The Land Mines of the 2014 Free Agent Class

Yesterday, I looked at five players who I thought would be significant bargains if they signed for the expected contract produced by the FanGraphs Crowdsourcing series. Today, let’s go the other direction, and look at five players who I think might be significant overpays at their projected salaries.

5. Joe Nathan, Relief Pitcher: 2 years, $21 million

Joe Nathan is a very good relief pitcher who just finished one of the best seasons of his career. Unfortunately, the two primary drivers of that success were the lowest HR/FB% (3.0%) and BABIP (.224) that he’s ever posted. Nathan’s always held down hits and home runs more than the league average, so we shouldn’t expect him to regress all the way back to 10% and .295 respectively, but even regressing him back to his own career averages would cause him to take a significant step backwards. And that’s before we get into the fact that he’s going to be 39 next year.

There are relief pitchers who are worth mutli-year deals, and there are relief pitchers who are worth $10M+ per season, but those are the Craig Kimbrels and Kenley Jansens of the world, and Nathan isn’t in that class. The fact that the Rangers are letting him walk with no real effort to re-sign him should be an additional warning sign, and while he seems like a natural fit for the Tigers, they’d be much off re-signing Omar Infante than spending his money on an aging closer.

4. Kendrys Morales, Designated Hitter: 3 years, $33 million

Morales has been an above average player exactly once in his career, back in 2009, when he was 26 years old. Since then, he’s broken his leg, spent a season and a half on the disabled list, lost his ability to play the field on a regular basis, and has gotten even slower, to the point that he’s now perhaps the very worst baserunner in the game. And he’s not even that great of a hitter.

Despite a skillset that has more weaknesses than strengths, the Mariners still made Morales a qualifying offer, signifying both that they want him back and that they believe Scott Boras won’t take a one year deal. Boras is very good at extracting dollars from teams, so he probably won’t end up taking the qualifying offer for Morales, but giving up a draft pick for the right to overpay Morales on a mutli-year deal seems like a trap in the making. There are hitters who can produce enough value solely at the plate to outweigh the fact that they don’t do anything else to help you win, but Morales isn’t that kind of hitter. Odds are pretty good that the Mariners end up bidding against themselves, but still manage to re-sign a mediocre one dimensional player anyway.

3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Catcher: 4 years, $45 million

In a season in which Salty posted a .372 BABIP, he still only managed a .338 on base percentage. That’s kind of amazing, but it highlights how significant Salty’s contact problem really is. Guys who strike out 30% of the time have to either have to hit for a lot of power or draw a lot of walks to be effective offensive players, because the vagaries of BABIP means that their rate of hits on balls in play will fluctuate too much to be dependable. Salty has some power, and he draws some walks, but expecting him to repeat his 117 wRC+ would be foolhardy, as he’s more of a below average hitter than an above average one.

He’s still a solid offensive player for a catcher, but a four year commitment for a guy who is more okay than good is a pretty big risk, especially at this price. $11 million per year might only require him to be an average player to live up to the deal, but the term is the real problem here, as average players shouldn’t require four year commitments. On a two year deal, $11 million per year would be fine. I’d have little interest in giving Salty a guaranteed third and fourth year at these prices though, and a team like the White Sox — desperately in need of a catcher — should hold the line rather than jumping to four years.

2. Curtis Granderson, Outfielder: 4 years, $56 million

I feel bad about this one, because I like Granderson and think he’s actually probably a little underrated, but this is just way too steep for a good-not-great player heading into his age-33 season when he just spent nearly the entire year on the disabled list. I think there’s actually a pretty decent chance that Granderson ends up taking the qualifying offer and returning to New York for 1/14, which would be a nice low-risk deal for the Yankees. $56 million over four years for Granderson’s decline phase, plus the cost of a first round pick, though; I just don’t really see what the crowd sees here, to be honest.

At the end of the day, I don’t think Granderson’s actually going to sign an albatross contract. The qualifying offer is going to do a number on the price he can ask for, and I think he’s probably looking for a short term deal to show that he’s healthy and can still play at a high level. If the market agrees with the crowd, though, then Granderson is very likely going to be a significant overpay for whichever team decides they must have his left-handed power.

