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The Great Bargain Of 2009

It’s official – not even Mark Ellis knows how valuable he is. Yesterday, he gave up free agency to re-sign with the A’s on a contract that guarantees him $11 million over two years. Not per year, total. $5.5 million per year, or basically the same contract that Octavio Dotel received last winter.

Now, Dotel’s a decent enough reliever, but Ellis is just so much more valuable than this. He’s the poster boy for just how undervalued defense is in today’s MLB economy. From 2006 to 2008, the Fielding Bible’s +/- system has ranked him at +13, +19, and +26 plays above an average defensive second baseman. He’s been one of the best defensive players at the position since getting to the big leagues, and his outstanding work with the glove has been one of the big reasons why the A’s have been so good at preventing runs from scoring while shuffling through no-name pitchers.

Going forward, we can project Ellis to be worth something like 15 runs above an average defensive second baseman. To contrast that with his offense, considering that most observers would say that he had a poor year with the bat (.233/.321/.373), he was worth about six runs less than a league average hitter this year. Even if we assumed that his offense wasn’t going to rebound at all (a bad assumption, given his underlying skills and .249 BABIP in 2008), his package of offense + defense are still worth about 10 runs above an average second baseman. With replacement level set at about two wins below average, and 10 runs equaling a win, it’s fair to say that Mark Ellis is about a +3 win player compared to replacement level.

Last year, there were a few +3 win position players who hit free agency. Torii Hunter got $90 million for five years, Aaron Rowand got $60 million for five years, and Mike Lowell gave the Red Sox a discount, signing for just $37.5 million over three years. The going rate for a +3 win position player was about $15 million per year, which is pretty much in line with the $5 million per win that we’ve seen teams pay in free agency.

Mark Ellis just signed for about $1.67 million per win. This is one of the best free agent bargains in the history of baseball. In an environment where Ellis’ skillset was properly valued and he had a desire to test the market, he should have gotten about three times what he signed for.