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Billy Wagner to Atlanta

We saw the first big move of free agency late last night, as the Atlanta Braves signed closer Billy Wagner. With the potential losses of Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez looming large, Frank Wren felt the need to fill the gap in the bullpen. Per Rosenthal, the terms of the deal include 7 million dollars for 2010 and a vesting option for 2011.

How does this deal look for the Braves? From a pure production standpoint, we saw some very promising things from Wagner last year with the Red Sox. He struck out 26 of the 63 batters he faced, and looked completely back from the injury that ended his 2008. At his best, Wagner is capable of putting up sub-2.00 ERAs and FIP/tERAs in the low 2s. Over 60-70 innings of closing, that can be worth about two wins above replacement. A season like that would put Wagner’s deal at slightly below his market value.

Of course, there’s another element to this signing. The Red Sox offered arbitration to Wagner, who was one of the type A relievers on the market this year. That means that the Braves will have to give their first round draft pick, 19th overall, to the Red Sox. Given Wagner’s injury risk, as a reliever just coming off of injury and about to enter his age 39 season, there was enough risk involved to question a 7 million dollar deal before considering his type A status.

Victor Wang’s research on the draft has found that the average “tier 1” compensation pick – that is, a pick between number 16-30 overall – is worth roughly 5.5 million dollars in surplus value. The Braves had to sacrifice the #19 overall pick in order to sign Wagner. This means that the Braves had to sacrifice 12.5 million dollars in value in order to make this move happen.

At least, that’s 12.5 million dollars in a vacuum. The Braves are a team poised to make a run, with one of the best starting rotations in the league, two superstars in Chipper Jones and Brian McCann to build around, and few major holes to fill. Wagner’s production in 2009 may be of greater importance to the Braves than whatever wins this draft pick would be worth in 2012 or 2013 or whenever he would make the majors, if at all. It’s also possible that they receive a first round draft pick in return for Mike Gonzalez or Rafael Soriano, the type A relievers to whom the Braves offered arbitration.

Still, I don’t think this is a great move for the Braves. Re-signing Mike Gonzalez or Rafael Soriano would’ve eliminated the need to sacrifice a draft pick. Relievers are tremendously fungibile. One or both of Gonzalez and Soriano could accept arbitration, leaving the Braves in a tough budget situation. Left field is a much larger need for the Braves, who saw almost no production out of Garret Anderson at the position in 2009.

The deal could work out quite well for the Braves, if Wagner can stay healthy for the entire year. If Wagner doesn’t feel the effects of aging. If Wagner doesn’t have an unlucky year in the small sample of innings a reliever sees. If the Braves can fill their hole at LF. If their system can handle the lack of a first round draft pick. If they actually get a first round pick back for Gonzalez and/or Soriano if they leave. Too many “if”s for me.