Free Agent Wrap-Up: The First Wave

Earlier this week, I marveled at the number of early free agent deals that just didn’t make sense to me. Of the first two dozen or so contracts inked by free agents this offseason, just one — Doug Mirabelli re-signing with Boston for two years and $3 million — was a deal I would have been comfortable handing out as a GM. In trying to come up with a theory or two to explain the lack of good early signings, here’s what I said:

Teams that act quickly are doing so without a market being set, and thus there is more of a chance that the contracts they hand out are bad ones. In other words, if you give me a bunch of money to go grocery shopping for the first time and when I show up at the store nothing has a pricetag on it, there’s a chance I might end up coming home with a $75 gallon of milk.

Since I wrote that, there has been a rush of new signings, and I actually think I may have been on to something. Most of the GMs around baseball sat back early and let the Jim Bowdens of the world snatch up the $75 gallons of milk, and once the dust settled they stepped in and started buying up the guys they really wanted at reasonable prices. I talked yesterday about the Twins re-signing Brad Radke for two years and $18 million, which seemed to me like a fair price just days after Kris Benson somehow got $22.5 million over three years from the Mets. Along with Radke’s deal, there were a number of other good signings this week and, of course, quite a few that still had me scratching my head.

Before the next wave hits this weekend, let’s run through them …

*** Troy Glaus | Arizona Diamondbacks | four years | $45 million ***

If Troy Glaus is healthy for the life of this contract, it will be a great signing for the Diamondbacks, as this deal is reasonable in both length and cost. Had Glaus stayed healthy over the past two years, my guess is that he’d be looking at a six- or seven-year deal in excess of $75 million. Instead, Arizona gets him at a discount, because there is an unknown risk of the contract blowing up in their face. There are concerns about Glaus’ shoulder not being strong enough for him to continue at third base, but he could always slide across the diamond and take over first base duties. That would take away a big chunk of his value as a player (and probably any shot of him being worth $11 million a season), but it would allow the Diamondbacks to get value out of him.

The confusing thing about this deal from Arizona’s perspective is that third base is one area where they were already reasonably set. Clearly when a team loses 111 games they need to take improvements wherever they can get them, but Chad Tracy was a relatively good third-base prospect coming into last season and hit a respectable .285/.343/.407 as a 24-year-old in 143 games with the Diamondbacks. Similar to Glaus, Tracy could certainly slide over to first base (where he played 33 innings last year), but his lack of power would become a major weakness there and just about sap whatever potential value he has to a team.

*** Nomar Garciaparra | Chicago Cubs | one year | $8 million ***

There are two major stories at play here. One is that Nomar Garciaparra clearly made a huge mistake turning down that contract extension from the Red Sox last year, a decision that probably cost him $30 million or so. The other story is that he’ll have a chance to re-establish himself as an elite player and make that money up and then some, the flip side of which is that the Cubs just signed a potential All-Star level shortstop for a one-year commitment and $8 million. Actually, the deal could rise to as much as $11 million if Garciaparra stays healthy all year, makes the All-Star team, wins a Gold Glove, the National League MVP, the NLCS MVP, and the World Series MVP. Something tells me the Cubs would be glad to pony up that extra $3 million.

In previewing the available shortstops earier this offseason, I wrote:

If what you’re really getting in Garciaparra is not the big name or the batting titles, but rather a defensively-challenged, oft-injured, 32-year-old shortstop who hits .280 away from Fenway, doesn’t draw any walks, and slugs below .500, is that someone to go after? If he’s willing to sign a short-term deal or a contract with plenty of incentives, then sure. If he’s looking to break the bank or sign up long term, then I doubt it.

Turns out Garciaparra was willing to agree to “a short-term deal” and “a contract with plenty of incentives,” which makes this signing a no-brainer for the Cubs.

*** Jeff Kent | Los Angeles Dodgers | two years | $17 million ***

Last month I opined that the top free agent second baseman was Placido Polanco, and not Jeff Kent, at least when age and likely salaries were taken into account. I still stand by that and think whichever team ends up with Polanco is going to get one of the better bargains of the offseason, but Kent is still a fine pickup for the Dodgers. The two-year contract has minimal risk, which is important considering Kent will be 37 next year, and although $8.5 million a year is a little pricey, the Dodgers aren’t going to be hurting for money anytime soon and they’re not on the hook for any draft picks.

