Wednesday, January 20, 2010

On Sentences and Seattle

Rumors leaked out Tuesday that the Mariners were close to signing 23-year-old Cy Young runner-up Felix Hernandez to a five-year extension for $78 million. Predictably, there was much rejoicing. To Mariners fans, or even to sportswriters who don’t want to delve into this stuff too far, there are only two phrases from that sentence that they care about: “Cy Young runner-up” and “five-year extension.”

Maybe that’s the way it should be. After all, it’s not our money. And there is something to be said for getting the big rocks in place and letting the pebbles settle in around them.

But I was still surprised by the universal praise it from people who study this stuff. I probably shouldn’t be, because there seems to be some serious man-crushing towards Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik right now. Primarily because:

1) His team improved by 24 games in his first year as general manager.
2) The improvement came partially by improving the Mariners' defense, and nothing is sexier to the sabremetric bent than defense right now.
3) He ripped off the salary-dumping Phillies when acquiring left-handed stud pitcher Cliff Lee.

So, he’s revered. You know he’s revered because he threw $6 million into a trade for Milton Bradley - and was PRAISED for it.

For the record, I'm not drinking the Mariners kool-aid just yet. Some see the 2010 AL West Champions. I see a 3-4-5 lineup of, um, who exactly? Franklin Gutierrez (764 OPS last year)? Ken Griffey (.214 BA last year)? Milton Bradley (who might literally be the last guy in MLB that you want to depend on day in and day out)? So I might not see eye-to-eye with everyone else on the Mariners and, subsequently, Jack Z. Keep this in mind.

Anyway, I was still surprised that everyone viewed this as such a clear victory for the Mariners GM. To see why I was puzzled, you have to see the year-by-year breakdown of the contract. Here it is, reportedly:

$3.5 million signing bonus
$6.5 million in 2010
$10 million in 2011
$18.5 million in 2012
$19.5 million in 2013
$20M million in 2014.

See how the amount climbs so rapidly over the next three years and then levels off? There's a reason for that. It's because the Mariners had rights to Hernandez for the next two years and they only had to pay him what an arbitrator said he would be worth. And from looking at comparable players with the same amount of service time, they were going to need to pay him around $7.5 million in 2010 and around $12 million in 2011.

Unfortunately for the Mariners, after 2011 he would be a free agent, and then anyone could pay him whatever they wanted. And if he continued to throw like he did last year, he could have been paid a LOT of money. For instance, CC Sabathia makes $23 million/year. Johan Santana is averaging slightly less than that. That's the neighborhood that Hernandez could've been in.

So the Mariners basically had a choice. They could either...

1) Give him the contract they gave him - 5 years/$78 million or
2) Renew his contract for the next two years at approximately $20 million and then try to bring him back as a free agent.

Let's make it even simpler, though slightly less accurate. Hernandez's agent essentially offered the Mariners a 3-year contract for 2012, 2013 and 2014 for about $20 million per year - but they had to sign it now, two years ahead of time.

Does that represent a bargain? Sure. It saves them a few million dollars per year down the road. More importantly it keeps them from needing to sign him for much longer when he becomes a free agent.

But it also represents an incredible risk. If Hernandez slips at all from last year's Cy Young caliber performance, he's being overpaid. And if he's (knock, knock) hurt, as 23-year-old arms often are? Forget about it. It would makes the Eric Bedard circus look like a meditation class.

So why is a Twins Geek giving this so much thought? (Because he's a geek? And kind of sad, really?) Because the Twins face their own must-sign guy this offseason, Joe Mauer. If that gets done, I wonder if a Mariners Geek will wonder why the state of Minnesota is praising Bill Smith.

And I wonder if I'll be able to objectively evaluate that deal. Or even see beyond the phrases: "AL MVP winner" and "staying in Minnesota."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Arbitration Awards

I'm not gonna lie - I'm probably a little too proud of this.

This fall, two days after the Twins were knocked out of the playoffs, TwinsCentric (myself, Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson and Parker Hageman) released the GM Offseason Handbook. The idea was to create a reference that fans could monitor the offseason moves just like the general manager of the Twins. So it included all the same kinds of info and decisions that a GM might need to make, such as a comprehensive list of free agents, trade targets and arbitration decisions.

And because our favorite team is so fiscally conscious, it had to include projected salaries, because the Twins work on a budget. To this day, we don't know what that budget is exactly, but we guessed it would be about $95 million in the Handbook and went through and gave prices to everyone. Which, as you might imagine, is a study in educated guesswork.

