Indefensible deals

Naturally progressing from last time, when we looked at five of the best moves of the offseason, let’s take a look at five of the worst. Again, in no particular order, here’s a list you hope your favorite team doesn’t make.

Washington Nationals sign OF Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal

In perhaps the most shocking deal of the offseason, former Phillies and Dodgers outfielder Jayson Werth signed a blockbuster deal with Washington. The 31-year-old right fielder is coming off a breakout campaign, hitting .296/.388/.532 with 46 doubles (20 more than his previous career high).

Werth is a great player, no doubt, providing value with the bat (.272/.367/.481 career line, trending upwards), on the bases (a Carlos Beltran-like 77-for-88 on steal attempts), and with the glove (he’s generally regarded as a good fielder, and advanced metrics agree).

Still, there are two major issues with this deal. One, the length (and, naturally, total dollars). Two, the team and its current situation.

The Nationals will be paying Werth $18 million a year for his age-32 through age-38 seasons. That’s just a little bit dangerous, you know. Should Werth lose some of his speed or hand-eye coordination, suddenly he becomes a very run-of-the-mill outfielder making a very high salary.

We can use some crude estimates to get a basic foundation for what Werth should be, ahem, worth over the next seven years. Assuming he’s a 4.5 WAR player aging at .5 WAR per season, with marginal wins worth $5 million a year and increasing by $300,000 each season, we get this:

Year WAR $/Win Market Value ($)
2011 4.5 5 22.5
2012 4 5.3 21.2
2013 3.5 5.6 19.6
2014 3 5.9 17.7
2015 2.5 6.2 15.5
2016 2 6.5 13
2017 1.5 6.8 10.2

Using our simplistic model, if you add up that last column, you get $120 million, just six million off what the Nationals are actually paying Werth. Many have proclaimed this deal as crazy, insane, or some synonym thereof, but it really isn’t that bad.

It’s at least defensible, to some degree. I mean, our assumptions above are perhaps somewhat generous to Werth. Assuming that he’s only going to decline by 0.5 wins per season into his mid-to-late thirties is certainly a glass-half-full outlook. But still, it’s not a horrible contract, considering the above chart.

Anyway, if the deal doesn’t rate that badly by the numbers, why include it here at all? Because the Nationals signed him. Washington may be a few years away from fielding a very good ballclub, with the likes of Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper leading the way. If we assume that Washington is not quite there yet, but bound to be pretty good by 2013-2014, why make a big splash now?

The Nationals simply could have waited to make a big move like this until they had a better idea of just how good they were going to be. By the time the Nats are ready to compete, Werth’s contract could easily be a burden, one that restricts them from making much-needed moves down the road. While this deal isn’t historically bad by any means, it’s still a head-scratcher, not only because of the years and dollars, but because of the organization that made the commitment.

You’ll notice that the Boston Red Sox signed Carl Crawford, a similar (if not slightly better) player to Werth, for the same amount of years and $16 million more, but that deal won’t make this list. Adding Crawford to the Red Sox helps them right now, and might just push them into the playoffs.

Los Angeles Angels acquire OF Vernon Wells from Toronto Blue Jays for C Mike Napoli and OF Juan Rivera

Vernon Wells is a very good player, coming off one of the best seasons of his career. Last season, he hit .273/.331/.515 with the Jays, reestablishing his value after a career-worst 2009 campaign. The problem with Wells, simply, is his contract, as it’s one that pays him as if he’s an elite performer. He’ll make a jaw-dropping $86 million over the next four years. At this point in his career, Wells just isn’t that type of player.

He hits for a solid average and has a lot of power, especially for a center fielder. The defensive metrics are down on his glove-work in center, though:

Year UZR DRS
2005 +4 runs +6 runs
2006 +7 +14
2007 +5 +5
2008 -13 -12
2009 -17 -12
2010 -6 -4

He appears to be in gradual decline out in center, regressing from an average-to-above-average outfielder to a below-average one. That’s not surprising for a guy entering his 30s. Wells will be 32 next season—the Angels will be paying him all of this money while he enters his mid-thirties.

Needless to say, Wells is certainly not a guy you’d want to be taking on for $20+ million a year right now. To make matters worse, the Angels gave up a really good offensive catcher in Mike Napoli, and they didn’t get any money (or prospects) back in the deal.

Napoli had a poor offensive season (by his standards) as a full-time starter, hitting .238/.316/.468—a career-low OPS. Napoli is the owner of a career .251/.346/.485 line, so he’s a good candidate to bounce back next season. The Blue Jays promptly dealt Napoli to the Texas Rangers for closer Frank Francisco.

It’s hard to understand why the Angels would want to take on Wells right now. I mean, he might make the team better, but you could argue that losing Rivera and Napoli negates most of that. Not to mention he’s going to cost something like $10 million more than those two combined next season, and $20+ million a year for three years after that.

New York Yankees sign Rafael Soriano to three-year, $35 million deal

It should always be noted that the Yankees have the ability to spend money at a rate no other team—not even the Red Sox—can match. Further, each marginal win they add is probably worth more to the Yankees than it would be to any other team, both because of their context on the win curve (always right around 95 wins) and their market size. That said, throwing $35 million at a 30-year-old reliever is rarely a good use of resources.

Soriano is an excellent relief pitcher. Last season, he racked up 45 saves for the Tampa Bay Rays, with a 1.73 ERA and a 4.07 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He probably had a little bit of luck on his side, as that ERA and his .199 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) are not sustainable.

Still, Soriano has had a very nice career, with a 2.73 ERA (3.23 FIP), 9.6 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and 0.89 HR/9. The Yankees are picking up a good reliever, and he’ll make their bullpen better next year and probably each of the next three years, though Soriano can opt out of the deal after the 2011 or 2012 season.

