Whither Kenny Lofton

Right now, as we see a slow moving free agent market causing players to adjust and take deals they wouldn’t have otherwise considered, I begin to wonder who will be left standing without a chair when the music stops. Are we going to see another situation as we did last year, where Kenny Lofton couldn’t find anyone to give him a job despite being a quality player? Probably.

But the train of thought led me to wonder – what on earth happened in regards to Lofton last year?

In ’07, Lofton hit .296/.367/.414, stole 23 bases in 30 attempts, and played above average defense in center field. He racked up 559 plate appearances and was worth 3.1 wins in his age 40 season. He showed no signs of decline, drawing more walks than strikeouts and posting a .118 ISO that was right in line with his career average. He didn’t get any slower, as evidenced by his eight bunt singles and quality baserunning.

His career wOBA was .359. In his final three seasons, it was .368, .345, and .349. From 2005 to 2007, he was worth a total of 8.2 wins, for a dollar value of about $30 million. He made less than half of that.

And then, last winter, he couldn’t find anyone to give him a job. Even if you had decided that he was going to suffer significant decline at age 41 (despite there being no evidence of erosion in his skills), at worst, you could have projected him as a +2 win player for 2008. The absolute worst case scenario would have led a team to expect him to be league average. And no one wanted to employ him?

Put this another way – Torii Hunter got $90 million last winter to be a slightly above average center fielder. His 2005 to 2007 three year win value was 8.5 wins, barely more than Lofton’s total. Yes, he’s younger, so you’d expect him to age better, but that just means that you think Hunter would be half a win or so better than Lofton in 2009. Hunter was paid $16.5 million last season while Lofton sat at home unemployed. In what world does that make any sense?

How Kenny Lofton was forcibly retired by MLB will remain one of the stranger stories of the last year. It will be interesting to see if baseball tosses any other quality players out of the talent pool this winter.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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The Rays supposedly offered him, but he wanted to play for a winner. Ooops.