Archive for November, 2013

Nelson Cruz and Scarce Power

Nelson Cruz is the kind of free agent that comes with a ton of red flags. He’s heading into his age-33 season, and is reportedly looking for a long term contract after turning down the Rangers qualifying offer of $14 million for 2014. He’s been historically injury prone, having suffered a collection of injuries that tend to reoccur, and has only played in more than 130 games once in his career. Despite playing in a hitter friendly ballpark in Texas, his career on base percentage is .327, and over the last three years, it’s just .319. He’s not a particularly good defensive player, and could very likely have to move to DH in a year or two. Oh, and he’s coming off a 50 game suspension after being connected to the Biogenesis PED scandal.

There are plenty of valid reasons for teams to avoid paying big money to Nelson Cruz, but he didn’t make a mistake in turning down the Rangers offer of arbitration, as he knows that he possesses a skill that is becoming rarer and rarer in today’s game: right-handed power. Over the last three years, only 13 right-handed hitters in the game have hit at least 80 home runs, and Cruz is one of those 13. The growing scarcity of power, especially from the right side of the plate, is going to lead someone to give Cruz a pretty hefty contract. After all, basic economics suggest that the rarer something is, the more it should cost, and Cruz is one of the rare power hitters on the market this winter.

However, I’d like to suggest that baseball teams should not pay a premium to acquire power hitters simply because we’ve moved into an era where offense is harder to come by. Just because home run hitters are now harder to find does not make them significantly more valuable now than they were when everyone could jack 20 bombs a year.

Let’s deal with the scarcity issue first. Yes, there is now a lower supply of home runs than there used to be, and when supply goes down, price usually goes up, assuming demand holds steady. However, a baseball game is not a very good model of economic theory, because the scoring system of baseball is not designed to reward scarcity. If events were valued based on how rare they were, the triple would be baseball’s ultimate hit, as there were 4,661 home runs last year, but only 772 triples. Of course, no one thinks triples are more valuable than home runs just because there are fewer of them, because the currency of baseball is runs, not scarcity of events.

At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is how many runs a team scored and allowed in a given game. Even over a full season, the standings usually track very consistently with total runs scored and runs allowed. How you score runs does not really matter so long as you do. Home runs certainly help in that regard, but they don’t become exponentially more valuable simply because they become more scarce.

Without boring you too much with heavy math, many of the modern statistical models are based on a concept called Linear Weights. Linear Weights models take every event that happens over the course of a season and assigns an average run value to those events based on the run environment of that season. So, when offensive levels are high and there are lots of baserunners, home runs are more likely to occur with men on base and result in multiple runs scored than solo home runs, so the run value of a home run is higher in offensive booms than it is when pitching is dominating.

This is true of pretty much every offensive event, not just home runs. The value of reaching base goes down when it’s less likely that the guy behind you will drive you in. So, what we really care about are the change in relative values between things like singles and home runs in different run environments. To illustrate these changes, here’s a graph created by my colleague Steve Staude, for a post he wrote earlier this year.


Notice how the blue line for singles and the green line for home runs move in near unison over time, as offense ebbs and flows into and out of baseball. They don’t move in perfect lockstep, but they move very similarly in nearly every era of the game, including the one we’re living in now. There have been times in baseball history where the value of a home run and a single have differed from their norms — specifically, the Dead Ball Era, where no one could score and a home run was one of the few ways you could guarantee some offense — but at anything close to normal levels of run scoring, the relative value of the home run and the single don’t change much at all.

Now, you might wonder why you should care about what Linear Weights has to say about this, because the game is played on the field and not in some spreadsheet, or so I’ve been repeatedly told. While it is certainly true that the game is not played on a spreadsheet, the fact is that models built on Linear Weights have proven to be very accurate estimators of run scoring. If these models built on Linear Weights were undervaluing the effects of home runs, we’d expect teams that hit a lot of home runs to outperform the models expectations.

That is not what we actually find. In 2013, the top 10 teams in home runs combined to underperform their expected runs total by an average of 3.7 runs per team, while the bottom 10 teams in home runs combined to outperform their expected runs total by 9.2 runs per team.

The team with the largest difference between actual runs scored and expected runs scored was the Cardinals, who scored 61 runs more than their linear weights would suggest; the Cardinals finished 27th in the Majors in home runs, with just 125 long balls on the season. Meanwhile, the biggest underachiever in run production was the Tampa Bay Rays, despite finishing 11th in the majors in home runs.

But perhaps no team in baseball offers a more severe warning sign against overvaluing players like Nelson Cruz than last year’s Seattle Mariners. After struggling to score runs for years, the team loaded up on one dimensional power hitters in an effort to boost their offense. Their major off-season acquisitions included trades for Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales and free agent contracts for Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay. They traded defense for offense, and bet big on the value of the home run. It sort of worked, as they hit 188 long balls, more than any other team in baseball besides the Baltimore Orioles.

However, they only scored 624 runs, 22nd most in baseball. They too underperformed their expected runs total based on Linear Weights, even though their offense was relatively prolific at hitting the ball over the fence, as their lack of ability to get on base meant that 63% of their home runs only resulted in a single run, and it takes more than a bunch of solo home runs to win baseball games.

Nelson Cruz will hit home runs for whoever signs him to a big contract this winter, but he won’t do much else, and the reality is that players who hit home runs and do little else to help a team win just aren’t particularly valuable players overall. Rather than focusing on labels like “power hitter”, teams should simply seek to maximize their run differential. Nelson Cruz might do a thing that not many can do any more, but the things he can’t do make him a mediocre player, and unlikely to be worth the contract he’s going to get this winter.

