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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fonz Redux

It's been a busy month, but during a pre-holiday lull I wanted to offer a couple of opinions about the flurry of deals from the concluding week of 2010.  First up, the top two free agent hitters from this year's class, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, both signed seven-year, nine-figure deals earlier in December.  These were the two largest contracts handed to outfielders since Alfonso Soriano signed his $136 Million deal with the Cubs prior to the 2007 season.  That deal already looks like one of the worst albatrosses in baseball history, as Soriano's production has declined dramatically over the last four years.

There are some unfortunate correlations between Soriano and this years duo of high-priced outfielders.  For starters, both Crawford and Werth have made their reputations, at least to some extent, based upon their speed.  The same was true of Soriano.  When he signed his megadeal, he was coming off a 40/40 season. Werth has posted a pair of 20/20 seasons and in the last three years has a rather incredible 88% stolen base success rate since becoming a Phillie.  Crawford, considered one of the speediest men in all of baseball, has led the league in steals on four occasions, and has averaged 50 steals per season since 2003.  Though both are corner outfielders by preference, their speed also makes it possible for them to slide over to center when necessary and helps to make them Gold Glove candidates at their natural positions.  The problem with paying high premiums for speed is that too often it is the first of the five tools to dissipate.  Take Soriano, for instance.  After averaging 35 steals a year in his first six seasons, Soriano has managed only 13 per year in his four seasons with the Cubs, largely due to nagging hamstring injuries.  He became an absolute drain as Chicago's leadoff hitter and was finally moved down in the order last season.

Injuries have effected Soriano's game on the whole, of course.  In his first six seasons, Soriano never played in fewer than 145 games.  Since coming to Chicago, however, he's reached that mark only once.  Werth and Crawford have also been relative iron men.  Werth has missed only nine games in the past two seasons; Crawford only fourteen.  Will they be able to maintain that pace, especially as they move into their 30s?

This brings us to the biggest and most obvious problem with deals like these: aging.  Werth with be 32 during the 2011 season.  The Nationals will be on the hook for $84 Million after he turns 35.  In order to "earn" that money, Werth will probably need to manage at least four or five Wins Above Replacement per season.  The list of outfielders who have managed to do that in their late thirties is extraordinarily short: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Manny Ramirez, Ichiro Suzuki.   Can Jayson Werth aspire to that class?

In this respect, Crawford's deal makes a lot more sense.  He will earn more money than Werth over the next seven years, but his contract expires only a few months after his 35th birthday.  Theo Epstein will take his fair share of flack in the coming years, as Boston's payroll escalates into pinstriped territory.  But Epstein, thusfar at least, has not been spending much of his money on players in decline (John Lackey aside).  For exactly that reason he passed on expensive long-term deals on Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre, even though they were extremely productive in their limited runs with the BoSox, and turned his attentions instead to Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.

While it's highly likely that Carl Crawford's best seasons are still in front of him, thus justifying his $20 Million per year salary, the same can not be said of Jayson Werth.  Werth's career arch is very worrisome and not just because of his advanced age.  Due in part to some unfortunate injuries and perhaps in part to some poor personnel decisions made by his first two franchises (the Dodgers and Jays), Werth did not become an everyday player until he joined the Phillies in 2007.  Even then he was limited to platoon at-bats for some time.  As a result, unlike Crawford, he doesn't have a long track record of sustained brilliance, which make me very uneasy.  Really, only in the last three seasons has he been a productive everyday player.

Many, many players have produced like Werth has over a three-year period only to fall into rapid decline.  Here's just a few outfielders from recent memory: Brad Hawpe, Ray Lankford, Andy Van Slyke, Brian Jordan, Cliff Floyd, and, of course, Alfonso Soriano.  Like most of these players, Werth has benefitted during his prime years from hitting in the midst of a very potent lineup and in a very friendly confines.  Never before has he been asked to carry a load on offense like the one he'll be expected to carry in Washington, where Ryan Zimmerman is the only other All-Star quality player in the lineup.

One thing I will say for Werth.  Unlike Soriano, he has excellent command of the strikezone.  He draws walks and is consistently among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance.  This skill, unlike speed and power, is one that traditionally ages fairly well.  That aside, however, I fear Werth will be an albatross around the neck of the Nationals, a franchise that can ill afford to miss on a their nine-figure investments.

Crawford, on the other hand, though he is far more of a free-swinger, could be the first Hundred Million Dollar Outfielder since Manny Ramirez ('01-'08 edition) to earn every cent of his contract.  Even if his speed declines (which it almost certainly will, at least to some extent), his all-field approach, high averages, and stellar defense in left field should be enough to make him a productive top of the order hitter even in the waning years, and he's likely an MVP candidate for at least two or three seasons to come.

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