Winning in December?

added 12/13/2004 by Scott Barzilla

The Winter Meetings are in full swing and fans are anxious all around the country. You can talk about the World Series or the non-waiver deadline, but for me there are few times better than the Winter Meetings. Deals get done, trades are made, and rumors run rampant. It would be great to be there in Anaheim to watch it all, but we get to settle for ESPN’s reverential coverage. What I truly love about this time is the difference between the “winners” in December and the winners in October.

The life of the knowledgeable Astros fan is difficult right now. The off-season has been filled with a range of emotions from anger to relief. Fans have to be relieved when they saw Jeff Kent go on his way. Yes, he was one of our key RBIs guys, but anyone that paid attention to his numbers know he has a relatively low OBP, has gotten injured more often with age, and is becoming a defensive liability. More importantly, the move represents a change in philosophy (for the time being) to give talented young players more opportunities. Chris Burke is knocking heavily on the door and Tim Purpura just left a crack open for him.

Of course, this ignores the definite possibility that a slower Craig Biggio will get the nod at second. At this point, fans have to be satisfied that Purpura is giving Burke a legitimate opportunity. The satisfaction from the Kent move is tainted by the desperation even intelligent fans must be having with the Astros relative inactivity. It is fine and good to save money through the move as long as it is spent somewhere else right?

Recently, the rumors have been running rampant. Carlos Beltran is supposedly cut down his list to the Astros and Yankees. Roger Clemens has accepted arbitration. Supposedly, both players are waiting on the other to make a decision. Meanwhile, the Astros are considering moves for Jose Cruz Jr. (trade) and Jeromy Burnitz (free agent). Like his predecessor, Purpura has also mastered the non-specific target by talking about the need for “a starting pitcher and bullpen help.” Yet, what does this all mean when you’ve actually done nothing except re-sign two bench players that never should have been re-signed in the first place (Jose Vizcaino and Orlando Palmeiro)?

The challenge for all fans is to temper our enthusiasm with good old-fashioned horse sense. Last week I remember thinking to myself and my friends that the Astros need to get off their butt and do something. Then, I’m reminded why patience usually pays off in the end. Just a look at the contracts that have been thrown around should remind us that who wins in December usually wind up regretting it in July.

While the players that have been signed have little to do with the Astros, their contracts do have a profound effect on the market. When you read this it might seem like I’m picking on the Yankees, but that is simply because they are a high profile example of a problem that is running rampant among organizations. They pay too much attention to last season. A career year is exactly that: a career year. Paying someone for that production is foolish at best, so what I like to do is include the last three seasons. So, I’m going to look at these free agents and compare them to like players to see where they should have fit in the market.

Carl Pavano—4 years, 42 million dollars – New York Yankees

                  W-L    INN    ERA  RSAA   WS    SAL
Matt Clement     35-36   587   3.80    30   32     FA
Ted Lilly        29-27   475   4.09    25   32    1.9
Rodrigo Lopez    36-28   514   4.22    16   32     .4
Sidney Ponson    35-36   607   4.40     7   32    3.0
Carl Pavano      36-31   559   3.99     3   32   10.5

Some of these salary figures are misleading, but these pitchers were picked because they all had 32 win shares over the last three seasons. For those unfamiliar with win shares, it was a statistic developed by Bill James that is supposed to incorporate everything a player does and expresses it as a single number. If you divide the number by three it will represent the number of wins that player earns for his team. So, all of these players averaged a little more than three real wins per season for their team.

Lopez is not arbitration eligible, so his salary is artificially low, but Ted Lilly and Sidney Ponson are interesting cases because they were signed last season. Ponson’s contract is backloaded, but it is still worth roughly half of what Pavano’s deal is now worth. He had a career year before he signed in 2004 and look at how he did in 2004. These numbers aren’t that encouraging for the Yankees or teams interested in Matt Clement. Clement had more innings, a better ERA, and more runs saved above average than Pavano. I suppose that means he must be worth eleven million a season.

David Wells – 2 years, 16 million dollars (if incentives are met) – Boston Red Sox

                  W-L    INN    ERA  RSAA   WS    SAL
Kerry Wood       34-31   565   3.50    45   39    8.0
Derek Lowe       52-27   605   4.07    40   40     FA
Tom Glavine      38-39   620   3.64    39   39   10.8
Kenny Rogers     44-25   617   4.39    37   39    2.4
Jamie Moyer      41-28   647   3.89    26   40    7.0
David Wells      46-22   615   3.88    24   38    8.0

This one is obviously more difficult because you do have players here making more than David Wells. We have two basic problems. Tom Glavine’s contract inflated the contract for Moyer in particular and Wood generally. Both players had a better value after 2003 when they signed their deals, so we can compare Wells with Kenny Rogers and Derek Lowe. All three are durable, but none of them are ace material. Most teams cannot afford to pay third or fourth starters eight million a year.