Brewers Should Shop Ryan Braun

When rumors circulated last week that the Milwaukee Brewers might consider trading left fielder Ryan Braun, it generated a ton of interest around the sport. After all, this year’s free-agent market is largely devoid of top-level offensive thump other than Robinson Cano, and an elite hitter like Braun would fit nicely into the lineup of nearly every contending team in baseball.

Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin quickly shot down the rumors and further defused the talk by discussing the potential of moving Braun to right field next year.

So while it seems the Brewers might not have any plans to move him, I would argue that they should reconsider that stance.

This has little to do with Braun’s performance-enhancing drug troubles, though that’s certainly a part of the story. It has a whole lot more to do with the fact that Braun turned 30 last week and plays for a team that has gone from 66 to 79 to 88 losses in the past three years and is stuck in a division that had three 2013 playoff teams and a Chicago organization that’s maybe only a year away from seeing its crop of highly touted prospect bats start to arrive.

With a thin starting rotation and one of the weakest farm systems in the game, Milwaukee is probably in for a tough few years. The Brewers can finish in last place just as easily without Braun as with him.

Milwaukee is years away

The Brewers could hang on to Braun as he ages and the team rebuilds, all the while dealing with ticket holders who feel as though they’ve been betrayed, or they could give both themselves and Braun a fresh start. Those who insist that Braun’s baggage will prevent other teams from wanting to acquire him are mistaken; over the past three years, including his shortened 2013, he has been one of the 10 most valuable players in the game. It’s naive to think that other teams wouldn’t jump at the chance to add that skill set.

Elite hitters

Over the past five seasons, these are the 10 best hitters according to wRC+.

1. Miguel Cabrera 169
2. Mike Trout 163
3. Joey Votto 163
4. Ryan Braun 152
5. Albert Pujols 150
6. Jose Bautista 149
7. Prince Fielder 147
8. Matt Holliday 147
9. Joe Mauer 147
10. Buster Posey 140

That’s especially true because the current market is set up in such a way that acquiring talent via trade is often more efficient than via free agency, since the sport is both flush with television money and limiting where teams can actually put that money to use. Knowing that signing Cano — who is a year older and will cost a draft pick — is likely to top $200 million, Braun’s contract looks almost reasonable.

For example, San Francisco outfielder Hunter Pence, seven months older than Braun, signed a five-year deal worth $90 million to remain with the Giants in September. That’s an average annual value of $18 million for a solid player heading into his age-31 season who had never been more valuable in a season than Braun until 2013, when Braun played only 61 games.

By comparison, Braun heads into his age-30 season with seven years and $117 million left on his deal, a lower average value of $16.7 million. (That doesn’t include a $4 million buyout of a 2021 option but also doesn’t account for the fact that $18 million is deferred through 2031 at no interest, lowering the value.)

If Braun were on the open market, he would almost certainly match his current deal’s total value and perhaps get more. That’s the case despite the ugliness surrounding his controversial failed drug test, successful appeal and ultimate suspension that cost him the final 65 games of 2013, an elephant in the room that can’t be ignored.

But the truth of the matter is that as much as fans may dislike it, major league teams value talent over rap sheets. Just this month alone, Marlon ByrdJhonny Peralta and Carlos Ruiz — all with PED-related suspensions in the recent past — signed deals that roughly equaled or exceeded their entire career earnings to date, and Nelson Cruz is likely to do the same soon.

The annual inflation in salaries factors into that somewhat, but it’s mostly that they were among the best options on the market and were paid accordingly, despite the black marks on their records. Front offices want to win games, not act as the sport’s morality police.

Low supply of superstars

Braun’s reputation is likely tainted forever, but the fact is that there’s no simple pill or cream that can account for a No. 5 overall draft pick hitting the way he did from the start of his career, not when he is one of just 21 players in history to have a .400 wOBA in his 20s (minimum 4,000 plate appearances).

In other words, his combination of talents is nearly unmatched on the market, and he would be a fascinating trade chip were he to become available. Over the summer, Jim Bowden wrote that Braun is still by far the Brewers’ most valuable asset and would be consideredsecond only to Cano if he were a free agent this winter.

While the Mets are often mentioned when his name comes up, it’s actually teams like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Seattle that would immediately be able to get into the game for a talent that usually eludes them on the open market. The Pirates and Royals desperately need a power-hitting corner outfielder as they attempt to capitalize on their breakthrough 2013 seasons, while Seattle is constantly looking for offense and has money to spend. (Braun has a no-trade clause, but those are easily negotiated around.)

The Pirates, Royals and Mariners all have the high-end prospects that the Brewers desperately need, and a Braun trade would help jump-start the rebuilding process while ridding Milwaukee of a PR problem.

As we’ve seen on the market so far this winter, PED busts aren’t creating a drag on value, and making Braun available could do wonders for Milwaukee’s future.

Bad Contract Swap Meet

Earlier this week, the Tigers and Rangers got together to help each other out by exchanging contracts that neither team wanted any more. The Tigers dumped $138 million of the $168 million remaining on Prince Fielder’s deal, and in exchange, they took back the $62 million guaranteed that Ian Kinsler has left on his contract. And perhaps this won’t be the last deal like this we see this winter.

With all the new television money flowing into the game, teams have financial resources to absorb large contracts, but the supply of free agents worthy of such deals isn’t getting any larger. As teams look to spend money but are either spurned by free agents or unimpressed with the available crop, they may very well look to other teams for chances to exchange overpriced contracts. So, let’s look at a few other big contract swaps that might actually benefit both teams.

