Subtitle: Like Pieces of Paper with Writing on Them.
It’s November 29, and Jose Reyes is still a free agent. The Mets have yet to sign anyone or make any trades. Not much is happening in the baseball world . . . so let’s fire up the contracts-of-the-past machine once again. This time we’re going to look at shortstops, as the Mets have interest in a certain aforementioned free agent shortstop. Between the 2004-05 winter and the present, shortstops signed 18 multi-year contracts as free agents and six contract-extensions buying out multiple years of free agency. Here are all of them, in something resembling a discernible order.
Multi-year free agent contracts given to shortstops:
There aren’t many of them, and none have been for longer than four years or for more than $40 million dollars. I’m not sure why this happens, but there have been no monster contracts for free agent shortstops in recent years. Alex Rodriguez’s deal with Texas is the last one that jumps to mind. For whatever reason, elite shortstops seem to hit the open market only rarely. Or maybe it’s just that elite shortstops are rare. Or maybe, even in the Moneyball era, teams still overpay for things they can quantify — on-base percentage, home runs — and still underpay for the things they can’t — defensive value and durability, and the strengths of many quality shortstops tend more often to fall into the non-quantifiable category. That may has something to do with it.
Whatever the reasons, the net result is that shortstops, as a group, tend to be a much better multi-year investments than pitchers and somewhat better investments than outfielders, the two other groups we’ve previously examined. I suppose this is good news for Mets fans hoping for Reyes to re-sign. Of course, the bad news for Mets fans is that Jose Reyes excels in the quantifiable areas teams pay for: He just won the batting title, he steals bases and he scores runs. He has far less value hidden in the harder-to-quantify areas, such as fielding and durability. My guess is that, because of these factors,
Miami someone is going to overpay Reyes, and he’s going to be wearing a uniform other than the Mets’ come 2012.
That said, Reyes is unlike any player hitting the open market in recent history, and that makes his final destination harder to predict.
Anyway, here are the shortstops who signed three-year or four-year deals as free agents in recent history, in rough best-to-worst order:
1. Orlando Cabrera, Angels, four years (2005-08), $32 million
11.1 wins above replacement
A sneaky-good contract for a sneaky-good player. Cabrera never managed an OPS better than the AL average in any year, but he did other things well enough to be a solid starter for four years. A prototypical Mike Scioscia middle-infielder, Cabrera hit .281 and drew enough walks for a reasonable .332 on-base percentage over the four years, stole 87 bases and was caught just 15 times, and fielded his position well. It doesn’t sound like much, but a non-zero on offense who can play shortstop is a pretty good player.
2. Edgar Renteria, Red Sox, four years (2005-08), $40 million
9.2 wins above replacement
Another sneaky-good contract, though this one comes with a huge asterisk: The Renteria contract was a good deal for the Atlanta Braves; not so much for the Red Sox and the Tigers. Renteria signed a big contract with Boston before the 2005 season to become their shortstop for the next four years, but something just didn’t work — the fans booed him early and often, he led the league in errors, and the Red Sox decided to call it quits after one year. The next winter, they traded him to Atlanta for then-prospect Andy Marte. The Braves got all the value out of the deal: Renteria hit .310/.374/.451 and fielded well in two years with Atlanta, who later flipped him to the Tigers before the 2008 season. The Tigers got one year of again-bad Renteria out of the trade; the Braves got Jair Jurrjens.
3. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers, three years (2009-11), $30 million
7.4 wins above replacement
A similar player to Jose Reyes. Reyes is the better hitter and better overall, but Furcal the better fielder and both are shortstops with some injury history and plenty of value in their legs. Neither of Furcal’s consecutive three-year contracts with the Dodgers were particularly good or bad, which may bode well for whichever team signs Reyes. Then again, more of Furcal’s value came from his glove, something teams struggle to value. So he may have been relatively underpaid compared to what Reyes is going to get.
4. Cristian Guzman, Nationals, four years (2005-08), $16.8 million
4.1 wins above replacement
This is a weird one in every way. Four years is a long contract for a shortstop, but the Nationals also made a relatively small financial commitment, making the deal a funny-looking outlier. As for the returns on their investments: Guzman hit .219 with a .260 on-base percentage his first season, then missed all of 2006 and most of 2007 with various injuries. Playing a full season in 2008, the last year of his deal, Guzman hit .316 with 35 doubles, made the All Star team, and convinced the Nationals to sign him to a two-year extension. He then struggled through both years of the extension, was traded to Texas, and didn’t play in 2011. Guzman gave the Nationals one, well-timed good season, and received six years of paychecks for it. This one worked out better for him than it did for Washington.