As the offseason has rolled along, I've been really happy to see how close we've come for various free agents. I fully intend to bore you with a comparison at the end of the free agency period to see how we did. But as the arbitration agreements for the Twins came in yesterday, I wondered how close we came for those. It seemed pretty close on most, so I ran the numbers tonight. Here they are:

Actual GM Handbook
Harrris $1,450,000 $1,300,000
Pavano $7,000,000 $6,500,000
JJ Hardy $5,100,000 $5,500,000
Guerrier $3,150,000 $2,800,000
D Young $2,600,000 $2,000,000
Crain $2,000,000 $2,000,000
Liriano $1,600,000 $1,800,000
Neshek $625,000 $750,000
$23,525,000 $22,650,000

We were less than a million dollars off as a group, and most of that difference was because we expected Pavano to sign a two-year deal instead of a one-year deal.

The one I feel the worst about was Delmon Young's, because I still can't figure out how he ends up getting $2.6 million given his track record. I've never totally understood his contract situation, seeing as he had such a big contract straight out of the draft. If someone wants to explain that to me, I'd love to hear it.

Which one do we feel best about? Well, we couldn't have done much better with Crain, especially after reading other predictions that he wouldn't be kept or he would make around $3 million next year.

So, the point is - I guess it is that attention to detail can pay off, even if it's in a nerdy, baseball-obsessed kinda way.

And most surprising? I'm mildly surprised would be that the Twins offered Brendan Harris a two-year deal. I really like Harris as a utility solution and bench player, but I'm not sure I totally get the logic here. The Twins seem to have other solutions for that role, like Matt Tolbert or even Alexi Casilla. You could argue those players have more upside, though maybe can't be counted to perform at as high a level. But why lock yourself into Harris next year too? It's not like he was going to get crazy expensive.

There were questions on Twitter about whether this might indicate that Harris would have a starting infield spot, meaning that the Twins would not sign a free agent second or third baseman. I don't see it - except for one thing. If Harris were to start in 2010 and play well, this contract limits what the Twins will need to pay him in 2011.

It's only mildly surprising because the Twins did the same thing a couple of years ago with Nick Punto. Ironically, this deal might crowd Punto off the roster when his contract expires at the end of this year. Especially if the Twins take advantage of the deep second baseman market.

It's not a terrible signing - Harris is a good bench addition and this is a good contract to lock that in. It's just puzzling. I'd love to here from the Twins why they thought this was necessary, or even savvy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Cautionary Tale and an Opportunity

Eric Byrnes looks like he could be both a cautionary tale and an opportunity for the Twins.

The outfielder was released by the Diamondbacks on Friday after playing with them for four years. It was a productive four years for Byrnes, less so for the Diamondbacks. Originally signed to a couple of reasonable one-year deals, Byrnes reached free agency immediately after a .286/.353/.460, 50 stolen base season for the NL West winning Diamondbacks. The popular player was rewarded with a 3-year, $30 million contract.

He's come nowhere near league-average production since. The last two years he's struggled with injuries, mostly hamstring in 2008 and a broken hand in 2009. After trying for months to find someone to trade him and his $11 million contract to, the DBacks admitted defeat and just released him Friday. I suspect we'll hear his name more than once as an example of how to be careful extending 30-ish outfielders when Michael Cuddyer nears free agency after 2011.

But for now, he represents an opportunity. The Twins need a fourth outfielder.

And this is where I caution anyone from throwing the two words "Jason Pridie" into the comments section. He's now 26, he posted a .295 OBP in AAA-Rochester last year and he struck out 152 times versus 30 walks. I don't care if he can navigate the outfield like a dragonfly on Red Bull, he is of little to no use unless you can designate a hitter for him. Has anyone ever done that? Let their pitcher bat and used the designated hitter on a whifftastic fielder? Is that even legal?

Byrnes is a decent answer for a choice I didn't want the Twins to have to make. Previously I thought they needed to decide between a fourth outfielder that could backup Denard Span in center field versus a veteran who could push Delmon Young to keep his head on straight. Byrnes has mostly played left field while with the Diamondbacks, but he played center field with the A's, and his career UZR there is positive. I don't think he's someone you want to trot out there everyday, but serving there in case of an injury is acceptable. And by all accounts, he brings it every day,plays good to above-average defense and sports a career OPS higher then Delmon's.

The biggest problem is that he's already being paid $11 million, so you can't just outbid someone for him. You have to convince him that the Twins are a desirable place for his career to bloom again, and that isn't going to happen if someone else offers him a starting spot. But if not (and that's possible given the bloated FA outfield market) convince him he just needs to beat out a very young, mostly disinterested, defensively painful, strike-zone-blind outfielder and he'll be the starting left fielder for a contending team.

That's not a bad sales pitch. For Eric Byrnes, I mean. Might want to not dwell on that too much in the next Twins Territory spot.