Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Ridiculed Deal Revisited Two Years Later and Two Years Wiser

While we all grasp desperately for shreds of information that might lead us to see what Dayton Moore has seen thus far this offseason, I felt maybe it was time for a slight departure. In this offseason, I have personally had to resort to citing Mike Jacobs' uncharacteristically low BABIP* last season to candy-coat his numbers in making the well-he-is-not-really-that-bad argument; hoping that Coco Crisp's first two seasons in Boston were the aberrations and that Kansas City sees the Covelli of 2004, '05, and '08; and rationalizing the Kyle Farnsworth signing (the player, not the money) by falling back on his K-rates and hoping he can recapture his 2005 season**. I could go on in that train of thought, but rather than playing the part of Dayton Moore apologist--or at least playing the part of the Governor, staying the execution of the General Manager on death row for so many--I'd like to retroactively give credit where credit has been due.

*I'd like to thank the guys over at The Hardball Times for proving my point for me with their new work on Expected BABIP that was referenced on the latest entry over at Ye Olde Royals Authority. Last season, Mike Jacobs was the 13th most unlucky hitter in Major League Baseball. His x-BABIP under their much more accurate revision upon the generally accepted x-BABIP formula ended up being .041 points higher than his BABIP was last season. They have gone back to 2005 and looked at their new x-BABIP in relation to actual BABIP, keying on the grossest outliers each season, and more often than not, luck worked everything back toward the expected numbers the next year.

**As for that, even I know that is not going to happen. And while I certainly didn't mind signing him in theory, that price tag is ridiculous.

Two years ago at about this time--December 7th, to be exact--Dayton Moore and the Royals were the laughingstocks of Major League Baseball after signing Gil Meche to a 5 year, $55 million contract. Past that linkage, I would imagine I don't need to refresh the memories of too many Royals fans out there. I also do not need to remind anyone how Gil Meche has pitched since he signed that contract. In light of the Carlos Silva (having posted an ERA+ of 65 in year one of his four year, $48 million contract), Jeff Suppan (his ERA+ fell to 87 in the second year of his four year, $45 million contract and I can't think of a Brewers fan out there that was feeling confident when he was pitching down the stretch last year), and A.J. Burnett contracts signed since, Moore's offer to Meche seems prescient. You can probably see where I'm going with this...

For the sake of consolation, I am going to look at A.J. Burnett's contract in comparison to Gil Meche's. If you managed to miss it, A.J. Burnett was signed by John D. Rockefeller--or was it Andrew Carnegie--oh, wait it was the New York Yankees--for a contract that will last five years and will yield A.J. Burnett $82.5 million.

Now a mere three years ago, A.J. Burnett signed a five year, $55 million contract at roughly the same time in his career that Gil Meche signed his deal for the same amount. At the time, Burnett was a 49-50 pitcher with a penchant for throwing his organization and manager under the bus in addition to winding up on the DL in all but one season. Sure, Burnett was in possession of a 98 MPH fastball but at the time no one was giving out contracts this long. But the Blue Jays, much like the Royals the next year, were intent upon pumping up their payroll by throwing money at free agents who would spend significant time on the disabled list (the other big signing that offseason being the oft-injured B.J. Ryan).

Now obviously, Burnett's track record was a bit better than Meche's, but his injury history was at least as extensive and at their respective dates of signing, Burnett was nine months older than Meche. All in all, both the Blue Jays and the Royals were diving into risky waters, but the waters were financially identical (well, from what I remember and have been able to find online* Meche doesn't have an option attached to the contract while it would seem to me that A.J. Burnett has to have had a player option--not that I'm going to do the legwork to figure this out because this post is turning into a behemoth quickly--because I'd be shocked if the Blue Jays exercised a team option the offseason after getting their only year with more than 25 starts from Burnett in the three years he was a Jay, making the Royals deal (if I'm right here) more advantageous if in both situations their leaps worked out for the best). Each team was gambling on young pitchers with somewhat worrisome injury histories but their stuff was enticing.

*There was also an interesting little tidbit in that article about their new Rule V steal Joakim Soria with Moore saying, "Not that we're going to make him a closer, but the great thing about him is he can compete for a variety of roles."

Well, two years into the Meche deal, he has surpassed 200 innings twice--with breathing room, I might add--and posted an ERA+ of 128 in 2007 and 107 in 2008. After year three of his Jays contract, Burnett has seasons of 135 2/3, 167 2/3, and 221 1/3 innings pitched with the last season of that deal being the third season in ten that he passed the 200 IP plateau. That is one more season (not counting his first in which I would assume and seem to recall that he was called up midseason but also cannot be bothered to actually look it up because of the ever-growing nature of this entry) than his seasons in which he did not hit triple digits in innings pitched after giving the benefit of the doubt on the first one, and you can add two more into the mix in which he did not pass by the 150-mark.

Despite these facts, the New York Yankees in the midst of their aggressive pursuit of eternal ownership of the evil empire mantle saw fit to offer an A.J. Burnett who is 21 months older than Gil Meche at the date of signing a deal averaging $16.5 million per year.

This offer means that Brian Cashman (was ever a name more appropriate than his?) and Company have, in essence if not consciously, deemed Gil Meche two-thirds the pitcher that A.J. Burnett is.

Now, clearly with the Yankees, it is an entirely different ballgame. Steinbrenner II and his father have been playing with house money. The Royals have been trying to compete with the pocket change they can get from beneath the driver's seat in their 1970 AMC Gremlin because they already checked the couch twice and found nothing.

Regardless, the Yankees had to outbid other teams to get Burnett at this price, and they're not in the habit of recklessly outbidding teams, unlike the Rangers circa December of 2000. So this is the value that the market deemed A.J. Burnett worthy of.

The shocking part about this newest Burnett deal is that in Burnett's last two seasons--the two seasons in which Meche and Burnett were playing under the same salary umbrella--his ERA+(-es?) were 119 and 105. In 39 1/3 innings fewer.

Clearly, if Meche were to file for free agency, his past two seasons would warrant a comparable contract, but I have a feeling that he would manage to get less money despite the apparent superiority--and I do understand that ERA+ is not the end-all, be-all, but it is a fairly decent system by which to derive some semblance of value--at least when you factor in health over the past two seasons, because of a wide-spread perception that A.J. Burnett is an ace because of a fastball that is about four miles-per-hour faster.

So, thanks to Dayton Moore's promethean December of 2006, the Royals are getting a pitcher for the next three seasons (barring a trade) at two-thirds the cost of A.J. Burnett, who at least for the past two seasons has been the better and more durable pitcher. And at more than a year-and-a-half younger, Meche is by a reasonable expectation more likely to make it through these next three seasons with better health at 66.67% the cost.

Now, I had nothing but the blind faith of a hopeful Royals fan to guide me through the trying time of trying to come to terms with a resoundingly ridiculed contract. It got me through in 2006.

Here's to hoping that the 2009 season proves the lot of us doubters and naysayers wrong...

1 comment:

john said...

I'll admit I may have been a little off about Meche but in fairness the team hasn't finished above .500 either of those seasons.
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