Signing Most-Valuable Players

You shoulda come to the first party—we didn't get home 'til around four in the morning. I was blind for three days...

There's no new news, which means it's time we go over some old news: the decision to sign Ryan Franklin to a multi-year extension stipulating that he was not allowed to record another out in 2009. That particular clause was the main problem with the Franklin deal in particular, but since we didn't know about that at the time I think it's the principle of the thing that's wedged so tightly inside the Cardinals fanbase's collective craw. This team's management does so many things correctly; it's identified free talent like Ryan Ludwick, it's signed Adam Wainwright to a long-term deal at actual wainwright rates, and its drafts have improved tremendously since the seeds of what's become the new regime were first planted.

But Ryan Franklin was the second time in as many years that the Cardinals broke, to their own detriment, what was originally a Branch Rickey tenet and has since become a Sabermetrics 101 truism: Don't sign a player at the top of his value! This shouldn't be a difficult thing to grasp because it's so categorically true as to be basically meaningless; if you sign a guy at the very peak of his value, things can only go downhill from there. 

I've thought about these contracts assuming, above all else, that John Mozeliak is a rational, above-average general manager; most of them are at this point, so it might be worthwhile to consider who else has made these two moves in recent years, and where it's left them. 

THE LOHSE DEAL: Three long-term contracts obviously weirder than Kyle Lohse's

3. Juan Pierre. Five years, $44 million, 11/2006. What a terrible year for contracts this was—at the same time all of this was happening the Cardinals were getting ready to tear up Chris Carpenter's last two years, worth $15 million, so that they could hand him three more at an annual value of $15 million. Pierre is probably the nearest analogue to Kyle Lohse of the three I've got here; he's an intermittently useful regular who is being passed off, as salaries go, as the second banana on a pretty good team, not the guy who goes to the bench when somebody better shows up. 

But more importantly, when the Dodgers pounced on Juan Pierre here—before the winter meetings, even—they seemed to be bidding against themselves. Pierre had just been traded from the Marlins for what at the time was a platter of second tier pitching prospects, and his year in Chicago hadn't exactly brought him back to the front of the national conscience. Who else was ready to offer Juan Pierre $44 million? Or Kyle Lohse $41?

2. Gary Matthews, Jr. Five years, $50 million, 11/2006. Stop me if you've heard this one before, maybe three times before: a player who has been useful in his own way for some time has a brilliant season that gets a lot of attention, not all of it for his tangible value. In the offseason he's signed to a contract that seems out of touch both with his apparent market value and the likely bounds of his performance, but the team in question is convinced that, despite being in his thirties, this player has found a new level of performance. He has not. 

What makes the Sarge Jr. contract crazier than the Kyle Lohse deal, besides the additional year, is that the real Gary Matthews Jr. was a fourth outfielder with an inconsistent bat and a flashy glove. Since the Angels signed him, that's exactly what he's been. When it comes to inexplicable career year contracts, we're all Gary Matthews, Jr., Jr. Except for this man: 

1. Vernon Wells. 114 years, $573 billion, 12/2006. Recently we were talking about how great it is to be able to lock up your own homegrown talent—how that's one of the keys to the Yankees' success, and, in the Blue Jays' case, one of the keys to competing with the Yankees. After looking at the Vernon Wells contract to this point, one might be tempted to never, ever sign another homegrown player again. 

Vernon Wells was a trap; that's all there is to it. He looks like a homegrown franchise player; he plays center field, and in his second full season in the league he had an enormous season, hitting .317/.359/.550 and doing everything well. In his ill-fated contract year, he nearly reprised that season, hitting .303/.357/.542. But between those lines, and even between the lines' lines, there are more warning signals than you'll find on a pack of Canadian cigarettes. Between 2003 and 2006 are two extremely average lines; even in 2003 and 2006 there's a walk rate that keeps him from being an elite hitter. The Blue Jays were signing a player that they'd gotten for two non-contiguous years out of four to a deal that might even have been rich for that hypothetical guy. 

They couldn't have known that his offense and defense would both take a complete nosedive by 2009, making him one of the worst players in baseball just in time for his contract to get to these numbers:

 

  • 2010—$12.5 million
  • 2011—$23 million
If I stopped here it would be a bad deal. But I've got more, one entirely separate bad deal—
  • 2012—$21 million
  • 2013—$21 million
That's like signing Vernon Wells to a bad contract—five years, $63 million—and then signing him again, at the conclusion of the contract, to Manny Ramirez's deal. (You know? It really is...) 

THE FRANKLIN DEAL: Three mid-contract renegotiations less necessary than Ryan Franklin's

3. Vernon Wells. Why on earth did they renegotiate after his career year when they had one more on which to base things? Were they concerned that the Vernon Wells would take it as a serious personal affront? 

2. Travis Hafner. You've got a slugger who has just turned 30 and who, while brilliant, has serious old player skills. He's gotten off to a slow start this season, but it's alright—you've got him signed through the end of the next year on a deal that's beneficial for all parties concerned. Do you A) wait out his slump, or B) sign him to a four year, $57 million contract that wipes out your attractive year and a half as a show of good will? 

1. Chris Carpenter. It hurts, it really does. But at least we don't have to blame this one on John Mozeliak. I'm aware that this is easier for us to do, as armchair GMs, than it is for the actual executives, who are dealing with actual human beings they will have to see on a semi-regular basis. And it's not just the player—fans can be pretty quick to accuse teams of not opening up DeWallet, and the Vernon Wells deal was apparently engineered, to some degree, by the Blue Jays' owner. 

But in general, contracts like Lohse's and Franklin's—on a smaller scale, luckily—illustrate how risky a business it is to use contracts to send messages to players, fans, or owners. A pat on the back might have done more good for Ryan Franklin than an extra $4 million on his head. 
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