Dodgers Trade OF Matt Kemp to Yankees for LHP CC Sabathia

Kemp’s Remaining Contract: 6 years, $128 million
Sabathia’s Remaining Contract: 4 years, $96 million

The Dodgers have a crowded outfield, and likely have to trade one of Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, or Carl Crawford due to the emergence of Yasiel Puig (and top prospect Joc Pederson isn’t far behind). They reportedly are in the market for another starting pitcher, but don’t want to part with a draft pick to sign one of the better starters on the market. By swapping Kemp for Sabathia, they could kill two birds with one stone.

The annual salaries are almost identical, with Sabathia making just a few million dollars more per season each of the next four years, so this wouldn’t have a significant impact on either team’s budget, but would free up some longer term commitments for a Dodgers balance sheet that already has a lot of long term commitments on the books. And this deal could actually benefit both teams on the field as well.

The Yankees outfield is kind of a disaster. They tried to patch their holes with Vernon Wells and Alfonso Soriano last year, but neither one should be starting on a team trying to win in 2014. Same goes for Ichiro, actually. The Yankees need a legitimate every day corner outfielder, and at this point in his career, Kemp probably shouldn’t be asked to play center field anymore. In New York, playing next to Brett Gardner, he could simply focus on staying healthy and hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and the cozy dimensions and east coast humidity should help revitalize his offensive performances.

And the marginal cost of adding Kemp is only $32 million over and above Sabathia’s contract, which mitigates some of the risk that Kemp doesn’t bounce back to his previous levels. Even if he just becomes more of a solid regular than a superstar, he’d fill a gaping need for the Yankees outfield, and would inject some youth into a very old roster.

For the Dodgers, it would simply be a reallocation of assets, plus a small cost savings down the line. Much like Kinsler in Texas, the Dodgers aren’t likely going to get the full value due to overcrowding, so turning an above average outfielder into an above average pitcher makes the roster more efficient. And don’t let Sabathia’s ERA fool you; he’s still a good pitcher, with a strong track record that suggests a big rebound is possible in 2014. Adding Sabathia to Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu would give the Dodgers a ridiculous playoff rotation, and would allow them to use the rest of their 2014 payroll to pursue a starting third baseman and depth around the infield.

In both cases, the teams would be selling low on a star and hoping for a rebound from a change of scenery, but the Dodgers need a pitcher more than an outfielder while the opposite is true in New York. This is the kind of deal that could make both teams better.

Angels trade OF Josh Hamilton to White Sox for LHP John Danks

Hamilton’s Remaining Contract: 4 years, $98 million
Danks’ Remaining Contract: 3 years, $43 million

The Angels are looking to trade a bat for an arm, but are reportedly shopping young, low cost players like Howie Kendrick, Mark Trumbo, and Peter Bourjos in order to upgrade their pitching staff. Instead, maybe they should look at moving the older guy who caused the outfield logjam in the first place. Sure, dumping the $98 million left on Josh Hamilton’s contract isn’t going to be easy, but if they pick up some of the cost and take back another bad contract, they could potentially add a rotation piece and keep their good young players that are worth building around.

The White Sox present one such an opportunity, as they’d likely to be happy to be free of John Danks’ contract, and could certainly use another offensive upgrade, even after adding Cuban defector Jose Abreu to play first base. If the Angels were willing to even out the salaries for the next three years, thus neutralizing payroll for both sides for the duration of Danks’ contract, then the White Sox would only be picking up the $30 million that Hamilton is due in 2017. For that additional $30 million commitment, they could turn some of their rotation depth into a left-handed power bat with some legitimate upside. While Hamilton certainly had a miserable 2013 season, there are reasons to believe he could bounce back to something closer to what he was with Texas, in which case, the White Sox would get a significant upgrade from what Danks will likely provide over the next three years.

The Angels, meanwhile, would add a competent left-handed pitcher to the back of their rotation, while also shaving some of their future commitments off the books, but most importantly, they wouldn’t have to punt on guys like Bourjos, Trumbo, or Kendrick. These are the pieces the Angels should be looking to retain, not move, and dealing Hamilton and some cash for a bad contract pitcher would let them do just that.

Braves trade 2B Dan Uggla to Brewers for 2B Rickie Weeks

Uggla’s Remaining Contract: 2 years, $26 million
Weeks’ Remaining Contract: 2 years, $22 million

This is a straight up challenge trade, with two teams exchanging struggling second baseman who might just need a fresh start to get their careers going again. The Braves would likely have to cover the cost difference and perhaps throw in something else to convince the Brewers to take an older version of what they already have, but both teams should be interested in moving what they have for something new.

Overall, both are kind of similar players, as they are high-walk, high-strikeout, power hitting second baseman who don’t play the field particularly well. Both lost their jobs down the stretch, and neither have a clear future with their current organization. By swapping their problems, both players could get a chance to start over and see if a change of scenery could reinvigorate offensive abilities that were present in past years. Even if the Braves had to kick in one of the 10,000 good relief pitchers they seem to have lying around their organization, a 2B-for-2B swap could still help both teams.

Remaining Free Agent Bargains

When you think about a particular year’s free-agent crop, you think of the big tickets.

You remember how well Zack Greinke pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers last year, while shaking your head at how poorly Josh Hamilton performed for the Los Angeles Angels.

At some point in the future, we’ll look back at this winter and judge how well the expected massive contracts for Robinson CanoJacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo worked out — or, quite possibly, didn’t. But focusing on the ever-increasing prices at the top of the market tends to overlook where the true value is found.

