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The Gagne Experiment Redux

Oh, how the markets change. Last night, we took a look at Will Ohman, a lefty reliever coming off of the best season of his career, who may be in line to take a 40 percent paycut off of his $1.6 mil salary in 2008. Today, our subject of discussion is Eric Gagne, who, in 2007, posted a +1.1 win value just two-tenths of a win higher than Ohman’s +0.9 last season, yet somehow parlayed that production into a $10 mil salary from the Brewers. The deal was questionable at best at the time of the signing and looked downright foolish at the end of the season.

In 50 games, Gagne posted a 5.44 ERA and 6.13 FIP, actually costing the Brewers an entire win on the season. With a -1.0 WAR, it would have cost the Brewers $4.6 mil just to get back to replacement level at his roster spot. Well, Gagne is going to return to the Brewers in 2009, albeit under much different circumstances. This time around, he is not guaranteed a roster spot, and even if incentives kick in, the contract maxes out at $4.5 mil, under half of last year’s figure.

If he makes the big league roster out of Spring Training, Gagne will earn a base salary of $1.5 mil. Up to $2 mil in incentives can be earned by pitching anywhere from 25-60 games. Lastly, another $1 mil could be had by finishing 50-65 games, which simply isn’t going to happen. Assuming he pitches in 45 games with the major league team, Gagne looks poised to make around $3 mil next season. And yet Will Ohman, with better and more consistent production over the last three years is struggling to sniff $1 mil on a 1-yr deal?

GM Doug Melvin stated that Gagne pitched much better in the second half of the season. In his first 25 games, Gagne produced a 7.03 ERA with 16 BB and 23 K in 24.1 innings. He could still strike hitters out but his control vanished and too many baserunners came around to score. In his next 25 games, the numbers vastly improved to the tune of a 3.68 ERA, 6 BB and 15 K, and a lower home run rate.

Under the lenses of this microscope, the deal looks great for the Brewers. Gagne isn’t guaranteed any money, and if he pitches like he did down the stretch in 2008, his production would likely command the $3-$3.5 mil anyways. If his second half numbers turned out to be flukey and the result of much-needed regression, no harm, no foul, and the Brewers can cut him before the regular season gets underway.

Bringing in formerly great pitchers and giving them a chance to revert to their former selves is a fine tactic utilized by many GMs. Doing so at a $10 mil salary isn’t as sound. A $1.5 mil base salary with potential for incentives, or a deal with similar terms, is the way to go, making this a win for the Brewers.