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Monday, December 10, 2007

The New Moneyball Icon (Part 2): The Case for K-Lo

One of Billy Beane's significant contributions, elaborated in Moneyball, to the current baseball climate was his high estimation for the value of youth or, perhaps more accurately, his low estimation for the value of experience. Beane, and many a GM in his stead, contends that league-average (or worse) players are nearly always readily available at the minor-league level (assuming you know how to draft and evaluate). These players come cheaply, therefore there is never any reason to sign a mediocre veteran who cost five or six times as much for similar production. While a manager like Dusty Baker, who believes strongly in the value of experience, filled his bench in 2002 with players like Shawon Dunston, Tom Goodwin, Ramon Martinez, and Marvin Bernard, costing the Giants upwards of $7 Million, Beane's Athletics utilized guys like Jeremy Giambi, Olmedo Saenz, Adam Piatt, and Frank Menechino, all from within their own organization, for less than half the price.

The unfortunate result of Beane's realization is that now teams are often overprotective of even their second-tier prospects and wary of any player over the age of 35, even the supremely talented. In 2006, Beane's signing of Frank Thomas signaled his observation of this backlash and resulted in the A's getting an MVP-caliber season and a playoff berth on the back of a player making very near the league-minimum. While Thomas is the hyperbolic extreme of the new Moneyball icon, there are other players who have been consistently overlooked for the same reasons that Thomas was overlooked in 2006.

There is a glut of centerfielders on the market this offseason, as I've discussed previously. Already we have seen somewhat outlandish deals for Torii Hunter (5 yrs./$90 Mil.) and Milton Bradley (1 yr./$10 Mil.), and a quasi-reasonable deal for Andruw Jones (2 yrs./$36 Mil.). Expect to see more craziness when somebody gets around to signing Aaron Rowand. Even as the bigger names have gotten signed, their are still many alternatives available, as one would presume that guys like Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr. may be looking to relocate after being replaced, and second-tier free agents like Corey Patterson haven't even made it onto the rumor mill yet. One of those second-tier guys is Kenny Lofton.

Lofton's recent career reads like an absurd satire. After completing a four-year contract with the Indians (the team with which he will always be associated) in 2001, Lofton was presumed to be at the tail-end of his career. He had posted declining numbers in AVG, OBP, SLG, Runs, and Stolen Bases in each of the last three seasons with Cleveland. He was a 34-year-old ex-speedster who had spent significant time on the DL and no longer played the kind of defense that had netted him four straight Gold Gloves from '93-'96. In 2002, the Indians parted way with Lofton to make room for Milton Bradley, a promising prospect they had acquired from Montreal the year before. Lofton signed with divisional rival, the Chicago White Sox, for $1,025,000, approximated 1/8th of what Cleveland had paid him in '01. While Bradley hit .249 and spent half the season on the disabled list, Lofton had his healthiest season in years, scored 98 runs, mustered a 764 OPS, and finished the season as the lead-off hitter on the NL Champion Giants, batting .290 with seven runs scored and three stolen bases in the World Series.

In 2003, instead of resigning their late-season catalyst, the Giants opted to go with a very similar player, Marquis Grissom, who they signed to a three-year deal worth about $6.75 Million. Lofton once again signed for $1,025,000, this time with the Pirates. He was again traded at the deadline, this time to the Cubs, and again sparked a late-season run which landed the Cubs a few infamous outs from the World Series.

Grissom: .300 AVG, 790 OPS, 82 R, 79 RBI, 11 SB, 56 XBH
Lofton: .296 AVG, 802 OPS, 97 R, 46 RBI, 30 SB, 52 XBH

While Grissom and Lofton could hardly have had more similar value, the key here is that this was by far the most productive year of Grissom's contract, the Giants suffering through the final years of his career in '04 and '05.

Meanwhile Lofton played for two more teams during that span. He signed a new one-year $3.1 Million deal in 2004, this time with the Yankees. He struggled to play half the year, again showing signs of age (at 37), though he did have a good showing in the ALCS against Boston. It seemed surely, Lofton's run, at least as a starter, was over.

In 2005, while the Yankees handed centerfield chores back to Bernie Williams, Lofton signed on in Philadelphia as part of a platoon with Jason Michaels. Despite getting fewer plate appearances, Lofton outperformed the expensive Williams by a long shot:

Williams: .249 AVG, 688 OPS, 53 R, 64 RBI, 1 SB, 32 XBH, $12,357,143
Lofton: .335 AVG, 812 OPS, 67 R, 36 RBI, 22 SB, 22 XBH, $3,100,000

Despite his apparent resurrection, the Phillies decided not to resign Lofton, instead acquiring Aaron Rowand in the Jim Thome deal with the White Sox. Lofton signed with the Dodgers. Here were their lines at the end of '06:

Rowand: .262 AVG, 746 OPS, 59 R, 47 RBI, 10 SB, 39 XBH, $3,250,000
Lofton: .301 AVG, 763 OPS, 79 R, 41 RBI, 32 SB, 30 XBH, $3,800,000

Lofton slotted nicely between Rafeal Furcal and Nomar Garciaparra at the top of the Dodger lineup and was no small part of their run to the playoffs. However, they elected to sign Juan Pierre to a $42 Million deal during the offseason and Lofton, now 40, signed a one-year deal with Texas for $6 Mil., eventually getting traded to another playoff contender, his good ole Indians. Pierre's measly OBP may have contributed to the season-long slumps of Furcal and Garciaparra, while Lofton once again refused to show signs of significant decline:

Pierre: .293 AVG, 684 OPS, 96 R, 41 RBI, 64 SB, 32 XBH, $7,500,000
Lofton: .296 AVG, 781 OPS, 86 R, 38 RBI, 23 SB, 38 XBH, $6,000,000

In the six seasons since Lofton began being seen as a one-and-done rent-a-player, only once has he been outperformed by his (usually more expensive) replacement. Only once has he posted an OBP below .350. Only once has he missed playing in October. And, only once has the team that let him get away returned to the postseason the following year. It is almost like Lofton has had two careers. From his rookie year in 1992 until 2001, his salary inched up towards its $8 Million peak. Then it dropped down again in 2002 and inched up to another peak at $6 Million in '07, as teams slowly came to the realization that players of Lofton's talent continued to perform at a high level deep into their thirties. It would seem counterintuitive to predict that K-Lo will get less than that this coming year. If Jose Guillen is worth $12 Mil./year, he must certainly be worth six.

Oddly enough, the greatest players of the '90s have become the greatest deals of the late aughts. Thomas, Lofton, and Greg Maddux have already undergone that transformation. Perhaps Bonds, Piazza, and Griffey are soon to follow, along with Giles, Helton, and Smoltz. Or, perhaps, the market will swing back the other way and aging legends will make the big bucks way past their primes (as it used to be). But, at the very least, the Indians should know, it's a very dangerous proposition to let K-Lo go.

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