Signing Kent gives them insurance should Adrian Beltre sign elsewhere, because Kent can play all over the infield. He could take over at second base, pushing Alex Cora to the bench (although I think Cora is a very underrated player). He could take over at first base, pushing Hee Seop Choi to the bench (although I think Choi will be very productive if given the chance). Or he could take over at third base, filling the void left by Beltre. Losing Beltre is without question the worst-case scenario there, but considering how well Cora played last year (.264/.364/.380 with excellent defense), it might also be the scenario in which they get the most mileage out of Kent.

*** Jon Lieber | Philadelphia Phillies | three years | $21 million ***
*** Jaret Wright | New York Yankees | three years | $21 million ***
*** Al Leiter | Florida Marlins | one year | $8 million ***
*** Woody Williams | San Diego Padres | one year | $3.5 million ***
*** Matt Morris | St. Louis Cardinals | one year | $2.5 million ***

I’ve been confused by a lot of signings already this offseason, but the group that gives my brain the most trouble are definitely the guys Studes talked about the other day — starting pitchers. I just can’t seem to understand how teams are determining which starters deserve multiple years and huge money, as opposed to guys who are only good for one-year deals that are heavy on incentives. For instance, compare the following two right-handed starting pitchers and what they did in 2004:

                  GS        IP      ERA     ERA+     AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
35-year-old       27     176.2     4.33     104     .301     .316     .442     .758
38-year-old       31     189.2     4.18     100     .262     .318     .424     .742

The 35-year-old is younger, but neither guy is a spring chicken. Aside from that, you wouldn’t think there was a huge difference between these two pitchers. Yet, one of them just signed a three-year deal worth $21 million, while the other got one year and only $3.5 million, with some incentives thrown in. One of them is Jon Lieber and the other is Woody Williams, and it doesn’t matter whether or not you can tell which is which, so much as the fact that there’s any doubt explains my confusion. Oh, and here’s the kicker: The guy making $21 million didn’t pitch a single inning in 2003, while the guy getting $3.5 million went 18-9 with a 3.87 ERA in 220.2 innings.

Jaret Wright has had exactly one decent season in the last six years, which happened to come in 2004, right before he hit the free agent market. He went 15-8, threw 186.1 innings with a 3.28 ERA, and posted an ERA+ of 131. For that, he has a three-year deal with the Yankees worth $21 million. At the same time, Benson went 12-12 with a 4.31 ERA in 200.1 innings between Pittsburgh and New York in 2004, posting a below league-average ERA+ of 97. He too just got a three-year deal, worth $22.5 million.

Meanwhile, Matt Morris is the exact same age as Benson and just a year older than Wright, and had the first sub par season of his entire career in 2004, going 15-10 with a 4.72 ERA in 202 innings. Even with the bad year, his career ERA+ is 118, a number Wright and Benson have combined to reach a total of twice in 13 big-league seasons. Morris just re-signed with the Cardinals for one year and $2.5 million, with incentives.

I think I simply have to throw my hands up on this one, because I really don’t understand it one bit. If Wright, Benson, and Lieber are worth three years each and a total of $64.5 million, and Williams and Morris aren’t worth more than a year a piece and a total of $6 million, then I’m Peter Gammons. And if you want to get really crazy, think about the fact that earlier this offseason, Cory Lidle and Paul Wilson each signed for two years, getting $6.2 and $8.2 million, respectively. Oh, and one other thing — I still remember seeing the Wright in New York story the first time, back when it was called “Jeff Weaver.”

*** Todd Walker | Chicago Cubs | one year | $2.5 million ***

You know what they say about one team’s trash … The 2005 Cubs will feature Boston’s 2003 double-play combo of Garciaparra and Todd Walker, and they’ll do so for a combined total of just $10.5 million. Both players should provide above-average offense for their position and together they could be one of the best double-play duos in the league. The only problem is that Walker is 32 and has never been known for his defense, while Garciaparra is 31 and is clearly not the defensive player he once was. So the defense up the middle could get ugly at times for the Cubs, but luckily their pitching staff is built to succeed without a lot of help from infielders. Chicago led the NL in strikeouts in each of the past four years.

*** Tony Womack | New York Yankees | two years | $4 million ***

I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but what exactly is wrong with Miguel Cairo?

2004            AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     SB     CS
Cairo          .292     .346     .417     .763     11      3
Womack         .307     .349     .385     .735     26      5

The Yankees entered last season with a hole at second base, putzed around with Enrique Wilson for a while, and then lucked into a very solid season from Cairo. He provided above-average offense, stole some bases at a good clip, and played respectable defense at second base. And he did so for just $900,000. Now New York is going to replace him with Tony Womack, who is, at best, exactly as good (or bad) as Cairo. For the privilege of not making the team better in any way, they will pay the sum of $4 million. Only the Yankees. Oh, and how funny would it be if Womack and his .319 career on-base percentage ends up leading off for the team that has ranked either first or second in the American League in OBP for three straight seasons?

