World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: October 22

Those of you who read StatSpeak on a regular basis (Thank you!) have probably noticed a few changes in the design of the blog, and perhaps some chaos in getting things to work.  Us too.  MVN has recently upgraded to Movable Type and like all great things, it will take a little bit of time to all shake out.  Please be patient.

Today, the roundtable is covered with sawdust, but welcomes Brandon Isleib of The Hardball Times for some rolicking discussion of that Peavy guy, contracts in general, contracts for Mark Ellis and Manny Ramirez, and whether or not Brad Lidge will lose his head in the World Series.

Question #1: If the Padres trade Jake Peavy, pulling a Beane-on-Haren but with more chutzpah, does that raise the bar for this genre of trade, and will the genre catch on and/or reach absurd levels in the same way that megacontracts did around 2000?

Brandon Isleib: I think these deals will be in a one-per-year mold until it’s seen whether they actually work out. The return Oakland’s had at the major league level for Haren is looking good so far, but it takes a few years to assess things in full, and the Peavy trade would be Exhibit B in whatever teams decide to do. I don’t think the bar will be raised as much as possibilities will be explored that were unthinkable previously. I think other teams will see how the A’s and Padres fan bases react before making the same sort of decision themselves. Normally, a lot of PR has to follow up trading one of your best players, and some teams might be scared to do it.

Bottom line, I think this type of trade typically will work for astute GMs with educated fan bases. The danger is that the Haren and Peavy trades if they work long-term will spawn imitators who don’t understand the value of their best players and will trade a good contract on a great player for a sorry lot of prospects. Beane and Towers understand that pitching is fragile by definition, and they know they can get a lot of secure position players and some pitching upside by trading a high-risk commodity. If other GMs understand that when they make these deals, then fine. If not, then it’s going to wreck somebody’s franchise down the road.

Brian Cartwright: I think Haren was a little unique in that he was a well above average pitcher with three more years under contract at below market rates. That drove up his selling price. The Mets only get to keep Johan Santana for one year under his current contract. I think that’s a major factor, how long is the current contract and at what price.

Colin Wyers: I think this is less akin to the Harden deal – simply given the number of years involved – and more akin to the Santana deal. The Padres have a lot of holes to fill right now, and Peavy can only fill one of them. What they’re looking for is a team that has a lot of surplus value – as in, more than 25 useful ballplayers – who are willing to chip in 2-4 ballplayers that as a whole contribute more to the Padres than Peavy can.

Eric Seidman: This is tricky, because it is a solid type of move for teams who won’t realistically compete for quite some time; the Padres could go 72-90 without Peavy, and even though he is a great pitcher, if the Padres can get the return the A’s got for Haren, they will likely be in a better position a few years from now than if they kept Peavy. At some point, however, you have to figure other teams will catch on and realize that their prospects may be worth more than the star player they could acquire, but there are many more factors to consider, such as attendance. I would say if the Peavy trade emulates the Haren deal, we may see a flurry of similar moves over the next couple years but it will not become a norm.

Pizza Cutter: The easiest sell in baseball, and indeed in humanity, is the quick fix, and there’s no quicker fix than the “ace starting pitcher.”  Consider though that trading “aces” or even just good starting pitchers for a boatload of talent isn’t exactly a new genre.  Baseball culture works in cycles, just like the rest of culture (whatever happened to Paris Hilton?), and in five years, we may chuckle about “that era” in baseball.  But the problem, like with the mega-contracts, is that there aren’t a lot of aces that are being shopped around on a yearly basis.  So, it will probably die a natural death.

Question #2: So did Mark Ellis get taken to the cleaners or what?  

Brandon Isleib:  No cleaner trip here; maybe he stays unclean or just goes under “what,” but I think his contract was reasonable. Ellis is one of those guys who’s always frustrated my efforts to evaluate him. Is he the .276/.336/.441 (including 19 HR) guy of 2007 or the .233/.321/.373 guy of 2008? You get good defense either way, but he’s got a Saberhagen-type pattern to his offensive output, and that’s hard to gauge. I think the A’s are in a much better position to figure out that type of player (in large part because they’ve seen him for 6 years) and throw a moderate contract out there than other teams are. He’s hurt a fair bit, he’s not remarkably productive when he’s not 100%, and you just don’t know what you’re getting in any given year. If I’m running a team with a hole at 2B, it’s a slippery case to make that Ellis is a solid upgrade to the tune of more than the 2 year, $11 million contract he got from Oakland. I think that’s about his reasonable value, and I think few teams are able to build with him the way Oakland can. It works well for both sides. More power to ’em.

Brian Cartwright: Ellis has a very good glove, but I don’t think he’s much as a hitter. He projects at 254/335/418, and will be a little lower than that as he ages for 2009. I think Oakland built in that he would be diminishing. Maybe Ellis wasn’t confident going on the free agent market, but I think it’s usually worth it to establish your market value.