For teams that know where to look, there’s a class of free agents primed to provide production at a fraction of the cost. We saw this last year with guys like Russell Martin,James Loney and Scott Kazmir. Each was coming off a subpar season but had a history of success, and each contributed substantially this year to a playoff team.

Can we find players who fit a similar profile on this year’s market? The Cleveland Indiansmay have already, reportedly signing useful outfielder David Murphy to a reasonably priced two-year deal Tuesday night, hoping they’ll get something more like his excellent 2012 than his down 2013.

Murphy isn’t alone, however — there are others like him.

Dan Haren, RHP

For years, Haren has been one of baseball’s top pitchers with the Athletics, Diamondbacks, and Angels. He received big money on a one-year deal to fill out the Nationals’ rotation in 2013. But it didn’t work, mostly; after 15 starts, Haren had a 6.15 ERA and had allowed opposing batters an ugly line of .306 AVG/.340 OBP/.548 SLG.

After his 15th start, he ended up on the disabled list with what was officially termed “shoulder soreness” but what was widely believed to be more of a simple breather to get him some time off the mound.

When he returned, he was a new man. In his final 16 games (15 starts), his ERA was 3.29, his line against was a solid .228/.271/.355, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio was an excellent 84/18. Just as importantly, he allowed only nine homers in his second half, as opposed to 19 before that.

Haren isn’t the ace he once was, not with 11 years in the bigs on his arm and downward-trending velocity. But he showed in the second half that his excellent control and a commitment to keeping the ball down can still allow him to be a productive pitcher, and his poor first half ensures he won’t get anything like $12 million again, making him a nice buy-low candidate.

Chris Young, CF

Young appears on this list for all the same reasons Murphy would have — they’re both eight-year veterans from the Houston area who suffered through arguably the worst years of otherwise productive careers in 2013.

Young might be an even better bet to buy low on, because he’s two years younger and was more productive at his peak than Murphy, providing Arizona with about 11 WAR from 2010 to ’12. Traded to Oakland last year, Young fell apart, hitting only .200/.280/.379, and the A’s predictably declined his $11 million option. Still, he’s only 30 and has three 20/20 seasons under his belt.

Young never did become the star that his 32-homer debut (at 22 years old in 2007) suggested he might be, but searching in the value bin isn’t about finding stars, it’s about identifying players who may be able to fit a role. If Young isn’t exactly the plus-plus center fielder he used to be, he’s still an above-average defender in a corner, and with a career .364 wOBA against lefties (only .310 against righties), he is an intriguing platoon option who can handle all three spots.

Even at his best, Young never had a high batting average — he has topped .250 just once — so he’d be best-served to land with a team that wisely doesn’t put much stock in that number. He’d do even better to end up somewhere that doesn’t have a lot of foul ground; of the 226 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances since the start of 2011, only five have popped up more than Young.

Ike Davis, 1B | New York Mets

Davis doesn’t fit the mold perfectly, because he’s not a free agent, but the Mets have made it clear he’s available, and he has the biggest boom/bust potential of anyone around. In just four years in the bigs, Davis has had a dizzying array of ups and downs, from a .302/.383/.543 line in a shortened 2011 season and 32 homers in 2012, to bouts with a severe ankle injury, Valley fever and finally a Triple-A demotion in 2013.

It’s not surprising that the Mets sent him down in June, because he was hitting just .161/.242/ .258, the second consecutive year he’d been beyond awful for the first half. In 2012, he turned it around and was fantastic down the stretch; in 2013, he again showed improvement after being recalled, hitting .267/.429/.443 in July and August until an oblique strain shut him down in September.

While he’s often infuriating to watch, he will be only 27 years old next year, and he has been an above-average hitter overall in a world where power keeps getting harder to find. He’s perhaps the biggest “change of scenery needed” player on the market, with Mets fans seemingly finished with him. A team that would keep him away from lefty pitching (career .269 wOBA) and let him hit righties (.357 wOBA) may enjoy their purchase.

The 2014 Steamer projections, it should be noted, are optimistic, projecting a .238/.341/.439 line with 18 homers in part-time play.

Corey Hart, 1B/OF

Hart missed all of 2013 with knee injuries, and that makes him an enormous risk as he heads into his age-32 season. Yet Hart will get an opportunity for the same reason that Davis will, and that’s because offense continues to trend down — 2013’s MLB wOBA of .314 is the lowest the sport has seen since 1989.

Hart has proclaimed himself healthy, and he hit .279/.343/.514 with 87 homers from 2010 to ’12. If not for the missed year, that’s the kind of performance that would have earned him a sizable multiyear contract in this market. The health concerns mean he’ll likely get only a single-year, make-good offer — and we saw how well that worked out for the Red Sox andMike Napoli last winter.

Sox, Yanks Already Winter Winners

It’s still early enough in the offseason that Marlon Byrd landing a two-year deal with thePhiladelphia Phillies is the biggest player movement we’ve seen so far, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any clear winners yet. There are two, and they’re the same two teams that always seem to fall into that category: the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

What could they possibly have won already, when no games are being played and they have not added any new players (yet)? They’ve won the ability to potentially pick up three additional draft picks apiece, more than any other teams in baseball, because of the “qualifying offer” system that went into place last year in the new collective bargaining agreement.

Rather than the old “Type A” and “Type B” arbitration system, teams may now offer eligible free agents a one-year deal for the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball, which this year comes out to $14.1 million.

If the idea of the draft serving to aid two of the wealthiest teams in the sport, especially when one is the defending champion, seems counterintuitive, it is. Yet that’s exactly what the new CBA has brought, as the fears of many who worried that small-market teams would find themselves further handicapped are being realized.