1. Nelson Cruz, Outfielder: 3 years, $32 million

Cruz has had a weird career, going from being mislabeled as a 4A guy to now being perhaps the most overrated player in baseball. The way that Cruz’s value has been portrayed makes him out to be one of the game’s elite sluggers, when he’s really nothing close to that. While playing half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Arlington, he’s posted OBPs of .312, .319, and .327 over the last three years. Yes, he’s strong, and he hits some impressive home runs, but he also makes a lot of outs in the process.

Toss in poor defense, poor baserunning, always lingering health concerns, a PED suspension, the fact that he’ll be 33 next year, and the draft compensation that is attached because Texas made him a qualifying offer, and Cruz is a DUI away from Red Flag Bingo. It’s one thing to overlook all of these issues because the performance is just so great that the reward is worth the risk, but even a full strength, completely healthy Nelson Cruz is more of an average player than a good one. And that’s before we project how he’ll do in his mid-30s, as his body breaks down further, and his physical strength starts to slip away. Of all the free agents who are likely to get significant contracts this winter, Cruz looks like the most likely to just turn into a replacement level scrub overnight.

But, hey dingers and RBIs, right? The sole focus on “right handed power” has led to mediocre players like Cruz being labeled as difference makers, and some team that thinks they need a cleanup hitter is going to give Cruz way too much money and get far too little in return. The Phillies have already been linked to Cruz, which makes sense, in that his contract won’t look quite so bad when he’s constantly hitting behind The Ryan Howard Mistake. But at 3/32 plus a draft pick, this isn’t even a place the Phillies should want to go. No one should want Cruz at this price. He’s just not that good.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


71 Responses to “The Land Mines of the 2014 Free Agent Class”

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  1. DD says:

    I totally agree on Cruz. Before the QO I was thinking he would fit in Philly at maybe 2-$20 mil or something (getting the Melky discount for the PED ding). But with the QO, he will be the last QO player to sign.

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    • LaLoosh says:

      isn’t he expected to to return to TEX?

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      • Good Captain says:

        Not necessarily according to many Ranger sites. I think the Rangers genuinely would be happy if he accepted their 1 year deal, but many suppose someone else will give him some kind of multi-year deal.

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    • Spa City says:

      I still think RAJ might throw a 3/39 at Nelson. I would not be surprised by any overpay by Philly for any aging, over-rated veteran.

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    • Aggie E says:

      Some dumb team will give him a 3-4 year deal cause he hits HRs and has a strong throwing arm..

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  2. stan says:

    I can’t believe this article didn’t list Stephen Drew. Not only does he have a wildly inconsistent history, he’s also injury-prone both as a part of and separate from his inconsistency. Not only that but he’s reaching the age where his skills and health would naturally be in decline. Then there’s the fact that his brother notoriously underperformed twice after getting long term contracts. With the fact that the shortstop market is rather thin and the fact that Drew’s 2013 performance will probably get him a big contract, I think the land-mine possibility is huge for Drew. I’d put him just behind Cruz.

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    • NBarnes says:

      J.D. Drew cannot reasonably be said to have underperformed his contract with Boston.

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      • stan says:

        99% of Red Sox fans would disagree. He produced 12 WAR over 5 seasons in return for $70M. He had two good years, two adequate years, and one awful last one.

        I wonder how one could reasonably argue that he earned that money.

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        • TKDC says:

          The real head scratcher is why, even if you believe this, it matters for a entirely different human being?

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        • stan says:

          Probably for the same reason that relatives of major league players, coaches and managers always rise on draft boards. Its not unreasonable to suppose that JD Drew’s brother might perform like JD. Its not like Stephen Drew’s career is distinctly different from JD’s so far…

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        • lewish says:

          We started Steven, went to JD and now we aren’t in Kansas anymore, it appears? Confused!

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        • Mike says:

          Apart from his horrible crater-inducing 2011 outlier, Drew’s value was absolutely in line with what he was paid. The “99% of Red Sox fans” who pretend that this was a terrible contract are generally relying on the last terrible year to confirm a TLR-related “lack of passion” bias they held when he was signed and ignoring his performance over the first four (and especially the middle three) years of his contract.

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        • Mark R says:

          I guess I’m the 1%. If you figure an average of about $5 million per win (which I think is a little low), that means JD produced roughly $60 million worth of value over the course of his contract. And that was with an injury plagued final season. I’d take that signing again every time.

