Free Agent Wrap-Up: The Second Wave

Sure enough, teams stayed very busy over the weekend, snatching up free agents and making several major trades (plus a few interesting small ones). Today, I’ll take a look at the weekend’s biggest signings.

*** Steve Finley | Anaheim Angels | two years | $14 million ***

This deal reminds me of the Dodgers signing Jeff Kent last week. In fact, it’s so similar that I can basically re-use the comment I made about Kent’s deal: The two-year contract has minimal risk, which is important considering Steve Finley will be 40 next year, and although $7 million a year is a little pricey, the Angels aren’t going to be hurting for money anytime soon and they’re not on the hook for any draft picks. Plus, if Adrian Beltre is re-signed by Los Angeles (or another third baseman is acquired), Kent will be pushing a very solid player, Alex Cora, to the bench. Similarly, Finley allows Garret Anderson to slide back to left field in Anaheim, but also sends Juan Rivera, a solid young hitter acquired for Jose Guillen earlier this offseason, to the bench, designated hitter, or perhaps another team.

Most of the more advanced defensive metrics say that Finley’s defense has really slipped in recent years, and some — like Mitchel Lichtman‘s Ultimate Zone Rating — have him as an absolute disaster in center field. Meanwhile, Finley won his fifth Gold Glove this year and the Angels were talking up his defense as a major reason behind the signing. My eyes tell me Finley is still a decent defender, and I have a very hard time believing he’s truly awful out there. Of course, that reminds me a lot of the argument Derek Jeter‘s fans make, so I’ll concede that, at the very least, Finley’s defense is likely no longer an asset. Anderson was at best passable in center, so the Angels have either made a slight upgrade (if you believe eyes) or a slight downgrade (if you believe numbers).

Finley’s bat is definitely still an asset, as he hit .271/.333/.490 with 36 homers between Arizona and Los Angeles, and his health is about as good as any 40-year-old’s has ever been. Still, Finley isn’t so good — either offensively or defensively — that he has a lot of room for error at this point in his career. If his batting average falls a bit or his defense slips a little more, he’s suddenly an albatross. I would have saved the $14 million for pitching, moved Darin Erstad back to center where he belongs, replaced him at first base with Casey Kotchman, and given Rivera a chance to play. That said, this isn’t a horrible move by itself, although the Angels are almost certainly overpaying.

*** Carl Pavano | New York Yankees | four years | $39 million ***

I devoted a huge part of my preview of the free agent starting pitchers to Carl Pavano, so allow me to reprint some of it now that he’s signed his inevitable deal with the Yankees:

Even assuming for a moment that he has gotten over the injury bug and will now be a healthy pitcher for the foreseeable future, what Pavano did in 2004 screams fluke. There is no denying that his 3.00 ERA this year was excellent, but when you look a little closer at some of his numbers you can see some problems. Take a look at Pavano’s pitching with the Marlins in 2002/2003, compared to this year.

                ERA      SO%     BB%     HR%     BIPH
2002-03        4.18     15.6     5.7     2.1     .303
2004           3.00     15.3     5.4     1.8     .282

As you can see, his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed occurred at nearly identical rates in both time periods. From 2002-03, Pavano got a strikeout against 15.6% of the batters he faced and he struck out 15.3% last year. He allowed a walk 5.7% of the time in 2002/03 and 5.4% of the time this season. He gave up a homer 2.1% of the time in 2002/03 and 1.8% of the time last season (a difference of about 3-4 homers over the course of a season). The one major difference in his performance (aside from ERA) is the fact that 30.3% of the balls put in play against Pavano in 2002/03 went for hits, while that number dropped to 28.2% in 2004.

That may not seem like a big deal, but it is. If Pavano had duplicated hit ball-in-play numbers from 2002/03 this season, he would have allowed 15 more hits than he did, which would have inflated his batting average against from .253 to .271. If you choose to believe that Pavano learned how to better prevent hits on balls in play in 2004, then he is likely to repeat that feat in future seasons, but I choose to believe he benefited from some good defense and a little luck (particularly considering the Marlins as a whole allowed 30.0% of balls in play to fall for hits and the entire NL was at 30.5%).