*** Henry Blanco | Chicago Cubs | two years | $2.7 million ***

I mocked Henry Blanco earlier this offseason when he opted out of his $800,000 contract with the Twins for 2005 and then turned down a two-year deal from Minnesota worth around $2 million, so it’s time to eat a little crow. Clearly Blanco and his agent knew something I didn’t, namely that the Cubs are feeling very charitable. As I touched on last week, Blanco is a perfectly fine backup catcher, but certainly nothing more. The mere fact that he is suddenly seen as someone valuable this offseason, after years of bouncing from team to team, says a lot about what simply getting playing time can do for a player’s reputation.

If Joe Mauer doesn’t injure his knee in the second game of the season, Blanco would be looking at another one-year deal for less than a million bucks (or he’d have re-upped with the Twins, most likely). Instead, he got forced into everyday playing time, didn’t even do well with it, and is now guaranteed $2.7 million over the next two years. I don’t understand why a team — particularly one with a perfectly good and perfectly durable starting catcher like Michael Barrett — would not only give Blanco more than a million bucks a year, but promise to do it for multiple seasons. There haven’t been completely unnecessary expenses like Womack and Blanco since that time Paris Hilton bought underwear.

*** Ricky Ledee | Los Angeles Dodgers | two years | $2.5 million ***

I’d have preferred a one-year deal, but the Dodgers have plenty of money and Ricky Ledee should be a solid bench player for the next two seasons. His overall numbers over the past three years (.237/.337/.437) aren’t very good, but he hit .242/.343/.452 against right-handed pitching and can play capable defense anywhere in the outfield, which should easily be worth two percent of the team’s payroll. I know the Dodgers aren’t very high on Chin-Feng Chen anymore, but with Jayson Werth injured and Steve Finley a free agent, a Chen/Ledee platoon in left field would get the job done for right around $1.5 million.

*** Dustin Hermanson | Chicago White Sox | two years | $5.5 million ***

As a Twins fan, this deal makes me smile. As someone trying to get inside the minds of major-league GMs, this deal makes my brain hurt. This is a little bit like Blanco’s playing time situation, but even worse. Dustin Hermanson started the year as a starter for the Giants, but because Robb Nen was hurt and Matt Herges was terrible, he ended up finishing the year as their closer. After going 4-4 with a 4.59 ERA in 18 starts, he went 2-5 with a 4.33 ERA and 17 saves (in 20 chances) out of the bullpen. If Herges succeeds when given the chance to close, Hermanson is probably looking at a cheap one-year deal or a minor-league contract somewhere. Instead, he’s got $5.5 million despite a 4.71 ERA over the past three years, including a 5.67 ERA in 79.1 innings of relief.

*** Cal Eldred | St. Louis Cardinals | one year | $600,000 ***

This is where it gets really confusing. While Hermanson got two years and $5.5 million from the White Sox, Cal Eldred re-signed with the Cardinals for just one season and a mere $600,000. Take a look at how Eldred’s numbers over the last three years compare to what Hermanson has done as a reliever during that same span:

                 IP      ERA     SO/9     BB/9     OAVG
Eldred        134.1     3.75      8.1      3.2     .262
Hermanson      79.1     5.67      6.2      3.3     .302

You can certainly make the case that Hermanson has added value because he is more versatile, and perhaps the White Sox saw something in his performance last year that suggests he’s capable of improving drastically in the future, but I don’t understand how he’s worth two years at $2.75 million a season while Eldred is stuck re-signing for double the minimum salary. Hermanson will make about five times as much as Eldred next year, yet I’d give Eldred at least a 60% chance of having the better ERA.

*** Elmer Dessens | Los Angeles Dodgers | one year | $1.3 million ***
*** Mike DeJean | New York Mets | one year | $1.15 million ***

I’m lumping Mike DeJean and Elmer Dessens together, because these are the kind of deals you give to mediocre relievers. A one-year commitment for just over a million bucks, which lets you see if they can get the job done and not risk a whole lot if they can’t. DeJean had a 4.57 ERA in 61 innings between Baltimore and New York last year, and has a 4.12 ERA in 218.2 innings over the last three years. Dessens had a 2.25 ERA in 60 innings out of the bullpen last year and has a 4.14 ERA in 458.2 total innings over the past three years. I’d give each of these guys a 50/50 shot at out-performing Hermanson in 2005, and a team could have had both of them, plus Eldred, for the same price. And you wouldn’t have to worry about paying them another $2.75 million in 2006.

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