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        • Pitnick says:

          $5m per win might be low now, but that’s probably higher than what was calculated when the Drew contract was signed. If you use the value calculations on his Fangraphs page, he was worth $53.9m over the course of the contract. That’s not a catastrophic loss, but it’s hard to consider that a win on a $70m investment.

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        • TKDC says:

          @stan

          I’d say those relatives rise in the draft boards because like their relatives before them they exhibit a high level of skill that makes scouts believe they will be good baseball players. I don’t think there is any evidence that guys are picked remarkably higher due to the relationship (Example, Craig Kimbrel’s little brother was drafted in the 31st round – obviously nobody predicts him to become his older brother in any way, shape or form). What has Drew done specifically to indicate he will not give his best (I assume you are impugning his older brother’s work ethic, if not, I’m not sure what you’re saying)?

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        • TKDC says:

          And to use an example from another sport, Steph Curry, the son of an NBA standout, went to tiny Davidson College, obviously not wanted by the major programs. Then, his younger brother started his career at tiny Liberty University, his brother’s rise from unheralded recruit to 7th pick in the draft not enough to garner any attention. And not for lack of talent, as he transferred to Duke and eventually became one of the best players in college basketball as a senior.

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        • stan says:

          At the time JD signed his contract, fangraphs was valuing a WAR at $3M. The powers that be have increased that valuation to $5M in the few years since then (curious since MLB payrolls and revenues have not risen the equivalent 66%). Moreover, he didn’t earn his money even at the $5M/ WAR rate so again I ask how anyone could argue that he earned his contract.

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        • tz says:

          Waiting for someone to expound about Larry Drew’s basketball exploits…..

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        • vivalajeter says:

          Mike, I’m not sure I see your point. If his production was in line with his salary for 80% of his contract, and he was horrible for 20%, then it sounds to me like he wasn’t worth it. He’d need to be better than his paycheck for the first 80% in order to justify the last year of the contract.

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        • Mike says:

          @vivalajeter

          My point was that people who like to pretend that J.D. Drew’s contract was an albatross relative to his performance are full of it.

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        • murphym45 says:

          Most of this comes down to semantics. If you think he provided $50-55M for $70M, then it’s fair to say that he didn’t earn the full amount he paid, but I would hardly call that “notoriously underperforming”.

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        • Plucky says:

          12 WAR / 5 seasons = 2.4 WAR/season
          market value for FA = $5.5m/WAR
          5.5m/WAR * 2.4 WAR/season = $13.2m/season
          13.2m/season * 5 seasons = $66m

          That’s pretty much the definition of earning the money. Discount it a little for being 2007-11 rather than current dollars if you like, but you’re still talking about at max a 10% overpay.

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        • Luke says:

          @Plucky: That is a very complicated method of multiplying 5.5 times 12.

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        • Check your numbers says:

          $5.5M/ WAR? Where are you getting that? Not only is that not reality now, it wasn’t the reality when the Sox signed JD. In reality he didn’t earn half the $70M he got paid.

          Has anyone noticed that if you add up the total salaries of MLB players versus WAR earned in 2013 you get about $3M/ WAR? This idea that $5M = 1 WAR (the actual 2012 fangraphs valuation) has become a total fiction.

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        • NBarnes says:

          The simple metric of dividing aggregate WAR by aggregate payroll is flawed and not relevant. It includes cost-controlled players. J.D. Drew was signed on the open market and should be evaluated against other free agents. Of course he didn’t match the marginal value of second and third year semi-stars; that was never the idea when he was signed. Anybody that judges his contract against something he could never be and everybody know he couldn’t ever be is being foolish.

          That said, I don’t know what the free agent war/$ was that year. But it was bloody higher than $3 mil.

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        • hk says:

          @ Check your numbers,

          That’s because Total WAR / Total Payroll includes all of the pre-arb and the arb eligible players. The $5M, $5.5M or $7M per WAR number only applies to free agents.

          FWIW, there was a recent study done in which the author compiled a ton of data on recent free agents and showed that the average free agent over a significant period of time (maybe the last 20 years) was actually paid ~$7M per WAR. I can’t find the link to the article right now, but if I find it after I have some coffee, I’ll attach it.