5. Alex Gonzalez, Reds, three years (2007-09), $14 million
1.2 wins above replacement
This is the Alex Gonzalez from last season’s Braves, useful in the years he hits 15 home runs, useless in the years he doesn’t. The Reds got one useful year, one injured year, and then split a useless year with the Red Sox. Gonzalez is a free agent this year, and he’s my pick as an interesting buy-low candidate for the Mets. He doesn’t get on-base — at all, ever — but he still fields well enough, and if this is one of those years when he runs into 20 home runs, he’d at least be an interesting player. Maybe not good, but interesting.
6. Rafael Furcal, Dodgers, three years (2006-08), $39 million
6.5 wins above replacement
See above, a lesser version of Jose Reyes, etc. His second Dodgers contract, when he was older, looks better than this first one.
7. Julio Lugo, Red Sox, four years (2007-10), $36 million
0.0 wins above replacement
At last, we reach the lone albatross. Lugo didn’t hit well, didn’t field well, and didn’t stay healthy for Boston. That is to say: He was bad. Theo Epstein did plenty of good things with the Red Sox — two World Championships — but finding a long-term answer at shortstop wasn’t one of them.
A large number of free agent shortstops sign two-year deals. I have no idea why. Here are all of them, the value of each contract being between $2 and $6 million except where noted:
Craig Counsell, Diamondbacks
Marco Scutaro, Red Sox – $12.5 million
John McDonald, Blue Jays
Craig Counsell, Brewers
Juan Castro, Twins
Cesar Izturis, Orioles
Willie Bloomquist, Royals
Neifi Perez, Cubs
Tony Womack, Yankees
Edgar Renteria, Giants – $18.5 million (!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Also Derek Jeter last winter re-signed as a free agent. But we like to run a Jeter-free blog around here, so we’re not going to talk about him. Let’s move on.
Soon, he’ll be able to buy lots of glasses.
Multi-Year Extensions Covering Free Agency Seasons
As usual, extensions are better deals for the team than signing a similar player through free agency. Clubs avoid the bidding wars, and they know the player they’re investing in better than anyone else. Both these factors help teams make better choices.
Extensions, more than two years:
1. Carlos Guillen, Tigers, three years (2005-07), $14 million
11.4 wins above replacement
Great extension, if only for Guillen’s 2006 season. He hit 41 doubles and posted a .920 OPS in the regular season, and then hit for a 1.008 OPS in the postseason, helping the Tigers win the American League pennant.
2. Jack Wilson, Pirates, three years (2007-09), $20.2 million
5.4 wins above replacement
In baseball contract terms, $20 million dollars for 5.4 wins above replacement isn’t a bad deal, even when it’s for Jack Wilson. Wilson is someone the Mets reportedly have expressed interest in this offseason. Excellent fielder, but he hasn’t had an on-base percentage above .300 since George W. Bush was president and doesn’t hit for power. Please, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
3. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies, four years (2007-10), $31 million
12.6 wins above replacement
Won the MVP in 2007, the first year of the extension, and then began a slow decline. All in all though, not a bad deal for the Phillies or Rollins. Another decent Reyes comp, albeit again with a bit less offense and slightly more defense, but Rollins is and was a speedy shortstop with a similar career value. Rollins is a free agent this winter, but I would be surprised if he signed somewhere other than Philadelphia. That said, I’m almost — almost — rooting for Rollins to sign with the Mets, and Reyes with the Phillies, but only in the name of science. I think it’d be a fun social experiment. I’m probably alone on this.
4. Michael Young, Rangers, five years (2009-13), $80 million
8.4 wins above replacement
Does this count? Young is no longer a shortstop, but I have trouble imagining that keeping him at short was the long-term plan when the Rangers signed him to this extension. Still, he was a shortstop when he signed, so I guess it should count for shortstops . . . If this counts, it’s the biggest contract given to a shortstop we’ve got here, and it’s not looking so hot.
Two year extensions:
Jack Wilson, Mariners (There’s some reason people love hanging onto this guy)
Cristian Guzman, Nationals
The summary: Roughly, the best way to sign a veteran shortstop is to extend your own guy. You like him, he likes you, it’s working for everyone . . . everyone goes home happy. Re-upping your own dudes before they hit free agency usually works out okay. Failing that, the second-best way is to sign a good shortstop to a multi-year deal; the worst way is to sign a mediocre player to a two-year deal, but even that is a better investment than signing a free-agent pitcher or outfielder. The details look like this:
Extensions: $3.21 per win
Free Agents, total: $4.76 per win
Free Agents, three years or more: $4.63 per win
Free Agents, two years: $5.25 per win
After looking at all this, I’m still sticking with my earlier prediction: Jose Reyes will sign with the Miami Marlins on December 11, for $132 million dollars over six years.