The question, though, is whether the money and commitment are worth the risk. Relievers are a volatile bunch, and Soriano likely won’t be the exception. Further, he’s had some injury troubles in the past, and no pitcher is ever risk-free in that regard. Our own THT projections have him worth about 1.4 WAR per season over the length of the deal. Putting that in graphical form:

Year WAR $/Win Market Value ($)
2011 1.4 5 7
2012 1.5 5.3 8
2013 1.4 5.6 7.8

That comes out to $23 million over three years, a far cry from the $35 million the Yankees will be paying Soriano. As mentioned, the Yanks will likely benefit more from Soriano’s added wins than any other team, but I don’t think it’ll make up the difference. The Yankees have a lot of money to spend, but it definitely could have been better spent elsewhere.

Florida Marlins sign John Buck to three-year, $18 million deal

This move doesn’t have the franchise-changing impact of some of the ones profiled here, but it’s still doesn’t look very good on paper. Buck is a relatively ordinary part-time catcher, coming off the finest season of his career. He hit .281/.314/.489 with the Toronto Blue Jays last year, but his career line (mostly with Kansas City) is a much more pedestrian .243/.301/.421. He doesn’t walk much (6.5% career), he strikes out a lot (26.3%), and he does have some pop (.178 ISO).

Last year, Buck saw his BABIP climb from his typical .280s to .335, which was a key reason for his success. He might retain some of that moving forward, but he’s a good bet to regress next season back toward his career norms. And, really, that is more like a below-average major league hitter. At catcher, he certainly does possess some value, but it’s more along the lines of a year-by-year experiment, not a three-year commitment.

Buck could provide nothing for the Marlins and it wouldn’t be a devastating deal. As mentioned, there’s no way $18 million is going to have a franchise-crippling impact, even to the low-budget Marlins. Still, it just isn’t good resource management for a team that is still probably a few years and a few good moves away from competing in a very solid National League East.

New York Yankees sign Derek Jeter to three year, $51 million deal (plus a fourth year player option)

Despite the offseason drama between the Jeter camp and the Yankees, everyone knew that a deal between the two sides was imminent. Jeter will make $16 million a year for the next three seasons, plus a fourth year player option at $8 million ($3 million buyout) that could reach $17 million with performance incentives.

Jeter has been the face of the Yankees for the better part of his 16-year career, and for good reason. He’s been a Hall of Fame caliber player, even if you ignore the intangible qualities that many bestow upon Jeter. According to Baseball Reference, since 1996, his first full season, Jeter has averaged 4.7 WAR per season (4.7 by fWAR, as well). That is year after year of greatness, in one of the most visible, high pressure positions in all of baseball (shortstop for the New York Yankees).

However, you can’t help but look at this deal and think that it’s one that pays Jeter for his past performance, not what he’s expected to do going forward. And it isn’t a little one- or two-year deal, either; it’s at least a three-year commitment at a whopping $51 million.

Jeter is coming off his worst season yet, as he hit just .270/.340/.370 last year. Over the past three seasons, he’s hit just .301/.369/.414. (106 OPS+). Throwing in Jeter’s always suspect defense doesn’t help matters, not to mention the fact that he’s going to be 37 in June.

Our THT projections view Jeter as a 2.4 WAR player next season, dropping to 1.3 WAR in 2013:

Year WAR $/Win Market Value ($)
2011 2.4 5 12
2012 2.0 5.3 10.6
2013 1.3 5.6 7.3

That is just $30 million over three years, $21 million shy of what the Yanks are actually paying Jeter. Of course, there are factors that likely narrow that gap. From a marketing perspective, the deal might make sense. As mentioned, Jeter is still the face of the Yankees, and keeping him around undoubtedly helps factors like merchandise sales, ticket sales, and the Yankees brand as a whole.

Further, the Yankees need every win they can get competing in a very tough AL East division, and Jeter’s two marginal wins may just help push them into the playoffs. As we mentioned while discussing the Soriano deal, the Yankees get more than anybody else out of each marginal win.

In the end, though, just like everyone else, the Yankees have to make sound financial decisions. They don’t have an unlimited payroll, and they have a lot of money tied up to veteran, beyond-their-prime players. Giving $51 million to Jeter certainly doesn’t give them anymore flexibility going forward. While the deal may save face in the domain of public opinion, it doesn’t go very far in helping the Yankees win their next championship.

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Comments

  1. Jason B said...

    I like the premise of the article. However, the “marginal wins worth $5 million a year” notion, I’m [still] just not sold on, despite how often we hear it repeated.  I put this in a comment on FanGraphs, may as well beat the drum here also:

    Rather than using a blunt tool like $5M/WAR, it might make more sense to use a little sharper tools (like, say, average dollars per win paid to hitters, and average per win for pitchers, or further segment pitchers into starters and relievers) rather than using the bluntest tool possible (average per player, lumping all players together).

    It’s akin to saying an apple averages $1, an orange $2, a mango $4, a bunch of elderberries $8, and a banana $50, so a piece of fruit is generally $13 on average. That information doesn’t really tell me what I should expect to pay for my next orange, and the outlier (those crazy overpriced bananas) tends to skew the average beyond having much meaning.

    Same concept here.  The market for a Brandon Lyon and the market for a Jayson Werth are related but very dissimilar.  Grouping all players together into one pool and taking a simple average just seems lazy, particularly when we know one group (relievers) is vastly overpaid on a $/WAR basis and so tends to skew the average for the entire group and leave us with a metric that we know to be badly flawed.

    Good article, again.  I just think we can collectively sharpen our analysis tools a bit on looking at the value of contracts and the relative worths of different types of players.

    *Hops off soapbox*  /end rant/  Thank you for your time and attention.  Enjoy the movie!  =)

  2. John Bruce said...

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