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        • Luke says:

          Also, contracts shouldn’t be evaluated based on this simple linear $5M/WAR standard. They should be evaluated based on the budget of the actual team paying the contract and the specific context of what is provided to the team. I think the Red Sox would’ve given Drew that contract over again if they could’ve known his exact actual performance with 100% certainty. They could afford the “overpay.”

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        • WormFace says:

          I am a Boston fan. I liked the JD Drew deal. But sadly, stan is correct in saying that a lot of Boston fans do not like that deal. Most of my friends are average baseball fans (not fantasy baseball) and they do not like JD one bit.

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  3. Nik says:

    Amaro has stressed outfield defense lately, I think he stays away from Cruz.

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  4. Nelson Cruz Thought says:

    I think Cruz is overrated because he provides solid fantasy baseball numbers, but is bad at everything else. Just like you point out, Dave:

    “While playing half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Arlington, he’s posted OBPs of .312, .319, and .327 over the last three years.”
    “Toss in poor defense, poor baserunning”

    Cruz has been a solid 5-category fantasy provider for a few years, so he gets valued more than he is worth on an actual baseball team. And I don’t just mean by people that play fantasy baseball – the same stats are used by most people, even the saber-inclined, to value hitters.

    I also agree with your view on Granderson, and I also feel bad about it because by all accounts he is a an amazingly nice and fun guy, and gives immense amounts of time and money to charity.

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    • Classic Lynyrd Skynyrd Reference says:

      Most people who get involved in advanced statistics love OBP, defensive ability, doubles, and other under-valued skill sets. Nelson Cruz is the antithesis of the player I value.

      That said I can play fantasy baseball, and still understand that Nelson Cruz is a pretty mediocre baseball player with more loud skills than appreciable ones.

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    • Aggie E says:

      Well this year TBIA was much less a great hitting park after the changes to the concourse. So I would give him credit for his power numbers in 2013

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  5. Mr Punch says:

    I don’t disagree on Saltalamacchia, but what jumps out at me is less the BABIP than the 40 doubles. He’s unlikely to reproduce this result, especially away from Fenway. One point in his favor, though, is that he’s athletic for a catcher; yes, a 4X11 deal is too much, but maybe the 11 is a bigger problem than the 4.

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    • RC says:

      Yeah, but atleast some of those doubles turn into homeruns when you’re not playing in fenway.

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      • Owen says:

        I didn’t get to watch the Sox much this year (stupid seven time-zone difference) but I got the impression from highlights that a lot of Salty’s doubles were wallscrapers rather than line drives, which would be outs in other parks. I’m sure he got some line drive homers turned into doubles, but the overall effect was likely positive.

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  6. Joebrady says:

    I think, with all due respect, that they are overpriced because the estimates are too high. I’d be fairly surprised of Salty and Granderson got full 4-year deals. I like Salty well enough, and would like him at $22M/2 or $14M/1 (as a RS fan), but 4 years with already questionable defense is out of line.

    Past that, I think Morales is the biggest puzzler. The RS can, if they wanted, get an .800 from platooning Nava and Carp at DH. And they can contribute to other positions. Why would anyone want to pay Morales $14M? That’s Papi money. Most teams should have a journeyman slow-footed, no defense guy somewhere in their system that can get you a .750+.

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  7. John says:

    No Jacoby Ellsbury? 7 years for a 30+ year old, injury prone guy who’s sole value comes from his speed.?

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    • Ted says:

      Agreed. As a Red Sox fan I’m happily resigned to having the Jackie Bradley Jr. era begin. Ellsbury’s future contract is an albatross waiting to happen.

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      • AK7007 says:

        There might be too much of a backlash against players not performing up to their salaries near the end of deals. Every long-term deal gets derided by commenters now as a potential “albatross.” They aren’t, teams are knowingly punting the end of deals in exchange for performance now. True albatross deals look like the Howard contract – you aren’t getting a good thing at any time, is immoveable to another team, and he is eating a large % of the payroll.

        Ellsbury isn’t going to zombify tomorrow. He’s going to give somebody a good player for X number of years before declining. A team will go into that knowing that they are paying more than he is worth at the end. They won’t start out with a bad player on a huge contract – the “albatross” deal.

