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Paying the cost to be the boss

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Well the big rumor going around here and elsewhere last night was the one that had the Cards on the verge of signing Brian Fuentes to a 3 year, $30 M deal. Around these parts, some of us were salivating at the thought of him in a Cards’ uni while others of us were ready to break things up to, and including, our own skulls. If true, it would certainly be Mo’s most noteworthy free agent signing and address what one man believes is our top priority.

Now, I’ve gone on record myriad times as saying how stridently opposed to this deal I am – for various reasons. I was, similarly, opposed to trading for him at the trade deadline last July – a deal that seemed a distinct possibility in these parts for some time. Is Fuentes a good reliever? He certainly is. However, he’s also 33 years young and would turn 36 during the final year of that 3 year deal. He is left-handed, it’s true. I find that nearly irrelevant for a guy who won’t be a platoon specialist. It matters if Trever Miller is left-handed. It doesn’t matter if your 9th inning guy is left-handed.

There’s some disagreement as to how good Fuentes is but it is beyond dispute that he was fantastic last year. (That’s fortuitous if you happen to be Fuentes’ agent.) In any case, he was, w/o a doubt, one of the 5 or 10 best relievers in baseball last year.

FIP (ML rank) FIPRAR (rank) tRA (rank) BB/9 K/9 HR/9
Fuentes ‘08 2.24 (5) 29.2 (5) 1.97 (5) 3.16 11.78 0.43

It’s difficult not to like a guy who strikes out nearly 12 men per 9 innings and who, while pitching half his games in Coors Field, only yields 0.43 homers per 9 innings. It was, by all accounts, a terrific season. It also was, indisputably, his best season…in his contract year. Whatever…

In terms of wins, Fuentes was worth around 3 wins above replacement last season. Fangraphs has him at about 3.1 WAR, statcorner has him at about 3.8 WAR, and Justin Inaz has him at about 2.9 WAR. Let’s call it 3 WAR. If that’s the case, then Fuentes is worth about $13 – 15 M on the free agent market. Using Tom Tango’s salary scale, Fuentes would be worth $35.9 M on a 3 year contract. Therefore, a 3 year, $33 M deal is a pretty good deal, right? Not so fast.

It’s important to remember that Fuentes is also a type-A free agent. Therefore, signing Fuentes costs the team next year’s first round draft pick as well. We know from Nate Silver’s research and inflation that a first round pick between picks 16-25 was worth about $10.36 M. This puts the value of the cost to the Cards at somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 M over 3 years. That’s considerably higher than the $36 or so M that Tango says he’s worth. That also presupposes that Fuentes will be a 3 WAR player in his age 33, 34 and 35 seasons. Remember, he’ll turn 36 at around the All-Star break in the final year of that 3 year deal. Anyone around here betting he’ll be a top-5 reliever in baseball in 2010 and 2011? Not me. Even if he is, he’s still not worth what it costs. If he were a type-B – costing no draft picks – or if the Rockies hadn’t offered him arbitration….maybe.

But, the argument goes, our bullpen was so bad last year, we have to fill that role, no matter the cost. Fuentes is the best guy still available (true!) and that hole he’s filling is so massive and so critical that it makes the Cards an instant contender. Fuentes, at his best, is a 3-win player. The Cards finished in 4th place in the division – 11.5 games behind the Cubs. Even if he replaces a replacement-level player in the pen and pitches as well as he pitched last year, we’re still 8 ½ games shy of the Cubs. However, it’s simply not true that he’s replacing a replacement-level player.

Who would Fuentes be replacing? Remember when the Cards chose not to offer arbitration to one Russ Springer? I sure do. We could have had him for, at most, 1 year and $4.5 M. Springer was worth at least 1 WAR last year and possibly up to 2 or 3. So, Fuentes adds, at most, 2 wins to the team’s total at a cost of 3.5. Wouldn’t paying Springer, using Perez to close, and adding Randy Johnson to the rotation make much more sense?

But, the Cards blew 31 saves last year – most in the big leagues. If we could reduce that to the amount blown by the average team (21.83), we add 9 wins to our total and are just 2.5 behind the Cubs. Now we’re a contender. (pause and reflect) Is there anyone out there who truly believes that Fuentes adds 9 wins to our total? The best player in baseball, one Albert Pujols, is about a 9 win player. Fuentes is no Albert Pujols. For one thing, the idea that by adding Fuentes and reducing the number of blown saves we can add 9 wins to our total is a tremendous fallacy. The table below shows the team’s blown saves last year and the outcomes.

BS Dates Team wins Team losses
Franklin 8 4/1, 4/21, 6/5, 6/26, 7/24, 7/26, 8/5, 9/26 4 4
Izzy 7 4/12, 4/25, 5/2, 5/7, 5/9, 5/15, 6/25 2 5
KMac 5 5/17, 6/18, 6/25, 7/12, 9/1 1 4
Perez 4 6/22, 7/12, 9/3, 9/5 0 4
Flores 2 4/17, 5/5 1 1
Springer 2 6/15, 8/3 1 1
Thompson 1 7/20 1 0
Mulder 1 7/2 1 0
Villone 1 5/10 1 0

The team’s record in games in which we blew a save – 13-18 (.419 winning %). Doing the math, reducing our number of blown saves by 9 would only gain us 5 wins at most. It’s also important to remember, and should be evident by looking at the table, that many of our blown saves didn’t occur w/ the closer in the game. 2 of Perez’s blown saves, in fact, came w/ him in a setup role. About half of Franklin’s came that way and nobody probably remembers Villone, Mulder, or Thompson in the closer’s role last season. Those blown saves will still occur. And, did I mention that Brian Fuentes actually blew 4 saves in his career year last season? Therefore, the idea that bringing a strong closer will improve the team enough to push us to the top of the division or to justify overpaying for him simply isn’t true.

We have a young closer who’s paid the minimum. We need to see what he can do. I realize the team has some money to spend. If so, let’s spend it on Randy Johnson or on a 2 or 3 year deal for Ben Sheets. Not only will we be getting a better baseball player, but we’ll be improving the pen (over last season) and the rotation. The Springer/Perez/Johnson (+ the first round pick we keep) combo I mentioned above will add more wins next year and beyond than overpaying Brian Fuentes will – