Monday, January 22, 2007

Transaction Recap: Phillies, Pirates, Braves, Padres, Blue Jays, Cardinals

Phillies:

Signed 2B Chase Utley to a 7-year, $84 million extension (rating: 7/10)

Utley still has three arbitration years left with the Phils, so they're buying out those years and signing him for his first four years of free agency. The rating of 7 reflects the value of this deal rather than simply keeping him for those three years at a discounted arbitration salary.

I imagine this is the second contract (the other being Albert Pujols') of seven years or more in MLB history that I'd have given a thumbs-up at the time. Making a long commitment to a player often results in him spending the final days of the deal old, injured, and/or ineffective. (see: Kevin Brown, Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn, Mike Hampton, etc.)

Utley will degrade some before this deal is up, but he's signed only through age 34, before Father Time can fully take its toll, and he is one of the most valuable commodities in baseball right now, hitting like a star and playing acceptable defense at a key position. This puts him in elite company with Carlos Beltran, Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Miguel Tejada, Grady Sizemore, and Carlos Guillen, and Utley is younger than most of that group. (Brian McCann and Howie Kendrick are young players who are knocking on the door.)

Given how this year's market played out for second basemen--the only position I believe was actually underpaid in free agency--I think the Phillies probably could have signed Utley for three years and $30-35 million to buy out his arbitration years. Is an extra four years for an additional $37-41 million (adjusted for three years of MLB inflation) worth it?

I believe it is. We're talking about a guy who is one of the 20 best players in baseball at age 28. A superstar like Utley has plenty of room to slip and still remain valuable, unlike Carlos Lee or Gil Meche. In the event his defense erodes, he can be moved to an outfield corner. Utley's PECOTA projection, even allowing for some short-term regression, sees his value holding up well for the next five years.

If I had the chance to sign a hypothetical 31-year old Utley for four years and $40 million this offseason, I would jump all over it. Compared to Jeff Suppan and Ted Lilly, who are making that much, it's not even close. Still, the Phillies are banking on seven years of productivity and health, and a lot can happen in that time, which is why I rate it only a 7.

Pirates/Braves:

Pirates traded RP Mike Gonzalez and SS Brent Lillibridge for 1B Adam LaRoche and OF Jamie Romak (Ratings: Pirates 3, Braves 8)

Nate Silver thinks Lillibridge is the most valuable long-term commodity acquired in this deal. Scouting reports don't agree with PECOTA on projecting his future, but any time you can pick up six years of cheap service from a guy who's nearly ready to contribute, it's a coup. I'm not ready to say for certain that Lillibridge is the best player of the four, but with his Major League service clock at zero, he should produce the most bang for the buck going forward. If nothing else, he has more upside than Gonzalez or LaRoche, who represent two types of players who tend to be overrated by the public: closers and first basemen with middling power and walk rates.

LaRoche had a .915 OPS last year, but it still takes just one finger to count how many seasons he's been more than a fringe starter. At a reasonable .850 projected OPS going forward, he's a below-average starter at the position, and a short distance from replacement level. He's a decent candidate to get non-tendered before his arbitration years are up, and the Braves' platoon of Scott Thorman and Craig Wilson should end up within one win of his 2007 value.

Gonzalez is one of the better relievers in baseball, but relief pitchers are inconsistent by nature and their value is limited by their lack of innings. He'll probably be worth around 1.5 to 2 wins per year until he hits free agency.

Romak is not a major factor in the deal. He's a 21 year old who hasn't risen above A ball and has struck out in over 30% of his professional at bats, though he has shown decent power for a youngster.

Padres:

Signed SP David Wells to a 1-year, $3 million contract (6)

The deal includes another $4 million in performance incentives. I'm a fan of deals where there's little or no downside, even if there's virtually no chance the player surprises you with one last All Star season. Wells is a known commodity; he'll provide around a 4.50 ERA in a neutral park, and lower in San Diego. If he gives them 100 innings, which is no given with his physical condition and age, he's a bargain; if he doesn't, they can live with it.

Blue Jays:

Signed 1B Lyle Overbay to a 4-year, $24 million contract extension (4)

Overbay had two more arbitration years left, so the Jays signed him for his first two years of free agency. The 4 rating compares this deal to simply signing him for two years, or taking him to arbitration.

It's not a huge sum of money, but Overbay isn't a special player. He's a 30-year old with poor speed, below average power for a first baseman, and a high rate of hits on balls in play. That's a breed of player who declines very quickly once he hits 30, as evidenced by a sharp drop in his PECOTA projected VORP, from the 36.3 he actually posted in 2006 to 16.9 this year and 7.4 by the end of the contract. I would be happy to take two more reasonably productive years from Overbay and let him walk after 2008; the two extra years are an unnecessary gesture.

Cardinals:

Signed SP Mark Mulder to a 2-year, $13 million contract with a team option for 2009 (5)

Given the current market for starters, the Cardinals' status as a contender in a weak NL Central, and their thin projected 2007 rotation, this represents a tolerable reward for the risk, but it's unlikely we will ever see the Mulder of the Big Three era again. Mulder is likely to continue rehabbing into the 2007 season, and it's no given that he'll pitch 100 innings in a season again, or post a 2:1 K/BB ratio. Remember that groundball pitchers walk a thin line to begin with.

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