03 December 2004

So Much For Fiscal Responsibility

We're less than a month into the 2004-05 free agent season, with barely a dozen players signed to American teams, and already I'm irritated by how things are going. A slim buffer separates us from the alleged "market correction" we saw a few off-seasons ago, one that supposedly taught the owners not to over-spend for readily replaceable skills, not to give long term contracts to aging mediocrities, and above all, not to pay eight dollars for a warm beer.

But this offseason seems to bear little resemblance to the restrained, perhaps even collusive free-agent fishing expedition that was the winter of 2003-04. Consider:

The NY Mets re-signed free agent Kris Benson to a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Not that Benson is terrible, but "mediocre" strikes me as a rather appropriate word for him, you know? He's 30 years old, with a career ERA of 4.28 (4.59 since he missed all of 2001 after arm surgery). The 3.85 he posted in 217 innings in 2000 is looking increasingly flukey, owing to an unusually high strikeout rate for Benson. He has yet to prove that he's capable of pitching consecutive, healthy, effective seasons and yet the Mets will pay him to pitch not two, but three years, and pay him nearly eight million buck for each of those, on average. From listening to New York sports talk radio, it seems to me that the Mets ownership did this under intense pressure from fans, desperately seeking evidence that Fred Wilpon & Co. actually want to win, but I'm not sure he's worth it. Better to let someone else take the risk, because at that price, another injury to benson could severely hamper the Mets' ability to sign other players they'll need. Like a catcher.

Worse yet, Benson is "urging" the Mets to re-sign Al Leiter, who's a better pitcher than Benson probably ever will be, but is not young (39) and has pitched 200+ innings only once in the past four years. His 3.65 career ERA looks pretty good, but that's helped somewhat by his home parks (3.23 @ Shea, SkyDome and Pro Player, 4.10 everywhere else). Still, at $4-5 million for one year, he's probably worth it. At the $7 million the MArlins may reportedly give him, it's probably not.

The Washington Whatevers signed 3B Vinny "The Air Up There" Castilla to a 2-year, $6.2 million contract, which would be a great deal if the .271/35HR/131RBI line he posted playing for Colorado were anything like what he'll be able to accomplish playing in D.C. Castilla has spent the vast majority of his career in Colorado, and in the six seasons he spent playing everyday for the Rockies, he averaged .297/.343/.544 with 40 homers and 121 RBI per 162 games played. In the three seasons (2001-2003) he played elsewhere? A paltry .250/.286/.405 with only 20 homers and 84 RBI per 162 games. For his career he's hit .334 at Coors, .256 everywhere else. I realize that in today's game, three million buck a year doesn't seem so outrageous, but Washington is essentially a new franchise that needs to prove itself to a whole new fanbase if it wants to succeed, and locking yourself into a 37 year old mediocrity who will likely be a 40-year old failure by the end of his contract is NOT the best way to endear your brand name to your (hopefully) new fans.

Speaking of mediocrity, the gNats also signed SS Christian Guzman to a 4-year, $16.8 million contract. Granted, that's "only" a $4.2 mil/year average, but it's still almost seventeen million dollars spent on a replacement-level shortstop. Lee Sinins reports that Guzman has racked up the tenth-worst career RCAA level in history through age 26. Baseball Prospectus indicates that his EqA has been above .234 only once in his career, which was 2001, when he "peaked" at .269. (For reference, an average major league SS was .251 last season, or about the performance of David Eckstein.) To his credit, he finally posted an above average fielding runs number, according to Baseball Prospectus, with a +15 FRAA, the first positive number of his career, and better than "Gold Glover" Derek Jeter (+4). That still leaves him decidedly below average though, but not useless, IF he can keep up the defense, just not worth seventeen million bucks. Without the defense, well, he'd better learn to hit real soon.

Speaking (writing) of overpaid shortstops: Omar Vizquel.

Look, Omar Vizquel has had a heck of a career thus far. A solid (if overrated) defensive player and one who has learned some valuable offensive skills along the way. Bill James ranked him #61 among all shortstops through the year 2000 in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, with the caveat that a few more good years could bump him into the top 50. Well, he in fact had two of his best seasons in 2002 and 2004, so maybe he's around #50 in James's book at this point. With that said, the man is now 38 years old, which as Rob Neyer pointed out not so long ago, is old. For a shortstop, anyway. Not many shortstops still perform very well at the age of 40, which the age through which the Giants inexplicably signed him, at about $4 million per year. In this case, that $4 mil is not such an enormous amount of money...for a year. But three years? At his age? When nobody else was offering more than two?

And speaking of the Giants, they've also given a three-year deal to Armando Benitez, who is only 32 right now, but doesn't strike out as many batters as he once did, and has a worse reputation for choking than Latrell Sprewell. His deal was "only" $21.5 million for three years, again, when nobody else was offering more than two, and following a season in which he made less than half of that in Florida. John Perricone can't figure out why San Francisco continues to give out such contracts. Neither can I.

It should also be interesting to see how the steroid controversy, especially Jason Giambi's contract and recent non-steroid-enhanced performance, may affect contract language in the future.

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