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Worst MLB Contracts Mailbag

Joey VottoMonday’s breakdown of baseball’s 15 least tradable contracts triggered lots of responses on Twitter, especially of the “What? Player X didn’t make it?!” variety. We’ll tackle those questions, along with queries about replacement level, the Flying Hellfish, and more, in today’s Twitterbag. Here we go:

Does Joey Votto’s contract and last season’s knee injury become a franchise killer for small-market Reds down the road?
— @scottnash80

The funny thing about this question is that a bunch of people lobbied for Votto’s inclusion on the best 50 contracts list that we ran in November. In Votto, the Reds locked up one of the three best hitters on the planet. On the other hand, they did so two years before Votto was eligible for free agency, cementing a 12-year commitment with their MVP first baseman. When Votto suffered a knee injury last season, it was a stark reminder of all that can and often does go wrong with even the best players in the game. Votto turns 30 this year, and his contract won’t expire until he reaches his 40s. There’s an excellent chance that, even accounting for exploding industry-wide revenue and the usual year-to-year salary inflation, the $25 million a year Votto’s owed in the final six years of his deal will start to become a major burden at some point.

But here’s the thing: Teams are well aware of this risk. When they sign a superstar like Votto to this kind of contract, they’re more or less banking on him not earning his keep by year seven or eight or nine. But they’re also turning a huge profit on the front end — in a world where Ervin Santana is making $13 million this season, Votto collecting $12 million, $14 million, $20 million, and $22 million in the first four years of his contract qualifies as a monumental steal. In short, we can’t quite call Votto’s contract one of the best in the game. But it’s certainly not one of the worst either. Not now, anyway.

Prince Fielder didn’t even get honorable mention?
— @Yanks23242

The common pattern among the very largest contracts in baseball is that they tend to funnel toward power-hitting first basemen. This is, to put it mildly, a suboptimal use of resources. A player confined to first base is already on the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, offering far less positional value than an up-the-middle player, because far more players can look respectable at first than they can at short or behind the plate. Fielder offers nothing beyond his big bat and his durability, which is why his nine-year, $214 million contract was an overpay from day one. On the other hand, he’s been such an unusually durable and consistent power hitter, he doesn’t quite crack the elite albatross company of, say, A-Rod and Vernon Wells.

Why no Dan Uggla? Is it because he plays 2B, or length of contract?
— @samjdawkins

And here we have the flip side of the Fielder argument. Uggla isn’t a very good defensive second baseman, but a team can at least put him out there and not get killed for it. That has plenty of value, especially when Uggla is averaging 30-plus homers a year, the way he did in his first six seasons in the big leagues. Of course, if he repeats his 2012 production, when he hit .220 and couldn’t even crack the 20-homer mark, then the three years and $39 million he has left on his deal starts to look ugly. Still not top-15 worst contract ugly, since with the going rate for a win hovering around $6 million in free agency, Uggla is ostensibly being paid to be a 2-win player, which is league average. Not a contract the mid-level-revenue Braves should feel great about either, though.

No Joe Mauer?
— @black_bile

With six years and $138 million left on his deal, given how the physical demands of catching tend to ravage catchers’ bodies, it’s entirely possible that this deal will end terribly. And yes, the 28-homer season Mauer put up in 2009, which helped fuel the gigantic numbers on his long-term deal, now looks like a one-time thing, given he’s never hit more than 13 in any other season. Still, we’re talking about a player — a freaking catcher! — who led the majors in on-base percentage last season. Right now, he’s an asset, not a burden. Even at $23 million per.

Doesn’t player-generated revenue have to be considered? If A-Rod generated big $$ then his contract isn’t as bad.
and …
You actually quantify how many Ryan Howard jerseys are sold and what the impact of losing a homegrown player vis-a-vis ticket sales is?
— @lionelhutzskis

FanGraphs recently published a pair of fascinating articles that attempt to address these points, particularly the one about letting a homegrown star go rather than re-signing him, and the extension of that event, in which a team goes into rebuilding mode. As Dave Cameron wrote, regarding the Mariners’ recent decision to make Felix Hernandez a very rich man:

It is not as simple as taking the $175 million that the Mariners gave to Felix and giving it to someone else in free agency. Players of this caliber rarely make it to free agency anymore, and when they do, they’re not signing with mid-market clubs that have spent years rebuilding their rosters from the ground up.

Also at FanGraphs, Dan Farnsworth goes into heavy detail about the value of retaining elite players and not tearing teams down, even teams floundering below .500:

When viewing total revenue, annual revenue, and return on investment estimates from the last 20 or so years, spending more money on a team with a losing record will help speed the recovery process and leave the team in better long-term shape. The more an owner invests in a sub-.500 team the better the revenue streams and returns down the road.

Follow that train of thought to contending teams, and you can see why the Phillies anted up for Howard and the Yankees backed up the Brinks truck for A-Rod. But of course, the devil’s in the details. Howard was one of those skills-limited first basemen who ran the risk of becoming a major albatross if his offensive production went south, whether because of injuries or skills-erosion; that the Phillies gave him such a huge deal nearly two years before his existing contract was up only made things worse. In the case of Rodriguez, the Yankees were paying for past performance, and also the allure of A-Rod breaking records as the years ticked away. Ignoring all the extenuating circumstances about PEDs and other dramas, though, they were counting on a player to remain a superstar well into his late-30s and 40s, a risky proposition for anyone. Yes, there are less-tangible factors to consider when deciding whether to throw a ton of money at a star player. But in the cases of Howard and A-Rod, in particular, on-field factors trumped all — the minute they signed their deals, and especially now.