Colin Wyers: I really don’t think people understand how valuable Ellis is, and that includes Ellis. Is it because defense is underrated? Is it because second base is the least glamorous position in the majors? Is it because he isn’t flashy in the way that a, say, Derek Jeter is? The baffling part is that he chose right now to sign that deal. It’s hard to complain about how someone else handles their money, but it is very puzzling.

Eric Seidman: I’m curious if Ellis just does not realize how much he is worth, or if the shoulder injury is a bit more serious than we thought; serious in the sense that it could be a recurring injury. If not, then his offensive numbers are bound to regress, making him the league average hitter he is, while playing arguably the best defense at the position. At Tom Tango’s blog, a discussion arose about how the player’s union should be having fits over this deal, and I agree. It will be interesting to see what Orlando Hudson gets on the market, given they are very comparable players.

Pizza Cutter: Ellis has become a fly-ball happy guy over the past few years, and his dip in his slash stats seems to be an outlier, but he’s also one of the best fielding 2B’s in the game.  In 2007, according to OPA!, he was worth about 21 runs above the average 2B… but that’s “hidden” talent (or at least still undervalued talent).  All that people, and apparently Ellis and his agent are two of them, see is the batting line, which is respectable, and maybe there is some vague idea of his defensive worth.  Ellis is worth more, but it’s not yet polite for a good defensive player to ask for a big contract. 

Question #3: Multi-year contracts normally escalate – more money in later years. But we know that once a player hits 30 it’s likely that he’s going to be producing less in those years. It doesn’t seem like a good idea business wise, but are there any practical alternatives that would be accepted by the player?

Brandon Isleib: Not until arbitration and free agency rules change. Take a player like Ryan Howard, who didn’t start accruing service time seriously until he was 25. The Phillies have him under contract until he’s 30 just from when he came up, so his first megapayday will be at 30, assuming no injuries, etc. Thus, it’s around 30 that players have the most leverage of their careers. None of the players will want less money as inflation rises and they get older, and they probably won’t want an even pay rate either, for mostly the same reason. The rush of free-agent talent is primarily on 28-to-30-year-olds, and as such, all but the gutsiest of owners would set things up the way they want to do, so as not to scare away their coveted prizes. So no, I know of no alternative players would accept on this multi-year system unless the ages at which players typically become free agents changes, owners collude, or something to that effect

Brian Cartwright: Giving a multiyear escalating contract to a player over 30 almost guarantees that the payments will be going up as the production goes down. I really don’t see a player willing to sign a contract that offers him less each year, even if it’s in line with his expected production. Even with a player like Manny Ramirez, I would not offer more than a two year contract. Not that he won’t still be good in the third year, but he won’t be worth that much money. Pay for two, then negotiate another contract. Only problem is, the new one may be with your competitor.

Colin Wyers: There’s a hidden little wrinkle to consider – over time, the average free agent salary you can command in free agency increases at a dramatic pace, I want to say about 10% each offseason. By backloading a contract, you are essentially compensating them at the rate at which (supposedly) they could get a free agent contract at that point. The incentive for teams in backloading deals is that (due to inflation and investment opportunities, among other things) it’s beneficial to spend tomorrow’s money in preference to today’s, because tomorrow’s money is worth less than today’s money and you should be planning on having more money tomorrow than today. Really, the problem isn’t backloaded contracts, it’s just bad contracts. Andruw Jones was only signed for two years, and that has to be a bigger albatross right now than any backloaded deal for 5-7 years. Well, except for Barry Zito. Zito forgot to backload his decline phase and ended up paying all of it out in the first year of the contract.

Eric Seidman: Well, if a player signs a 5-yr deal but won’t be productive towards the end, a player might be interested in having his contract frontloaded so that he makes a good portion of the contract during those productive years and then is easier to trade or be sent elsewhere in the latter years when he may otherwise be sitting on the bench, unable to prove his worth. I feel like as long as the player is making the money, making more in the early stages and less later on would not be a big deal and may arguably be better for the player than, say, a Griffey Jr situation where he is making 15 mm to play league average or below average baseball.

Pizza Cutter: There probably aren’t any alternatives that would be accepted by the players, other than maybe front-loading the contract, but there are a lot of GMs who have to think short-term rather than long-term.  I could see a system of incentive-based contracts.  Maybe a team could run a business model of having a standard “contract” based with set stipends for different events (say $200 for a double, $300 for a triple, although they’d be better served going a little more sophisticated than that…)  Every player on the team has the same contract (or at least all the hitters have the same contract and the pitchers have the same… although what to do about the whole starter vs. reliever thing).  But then I could imagine knife fights breaking out over managers who decide to bench a player or something like that.   

Question #4: Will Brad Lidge blow a save in the World Series or will he go a whole season without? 

