The Houston Astros caused a stir in the sabermetric community this offseason by re-signing Craig Biggio, ostensibly so he can collect his 3000th hit in an Astro uniform before riding off into the sunset.
The big complaint is that sticking Biggio at second base forces heir apparent Chris Burke to the outfield, which in turn causes one of Houston's talented young outfielders to be benched. The $64,000 question is: What is this move costing the Astros, and what is it gaining them?
It's fairly easy to measure what it's costing them, or at least projected to cost them: probably a game in the standings this year, maybe two. Though B-G-O is no longer an offensive threat, he is only the fourth-worst hitter in his own lineup, ahead of the pitcher, Brad Ausmus, and Adam Everett. (Ausmus should definitely be ousted, but that's another article.) In a league where few teams are getting an .800 OPS from their second baseman, Biggio doesn't offer that much of a competitive disadvantage.
It's clear playing Burke at second and Hunter Pence in center would help the Astros' quest for the playoffs, but how strong is that bid, really? Projections peg the Astros as a 79-win team this year, and I can't really disagree; they won 82 games last year, didn't really have strong numbers on either side of the ball, and their offseason was a clear downgrade unless Roger Clemens returns.
If Biggio subtracts one win from the club, he's hurting their chances of making the playoffs by perhaps 2.5 percent, 5.0 percent for two wins. Research from Baseball Between the numbers suggests that a playoff appearance is worth $15 million to a team, along with $700,000 for an additional win. That means Biggio is costing the team between $1 and $2 million with his on-field performance. (I'm not considering the decision to pay him $5.15 million for 2007, a completely ridiculous contract in light of the market for second basemen this offseason. In this discussion, that's a sunk cost.)
How much value Biggio will return on this investment is a far more subjective question. Obviously there is some worth in not letting him get away and achieve milestones in another uniform, a la Nolan Ryan, but can this be quantified? Many Diamondbacks fans reportedly vowed to stop attending games after the club severed ties with Luis Gonzalez, but it's hard to say how many will change their tune if the new-look D-backs make the playoffs on the backs of their young outfielders this year.
Easier to notice, if not quantify, is the impact at the box office. With Clemens not signed and a sub-.500 team on the field, there isn't a whole lot of incentive to show up at Minute Maid Park this summer. The anticipation and arrival of Biggio's 3000th hit will likely be the highlight of the summer for Houston fans, and they'll likely show it with many sold out crowds as he nears the milestone. Selling tens of thousands of extra tickets, hot dogs, and beer should allow the Astros to recoup whatever Biggio is costing them.
As much as I like to focus on teams maximizing their potential, it's nice and increasingly rare in this era to see a star player and fan favorite start and end his career with the same team. Gwynn, Ripken, Larkin, Bagwell, and now Biggio are a dying breed, and it's good to see that there are at least a few players willing to stay at home while other teams are throwing money around like there are cockroaches nearby.
All in all, I think the criticism is overblown. The Astros aren't the Yankees, who can't afford to waste money and roster space on Bernie Williams because he might cost them a playoff spot. They're just a mediocre club going a little out of their way to maintain loyalty to their fans and their all-time greatest player. Give 'em a break.