Friday, December 08, 2006

Transaction Recap: Giants, Royals

Giants:

Re-signed LF Barry Bonds to a 1-year, $16 million contract with $4 million in incentives (rating: 5/10)

It's more dough than anyone would have anticipated two months ago, but in a world where an aging Luis Gonzalez is worth $7 million, this isn't totally unreasonable.

On the money alone, the transaction probably rates a 4. Bonds should be worth four wins next year, and while that's probably not worth $16 million, it's not that far off. The deal also avoids a long-term commitment. Bonds probably won't be much less valuable than Alfonso Soriano next year, and they're getting him for a comparable annual salary and a lot less years.

Of course, despite the distractions Bonds causes, his pursuit of the career home run record will sell a lot of tickets, especially late in the season as he approaches the mark. Though the Giants have done well at the box office every year, it's unclear how the fans will react to their first non-contending team in the era of Phone Company Park, and their late-season seats might not have been a big draw--until now.

That bumps the deal up a couple of points. What brings it back down to a 5? The Giants, who will not be a particularly good team next year, just spent $16 million on a player who will help them finish four games closer to the division title that they won't win. If this player was not named Barry Bonds, I would probably rate it a 2. Speaking of teams pointlessly adding players...

Royals

Signed SP Gil Meche to a 5-year, $55 million contract (2)

I'm trying to find a reason this deal was signed. Keith Law found a couple, and while he makes reasonable points, they don't justify this contract. Law compares this deal to the 5 years and $75 million the Tigers threw at Magglio Ordonez two years ago. I'm sure the Royals would be thrilled to reach the World Series in two years like the Tigers did, but comparing any free agent acquisition to Ordonez is an insult; Maggs has been one of the most overpaid players in baseball from the moment he donned a gothic D cap.

Law says that this contract "sends a message" to the public, but I don't buy that anyone really believes Gil Meche is an elite player, or that signing him will put the Royals in contention. Though Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez--who was signed under similar circumstances--were extremely risky signings, they were household names, great players whose health forced them to Detroit. Meche carries the injury risk of these signings, but not the cachet or the upside.

In the middle of the 2006 season, when the Royals looked poised to match the 2003 Tigers' historic futility, many people compared the two teams. I didn't buy it. It's instructive to look at the Tigers' rise from the dead to the AL pennant. Who got them there?

The Tigers got huge contributions from three players who made heroic progress in those three years: Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, and Curtis Granderson. Prior to 2004, Inge resembled Henry Blanco, a great glove behind the plate who couldn't hit enough to play regularly for a contender. The Tigers caused analysts' eyes to pop when they shifted Inge to the everyday third base job after signing Ivan Rodriguez. Whether by chance or the freedom of not having to take 150 squats a game, Inge responded by greatly improving his hitting, though he was still a below-average hitter, and becoming an elite glove man at the hot corner.

Meanwhile, Guillen was essentially acquired for free from the Mariners before the 2004 season, and instantly transformed from a fringe player to an MVP candidate. Currently, Guillen is making history by increasing his batting average every year. Granderson was always an interesting talent, but it's always rare for a player to emerge from the back end of top prospect lists to play well in an everyday role.

What do these three players have in common? Their careers followed highly unusual paths. If the Royals want to match the success of the 2006 Tigers, they'll need a similar brand of serendipity.

The Tigers also benefitted from a large number of pitchers that improved their numbers without really increasing their base skills, a result that usually leads to great success in the present (see: 2005 White Sox) but regression in the future (see: 2006 White Sox). Also, it is not really possible to set this up, other than by loading up on elite defenders.

In 2005, Detroit traded Ugueth Urbina, a closer they didn't need, for Placido Polanco, a very valuable player. Recently, the Royals traded a closer they didn't need, Ambiorix Burgos, for Brian Bannister, a guy who could become a fourth or fifth starter if things break right. The difference between the returns on these deals is indicative of the gap in talent between the 2006 Royals and 2003 Tigers.

This core was supplemented by free agent additions, as the Tigers threw money at Urbina, Ordonez, Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, and Todd Jones. Though the Tigers had to overpay these players, they are better than anyone the Royals are likely to sign this year or next.

To put it bluntly, the Royals should not attempt to follow the Tigers' blueprint, and signing Gil Meche is not the right direction to move in. It's especially galling that they included a fifth year; few teams have ever signed a pitcher for five years and lived to tell the tale.

Having said that, Law does have a solid point; the Royals are looking to set up a contending team for roughly 2009, and they will not be able to build it overnight. I do agree that it makes some sense for them to begin collecting talent now, so they will have a supporting cast ready for Alex Gordon and Billy Butler; I just don't think this was the right player to start with.

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