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    • Mike says:

      I don’t disagree with Ellsbury’s eventual contract likely being an albatross, but he is a .300/.350/.450ish lead-off hitter (without remarkable BABIP inflation)who plays at least better-than-average defense in center. He’s probably not worth what he’ll likely get for the seven years of his probable contract, but his game isn’t solely dependent on his speed…

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      • Balthazar says:

        The recent comps of Michael Bourn and B. J. Upton don’t speak well of any big signing for Ellsbury. Yes, Bourn and B. J. are likely going to have a better year or two over the term of their offseason 2012 deals. The thing is, if these guys take even a little step back, a whole lot of their value vanishes. It’s not like there’s a solid ISO or OBP to offset an off year because their skillset of these guys rests on one leg, so to speak.

        I see it as near a certainty that whoever signs Ellsbury has the most disappointing 2014 season from their acquisitions this winter. Ellsbury may spool off another good year or two, but seven years? With his history?? It’s going to be very unpretty.

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    • RC says:

      1. Speed guys age better than anyone else.
      2. Ellsbury’s value comes from the fact that he has speed, plays elite defense at CF, walks, and hits for average. He’s a 4 tool player.

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      • pft says:

        Carl Crawford making a lot of people rethink that.

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        • RC says:

          Anecdotes are awesome.

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        • carl says:

          You’re contradicting yourself. You say that speed players age better than a normal player (reasonably-ish true in the past– although I’d also point out we’re in a new era when we see fewer of those players putting on mass in their early 30s to combat the effect of their loss of speed and thus that statement is less relevant than it was, say, 5-10 years ago). Plus, loss of speed doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It hurts your babip, it hurts your defense, it hurts your baserunning–all the things that Ellsbury does that provide value.

          And speaking of defense–your contradiction comes from using aging curves to support your first point but ignore them when they deal with defense. To remind, aging curves say that defensive ability is the first thing to dissipate. Giving him a contract based on the tenet that he’s an elite defender going forward is foolish.

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      • Hank says:

        4 tools?

        I don’t think you can give him credit for either arm or power.

        Walking is not one of the 5 tools.

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    • CC says:

      Teammate runs into his ribs and prospect-turned-nobody falls smack on top of him, and these account for his only significant injuries.

      But no, he’s clearly injury prone /sarcasm

      He’s a slow healer for sure, but his injuries are more of the freak variety.

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  8. the fume says:

    I’m not sure I agree with the assessment of Nathan’s value. Even with said, expected regression of BABIP and HR/FB, he’s still going to be a very good reliever, with a FIP around 3 and an ERA below 3. As such I think the main risk is his age. But considering the typical market overpay for closers (Soriano, Papelbon), $21M for a big payroll playoff team isn’t a huge risk, if they believe in that market.

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    • Petruchio says:

      Nathan is post-TJS and will be playing in his age 39 season. The money and years he’s looking for will come with a lot of risk, risk that has to be evaluated in terms of opportunity cost – there are a lot of closers on the 2013 market with similar question marks or none at all. Why spend more while taking on more risk, when you don’t have to?

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      • the fume says:

        I agree that I think all the closers out there have a bit of risk, with Benoit maybe having the least. Benoit wasn’t included in the predictions, but I suspect he could get 3 years if Nathan gets 2.

        Nathan should get a few million more per tho simply because he’s better than the others, IMO.

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  9. Seneca says:

    A few quotes from
    Scott Miller
    Senior Baseball Columnist
    December 4, 2012 8:20 pm ET
    Red Sox may pass character test and still finish last in AL East

    “Within, oh, 30 seconds of the Victorino news breaking, many executives in the Opryland Cascades lobby thought it was the silliest thing they’d ever heard”

    “But will the 2013 Red Sox be better off with Napoli(3.9WAR), Victorino(5.6) and Gomes(1.0) than the 2012 Sox were (to start the season) with A-Gone(2.8), Beckett(-0.1), Nick Punto(1.9) and a disabled Crawford(2.9)? They’ll smile more in the clubhouse, but you cannot make the case that Boston is better off now”

    the 2013 WAR totals were obviously my addition, but certainly instructive

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    • Joebrady says:

      The answer is that Scott Miller talked to people that said they were executives, but were probably executive chefs. It is one thing to think they paid too much. I thought he was about $1M overpaid. But his WAR ranges fro 2.9 to 5.6. His career WAR/600 ABs was 3.9. To earn $13M, he needs to average about 2.6 WAR.

