SOME LIKE IT HOT (PART TWO); all new Hot Stove Discussion here, 07/12/09

Looks like the previous hot stove post is going to break 700 posts, and, with it, some unfortunate Internet Explorer users' computers.  Thankfully, I'm running Chrome on my Cray XMT, so it's not a problem for me, but maybe drawing a line under the FIRST MEANINGFUL FREE AGENT DEALS OF THE FESTIVE PERIOD isn't a bad idea, now we have a bit more of an idea of how the market's shaping up.



And what of that market?  Well, it seems, if not outright cold, barely luke-warm.  Following the Cards' inking Jason LaRue and Ruben Gotay to low-risk, low-reward contracts that won't cost the ballclub much more than $1m in organisational pocket-change in 2010 even if they both play most of the season in St Louis, we've seen the first couple of genuinely major free agent deals.


Marco Scutaro, not a player who interested the Cards, but arguably the best name in a very weak 2010 short-stop crop, inked a highly team-friendly deal with the RedSox which keeps him on the team for two years (plus options) at a considerable discount over his likely production - he's barely average defensively, but has a decent bat with contact skills and a solid walkrate that's translated into a .350+ OBP for the last four seasons combined, so it's likely he'll put up 2-3 WAR for each year he's on the Sox.   Team win.


Placido Polanco, a player who we've all wanted at one point or another in the last couple of years, our interest fading as Skip/Lugo gave strong showings last year at 2B and because he doesn't really profile as a 3B, signed with the Phillies to, errrrr, play 3B.  Polanco's skills are arguably declining, and he has no real power to speak of, but he's, well, Yadier Molina with a touch more speed, basically - great contact skills and an ability to average .300+ every year, with a career .350 OBP which has held steady into his 30s, and the ability to hit the occasional xbh.  Hiz UZR has varied at 2B from "average" to "very good", so it's fair to say (based on a +11 run 2009) he has a fine glove, even at 34, that will continue to play well at the cornerstone or the (Some Like It) Hot corner.  Jack Lemmon would approve.


Polanco remains a 3-win player, and you'd expect him to continue to be, at the very least, average, over the course of the (sadly, from our point of view as an NL rival) horrendously cheap 3-year, $18m (+ 1yr mutual option) contract the Phillies signed him to.  Even though our collective interest in the guy waned, in retrospect, for this price, there couldn't have been a better fit for us - Polanco is still a solid player at 2B or 3B, hits lefties well and righties adequately, and would fit in the 2-hole well ahead of Albert, due to his solid contact skills and OBP.  He's the ideal LHP platoon-mate for Skip at 2B, with his + defence and above-average hitting of LHP, and would be about average against RHP at 3B, assuming his defence is as good there, allowing David Freese the easier option of playing solely against LHP.  $6m per year is utility-backup money and wouldn't preclude a Holliday signing plus, perhaps, even getting a cheaper arm like Smoltz or Pavano.  Phillies definitely won this one.


A similarly bargainous addition was made by the Mariners, as CHONE Figgins, a utility infielder so good he has his own projection system (although it has been shown conclusively to be less accurate and, indeed, omniscient than Baseball Projections' new AMAURY ratings) signed for 4 years, $36m.  Figgins has his warts, among them a slight lack of power (although to be fair he has a similar xbh-rate to Skip Schumaker and considerably more thump than Boog) and a skillset focussed on speed and (until the last two years, when his BB rate has skyrocketed) contact that perhaps doesn't project to age terribly well over a contract that keeps him under team control until he's 36.  However, he's a genuine star-level talent, who has turned himself from "adequate speedy utility guy" to "genuinely excellent lead-off hitter" by showing increasing levels of patience as his career's gone on.  


