Caution! Biggest 2010 free agents do not all come as advertised
Heavy workload past few years makes Cliff Lee big risk beyond next 2 years
Jayson Werth has not hit well in run-scoring opportunities over course of career
Carl Crawford tried to steal less than half as often hitting third as hitting second
Many consumer products carry warning labels that are difficult to tell whether lawyers or comedians wrote, such as coffee cups that warn, "Contents hot!," sleeping pills that warn "May cause drowsiness," or microwave ovens that warn, "Do not use for drying pets." Ah, but what if such circumspection were applied to baseball free agents?
After all, another free agent shopping season is upon us and teams will go right on making multi-million dollar mistakes quicker than you can say Oliver Perez. As a public service to help avoid such mistakes -- think of it as a reminder that coffee is actually hot -- here are the five most important warning labels that should be affixed to free agents:
1. Cliff Lee: Comes with time-sensitive warranty.
The guy certainly can make an argument that he belongs in the company of the three active pitchers pulling down $20 million a year. See chart below for the three-year statistics Lee takes into free agency, and those of CC Sabathia, Johan Santana and Roy Halladay at the time they signed their deals.
It is length of contract that becomes the most interesting part of the Lee equation. Halladay is signed through his age 35 season. Sabathia and Santana are signed through age 34. Does it make sense to sign Lee beyond age 35, which would require a deal of more than four years? Now you're talking risk -- the kind the Yankees can bear but not the Rangers. Remember, the Yankees guaranteed A.J. Burnett $16.5 million a year through age 36. A.J. Burnett at 36!
Assuming the Yankees get Lee and keep Derek Jeter, in 2013 they will be shelling out about $135 million just for six players between 32 and 39 (Lee, Jeter, Sabathia, Burnett, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira).
Do the trends suggest Lee will be an elite pitcher through his mid-30s? No. There is no doubt Lee is a special pitcher now, but if you look at just the past two years, the shine dims just a bit: 26-22 with a 3.20 ERA, ranking 20th in wins, 13th in adjusted ERA and 19th in strikeouts.
And what about the industry trend for aging pitchers? Not good. Lee will pitch next year at 32 and turn 33. Only 11 pitchers age 32 and older last season threw 200 innings. Even with offense down all around baseball, only three of them posted an adjusted ERA better than 125: Halladay, 33 (who was paid $15.75 million), Roy Oswalt, 32 ($15 million) and Tim Hudson, 34 ($9 million).
Finally, consider how the biggest investments in pitching have turned out. Six pitchers have signed contracts guaranteeing them more than $90 million: Sabathia, Santana, who is now hurt, and four busts: Barry Zito, Mike Hampton, Kevin Brown and Carlos Zambrano.
There are eight active pitchers earning more than $16 million per year: Sabathia, Halladay and six pitchers who are hurt or overvalued: Santana, Zambrano, Zito, Jake Peavy, Burnett and John Lackey.
The bottom line is that Lee represents a huge risk beyond the next two or three seasons at $20 million a year. Including the playoffs, he has logged 520 innings the past two years, an especially heavy workload. There is only one team that can sign Lee for five years with the expectation of getting just two or three elite years and not have such a performance shortfall alter what it can do with the rest of its payroll: the Yankees.
|A Good Investment?|
|Three-year stats of a few star hurlers as they hit the free-agent market|
2. Jayson Werth: Not intended to bat third.
In NLCS Game 6, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy did something I had never before seen in a game: he ran out four left-handed pitchers in a row against the Phillies. Bochy was able to thrive with such left-handedness because Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel chose to bat left-handers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard consecutively.
The situation screamed for a legitimate right-handed bat between Utley and Howard. Manuel had just such a player, Jayson Werth, but opted not to use him there.
Worse, on the three NLCS occasions when Manuel did slip a right-handed bat between them (Games 2, 3, 4), he opted for Placido Polanco to bat third -- he of the six home runs, 95 OPS+ and 27 career starts hitting third in 1,418 games.