Brandon Isleib: I don’t think he’ll blow a save this series, in large part because there are so many variables. Obviously, if the Rays sweep, he doesn’t blow a save, and there are only 7 opportunities to blow one at maximum. That being said, the Rays have as good a chance as anyone to get to Lidge because they don’t stack right-handed batters in their lineup at any meaningful point. Lidge v. RH: .105/.227/.175. Lidge v. LH: .273/.354/.345. Game 7 of the ALCS had a Rays lineup that did not repeat right-handed batters at any spot except for Baldelli and Bartlett at the bottom (and Baldelli can be substituted easily with LH Gabe Gross if necessary). Plus, their main RH batters – Upton, Longoria, Baldelli, and Bartlett – were all reasonably good at avoiding double plays, which would be the main danger of an isolated RH batter. I think the Rays lineup is well-suited to getting to Lidge if any team is. Does this mean he blows a save? Not likely, but it’s more likely here than elsewhere.

Brian Cartwright: I’d like to think so, but one fastball at the letters may be enough to do him in, and possibly the Phillies. He got in the doghouse in Houston for being all or nothing.

Colin Wyers: There’s no guarantee that he’ll see any official “save opportunities” at all in the series. I don’t see why he couldn’t – at most four saves for him?

Eric Seidman: No. He will go perfect, and my Phillies will win the World Series. That is all.

Pizza Cutter: I’m wondering what the over/under is in Vegas for the number of times that they show the Scott Podsednik homerun in 2005.  Lidge got really lucky on the HR/FB this year, and his FIP is a little above his ERA, but his FIP is 2.41 this year.  I’ve actually wanted to do a study for a while on whether Brad Lidge Disease really happens.  After blowing a crucial save, do closers have a tough time closing?  Lidge’s record over the last few years shows that he’s certainly still an effective pitcher, and frankly, my guess is that Lidge’s “problems” in critical games are actually the frayed nerves of the fans who followed the Astros.  There’s no way to know exactly what will happen, but the odds of Lidge imploding in the Series probably have very little to do with what happened in 2005.

Question #5: Does Manny Ramirez really deserve an “iconic” contract, as Scott Boras has suggested?

Brandon Isleib: No, no, a thousand times no. Boras’s work with Alex Rodriguez in 2000 will forever be the iconic mark until he has a player better than Rodriguez to flaunt. Manny’s not better than A-Rod except for “clutchiness,” perhaps. Adjusting for inflation, A-Rod’s contract in 2000 would be worth $32 million a year; Ramirez’s contract from the same offseason would give him $25 million a year. Has he gone up in value 20% from age 28 to 36? At least when the big one was signed in 2000, he was coming off consecutive years of at least .663 SLG. At age 28, it’s not unreasonable if you’re a big spender to say he keeps that up. He hasn’t quite reached that since then, and while his numbers have still been great, I can’t think of any reason to say he’s 20% better now than he was coming off those two massive years. That doesn’t even touch the other Manny issues, but I don’t need to; I’m just not going to pay more for less.

Brian Cartwright: No. As good as Manny is at the bat, (projecting 314/395/584 he’s still better than he was in 1998) he is going to be 37, and there can’t be that many more seasons at that level left. I cannot see a team rationally offering him $25 or $30m for Manny’s age 41 season. If he’s still playing, he may be good, but not that good.

Colin Wyers: The problem is figuring out how long his bat will play at this level, because it’s pretty certain that his defense is a massive problem that won’t get any better. Here’s a question for you – I want you to try and picture Manny playing first base. How often do you think he would forget that he’s supposed to be receiving a throw from the other side of the infield? I exaggerate, sure, but the biggest mistake you can make in free agency (of course everybody does it) is to pay for the past, not the future. Boras wants teams to pay for the past.

Eric Seidman: Manny is an incredible hitter, one of the best hitters in the history of baseball, but his defense is abysmal and teams undervalue the importance of defense. Manny costs teams plenty of runs defensively which is often just touched upon instead of fleshed out in the full light it deserves. Manny does not deserve a 5/150, especially given that he would be making a ridiculous amount of money as a 42-yr old. A 4/100 is what they were originally seeking, and while I still believe it is too much, that would be much more realistic.

Pizza Cutter: Boras made those comments comparing Manny to A-Rod, with the assumption that Manny would get slightly less than A-Rod and fewer years.  On the surface it sounds about right, with both being elite hitters right now.  For the fan who doesn’t think beyond next year (and let’s be honest, how many of us really do?) it makes sense that Manny would get about as much as A-Rod.  The problem is that Manny is older than A-Rod by four years and a 32 year old is a much better bet to sustain things over a few years (although I shook my head at ten years for A-Rod…), than Manny.  Before the season started, PECTOA actually had him out of baseball in a couple of years, and nothing more than a 2-3 WARP guy, although that’s sure to be revised upward.  GMs have to think about multiple years, although some of them have to do stupid things because if they don’t “play for this year,” they’ll be fired.  My guess is that Manny gets his iconic contract, or something close, and that he puts up just enough to make it kinda/sorta/but-not-really worth it.

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