The Starting Rotation: Valuing Shortstops
The Ace: Premium Position?
Maybe the biggest controversy of the offseason so far has been the huge contract extension given to Troy Tulowitzki by the Rockies, which amounts to a 10-year, $157.75 million contract -- the eighth largest in baseball history. Given the huge amount of money and length (Tulo will make $20 million a season from 2015-2019; his 30th birthday will be in October 2014), it's easy to see why some people are up in arms over the deal, but given the paucity of shortstops on the market this winter, perhaps it's worth asking if a premier shortstop is the type of player for which overpaying is worth it.
There is some anecdotal evidence that shortstops get paid better. The second and third largest contracts ever (Alex Rodriguez's 10-year, $256 million deal signed with the Rangers around this time in 2000 and Derek Jeter's just-expired 10-year, $189 million deal) went to shortstops.
When combined with Tulo's new deal, that means three of the eight largest contracts in baseball history belong to shortstops. That's not exactly the best way to look at things, though. Rodriguez's contract went to a once-in-a-generation talent that hit free agency at the age of 25. Jeter's contract was given out by the Yankees, who authored four of the sport's six largest deals.
Let's work backward instead. How hard was it to find a good shortstop in 2010? According to FanGraphs, only four shortstops -- Tulo, Stephen Drew, Hanley Ramirez and Rafael Furcal -- had a WAR of 4.0 or better last year. (A brief tangent to describe win values for those of you that may be in the dark: by comparison, there were 10 first basemen, six second basemen, seven third basemen and 21 outfielders who reached that mark or better.) Four wins is a pretty arbitrary cutoff, but it wouldn't really be controversial to say that it was harder to find a good shortstop in 2010 than it was to find a good player at just about any other position in the field.
In 2009, six shortstops topped the four-win mark. That's fewer than the 11 first basemen above the mark, but it matches the number of third basemen and is more than the five second basemen above the four-win threshold. It's even more than the outfielders, if you consider that the three outfield positions only provided 16 players with four wins or more. In 2008 there were five four-win shortstops, six first basemen, six second basemen, seven third basemen and 19 outfielders.
I could keep going back, but there's not much of a point; the offensive component of win values are positionally adjusted based roughly on Bill James' defensive spectrum. Because less offense is expected from premium defensive positions like shortstop (if you want to know more about win values, check out FanGraphs' primer), they get a larger adjustment. As a result, the value of the players at each position should be roughly balanced each season.
Put more simply, shortstops had a bad year in 2010, but it's not something that should be expected on a perennial basis. Overpaying for a good shortstop with the idea that a good shortstop is harder to find than a good second baseman or third baseman just isn't necessarily something that's rooted in reality.
Even with that in mind, Tulowitzki will be worth the deal if he keeps playing at the level he's been at the last two seasons. The danger for the Rockies, though, is the aging curve for shortstops. Through the age of 25, two of Tulowitzki's most similar players at Baseball-Reference.com are Ernie Banks and Nomar Garciaparra. Garciaparra's a cautionary tale for obvious reasons. Banks is obviously a great person to be compared to, but his best seasons came after his 25th birthday and before his 30th (when the huge part of Tulo's extension really kicks in). By 31, he was primarily a first baseman and his offensive skills were declining.
Imagine Tulowitzki at age 32, playing first base with an OPS+ hovering around 100 (that is, about league average) and making $20 million a season. That's saying that if Tulowitzki's career mirrors Banks exactly, he'll be overpaid for almost the whole second half of this deal. Even if he stays at shortstop the entire time but his bat declines, he'll be making way too much money over the same span. Maybe that won't happen to Tulowitzki and maybe he'll still be producing at the age of 35, but that's impossible to say from here.
-- Pat Lackey
The No. 2: Red Sox Reinforcements
How much of a facelift do the Red Sox really need this offseason? The answer might feature the biggest gap between perception and reality of any question you could ask about this Hot Stove season.
