Free Agent Wrap-Up: The Third Wave

Like Samson after a haircut or Austin Powers without his mojo, I am working at about 10% of capacity today thanks to sending my laptop in to get fixed yesterday morning. You would think I could still get the job done just fine working on someone else’s computer, but I’m like a horrible road team on the first leg of a long road trip. The game is the same and the ballpark is more or else identical, but here I am struggling. It has taken me four hours just to write this paragraph.

So, now that I’ve got your expectations nice and low, here are some thoughts on the latest free agent signings …

*** Adrian Beltre | Seattle Mariners | five years | $65 million ***

Last month, I made the case that Adrian Beltre, and not Carlos Beltran, was this offseason’s most desirable free agent once everything — age, offense, defense, likely cost — was factored in. Now that the terms Beltre ended up agreeing to are known, I am frankly amazed by how much of a bargain he ended up being.

The fact that the Mariners got Beltre and all it took was one more year and an extra $20 million over what the Diamondbacks gave Troy Glaus is astounding. Glaus is two years older than Beltre, is coming off of two injury-plagued seasons, may have to move to first base eventually because of his shoulder, and has never been as good as Beltre was in 2004, offensively or defensively. And for just another year commitment and less than $2 million more per season, the Mariners have Beltre.

I am equally shocked that this isn’t a deal the Dodgers wanted to match (or even better). I’ve heard that Paul DePodesta isn’t a fan of long-term contracts and certainly $13 million per season isn’t cheap, but the Dodgers are one of the few teams for which money isn’t a big issue and Beltre is one of the few free agents young enough for a five-year deal to only take him into his early 30s. Perhaps DePodesta just decided he didn’t want Beltre back or Beltre just decided he didn’t want to be back in Los Angeles, but this is a deal I would have signed in the time it took me to find a pen.

*** Richie Sexson | Seattle Mariners | four years | $50 million ***

On the other hand, this contract strikes me as one that isn’t horrible, but is too risky for the potential reward. There’s a chance Richie Sexson‘s shoulder injury could negatively impact his value in a big way over the life of this deal, in which case the contract will be a disaster. Plus, even if he returns to his old form and is relatively healthy, paying Sexson $12.5 million a year for four years isn’t a great bargain anyway.

The best this deal can probably be for Seattle is a “good” one, which is perfectly fine in most cases. But things get iffy when that potential for it being a good signing also comes along with a substantial risk that it will turn out badly. This is nearly identical to Glaus’ deal with Arizona, in length, money, and circumstances (right down to the shoulder injuries). Considering their relatively similar offensive numbers and the fact that Glaus is two years younger than Sexson and presumably able to play at least some third base, Arizona seems to have gotten the better deal on their risky right-handed slugger.

Taken together, the Beltre and Sexson signings should make the 2005 Mariners one of the most interesting teams coming off a 99-loss season in baseball history. Safeco Field isn’t the greatest place for right-handed power-hitters, but with Ichiro! leading off and Beltre and Sexson (or Sexson and Beltre) lurking behind him, the bottom of the first inning in Seattle is going to be must-see baseball.

*** Pedro Martinez | New York Mets | four years | $53 million ***

Despite whatever Roger Clemens-to-Toronto potential Pedro Martinez joining the Mets has, I think this deal is a mistake for New York. I am as big a Pedro fan as there is and I would like nothing more than to see him return to the sort of dominance he displayed in the past, but dreams of that hinge on nothing more than his name and the memories it conjures up. The Mets didn’t just give four years and $53 million to Pedro Martinez, they signed a pitcher with the following concerning trends.

YEAR          SO/BB         AVG         OBP         SLG         OPS
2000           8.88        .167        .213        .259        .472
2001           6.52        .199        .252        .274        .526
2002           5.98        .198        .253        .309        .561
2003           4.38        .215        .271        .314        .585
2004           3.72        .238        .299        .399        .698

Martinez is still an excellent pitcher, but he’s also soon-to-be 33 years old, has some major question marks attached to his right arm, and is in the midst of a five-year slide in nearly every peripheral stat. He set career-worst marks in batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS against in 2004, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeout rate were his worst since 1996.

Thanks to facing pitchers instead of designated hitters and moving from Fenway Park to Shea Stadium, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Martinez reversed that downward trend with the Mets in 2005, but can he do it again in 2006? How about 2007? And what about in 2008, as a 36-year-old? Paying $53 million to find out looks a little too much like signing Tom Glavine away from Atlanta, but on a bigger scale. Of course, even if they end up overpaying Pedro, it’ll just be a drop in the Mets’ payroll bucket, which does a lot to lessen the risk. Still, if New York gets 60 wins over four years out of Martinez, they should be ecstatic.

*** Edgar Renteria | Boston Red Sox | four years | $40 million ***

While the Red Sox now have a fairly large hole in their rotation thanks to Martinez leaving for New York, they completed their shortstop shopping by signing the most desirable free agent at the position. The interesting thing about the signing is that Boston essentially gave Edgar Renteria the deal they offered Nomar Garciaparra as a contract extension a while back, give or take a few million. As I wrote in previewing the available shortstops last month, “There is no question in my mind that I’d take Renteria over Garciaparra for the next 3-5 years.”

After Renteria’s 2002 and 2003 seasons, in which he hit a combined .318/.380/.461 with great defense, I thought he had established himself as an elite shortstop at the age of 27. Instead, Renteria took a definite step back this season, hitting .287/.327/.401 — numbers more in line with his pre-2002 levels (.279/.337/.379). What the Red Sox are banking on is Renteria coming close to his 2002/03 performance, which would make him a borderline MVP candidate and certainly worth $10 million a season.

With that said, if Renteria puts up numbers more along the lines of what he did this year or from 1996-2001, he is simply a solid offensive shortstop with good defense, and that’s not worth $10 million (even in a market that saw Cristian Guzman and Omar Vizquel each get over $4 million a year). Still, when the downside is overpaying a little and you’ve got the money Boston has, it’s not much of a risk. Plus, four years is a short enough commitment and Renteria is young enough (the deal takes him through his age-31 season) that the potential for disaster is minimal.

The daring, stathead-cliche move here would have been to sign Placido Polanco or Jose Valentin (or perhaps both) to take over at shortstop in Boston, but sometimes having money means you don’t have to be so clever. Theo Epstein and the Red Sox went with the solid, obvious choice and signed the best available player. I suppose it’s a bit like when they lured Keith Foulke away from the A’s last offseason, and that worked out pretty well.

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