Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A little foresight saves the Red Sox a bundle

At the start of 2010 it looked like four massive stars at first base would be hitting the market - Adrian Gonzalez, then on the Padres, Albert Pujols from the Cardinals, Ryan Howard of the Phillies, and Prince Fielder from the Brewers.  After the massive bidding war between the Red Sox and Yankees for Mark Teixeira, which led to his 8 year, $180 million contract, I'm sure the agents for all four were looking forward to their massive payout.  A funny thing happened on the way to free agency, though.  In April of 2010, Howard re-upped with the Phillies a full two years before hitting free agency, with a five year, $125 million deal.  In December of 2010, Adrian Gonzalez was traded from the Padres to the Red Sox.  Although he officially agreed to his 7 year, $154 million extension in April, of the following season, the general consensus was that the extension had been agreed upon, but was not officially completed until the following April because of luxury tax implications.  Finally, both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols made it to free agency. The Angels went hard after Pujols, signing him to his massive contract, the second largest ever signed, in early December, while Prince Fielder had to wait until just this week for bad luck for Victor Martinez, who tore his ACL, opening up a spot in the Tigers lineup at DH.

Given that all four stars were expected to hit free agency at the same time, let's take a look at the contracts they all signed, plus the contract that Mark Teixeira signed prior to the 2010 season.

Alex Speier, of WEEI, has an interesting take on this topic as well.

Age Years Value AAV Avg. WAR
Teixeira 31 8 180 22.5 4.2
Howard 33 5 125 25 2.53
Gonzalez 29 7 154 22 6
Pujols 31 10 254 25.4 7.2
Fielder 27 9 214 23.77778 5.1

We have the players current age, the number of years on the contract they signed, the total value of the contract, the average annual value, and finally, the player's average WAR for the last three seasons.  The players are presented in the order they signed their deals.  To start, although the Howard contract is for the fewest years, it sure looks like a dog.  This is not a surprise - as did other, more talented writers.  Howard was coming off of a 4.6 win season in 2009, before he signed his extension, but even at that level of production his salary would outpace his salary. On top of that, Howard contributed two years of mediocre performances (1.4 and 1.6 wins in 2010 and 2011), before tearing his Achilles tendon in the playoffs this fall.  Finally, Howard has the second highest annual value out of all five contracts, but easily has the worst performance over the last three years.

Teixeira hasn't produced much surplus value for the team, having a $22.5 million salary makes that tricky, but he has produced.  Given his athleticism and build, he's more likely to hold his value than Fielder.  The Yankees paid a slightly lower salary and are on the hook for fewer years than any of the other free agent first basemen. 

The Fielder contract is very similar to the deal Teixeira signed before the 2010 season.  His 5.1 wins per year above replacement matches up well with the 5 wins per year Teixeira posted in the three years before free agency.  The difference in AAV could be tied to a modest amount of annual inflation (3%) and the extra year perhaps due to Fielder's extremely young age for a free agent.  Either way, the contract is very similar to the Teixeira deal, but the massive question about Prince Fielder is how well will he age.  Fielder is listed at 5'11" and 268 pounds, and reports are that the Tigers will be playing him at first base.  Fielder is already a below average defender, and will only be getting worse with age.  With both him and Miguel Cabrera on the roster for a long, long time, the Tigers won't be able to hide both of them in the DH spot, and when Victor Martinez returns in 2013, they may be forced to have BOTH of them play the field.  This really hurts the potential value for Fielder long term. 

Albert Pujols signed the second richest deal in baseball history, as a 31 year old first baseman.  Pujols could never play again and still make it to the Hall of Fame, but there are some disturbing trends in his statistics.  Despite being head and shoulders above any hitter from 2003 to 2010, Pujols has become nearly mortal these last couple years.  From 2009, his WAR has declined from 9 to 7.5 in 2010, to a pedestrian 5.1 WAR in 2011, at least by his lofty standards.  Combined with the fact that there are rumors Pujols is older than his listed age of 31 and that Angels will be paying him until his age 41 season, there is a lot of risk there.  If you're going to be big money on someone, though, you could do a lot worse than Pujols.  Even in his career worst season, he still posted over $20 million worth of value, and he contributes in all facets of the game, with great patience, extremely few strikeouts, an above average glove, and good base running, if not good speed, which has led to about ten stolen bases a year.  As bizarre as this may sound, the Pujols deal may have the best upside.  Pujols has shown be can consistently be a 9 win player, which would put his value at about $40 million per year.  Granted, you expect some decline as he ages, but if he can reestablish himself at his career averages, the deal could work out in the end for the Angels.

Finally, we get to Adrian Gonzalez.  His average annual value is lower than any of other first basemen.  He is the second youngest player in the group and will be tied for the youngest age when the contract expires (36, tied with Prince Fielder).  As measured by WAR he is the second best of hte group, and unlike Pujols, he has been remarkably consistent over the last three years, putting up WARs of 6.2, 5.2, and 6.6 the last three seasons.  No, Adrian Gonzalez will never be a nine win player, but if he can consistently be a six win player, I'm sure the Red Sox will be happy.  It is important to remember the cost of acquiring Gonzalez, though - Casey Kelly, Anthony Rizzo, and Reymond Fuentes, but given the savings compared to the free agent sluggers, not to mention the fact that he was signed for an economical $5.5 million in 2011, while earning nearly $30 million worth of value, it seems like a well worthwhile deal.

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