It's very, very unusual for a major-league hitter to go from average plate discipline (~9% BB-rate his first four years in the league) to eagle-eyed God of Walks (~ 13.5% BB-rate his last two years) without increasing his K-looking rate and maintaining his contact rate (~.290 BA), especially moving into his 30s, but Chone Figgins seems to have done it.  His value is largely tied to whether he can maintain that sort of discipline as pitchers "go after" his strike-zone more, but, moving to a weaker league and maintaining his ability to hit stuff thrown in the zone, you'd bet he'd at least manage it for another year or two, perhaps ultimately regressing to be a more average hitter in his mid-30s.  Tie that up with a glove that plays well at 3B (and has only improved as he's got older and more used to being a "full-time" hot corner-ist) and just-about-adequately (despite a poor overall UZR) at 2B, and you've got a fine player on your hands.  He's also (despite a mediocre SB/CS ratio) a fine baserunner with significant speed who can take extra bases aplenty - pretty useful when he's on base in front of the one guy in baseball who can put the ball in play more effectively than any other - Albert Pujols.


I assumed Figgy would get in the region of 4 years, $50m+ (indeed, given FanGraphs had him as a 6-win player last year, albeit a massive career-year as he approached free-agency, something like 4/$60m seemed attainable).  4/$36m looks like an absolute steal - he's had some injury issues and should regress in the last two years of the deal, but he's a genuine star now and he's getting paid like a role player.  Yet another team seemingly "winning" in free-agency, even with a ton of talent still in the market.


So, this brings us to (IMO) the two best position players left on the table, both of whom we should have legitimate interest in.  Matt Holliday we know about (and bgh's excellent fanpost series on his potential value comes highly recommended), but, using the Figgins/Polanco deals especially allows us to frame the possible market for Adrian Beltre.  Again, I assumed something like a 4yr/$60m deal would be the sort of thing Beltre was after, but rumours suggest he's looking at something like $10m AAV (average annual value), and ideally a 4-year deal.  Figgins, a comparable but arguably slightly weaker player (better OBP and speed, but Beltre has considerably more pop and is an even better fielder) got $9m/yr in a market that had more 3B in it.  Also, critically - Figgins was a type-A free agent coming off a career year, Beltre is a type-B coming off his worst offensive season in years.


Whilst the draft pick penalty will have undoubtedly suppressed Figgy's value slightly, it's hard to argue that Figgins .358 wOBA year with 114 runs and 42 SB doesn't surpass Beltre (.305 wOBA, 44 RBI, broken testicle) by some distance.  He also has the "failure" stigma of never quite living up to his absurd 2004 (please don't claim this was anything to do with PEDs - honestly, we're to believe he had ONE FULL SEASON on the juice, and never used it before or after?), despite being consistently above-average and having two 4-win seasons in Seattle. I wonder if the Figgins contract is about what Beltre might be worth, or whether we could even knock off a year and look at something like 3yr/$30m as a likely deal.  


Beltre's glove is still peche de la peche (+14 runs/season over 8 years - he is, bar none, the best defensive full-time third baseman in baseball; genuinely peak-Rolen quality), he's (somewhat surprisingly, given his lengthy MLB tenure) one year younger than Figgins, and his season last year was undoubtedly hurt badly by taking a linedrive to the nuts in early August and an unlucky HR/FB rate (although his already below-average walkrate moved further south, and his LD and FB rates both decreased, which may be slightly worrying signs for the Beltre camp).  Also, he's a right-handed power hitter, and as this excellent article at Fangraphs shows, a move away from Safeco and its left-field graveyard (especially into a league which features 3 excellent parks for right-handed power hitters, and generally weaker pitching) should give him a real boost when pulling the ball into LF, even if he will be playing half his games in Busch III (also a pitcher's park).  Even though we likely have a 1-2 win 3B waiting in the wings (Freese) who needs to either be FREED this year or traded (likely for cents on the dollar) to someone like the Twins, could we really pass up the chance to sign a 3-4 win 3B for ~$10m/yr?  Personally, I'm warming to the idea, especially with some pretty attractive ways to make a cheap, above-average LF out of platoon parts (Hinske/DeJesus) with Craig or even by picking up Cameron for 1/$10m.


So, what do you think?  Beltre worth a look?  Should we still be holding our horses and playing the long game with Holliday, in the knowledge that some of the other high-end FA may sign for similarly cheap deals in the interim, leaving us with $30m burning a hole in DeWallet and only the Marlon Byrds and Joe Credes of this world left on the table?  Or do you take a totally different tack, look for platoon-mates for the newly FREED Allen Craigs and David Freeses, and step up the hunt for the higher-end free agent pitching talents, or tangle with the somewhat reduced financial might of the Cubs for Mikey C?

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