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Eric Byrnes’ 2007 Deal: A Contract Retrospective

As you’ve almost certainly read by now, former Arizona outfielder Eric Byrnes signed with the Mariners this past Friday after having been previously released by the Diamondbacks. There’s plenty to read about Byrnes’ current abilities (for example here, here, here, and my favorite here). Briefly: he’s an oft-injured 34-year old outfielder with a bad bat and a good glove. He’s probably 0-0.5 WAR, but at the league minimum, it’s a virtually risk-free signing.

What is more interesting is that the Diamondbacks are still on the hook for almost $11 million dollars of the last year of the three-year, $30 million dollar contract to which they signed Byrnes in 2007. During Byrnes’ disastrous, injury-plagued 2008 and 2009 seasons, many a snide comment about “grit” and “veteran leadership” was made about Arizona’s decision to lock up a corner outfielder in his early 30s during a “career year,” especially since they then traded Carlos Quentin, who immediately started mashing for the White Sox.

It is easy (and fun!) to mock a decision after it has obviously turned out badly. The more interesting question is how the contract looked when it was signed — hence my occasional series of “Contract Retrospectives.” Step into the time machine…

We all remember where we were when we heard heard the big news: Rosie O’Donnell was forced off of The View. But that shouldn’t overshadow other happenings from 2007: The Phoenix spacecraft left for Mar’s North Pole. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, inspiring millions of children all over the world to read and have terrible literary taste. Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” made us all wonder if we would be better off dead. And on August 7, Barry Bonds, ever the narcissist, hit home run number 756, deliberately overshadowing Byrnes’ contract signing on the same day.

What were the Diamondbacks paying for? The market was very different “back in the day.” During the 2007-08 offseason (Byrnes contract was for 2008-2010), the estimated market price for a win above replacement was about $4.4 million. Figure in 10% annual salary inflation and a half-a-win a season expected decline, and one gets this chart. Looking across the top row of the chart for years and and then down for closest figure to Byrnes’ contract, you will see that 3 years, $28.7 implies a 2.5 WAR player for 2008. Add in the $400,000 per year league minimum (“replacement salary”), and you have a nearly perfect match with Byrnes’ contract.

Was 2.5 WAR a reasonable expectation? From the standpoint of 2007 (it’s difficult to split up the season for “retrojections”), from 2004-2007 Byrnes had put up WARs of 3.4, 0.6, 3.3, and 4.0. The four year average is about 2.8, and the three year average is about 2.4. So Arizona wasn’t (necessarily) sucked in by Byrnes’ 2007 performance. Let’s break things down a bit more precisely.

In past installments, I’ve done my own, deliberately crude “retrojection.” This time I’ve utilized archived projections from CHONE, ZiPS, and everyone’s favorite monkey, Marcel. Converting Byrnes’ projected 2008 lines to the appropriate linear weights, over a full season (700 PA), CHONE projected +16 runs, ZiPS projected +14 runs, and Marcel (ever the pessimist) projected +5 runs. The simple average is about +12 runs. Arizona’s ballpark is very hitter-friendly, so the adjusted value of those projections is about +7/700 PA.

Fielding is more complicated, since Byrnes played multiple positions. Fortunately, the adjustments for CF(2.5) and RF/LF (-7.5) is meant to reflect the relative difficulty of the positions. Thus, I simply added Byrnes’ UZR fielding runs to his positional adjustment for each season to get a “position neutral” fielding rating. After weighting, regressing, and adjusting for age, the projected 2008 position-neutral defensive value for Byrnes is +3 runs (i.e., average in CF, +10 on the corners).

Putting it altogether: +7 offense +3 fielding + 20 NL replacement level = 3 WAR times 85% playing time = 2.6 WAR. Pretty much right on the money.The Quentin issue aside (and it isn’t has if he had torn it up prior to the trade), perhaps one can quibble over details such as the no-trade clause. Still, while the contract looks bad now, it was right in line with the market at the time it was signed.