hurt my eyes.

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      • James says:

        Drew was on pace to exceed 70mil in value if not for his huge drop-off last season so I write his contract off as forgivable. Especially since their alternative would have been more Trot Nixon. Clement too, that was just pure shit-luck.

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      • Breadbaker says:

        I assume you have no complaints about the Beltre signing. Which you left off the list.

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      • Matt says:

        @Breabaker: Beltre’s contract was < $15M

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      • Breadbaker says:

        Beltre’s one year deal was exactly the same price as the Lugo deal. He was worth 7 WAR for $9 million. Somehow, if you make a list that doesn’t include that, it seems a bit like you’re hiding the ball on Theo’s free agent signings, doesn’t it?

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      • samuelLsamson says:

        Matsuzaka got $52M over 6 years, not $103.1M, and without Foulke there would have been no Red Sox World Series win in 2004. Drew also earned at a rate commensurate with his contract for all but his injury-plagued final year. Without Drew’s grand slam in Game 6 of the 2007 ALCS, the Red Sox would have probably been eliminated, ergo no 2007 World Series either.

        Yes there were some overspends and rank bad contracts in the list, but the raw dollar numbers don’t tell all the story.

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      • pft says:

        The problem with the Beltre signing was we did not sign him for 4 years, then they keep Youk at 1B, and keep 3 top prospects, with Rizzo taking over for Youk after 2013, and Casey Kelly replacing Daisuke or Lackey in the rotation (assuming he develops), saving 154 million dollars on A-Gons contract (A-Gon is great, but he was not cheap in dollars+ prospects, and runs the bases like Bengie Molina)

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      • NS says:

        ^That isn’t a problem with the Beltre signing.

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      • Ari Collins says:

        Drew wasn’t a bad signing, even if he “only” earned his contract in 4/5 seasons.

        Crawford’s too early to judge.

        As for the rest of them, very few were bad ideas AT THE TIME. With the notable exceptions of John Lackey and probably Keith Foulke, just because it’s a bad idea to give a reliever three years.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        IMO, the worst at the time were Crawford, Matsuzaka (if you include the posting fee), Lackey, and Foulke (because he’s a reliever not named Rivera).

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Breadbaker, that’s because Beltre was for $10M. The list is $15M+. And, yes, if you look at smaller signings, the Sox have done pretty well.

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  2. GoSox says:

    I believe the few dissenters regarding the Lugo deal at the time pointed out that he had had an absolutely brutal 49 games with the Dodgers after he was traded from TB. And that was at a time when he knew his play would dictate the size of his next deal. There was some speculation that he had been very comfortable in TB and that his woes with the Dodgers suggested that his performance might crater going forward, small sample size be damned. I’d be curious what the Red Sox scouts’ notes said about Lugo in LA to see if the Lugo call was an “eyes over numbers” call or if the scouts thought his LA performance was an aberration.

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  3. pft says:

    I believe he had issues with an intestinal parasite in 2007, ala Jason Giambi, so you wonder if steroid use followed by steroid withdrawal was one of his problems . Sheer speculation of course, but his performance fell off a cliff at a relatively young age, so there has to be something to explain it.

    Whether a players performance was enhanced by steroids or not is one of the single biggest questions any GM must ask before committing dollars and years to expensive free agents. After a player locks into the big deal he may decide to protect his health and go off the PED’s. I know we have testing, but short acting steroids and designer steroids makes it possible to use and still test negative.

    The other issue, especially with players south of the border and the prevalence of age fraud, is how old is he. If Lugo was 3 years older than the Red Sox believed, that could explain his rapid decline at age 31 (actually 34)

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      I wonder if he perhaps was a heroin addict. Sheer speculation of course, but his performance fell off a cliff at a relatively young age, so there has to be something to explain it.

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      • pft says:

        And of course, we all know heroin use is far more prevalent than steroid use among MLB players, or age fraud.

        Of course, those who worship in the church where randomness explains all might not get it.

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  4. jyoungclaus says:

    I think there was a rather serious injury that Lugo suffered very early in his Boston tenure that sapped power and reduced his ability as a hitter. That accounts for his Boston decline, I believe. Wrist maybe?

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  5. designated quitter says:

    As long as we’re speculating: Put me down for abuse of heroin, ketamine, PCP, and horse laxatives.

    For whatever it’s worth, give Epstein credit for the Marco Scutaro signing- that worked out better than anybody expected.

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  6. Mr Punch says:

    Three points about Sox free agent signings in the Epstein years: (1) Marginal wins had an unusually high value both because the team had money and, more important, because of where they were on the win curve; (2) the recurring flaw was signing aging players to long-term deals; (3) the Sox management had, in effect, an alternative view of aging patterns (thought some players peaked later, or held peak longer, than conventional wisdom allowed). Paying the price now.

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