Is Adam Kennedy the Steal of the Offseason?

So far this offseason, the market for free agent second basemen has shrunk by seven. At the end of the season, there were 12 guys on the market who could arguably be your starting second sacker, none of whom particularly stood out, most of whom came with serious question marks.

Of those seven deals, five of them have been in the $3 to $4 million range; the two others were Ray Durham‘s $14 million over two years and Craig Biggio‘s Houston-loves-him $5.15 million for one year. While the number of years wasn’t the same in each case, the market apparently viewed Mark DeRosa, Craig Counsell, Adam Kennedy, Jose Valentin, and Rich Aurilia as worth about the same amount.

The rest of market is equally bland: beyond Julio Lugo, who may not end up playing second in 2007, the market consists of Ronnie Belliard, Tony Graffanino, Mark Loretta, and Todd Walker. While many of the original 12 will end up with full-time starting jobs, only Durham, Kennedy, and Lugo unequivocally deserve them.

Yet, while Durham and Lugo will get salaries nearly double those of the rest of the group, Kennedy will receive less per year than DeRosa or Valentin, and only a bit more than Counsell. To start comparing these 12 second basemen, let’s take a look at each one’s age next season, contract (if they’ve signed), and 2006 Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB).

Name     Age     Contract $/year  06 WSAB
Aurilia  35      $8M/2    $4.00   7
Belliard 32                       0
Biggio   41      $5.15/1  $5.15   0
Counsell 36      $6M/2    $3.00   1
DeRosa   32      $13M/3   $4.33   4
Durham   35      $14M/2   $7.00   10
Graffani 35                       3
Kennedy  31      $10M/3   $3.33   5
Loretta  35                       4
Lugo     31                       4
Valentin 37      $3.8M/1  $3.80   7
Walker   34                       1

[editor's note: After this article went to press, reports emerged that Lugo received a $36 million, 4 year contract from the Red Sox.]

Kennedy doesn’t stand out among this group, though he is among the top few in WSAB. What makes him more valuable is that, while every player on this list is in his 30s (and, thus, more likely than not to decline), Kennedy is the youngest among them. That certainly has something to do with the fact that he, Lugo, and DeRosa will probably be the only three of these players to have his 2009 salary guaranteed.

Just by looking at age, contract, and 2006 WSAB, Kennedy looks like a good deal. Maybe not the steal of the offseason, but a solid move for Walt Jocketty. However, while WSAB is a great measure of performance in a given year, it doesn’t give you a ton of insight into how a player will produce the following year.

For that, it’s more instructive to use three-year averages. The three free agents who outproduced Kennedy last year—Aurilia, Durham, and Valentin—each had one of the best years of their respective careers. Aurilia and Valentin each posted their best OPS+ since 2001, and Durham set a new career high. Players usually don’t establish new skill levels in their mid-30s, so it’s reasonable to figure that each will take a step back in 2007.

Let’s assume, then, that every player will be worth about as much as his three-year average. Guys in their late 30s, such as Valentin, may fall off a cliff, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s every player’s WSAB for the last three years, along with their salaries, if they’ve signed yet. For kicks, I assumed that Lugo would get the rumored $32M over four years.

Name     04      05      06      AVG     $/year  $/WSAB
Kennedy  3       8       5       5.33    $3.33   $0.62
Durham   10      5       10      8.33    $7.00   $0.84
Counsell -1      9       1       3.00    $3.00   $1.00
Lugo     8       12      4       8.00    $8.00   $1.00
Aurilia  -3      8       7       4.00    $4.00   $1.00
Valentin 5       -1      7       3.67    $3.80   $1.04
Biggio   4       7       0       3.67    $5.15   $1.40
DeRosa   -5      0       4       -0.33   $4.33   Oops
Belliard 6       6       0       4.00
Graffani 1       5       3       3.00
Loretta  19      6       4       9.67
Walker   5       6       1       4.00

Notice a pattern? The going rate for second basemen is a million bucks per WSAB: three million bucks per win. Even DeRosa’s salary, which is inexplicable on the basis of his three-year average, is $1M per 2006 WSAB. It stands to reason that, after DeRosa, Biggio tops the list: his salary acknowledges the ticket sales that will result from his chase to 3,000 hits.

That leaves a bunch of guys getting the same approximate salary…and Kennedy. As I suggested above, Durham, Lugo, and Kennedy were the three solid options on the market. In this reckoning, Loretta looks better than he has gotten credit for, but a great deal of that is attributable to his tremendous 2004 campaign. Kennedy may not be quite in the same league with Lugo and Durham (though depending on how you feel about Durham’s defense, you might look askance at his place near the top of this list), but he certainly appears to be the biggest bargain among this group.

By paying only $0.62 million per WSAB, Jocketty will improve his team by a couple of wins at well below the going rate. Not only that, but by locking in that deal over three years, he’ll save a total of $6 million over the next three years. On a less abstract level, he’s improving one of the sore spots of last year’s championship team: as a group, Cardinals second basemen managed only a .265/.329/.382 line; that OBP exceeded only the averages of their catchers and pitchers, and the SLG only bettered catchers, pitchers, and David Eckstein.

Interestingly, before the Cardinals signed their new second baseman, he was projected to receive $15 million over three years—almost exactly what his average WSAB would suggest. It’s possible that Kennedy gave the Cardinals a sort of I-want-to-play-for-a-winner-with-my-good-buddy-David discount; regardless of why he agreed to the deal he did, he gave Walt Jocketty what appears to be one of the best deals so far this winter.

References & Resources
ESPN’s Free Agent tracker is mighty useful; without it, I probably would’ve remember about nine of the 12 guys covered in this article. If you’ve somehow never noticed them, THT’s stats are great. And for the Cardinals stats by position, I used David Pinto’s Day by Day Database.

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