      If you want to argue with me on whether he was worth exactly $39M/3, fine. To say $39M/3 is the silliest thing they ever heard, is the silliest thing I ever heard. Cody Ross got $26M/3, and Vic is twice the player. What did these guys think he was going to sign for?

      Honestly, I think that was Scott Miller’s personal opinion, masquerading as the always anonymous ‘BB exec’ opinions.

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    • pft says:

      The Red Sox won because David Ortiz (+0.9 WAR) , Ellsbury (+4.4), Salty (+1.7), Lester (+1.1) and Lackey (+3.2) had better (healthier) years. Drew Napoli and Victorino were all disappointing until August and the finished off the last 2 months with a bang (hard to do in the post steroid and post amphetamine era).

      If the 2013 Red Sox had the same issues with injuries and an awful manager in Bobby V they also would have struggled. The 2012 team was not as bad as people thought. They were only a few games under 500 at the time they traded Agon despite the injuries and Bobby V, and played 250 the rest of the way was the team quit and went after a top 10 pick.

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    • Bip says:

      No one could reasonably project a 5.6 WAR, 20+ UZR season from Victorino though.

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  10. Joel says:

    In terms of three-year and one-year ranges, Saltalamacchia comes out pretty close to McCann. I recognize that McCann has some injury problems in that three-year span, but that’s data worth considering.

    After the top tier of Posey, Molina, Mauer, Wieters, and Santana, are there any catchers that rate consistently above Saltalamacchia going forward? That’s the question that needs to be asked here. Miguel Montero looked like a good bet, but he was horrible this year. And he got 5/$60.

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    • pft says:

      I would be wary of Salty because of his inexplicable strong 2nd half in the face of the previous years 2nd half collapses. He had an 870 OPS the last 2 months this year. That’s pretty rare for a C in the post steroid/post amphetamine era, and the fact that he did it in a contract year makes me wonder. Maybe he drank a lot of red bull, found some type of training regime that helped him stay strong at the end of the year, or was hampered with injuries the previous 2 years, but I would want to know what it was before handing him a 4 yr deal

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      • NBarnes says:

        Some people haven’t noticed that ‘thing I can’t explain -> OMG STEROIDS!!11!!’ is a punchline in 2013, not an argument.

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      • Joebrady says:

        I’d make it a point to be suspicious of everyone, but Salty’s final two months are probably more a product of a high BABIP.

        Then you’d kind of have to assume he took them well into the season, instead of before the season, then further assume they wore off just before the playoffs.

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  11. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Isn’t Cruz an elite slugger, though? He’s 15th in ISO the last 4 years and 18th in dingers while playing less games than everyone in front of him.

    He might not be an elite player, but in terms of guys who slug HRs, he is elite. It’s just his everything is so bad that he has little value outside of it.

    (And yet despite his terrible OF defense, positional adjustments say he is more valuable there than at DH)

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  12. Bip says:

    Weren’t the fan estimates made before qualifying offers were issued? I think I remember being asked to guess whether the player would receive an offer, but some of the contracts were probably entered based on the wrong guess, which drove up the price for some of these guys. I don’t think I could have possible guesses Morales would get a QO.

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  13. chief00 says:

    “…and Cruz is a DUI away from Red Flag Bingo”. Good one. :)

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  14. Casper Wells says:

    Yeah, let’s all just ignore that Cruz has average about a .350 wOBA the past 3 years

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    • Bip says:

      In a big hitters park, which turns that into approximately a 115 wRC+ over that time. In addition to lousy defense and baserunning, that isn’t worth much.

      I don’t really see how he could be much worse that Morales though. 3/33 for Cruz strikes me as big overpay. 3/33 for Morales is insanity.

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  15. Johnston says:

    Excellent article! Great description of Cruz. Thanks.

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  16. August says:

    I honestly think the era of Rangers Ballpark being considered a hitters park is over, its been playing extremely neutral and the public opinion has not caught on to it yet.

    It works both ways though, Darvish’ numbers look even better if you still consider half his games are in “hitters park” if you still think of it that way.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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