Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sandy makes you dandy

Dear Diesel: Please get off my dick. — Sandy

Depression's setting in: I've only got a month or so of baseball left before I shut it down and start watching 20 hours of soccer a week. And, since I know none of you assholes want to read anything I have to say about soccer (but if you do, check out Booked! Link to it! MAKE IT YOUR HOMEPAGE!), I better get in the licks while I can.

Anyway, former TGWNA punching bag Tim "Gerund" Sullivan wrote a little ditty about Sandy Alderson, the Padres, and finances. It's not a long column, but it gets to the point and makes it well: Most criticism of the Padres, at least in terms of payroll, doesn't take into account the reality of the team's situation.

I'll cop to being one fan who has wondered this season why the team still pleads small-market now that PETCO is open and drawing well. In fact, I distinctly remember the organization selling the new ballpark to the city by saying that the additional revenues would result in a better product on the field. Clearly, if you look at the Padres' payroll this season ($58 million, seventh-lowest in the majors), the team is still not spending money on par with its rivals to the north. And if you read the Sullivan column, Alderson gives us a fairly believable account as to why that is.

But the funny thing is that the Padres have put a better product on the field. Say what you want about the offense, this team has won two straight NL West titles (even though 2005 wasn't anything to brag about), and is the leader in the NL Wild Card race right now. The pitching staff is the best in the National League. The team's best players are locked up through their arb-eligible seasons, so one can expect this core to stick around for a while.

Regardless, shit's getting marine-layer thick out there. Peavy, in case you haven't heard, publicly questioned both his future with the team once he becomes a free agent, and the team's willingness to make large financial commitments to free agents in general. Look, Peavy seems like an OK enough guy, and I don't think he's doing anything but sharing his feelings honestly here. But, honest does not equal correct. Peavy associates the club's de facto policy of not signing long-term contracts with stinginess (and/or the dreaded "unwillingness to do what it takes"), as opposed to proper business sense. And proper business sense — something the Padres' front office does not suffer for — is the reason that Peavy is correct in saying that he won't be with the club after 2009, unless he decides that he loves the Friars so much that he's willing to sign a three-year deal for roughly $25 million per year (I'm adjusting for the slew of insane pitching contracts to come on the heels of the Zambrano extension). And if Peavy does sign that deal, his agent should be shot in the fucking head.

Hey, Peavy is awesome. He's the best pitcher in the NL, even with a healthy Ben Sheets in the picture (That Webb guy is awesome, too, but he's no Peavy). He's only 26, and despite what appears to be a stressful delivery and arm angle, has managed to remain relatively healthy in his five full seasons. And he clearly digs playing in San Diego, which I suppose isn't earth-shattering but important nonetheless.

But, as much as I love the guy plying his trade in PETCO, I absolutely do not want the Padres to sign Peavy to a Zambrano-like extension. Not even a little.

Here's a list of pitchers who have signed FA (or the extension equivalent) contracts for more than four years:
  • Bartolo Colon: 4/$51
  • Roy Oswalt: 5/$73
  • AJ Burnett: 5/$55
  • BJ Ryan: 5/$47
  • Mike Hampton: 8/$121 (can you believe this is the penultimate season of that deal?)
  • Tim Hudson: 4/$47
  • Jeff Suppan: 4/$42
  • Chris Carpenter: 5/$63.5
  • Ted Lilly: 4/$40
  • Derek Lowe: 4/$36
  • Barry Zito: 7/$126
  • Jarrod Washburn: 4/$37.5
  • Pedro Martinez: 4/$53
  • Billy Wagner: 4/$43
  • Kevin Millwood: 5/$60
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka: 6/$54 (+$51 posting fee)
  • Gil Meche: 5/$55
  • Mark Buerhle: 4/$56
  • Carl Pavano: 4/$40
  • Kei Igawa: 5/$20 (+~$20 posting fee)
This list would have been insanely long if I included three-year deals, so I'm glad I didn't.

Anyway, most of these deals are fairly young, so it's not really possible to draw any firm conclusions. But look over that list again, and tell me which of those pitchers you really want on your team in four seasons. There's maybe three, including Oswalt, Matsuzaka and (maybe) Meche. On second thought, we'll make that two, and both come with a not-small degree of injury concern: Oswalt is perpetually dinged up, and sub-six-foot power pitchers don't exactly have the most sterling track record. Matsuzaka has thrown a TON of innings and pitches at a fairly young age, and is on pace for 223 this season while coming in second in Pitcher Abuse Points (and guess who's first? Everyone's favorite market-setting batshit-crazy right-hander for the Cubs!). And that's it. I don't think there's another guy on that list that any rational baseball fan thinks will be a highly effective pitcher in four years.

The reason for that sentiment is that almost all of them will be in or past their mid-30s in four years. And what makes intuitive sense also ends up making baseball sense; very few pitchers are worth $10-plus million in their late 30s, and if they do, they'll probably be signed by the Yankees.

I know lots of people in Minnesota are wringing their hands over Johan Santana's impending free agency (after next season), but the truth is that it's probably best to let him walk; odds are they've already had him for his best years. And, yes, he'll probably be a great pitcher for a while, maybe even for the five-to-seven years he'll sign for. But the odds are almost staggeringly against that being the case, and franchises like the Twins and Padres can't afford to make hard-way bets with 1/5th or 1/4th of the team's payroll.

And, even if they could afford it, they probably still shouldn't. Yes, pitching is expensive, and the predominant thought is that if you're not willing to play ball in the free agent market — and pay according to the terms being dictated by the Zambrano/Zito signings — you'll be left, like the Nationals, with no pitchers worth a damn. That's the case if a franchise's farm system is as broken as the Nationals', but that's really the exception to the rule. In fact, most teams would be just fine if they concentrated on developing pitching and spent the extra $20-$25 million per season on free agent hitters. Why's that? Because you'll probably get more extra wins out of a $20 million free agent outfielder than a $20 million free agent pitcher.

Johan Santana, the most valuable pitcher in the majors last season, was worth 8.4 wins over a replacement level pitcher last season, according to SNLVAR (remember that by definition, replacement level is what a team could reasonably expect to be able to call up from the minor leagues; in the case of the Twins, replacement level is actually higher, owing to the handful of excellent pitching prospects they had/have waiting in the wings, so that number in reality is probably even a little lower). So, if you're hypothetically paying Santana $20 million last season, which is on the low end of free market approximations for his services, you'll end up paying a little more than $2.3 million per marginal win.

Last season, Alfonso Soriano put up a WARP3 of 10.4 (and is en route to a 7.4 this year, despite the injury issues). He makes a little less than $18 million on average, which puts his cost per marginal win at $1.73 million. And this is as an outfielder, which means replacement level is higher than it would be if he were still a 2B (assuming he ever really was a 2B).

Now, this isn't to say that I think the Soriano deal is a good one — way too many years for a guy who plays execrable defense right now, when he's still young — but it's more worthwhile than the deal that will be given to Peavy or Santana when the time comes. The attrition rates for hitters is much lower than pitchers, and at the end of the day, an elite position player has more opportunity to help one's team than an elite pitcher.

This was a long way of saying: I think Sandy Alderson is dead-on.

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