Under the old system — which, to be completely fair, no one particularly loved — teams could offer arbitration to any of their free agents. The player could decline and sign elsewhere, giving his old team a pick based on his status as a Type A, B or C free agent, as determined by a statistical formula, or he could accept and submit to arbitration. If the player signed elsewhere, his old club could receive up to two compensatory draft picks.

The key there is that there was no artificial dollar figure that served as a “one size fits all” mark, like the current system does. The team and player could submit their figures, and the arbitrator would choose one, giving each side incentive to stick to something realistic for that particular player.

Ironically, part of the reason the system was changed was because big-market teams were exploiting it — remember the Red Sox having five first-round picks in 2005? — but the new rules haven’t changed much. Many teams are bidding farewell to useful free agents because they are afraid of a one year, $14.1 million deal, taking the idea of draft pick compensation completely off the table.

Haves and have-nots

The problem with the new system is demonstrated fairly well by Bartolo Colon and Hiroki Kuroda. Colon, 40, and Kuroda, 38, are coming off very similar seasons and considering their age would almost certainly be valued comparably in a vacuum. However, the A’s are not in a position to risk $14 million on an aging pitcher, which is why Colon did not get a qualifying offer. The Yankees, however, can take that gamble, and made the tender to Kuroda, which means they will get an extra draft pick should he sign elsewhere.

This example isn’t perfect, as $14.1 million would represent a big raise for Colon and a slight pay cut for Kuroda, but their past salary isn’t that relevant to how they should be valued now.

For the Yankees and Red Sox, qualifying offers carry minimal risk. They can afford to carry multiple players who are making close to that level or more anyway, to start with, and even if, say, Kuroda, Jacoby EllsburyMike Napoli, and Stephen Drew had all accepted their offers — which was never going to happen — New York and Boston could have made that work.

Funny thing is, the Yankees and Red Sox could rest easily knowing that these guys weren’t going to accept the offer because no one ever accepts the qualifying offer. Literally. Last year, none of the nine players who received qualifying offers accepted. This year, none of the 13 such players took the offer, making the qualifying offer 0-for-22 in two years.

A full 10 of the 22 offers came from the Red Sox and Yankees alone, and a huge majority came from other teams that can easily be considered big players, like the Texas Rangers (Nelson CruzJosh Hamilton) andSt. Louis Cardinals (Carlos BeltranKyle Lohse).

That’s because it’s offered almost exclusively to players who are all but certain to go off and get huge, multi-year contracts, like when the Rays were able to extend an offer to B.J. Upton last season. Upton even reaching that point was something of a rarity, because most smaller teams have either locked up their young stars before free agency hits (see: Evan Longoria) or traded them for huge returns (see: James Shields).

By design, this system is meant to reward wealthier teams who can both hang on to players through free agency and then risk the $14.1 million salary.

Broken system

To its credit, MLB tried to build in some safeguards for this, like protecting the first-round picks of the worst 10 teams, in theory enabling them to sign a qualifying offer player without losing more than a second-round pick, and creating the competitive balance draft. It’s nice, but somewhat without teeth. Many of those teams with protected picks aren’t at the right point in the win cycle to buy expensive free agents — that is, the difference between 67 wins and 71 wins doesn’t mean a whole lot — even if those top players did want to go to losing teams, which many do not.

The competitive balance draft is somewhat better, because it distributes extra picks to the smallest-market and lowest-revenue teams based on a lottery. Still, some of those picks come between the first and second rounds and the rest between the second and third; since they come after the qualifying offer compensation picks, which are at the end of the first round, those teams still get their extra picks behind teams like the Yankees and Red Sox.

In theory, the draft is supposed to help the worst teams while keeping costs down, which is why it is generally seen as the best path to success for small-market clubs. But as we’re seeing with the free-agent compensation system, all that is happening is that the rich are getting richer.

Jacoby Ellsbury’s Excellent Aging Curve

A lot of people don’t trust speed-and-defense players to age well. They’re one knee injury away from being worthless! Once the speed goes, what’s left! Just look at what happened to Carl Crawford! The skepticism over the value of production that is not hitting is never more evident then when a player like Jacoby Ellsbury hits the free agent market. While some might grudgingly admit that Ellsbury has had a couple of terrific seasons lately, his lack of power and dependence on his legs have created some doubt about whether he’ll be able to be an impact player for much longer.

Is such skepticism actually warranted, however, or simply another instance of hitting being overvalued relative to other skills? Rather than just lean on conjecture, let’s actually look at how players with similar skill sets and performances at Ellsbury’s age have done after they turned 30. To find a good set of comparable players, I looked at all outfielders over the last 30 years, then narrowed down the list to just players who were in the same general range of production as Ellsbury during those three seasons and had a significant part of their value come from defense and baserunning.

Including Ellsbury, I found ten outfielders who matched this skillset and performance to a pretty high level, and have actually completed their age-36 season, so that we can compare their performances over a seven year period, the length of contract I expect Ellsbury to land this winter. Here is the table showing Ellsbury’s performance relative to those age-27 to age-29 peers.