A 6th year on Lackey’s contract has vested at league-minimum salary due to missing 2012 with TJ surgery, so his deal isn’t as bad.
— @PPokaski

A very fair point. It’s entirely possible that Lackey gets injured, terrible, or both over the next three years. But the remainder of his contract has now gone from three years, $46 million to three years, $31 million. If Thin John Lackey can regain some of his old form, that deal starts to look downright not awful.

Dodgers may have 6 to 7 billion in revenue for the new TV deal…so is any contract they do a “bad” contract ?
— @ltw0303

In a sense, you could make the case that nothing they do can be that bad. I did include a caveat in the article noting that the Dodgers may be the one exception among all teams, that they’re the only one with no concern at all for blowing past the luxury tax (even the Yankees tightened their belts this offseason, and will do so again next winter). In the Dodgers’ case, the issue becomes one of sunk costs, both financial and positional. As much as the Dodgers might seem to have unlimited money, even they will stop short of chasing a premium player at a certain position, if they already owe someone else more than $100 million to play that same position. Which is why, even though I’m not convinced Josh Hamilton can perform at an MVP level this season, much less for the next five years, the Dodgers still missed out on a player likely to be better than the one they already had in left field, because Carl Crawford is still owed nine figures.

Is there really a bad contract in a non-cap league?
— @Paddygurks

There may not be a hard cap, but every team (again, except arguably the Dodgers) has an internal limit they’ll honor when it comes to player payroll. The Yankees didn’t re-up with Nick Swisher or Russell Martin, nor did they sign any significant free agents other than those who’d played for the team in 2012. As a result, the early projections peg the Yanks as a third-place team. And that’s just at the top end. We can debate the fairness of Peter Angelos pocketing well over $100 million a year from MASN rather than earmarking at least some of that money for impact talent, or Jeffrey Loria tearing down the Marlins a few months after opening a $634 million stadium that he extorted out of South Florida taxpayers. But the fact of the matter is those teams — as well as teams with more benevolent owners — set a budget every year, and more or less stick to it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as each team adds another $25 million a year in national TV money, while local media deals also continue to grow. We should expect some salary inflation, but not so much that the scale changes dramatically, or that the concept of bad contracts in baseball ceases to exist.

How is replacement-level calculated? Does it fluctuate from year to year, or is it a static concept?
— @johncarls

For the answer to this question, let’s turn to sabermetric standard-bearer Tom Tango:

WAR is wins above replacement. Replacement is defined very specifically for my purposes: it’s the talent level for which you would pay the minimum salary on the open market, or for which you can obtain at minimal cost in a trade.
For nonpitchers, that level is set at -2.25 wins per 162 games, below the average for that league. Since the same stats of an average AL player is better than the same stats of an average NL player (i.e., the AL is the better league), we have different replacement levels. Those levels are -2.5 wins per 162 games in the AL, and -2.0 wins in the NL.

Read the rest of the piece for more details, and a lot more math. But, yes, replacement level can change slightly from year to year, though not really enough to be all that noticeable. In plain English, the goal of calculating replacement level, and thus wins above replacement level, is to be able to compare players at different positions, playing for different teams, in different stadiums and leagues, with different skill sets. Prince Fielder and Michael Bourn are about as different as two very good players can be. But by quantifying everything both players do — hit, run, field, etc. — we can better understand how valuable each one is to his team. That doesn’t mean WAR is perfect: Defensive metrics keep improving, and we should eventually be able to do much more than Ultimate Zone Rating (the defensive component used to calculate that portion of WAR), especially if and when Sportvision opts to make FIELDf/x data public, thereby giving us the exact position of every fielder, and the trajectory and velocity of all batted balls. But for now, it’s a useful guideline, one that gives us a more complete picture than home runs, stolen bases, strikeouts, or walks can on their own.

Does the last former Montreal Expo active in the major leagues get the Hellfish Bonanza?
— @devil_fingers

Yes, and I’m betting against Asa. It’s tricky to find an exact number, since several ex-Expos haven’t officially retired, but are still unlikely to ever play in the majors again. My best guess at the remaining list right now:

Jamey Carroll
Maicer Izturis
Juan Rivera
Endy Chavez
Carl Pavano
Bartolo Colon
Ted Lilly
Bruce Chen
Livan Hernandez
Jon Rauch
Scott Downs
Guillermo Mota
Miguel Batista
Luis Ayala

Acknowledging that lefty relief pitchers can find a job past social security age, and that Hernandez might pitch until he’s 134 years old (so, three more years), my money has been and remains on Izturis, the youngest player on this list at 32, still a useful player, and someone with a blend of skills that should allow him to remain a utility infielder in the big leagues for several more seasons. It’s going to stink when Mr. Burns steals the paintings from him.

Do you think the Rays ever expected the penalty for international signings overspending would be this harsh? 250k/player in 2013?!
— @Theginkster

I’d say the Rays expected a tax but figured the 2012 crop of players, particularly the collection of intriguing prospects they landed from Venezuela, made it a risk they felt was worth taking. The next crop projects to be a weak one. Plus the penalties include a tax and a cap on how much the Rays can spend on any one player ($250,000) but not a drop in their total budget for 2013 international signings. Given how hard it is to project 16-year-old players of any stripe, and how teams often find gold through much smaller investments on the international market, spreading their risk around isn’t necessarily a devastating blow.

With that said, let’s be clear: The caps on draft and international spending are about saving the owners a few million bucks here or there. They have nothing at all to do with anything resembling fairness. When teams like the revenue-challenged Rays are getting penalized for going over their international budget by a few bucks, that much becomes obvious.