Well, OK. Anybody else find it odd that the Phillies, who know Werth better than anybody else, didn't bother to hit him third between Utley and Howard -- and when they did slip a right-handed stick in that spot they preferred a slap hitter who has made 2 percent of his career starts there? (OK, I get that it's nice to have protection behind Howard, but the ability to drive in runs from the third spot is more important.)
Whatever team signs Werth will be happy to add a multi-talented player with the kind of body and athleticism that should help him age well. One warning, though: that team will be paying middle-of-the-order money for a guy who has not been a middle-of-the-order hitter. Ask the Mets how that worked out with Bobby Bonilla.
This is what his agent, Scott Boras, told MLB.com: "Werth is really a middle-of-the-lineup guy. I think when he bats third, he'll be a 110-to-120 runs scored guy and a 100-RBI guy. And I think teams that are looking for a right-handed bat view Werth as a middle-of-the-lineup guy."
That's what the agent should say, but it's conjecture. The Phillies disagree and there is no proof that Werth is that kind of hitter. For all of Philadelphia's injuries, left-handedness and extended offensive droughts, Werth hit third or fourth just 12 times all year. For his career, he has batted third or fourth just 47 times.
Why is that? Werth does not perform well in run-scoring opportunities. The average major league hitter (.257) hits about the same with runners in scoring position (.259) as overall, and a little worse with runners in scoring position and two outs (.240).
Werth (.272) is noticeably worse with runners in scoring position (.260) and much worse yet with two outs and runners in scoring position (.239). His splits in 2010 were scary bad: .296 overall, but .186 with RISP and .139 with two outs and RISP. Maybe that had something to do with why the Phillies didn't bat him third.
3. Carl Crawford: Don't expect a table setter.
Now here is your No. 3 hitter. Don't sign Crawford if you want a leadoff or No. 2 hitter, which is the way most baseball people have viewed the speedy Crawford. Rays manager Joe Maddon smartly moved Crawford into the middle of the order this year, recognizing his growth as a hitter.
At 28, Crawford is coming off career highs for home runs (19), RBI (90) and OPS (.851). He also hit a career-high flyball rate and a career-low for line drives. In other words, Crawford is transforming as a hitter, lofting more balls into the air, with more of them carrying out of the park. He profiles more as a three hitter than a table setter. That's not a bad thing; as he ages Crawford should become a steady 25-30 home run guy with 100 RBI. But he might not be quite the same devastating force on the bases. Last year Crawford attempted stolen bases less than half as often hitting third as when he hit second. Look for that trend to continue.
4. Relief pitchers: Not built to last.
There are plenty of set-up relievers available. Proceed at your own risk when it comes to giving them anything more than a one-year deal. Relievers are poor investments on anything other than a year-by-year basis because they tend to be worn out by the time they hit the market and because they are fungible. They don't have bankable skills. After all, they are set-up relievers because they don't have the stuff to close or start.
Look how the Giants "built" their bullpen: retreads Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt and Guillermo Mota and 28th-round pick Sergio Romo.
Last winter, clubs handed out second guarantee years to only five set-up relievers, and four of them absolutely bombed: Danys Baez of the Phillies (5.48 ERA), Ryota Igarashi of the Mets (7.12), John Grabow of the Cubs (7.36) and LaTroy Hawkins of the Brewers (8.44). The one exception was Rafael Betancourt of the Rockies (3.61).
5. Randy Winn: Not for use in October.
Is that name a cruel joke or what? Over the past two years, Winn has played for the Giants, Yankees and Cardinals -- franchises that have won three of the past five world championships -- without ever even reaching the playoffs. In fact, Winn has played more games than any active player without appearing in the postseason.
As soon as he left the Giants, the Giants won the World Series. After the Yankees cut him in May, the Yankees went on to the ALCS. And after the Cardinals signed him while in first place, they promptly became a .500 team with him (53-53) and finished five games out of first.
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