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Lenny Dykstra 0.312 0.400 0.428 0.373 134 28 11 6.2
Jacoby Ellsbury 0.303 0.356 0.469 0.359 123 23 12 5.8
Rickey Henderson 0.285 0.387 0.450 0.374 133 33 2 5.7
Kenny Lofton 0.324 0.381 0.474 0.372 118 20 11 5.0
Tim Raines 0.297 0.395 0.461 0.371 135 30 -3 4.8
Andy Van Slyke 0.271 0.341 0.451 0.352 126 19 6 4.7
Ichiro Suzuki 0.328 0.374 0.440 0.350 118 17 6 4.4
Devon White 0.253 0.314 0.402 0.322 98 2 18 4.1
Steve Finley 0.279 0.331 0.406 0.328 106 6 10 3.7
Marquis Grissom 0.286 0.337 0.435 0.336 100 2 12 3.3

OFF/600 and DEF/600 are simply the number of runs created through offense or defense per 600 plate appearances, and then WAR/600 is Wins Above Replacement per 600 plate appearances, so that we see each player’s totals on a scale that is roughly one full season’s worth of playing time.

In terms of total production, Ellsbury was actually better than most of these guys over the three years being measured, even though he missed half a season during his age-28 season and had limited production when he did manage to play. His production in his two healthy seasons was so great that it puts him in the top tier of these types of players even with his mediocre 2012 season included.

Overall, these players give us a pretty decent group of outfielders who were productive at this stage in their careers despite moderate power, primarily succeeding through excellent baserunning and tracking down balls in the outfield. Devon White, Marquis Grissom, and Steve Finley were more defensive specialists than total all around stars, but it’s still informative to see how guys who were more defense and less offense did as they got older.

Including the three lesser hitters also helps serve to balance things out, so that the total production of the nine players we’re looking at nearly matches Ellsbury’s own production. Overall, the average wRC+ posted by these players in their 27-29 seasons was 119, just a little below Ellsbury’s 123. They were approximately nine runs above average defensively per season, while Ellsbury was 12 runs above average per season. Not every player matches Ellsbury perfectly as a comparison, but as a group, these guys comprised most of the same skill levels as he does now.

So how did they do from their age-30 to age-36 seasons? I’m glad you asked.

Name AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Rickey Henderson 0.287 0.418 0.453 0.393 148 40 -2 6.0
Lenny Dykstra 0.285 0.401 0.440 0.374 126 21 5 4.6
Ichiro Suzuki 0.332 0.377 0.426 0.348 114 16 5 4.1
Kenny Lofton 0.287 0.368 0.422 0.349 107 8 10 3.7
Andy Van Slyke 0.280 0.354 0.434 0.350 117 12 -2 3.2
Tim Raines 0.284 0.376 0.408 0.352 116 15 -6 3.0
Devon White 0.272 0.332 0.435 0.336 100 2 8 2.9
Steve Finley 0.275 0.338 0.476 0.349 110 8 -3 2.3
Marquis Grissom 0.264 0.304 0.413 0.311 84 -13 -1 0.7

Grissom is the warning sign that people often point to, as his performance regressed to the point that he was barely worth playing, and he produced little value after age-30. Of course, he was also the worst player of the comparable age-27 to age-29 group, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that he was also the worst player beyond age-30.

Lenny Dkystra and Andy Van Slyke could also be pointed to as moderate warnings, or at least reminders that future health is not guaranteed. Both Dykstra and Van Slyke were pretty effective players even beyond age-30 when they were on the field, Dykstra managed just 1,600 plate appearances and Van Slyke just 2,300 after their age-29 season. We don’t see the precipitous decline in production with either of them that we do with Grissom, but they failed to age well because they weren’t able to stay in the line-up often enough, and both were out of baseball by the time they were 35.

The other six, though? Pretty obvious success stories. Henderson got better, even as he moved to a corner outfield spot full time. Ichiro maintained almost all of his value, staying basically the same player that he was in those first three years. Raines and Lofton both got worse, but both were still excellent players even after their speed began to slip. Devon White and Steve Finley, despite starting from lower baselines, actually hit better after turning 30, and the increases in offense helped to offset their defensive downgrades, leaving them as productive regulars for the bulk of their age 30-36 seasons.

Overall, these nine players maintained an average of 70% of their ages 27-29 WAR/600 rates. If you apply that 70% rate to Ellsbury’s +5.8 WAR/600 from his last three seasons, he’d forecast as a +4.0 WAR per 600 PA player over the next seven years. Even if we include the players whose careers ended early, the group of comparables still averaged 522 plate appearances per year over their 30-36 seasons. Take 70% of Ellsbury’s last three year performance and project it out to 525 plate appearances per year and you’re still left with a guy who averages +3.5 WAR per season over the next seven years.

The idea that Ellsbury-type players fall apart as their speed declines is simply exposed as a myth. Players like this that have come before have simply made adjustments to compensate for their declining speed, and have continued to produce at a high rate even as their speed and defense diminished. Don’t buy into the idea that Jacoby Ellsbury is headed for a crash as he slows down. In fact, if he performs like the average of the similar players who came before him, the rumored price tags of $120-$140 million might end up proving to be a bargain.

Mystery Team, Make Your Move

There are plenty of moves that, from the outside, look fairly predictable. The Tigers want a proven closer, and Joe Nathan is looking for a job shutting the door for a contender. The Giants are looking for another starting pitcher with some upside, and Dan Haren wants to go back and pitch on the west coast again. The Mariners need a leadoff hitter and a center fielder, and Jacoby Ellsbury is looking for his first and probably only long term contract.

There are players and teams that look tailor made for each other, but more often than we might expect, the baseball off-season surprises us. The often mocked “mystery team” has been making more and more appearances of late, with teams signing or trading for players who weren’t such obvious fits at the beginning of the off-season. It’s happened so often that maybe we should begin to expect the unexpected. So, here are three acquisitions that might not seem so obvious from the outlook, but should be candidates for surprise transactions that make sense in retrospect.

New York Mets sign Robinson Cano.