Here's what we know:
• The Red Sox won 89 games and still finished six games out of a playoff spot. Life is tough in the AL East. They spent two measly days in first place – the first two days of the 2010 season.
• So far this winter, they've made no significant additions or moves other than re-signing catcher Jason Varitek. They did lose Victor Martinez to the Tigers, a team that could be a rival if they end up pursuing the wild card instead of the division title. Martinez hit .302 with 20 homers and 79 RBI in 127 games last year, most of them coming as a backstop. Third baseman Adrian Beltre is also a free agent, and after hitting .321 with 28 homers and 102 RBI (not to mention his sterling defense), competition will be stiff for him.
• And yet, despite that poor finish (by their own standards) and the potential for a lot of lost production if Beltre follows Martinez out of Boston, the Red Sox also won a heck of a lot of games without Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia for extended stretches. Beckett, signed to a lucrative four-year, $68 million extension in April, made just 21 starts. Cameron, Ellsbury, Youkilis and Pedroia combined to appear in just 243 games all season, an average of 60.75 per player.
You can see the competing mantras clear as day. Boston lost more than it is accustomed to in 2010, and it stands to lose two critical pieces to free agency. Yet it was also ravaged by injuries and should improve by doing nothing but getting key performers healed up in time for Opening Day 2011.
With the Winter Meetings set to start next week, we know the Red Sox have kicked the tires on Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford -- the two top free-agent hitters available, both of whom happen to be outfielders -- and we know they've shown interest in Justin Upton.
One big offensive upgrade in the form of Werth or Crawford (or Upton in a much less likely scenario) seems likely for the Red Sox this winter. That might not be enough to placate restless seamheads in New England, especially the ones worried about owner John Henry's dalliance with his new toy Liverpool FC of the English Premier League. But with a revamped bullpen and the return of a number of injured stars it could easily be enough to get Boston back to the playoffs, a place it has grown so accustomed to being under Henry.
-- Andrew Johnson
• If we take Jeter's reported contract demands at face value (say, $20-plus million a year over three or four years), they seem ridiculous for a shortstop heading toward his 37th birthday and pretty clearly in the decline phase of his career. But are they really any more ridiculous than the contract Alex Rodriguez has right now? A-Rod will be 35 next year, is coming off one of the worst seasons in his career (still good, mind you, but certainly not up to A-Rod levels), and is owed $174 million between now and 2017 without considering the escalators for the records he still seems almost certain to break. The Yankees have always gone out of their way to publicly make Jeter, not Rodriguez, the face of the franchise, so is it really that hard to see where his demands are coming from?
-- Pat Lackey
• It was a good week for ex-Cincinnati Reds sluggers. Adam Dunn agreed to a $56 million deal with the White Sox on Thursday. Just prior to that Wily Mo Pena signed a minor-league deal with the Diamondbacks, opening up the possibility that the prodigious power man could return to the majors for the first time since 2008 with the Nationals. Pena's home run stroke, of course, was his one and only value in the major leagues. He hit 26 homers in 2004 -- during his age-22 season -- a total that accounts for one-third of his homers in the big leagues. Only 60 players in major league history hit more home runs in a year than his 26 before their age-23 season, according to Baseball-Reference.com, and the list is littered with future Hall of Famers. What it's not littered with is players who flamed out as quickly as Pena. There are a few examples, though.
Giants third baseman Jim Ray Hart hit 31 home runs in 1964, his age-22 season, but after hitting 23, 33, 29 and 23 in the following four seasons, he mustered just three homers in 1969 and was out of baseball entirely five years later. Braves catcher and infielder Earl Williams hit 33 homers in 1971, also his age-22 season, following that up with homer totals of 28, 22, 14, 11, 17 and 13, but never playing in the majors again after that. For a more contemporary example, look at Jeff Francoeur, who hit 29 homers with the Braves in 2006, again his age-22 season, and who may have a lot of trouble finding a big-league job this winter after finishing 2010 as a platoon player with the AL-champion Rangers.
-- Andrew Johnson