03 December 2002

Would You Like To Play A Game?

OK kids, let's play a game. It's called "General Manager." Your job, as GM, is to pick a player for your team from the two presented to you. The following two players both play first base and are both considered approximately average defensively at this position. Neither has any apparent propensity for stealing bases. The following stats are for 2002:

Player A 480 89 124 26 31 69 121 144 0.259 0.414 0.505
Player B 480 101 146 19 52 118 122 139 0.304 0.445 0.677

Clearly Player B is a better hitter than Player A. He got more hits, scored and drove in more runs, though they both walk (and therefore get on base) a LOT, and strike out about the same. Seems a pretty easy choice, right? But let me cloud the issue a bit. Player B hit a lot more homers, but hey, 31 dingers in a season is certainly no slouch. Player A played on a team that provided him with fewer opportunities to score and drive in runs, hence some of the RBI and Runs scored differential. However, most of the disparity between the Runs and RBI comes from the fact that Player A hit about 150 points lower with runners in scoring position than Player B, though the differences in their career numbers in these situations is not as great, only about 30 points in BA, 60 in OBP. This is a significant difference, but I should also tell you that Player A has not had nearly as many opportunities to hone this skill, as he has never been allowed to hold a full-time job. Getting murky, isn't it?

Well, then you should know that Player A is only 28, while Player B is 32. Also, Player A is already signed to your team, and will not become a free agent until the end of 2003 or 2004, whereas Player B is a free agent asking for a 6-year, $80-something million contract. So it's not a question of whether to go out and sign Player A or B so much as it is an issue of whether to spend an extra $13 million every year for the better part of the next decade on a player who is already past his statistical prime or to keep and use the current player in that role and ink him to a much less burdensome contract. So sure, Player B is the better player, but is he really $13 million better? Given the chance to play every day, Player B is probably only worth a win or two over the course of a season more than Player A. That was an expensive win.

Most of you have already figured out that Player B is everybody's favorite throwbackin', from the heels swingin', big Illinois farm-boyin', Howdy Doody ears havin', slugging firstbaseman free-agent: Jim Thome. The more astute of you (don't break your arms patting yourselves on the back) might also realized the identity of Player A, except that I've tricked you. Another confession: Player A is not real. Well, kind of. Player A is a projection of Jeremy Giambi's combined 2002 stats over the same number of plate appearances that Thome had. Not so different, huh? And this doesn't even consider that Giambi was actually more productive as a Phillie than he had been as an Athletic. If you project those numbers out over the same playing time Thome saw, you get:

Jeremy 450 92 110 29 35 81 150 156 0.244 0.435 0.538
Jim 480 101 146 19 52 118 122 139 0.304 0.445 0.677

The RBI come up, as do the Runs, homers and walks. The difference in OBP is only ten points now, and despite only hitting .244, he slugs .538, making him the approximate statistical kinsman of Carlos Delgado.

Now the issue is becoming substantially less opaque. Should you...

A) Play the guy you've already got, who hits like Carlos Delgado, and costs relatively little. Or...

2) Sign the guy who hits like, well, Jim Thome, will cost about 10-15 times more, can't be traded, and is likely to be a shadow of his former self by the twilight of the six or seven year contract, during which he will be making $15-20 million.

If you picked door #2, you'll usually win at the game of "General Manager." It all comes down to opportunity cost: If you can get 90% of the production you want for 10% of the cost of another option, you take it, and spend the other 90% of your allocated funds on something else. Like a starting pitcher. Or a better thirdbaseman. Oh, too late.

The real tragedy here is that Giambi still won't get to play. First he was behind Mike Sweeney in KC, then he was behind his older brother in Oakland. When Jason bolted for the Bright Lights of NYC, Jeremy probably figured that he had a straglehold on the 1B job, but alas, Scott Hatterberg (!?) usurped the starting job from him, and he was traded to the Phils, where he couldn't even convince Larry Bowa to let him start in Travis Lee's stead, and Lee has sucked like a Shop-Vac since 1999. You think Bowa's gonna let him play and make Thome sit? Or Bobby Abreu? Or Pat Burrell? Or even Marlon Byrd? Nope. And so another promising young hitter's career will be wiled away on the pine, sacrificed at the altar of the God of Public Relations, without even a visit to the oracle of the God of Winning Ballclubs.

Now who looks like Howdy Doody?

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