The Mets currently have two players under contract for 2014 — David Wright and Jon Niese — and they account for just $25 million in salary obligations. The team has another 11 players who are up for arbitration, meaning that the Mets control their rights and will be on the hook for some salary north of the league minimum, but even if the Mets brought all 11 of those players back (an unlikely result at best), they’d still only be on the hook for approximately another $25 million or so between them, leaving them with at least $40 to $50 million to spend this winter just to get back to their 2013 payroll levels. If they use some of the money the league has distributed to the teams from the national TV contracts, they could go even north of that, maybe even pushing to $60 or $70 million in additional spending.

The Yankees are dancing with the luxury tax, and seem to have been turned off to long term free agent deals by some of their recent signings. Cano is Jay-Z’s first big client, and as such, he probably isn’t in a position to give the Yankees a big discount. Perhaps the Mets should make everyone happy, allowing Cano to land a monstrous contract while also staying in New York, but letting the Yankees off the hook for another 10 year deal that probably won’t end all that well.

With the ownership’s financial situation hindering the team’s spending in recent years, the Mets fan base could use a jolt of energy, and few things would invigorate Queens like stealing the Yankees best player. While a 10 year, $250 million commitment might appear like an albatross waiting to happen, the Mets have the current budget space and the long term financial capability to make such a bold move work, and Cano would transform a Mets line-up that could desperately use an elite left-handed stick.

The Mets should be one of the most aggressive spending teams this winter, and Cano is the best player on the market. They’ve got the geographic advantage in allowing him to remain entrenched in New York, and have the financial capability to let Jay-Z make his first big splash while showing that he won’t be beholden to the Yankees. They have the need and the cash, and putting Cano on the Mets would would make the Subway Series a fun rivalry once more.

Oakland A’s acquire Max Scherzer.

Billy Beane and his crew have kept the A’s alive by hoarding draft picks and trading stars away before they get too expensive, so they’re not the kind of team you expect to give up the farm to acquire a guy who is a year away from free agency. However, the A’s have a contending roster in place, and just need one more good piece to push them into being a legitimate World Series contender, and Max Scherzer could be that piece.

Even with the expected Cy Young Award in his back pocket, Scherzer’s unlikely to get more than $15 million in arbitration this winter, meaning that he’ll be relatively affordable in terms of salary compared to other elite players at his level. And Scherzer could be a difference maker in a rotation that lacks a front line starter.

Bartolo Colon gave the A’s a miraculous performance in 2013, but when the postseason rolled around, it became clear once again that Oakland didn’t have any arms that could match up against Scherzer or Justin Verlander, and for the second year in a row, the Tigers power arms sent the A’s home in the first round. Now, however, the Tigers probably can’t afford to keep all of their star players for the long term, and might choose to cash in on Scherzer before he commands a $150 million contract next winter. And the A’s should capitalize on the Tigers need to rearrange their roster.

The A’s control the rights to Yoenis Cespedes for another two years, and the Tigers are looking to get more athletic in the outfield. Cespedes is exactly the kind of player that could convince Dave Dombrowski to make Scherzer available, and if the A’s could work in additional pieces to get Andy Dirks coming back to Oakland, they could use their outfield depth to rent-an-ace and make a run at winning it all in 2014. Yes, they won’t be able to sign Scherzer to an extension, but if they acquire him this off-season, they’ll be able to turn his exit into a 2015 draft pick, which has extra value to teams like the A’s who need to build through the draft. Getting a full year of a legitimate ace and then collecting draft pick compensation next winter when he walks should be enough to entice the A’s to make a bold move for a player who could put them over the top.

Kansas City Royals acquire David Price

Last year, the Royals and Rays hooked up on perhaps the most notable trade of the winter, with the Rays sending James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City in exchange for super prospect Wil Myers and a few less prospects not quite as super. It was the Royals declaration that they were tired of losing and tired of waiting for the future, so they were pushing their chips and making a run when they saw the opportunity. They did win 86 games, but finished well behind Detroit and Cleveland in the AL Central race, and now they face a 2014 season that could be Shields’ last year in Kansas City, as he’s set to hit free agency next winter.

So Dayton Moore should go back to the well and make another trade with the Rays to bring in a frontline starting pitcher. This time, the Rays are going to be looking for a buyer for David Price, and the price again is going to be steep. However, the Royals have already pushed their chips into the middle of the pile, and backing off now because of concerns about what it might do to their future could leave them stranded in a position where they’re not good enough in 2014 and not good enough to contend after Shields’ off-season exit. The Myers trade made this their window, and they should do what they can to make sure they give themselves a real opportunity to take advantage of their chance to win.

Maybe it costs them Eric Hosmer, who would certainly appeal to Tampa Bay as a cheap young first baseman. Or maybe it’s Billy Butler and flame-throwing pitching prospect Yordano Ventura headlining the package. Price isn’t going to come cheap, and like with the Shields trade, it’s probably going to require giving up some talent from their 2014 roster in order to outbid other interested suitors. But Hosmer and Butler could be replaced, at least in the short term, while Price would give the Royals another frontline player to allow them to make a serious run at a Detroit team that might be in for a step back next year.

The cost is again going to be painful, but the Royals made the decision to push the gas pedal last winter, and slamming on the breaks right before you go crashing through the wall only leads to a totaled vehicle. At this point, it should be pedal to the metal, and the Royals have the pieces that could get Price. If it works, and a playoff push leads to an attendance surge, maybe they even find a way to re-sign Shields next year, and then can flip Price in 12 months to recoup some of the talent they gave up to borrow him for a year. And if it doesn’t, well, at least they really tried.