Yankee Stadium, while a pitcher’s ballpark, doesn’t deflate offense nearly as much as Pro Player, and Pavano will now have to face a DH instead of a pitcher each time through the lineup. Plus, New York’s defense won’t be in the same league as Florida’s, even if they end up with Carlos Beltran in center field. In other words, Pavano may have seen his last ERA in the threes for a while, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his ERA is closer to 5.00 than 3.00 in 2005. For all the money they’re throwing around and all the talk about improving their rotation, the Yankees look like they’re basically collecting middle-of-the-rotation starters and paying premium money in doing so.

*** Russ Ortiz | Arizona Diamondbacks | four year | $33 million ***

While you can look at Pavano’s flukish 3.00 ERA this year as the reason behind his new four-year deal, Russ Ortiz‘s new $33 million contract is no doubt due in large part to his being an innings-eater on teams that have provided him with a lot of offensive support. Ortiz’s .632 career winning percentage ranks 11th among active starting pitchers, despite the fact that his career ERA of 4.00 has barely been above league-average. Unless they continue their spending spree, Arizona doesn’t figure to put up a ton of offense next year (they ranked dead last in baseball with 615 runs this year), so Ortiz’s mojo could suddenly disappear.

Ortiz is a solid #2 or #3 starter, having thrown at least 195 innings in six straight seasons while providing above-average ERAs in five of those years, but the Diamondbacks are really overpaying here. There are cheaper, less risky places to get 200 innings of league-average pitching, and it’s not like Arizona needed Ortiz as the last piece of a championship-caliber puzzle. I would bet on Ortiz’s ERA being above 5.00 at least once during the life of this deal.

*** Jermaine Dye | Chicago White Sox | two years | $10.15 million ***
*** Richard Hidalgo | Texas Rangers | one year | $5 million ***

I’m lumping these two deals together because Jermaine Dye and Richard Hidalgo are very similar players. Beyond both being tall, strong-armed rightfielders, take a look at just how close they were in 2004:

                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     2B     HR     BB      SO
Dye            590     .265     .329     .464     29     23     49     128
Hidalgo        578     .239     .301     .444     26     25     44     129

Those numbers are pretty close, particularly in power and strike zone judgment, although once you adjust for ballparks and leagues Dye clearly comes out on top. Hidalgo makes up for that with the fact that he hit .309/.385/.572 in 2003, while Dye struggled through a brutal season, hitting just .172/.261/.253 in 65 games. Or at least that should have made up for it, because clearly it hasn’t. Despite being a year younger, a lot healthier, and significantly more productive over the past few years, Hidalgo has a one-year deal for $5 million, while Dye has two guaranteed years at similar money, plus a third option year.

Like the numbers Studes crunched, I think both of these contracts are decent ones, or at least decent risks. If I’m gambling on one of these guys, I’d go with Hidalgo every time, because he’s younger, better defensively, and his last excellent season is closer in the rear-view mirror. Because of that, these deals continue this offseason’s trend of teams seemingly handing out big contracts and small contracts randomly. Why is Dye worth two years and an option year, while Hidalgo is only worth a one-year risk? Why are Ortiz, Jaret Wright, Jon Lieber, and Kris Benson worth big, multi-year deals, while equally productive pitchers are settling for short-term deals?

*** David Wells | Boston Red Sox | two years | $8 million ***

I’m probably one of David Wells‘ biggest fans at this point, having hyped him as a cheap, low-risk free agent option for three straight offseasons. It came as a big surprise when I saw that he signed a contract with the Red Sox that not only pays him a relatively large amount of money, but does so for two seasons. Wells is reportedly guaranteed $8 million and could make as much as $18 million if he meets various incentives. This isn’t the type of deal I expected Wells to receive, but I still like it. Boston’s risk here is minimal — $8 million over two years is nothing to them — and while $18 million would be an awful lot to pay for two years of Wells, I’m sure they’d be happy to hand it over if he pitches well enough and stays healthy enough to reach the incentives.

The knocks on Wells are his age and his conditioning, which includes some lingering back problems. But if you look at his actual results, I’d put his health record and durability up against just about anyone, which is amazing for someone who is built like me and turns 42 in May. Wells has thrown at least 195 innings in nine of the past 10 seasons, failing to give his team innings in bulk just once — 100.2 innings with the White Sox in 2001. During that 10-year span, he has had a better-than-average ERA in all but one season, including each of the past eight years, and he’s had a winning record in eight seasons. You won’t find many starting pitchers with that sort of consistent production, period.

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