Glavine’s contract is the insidious because it pays him for past achievement. It also inflates the market. If the Mets were only guilty of overpaying Glavine we could give them a free pass, but they are also guilty of overpaying Mike Piazza and other lesser players. We will get to the Kris Benson albatross shortly. At any rate, Wells will only earn this money if he produces as he has been. I suppose there is some value in having a lefty that can throw 200 innings a tad better than the league average. I’m just not sure if its worth eight million. Meanwhile, Scott Boras must be licking his chops on Derek Lowe.

Russ Ortiz – four years and 33 million dollars – Arizona Diamondbacks

                  W-L    INN    ERA  RSAA   WS    SAL
Kerry Wood       34-31   565   3.50    45   39    8.0
Derek Lowe       52-27   605   4.07    40   40     FA
Tom Glavine      38-39   620   3.64    39   39   10.8
Jamie Moyer      41-28   647   3.89    26   40    7.0
Russ Ortiz       50-26   631   3.85    17   40    8.3

At first glance it appears that Russ Ortiz is right around where he should be. He is second on this list in wins and a virtually tied with Lowe in winning percentage. He also finished second in innings pitched, so maybe he should be the second highest paid player on the list right? Unfortunately, that analysis misses two fundamental problems we see in Ortiz. First, he had fewer runs saved above average than any of the other four pitchers. More importantly, it ignores the fact that last season was the worst of the three for him by far.

Incidentally, suitors for Lowe’s services should look at the exact same trend before extending him a large offer. As for Ortiz, it is foolhardy for a team with as much depth to commit this much to a player on the decline. The 8.25 million is not nearly as risky as the four seasons they gave him. When a player finished the season as poorly as Ortiz did, it makes very little sense to give him a contract that long. Four year contracts backfire most of the time on pitchers even in ideal circumstances.

Kris Benson – three years and 22.5 million dollars – New York Mets
Jaret Wright- three years and 21 million dollars- New York Yankees

                  W-L    INN    ERA  RSAA   WS    SAL
John Halama      16-16   328   4.19     2   14    1.0
Mark Hendrickson 22-24   378   4.88   -13   16     .3 	
Kris Benson      26-27   435   4.59   -17   16    7.5
Jaret Wright     19-16   261   5.03   -23   14    7.0
Jose Lima        25-14   312   5.08   -24   14     FA

This is virtually the same deal so we will include these two together. Old-timers are probably thinking to themselves that they remember the days when a pitcher would produce Wright’s numbers in one season. Benson does deserve some level of appreciation for pitching fifty more innings than the next closest competitor, but do his numbers look that rare to you? Even if you include last season as primarily responsible for his contract, you have to be underwhelmed by his 12-12 record. Is that what fetches more than seven million these days? We could compile a list of the most overpaid starters in the game, but I would say save the time and just go to Flushing, New York. Chances are you’ll see one of them pitching.

Jaret Wright’s situation is even more bizarre. Here is a guy that had virtually nothing in 2002 and 2003, but here he is getting a big fat contract from the Yankees. When will the Yankees learn that you shouldn’t base all of your decisions on what a player did the year before? Teams shopping for a cheap starter could do worse than Jose Lima. It will be an interesting contrast to see what Lima gets in comparison with those two.

I could go on and on here. As long as the Astros aren’t involved it is fascinating to see how much teams overpay. I could go through the signings of position players like Troy Glaus, Vinny Castilla, Christian Guzman (length of contract), and Omar Vizquel (length of contract) but you get the idea. Teams overpay and they end up paying in the end.

Where does this leave the Astros? Tim Purpura could give into the pressure to impress Astros fans in his first off-season by going for the likes of Derek Lowe or Matt Clement (unless he signs with Anaheim), but he would do better to look at the Red Sox signing of John Halama. Will Halama set the world on fire? Probably not. In fact, he likely won’t make their rotation, but he will make a nice swing man for a million dollars. Notice that he was just as good as Kris Benson and Jaret Wright. If you read my market research column on Carlos Beltran you see that the reported offers for Beltran are pretty close to where they should be. Don’t let Boras bully you into giving much more than that.

More importantly, the Astros would do good to learn a lesson from the 2001 Mariners. Yes, they let Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr, and Alex Rodriguez leave in consecutive seasons. What was the result? They won 116 games in 2001. They did by adding to the team’s depth instead of giving into the feeding frenzy of the December Winter Meetings. So, let the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Orioles, and Mets do their thing. There are good bargains out there to be had if you know where to look. Guys like Jeromy Burnitz, Wilson Alvarez, Aaron Sele, Ismael Valdez, and countless others aren’t getting a lot of play right now.

The task for the Astros is to quietly pounce on those guys while the spotlight is on the big guns. The task for us is not to get too wrapped up in the home team not being involved with any high profile players (with the exception of Beltran). Speaking of Beltran, we need to remember that if the Yankees want to overpay for Beltran there is just as good a chance he will end up like Jason Giambi as he will Derek Jeter.