Robinson Cano’s Aging Curve

Free Agency officially begins on Tuesday, as players will have the right to begin negotiating with all 30 teams, and financial figures can start to be officially exchanged. No free agent is going to be asking for bigger numbers than Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. He is undisputedly the best player on the market this winter, and early reports have suggested that he’s looking for a monstrous contract, maybe even aiming to become baseball’s first $300 million player.

With any deal for a player of Cano’s stature, we’re essentially guaranteed a minimum of seven years, and recent trends suggest that elite position players — Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder most notably — have enough leverage to demand eight, nine, or even 10 year contracts. Joey Votto got a 10 year deal from the Reds when he was two years from free agency, effectively making that a 12 year commitment, and he didn’t even have the leverage of other teams bidding up his price. However, there’s one thing those three players all have in common; they play first base, and their value comes almost entirely from their hitting skills.

Cano is a second baseman, and while he’s an amazing hitter relative to other second baseman, his offense wouldn’t be quite so impressive at a less demanding position. A significant part of Cano’s value comes from the fact that he can play an up the middle position, and teams have historically not paid the same price for defensive value as they have for offensive value. Especially when it comes to signing a player into his late 30s — Cano just turned 31, so even an eight year deal would take him through his age-38 season — teams have historically been skeptical about betting on up the middle players sustaining their value, at least relative to the bets they are willing to make on players who derive their value from standing at the plate and hitting the ball really far.

More specifically, there seems to be a decent amount of skepticism about how second baseman in particular will hold up towards the end of their careers. Roberto Alomar, for instance, completely fell apart after his age-33 season, going from an MVP caliber star to a nearly worthless scrub almost overnight. He was one of the best players to ever man the position, but was totally washed up by his 34th birthday. One theory espoused for the unexpected and dramatic declines of second baseman; they take a physical beating from hanging in on the double play, having years of players slide into their legs and knees, and eventually, it just wears them down.

However, the theory is usually based on anecdotal evidence. It’s one thing to point to Roberto Alomar or Ryne Sandberg, but is there actually evidence that players who play second base and hit like Cano are more likely to flame out than players at other positions?

This is a little bit of a tricky question to answer simply because there are so few second baseman who hit like Robinson Cano. But, there have been some, and we can look at their careers to see if we see a pattern of early collapses.

For a fair comparison, here are the top five offensive second baseman over the last 50 years, from ages 28-30, sorted by wRC+:

Joe Morgan: 2,019 PA, 156 wRC+, +26.8 WAR
Rod Carew: 1,994 PA, 152 wRC+, +20.0 WAR
Robinson Cano: 2,059 PA, 142 wRC+, +19.1 WAR
Chase Utley: 2,007 PA, 141 wRC+, +23.4 WAR
Craig Biggio: 1,907 PA, 137 wRC+, +15.3 WAR

For all five, the playing time during those three seasons was pretty similar, ranging from 416 games for Biggio to 480 for Cano. He actually has more games played and more plate appearances during his age 28-30 seasons than any of the other four players on the list, so relative to his peers, durability seems to not be an issue.

How’d the other four do in the latter stages of their careers, performance wise, starting with their age-31 seasons? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Joe Morgan: 5,390 PA, 135 wRC+, +46.7 WAR
Craig Biggio: 6,744 PA, 113 wRC+, +33.6 WAR
Rod Carew: 4,915 PA, 130 wRC+, +28.4 WAR
Chase Utley: 1,858 PA, 121 wRC+, +15.9 WAR

Morgan played until he was 40, and was even better after turning 30 than he was before. His two best seasons came at ages 31 and 32, and even at the end of his career, he was still an excellent player. He played second base all the way to the end of his career as well, never moving to an easier position even after 20 years of turning double plays.

Biggio also had the two best years of his career at ages 31 and 32, and he played until he was 41, but he’s actually a bit more in the Alomar camp than the Morgan camp, as he was essentially an average player from 34-41. He hung around, but wasn’t a very effective player at the end of his career, and his decline from greatness to mediocrity was pretty swift. He was so good in his early 30s, however, that the overall performance during that span is still excellent.

Carew is a bit of a mix of the two, at least in terms of age-31 excellence, as he also had the best year of his career in that season, but he comes with a bit of a caveat; he moved to first base full time at age-30, and spent the second half of his career playing a much less demanding position. Still, the move to first base didn’t keep him from being a fantastic player in his 30s, as he retained almost all of his offensive value and was a very good player through age-36 before tailing off in his last few years.

Finally, we have the incomplete story of Chase Utley. He just finished his age-34 season, and his last four years have been full of injuries. However, Utley’s been so good when he has been on the field that he’s been at least a +3 WAR player in each of his age 31-34 seasons, even while only averaging 108 games per season. We don’t know what Utley’s next few years will look like, but if he represents the injury prone downside of taking a beating at second base, that’s a pretty great worst case scenario.

Of the four second baseman of the last 50 years who were comparable to Cano heading into a similar point in his career, two are in the Hall of Fame, one should be, and the active player will have a decent case if he can stick around for a few more years at the level he’s been playing recently. It’s hard to get a better set of comparables than that.

Maybe going to 8+ years for Cano won’t turn out to be a good idea, just as it doesn’t appear to have been a good idea to give Prince Fielder a nine year deal or Albert Pujols a 10 year deal. These long contracts come with tons of risk. However, the evidence that great second baseman in particular come with extra risk seems to be lacking. I’d be leery of giving any player on the wrong side of 30 a deal that runs for nearly a decade, but teams shouldn’t be less willing to give that kind of deal to Cano just because he plays second base.