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The End of the Aaron Rowand Era

They say desperate times call for desperate measures. In San Francisco, desperate times apparently call for sane, resonable, and rational measures. Today, the Giants have designated Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada for assignment.

The Tejada decision was an easy one: he was on a one-year deal and simply never showed MLB ability this season, posting a .239/.270/.326 line. The Rowand decision, on the other hand required more than simply dumping an aging veteran who would be gone at the end of the season anyway. Designating Rowand for assignment at this juncture is that decision we so often see general managers (or ownership) shy away from at the most important times: cutting bait on a big, long-term contract.

Rowand is currently in the fourth year of a five-year, $60 million dollar contract. He is still owed roughly $2 million for the rest of 2011 and $12 million for the 2012 season. But with Rowand contributing only 0.7 WAR in 2011 and 4.8 WAR from 2008-2011, it was increasingly difficult for Brian Sabean and the Giants to justify his spot on the roster. Hindsight, of course, is simple, and Aaron Rowand was once a very good baseball player. Did Sabean whiff on the decision to pay Rowand, or was the ill-fated deal more about the player failing to live up to his value?

In the four years prior to his signing with San Francisco — 2004-2007, spent with the White Sox and then Phillies — Rowand had established an All-Star level of play. Over those four years, Rowand compiled 17.5 wins above replacement, hitting for solid power (76 homers) and playing solid defense in center field (+35 UZR).

Rowand was on a 4-win pace and the Giants signed him for an average salary of $12 million per season — back in 2008, that means they were basically projecting him to be a 3-win player out of the gates. Rowand was projected for a .278/.340/.429 line by ZiPS entering the 2008 season compared to a .267/.334/.426 average line for center fielders. As a slightly above-average hitter and a good defender in center field, that makes him roughly — you guessed it — a three-win player.

But, of course, this simple analysis avoids the chances of breakout and attrition. And Aaron Rowand was simply on the wrong side of 30 when he signed this deal. Sign the same player as a 28 year old to the same deal, and we could be looking at a player still giving his team surplus value. With Rowand, his 30s were not kind. Every single metric, including our eyes, saw Rowand’s effectiveness in center field drop upon his move to San Franicsco — and to be fair to Rowand, we shoudln’t have expected any +17 or +13 seasons that late in his career. Perhaps the bigger center field combined with a lost step spelled a quicker doom for Rowand, but bets on defensive center fielders lasting into their mid-30s rarely work.

Rowand’s bat actually lasted for the first two years of his contract — getting wOBAs over .320 out of center fielders is by no means common, particularly in a pitchers’ park like San Francisco — but Rowand needed both parts of his game to last in order to justify his contract. Then, when his bat collapsed too — 2011 is his second straight year with an OBP under .285 — his contract became the punch-line it sits at today, with Rowand now looking for work and hoping to latch swiftly to a playoff contender.

The long-term view of this contract will probably be unfair to Brian Sabean, but only the sense that this rather medium overpay may be lumped into a group of large overpays (such as Barry Zito). It wasn’t insane to believe that Aaron Rowand could hit well enough to justify the contract at the time. But so often we hear this story of the 30-year-old free agent signing busting two or three years down the road. Aaron Rowand is simply the latest precautionary tale in this category.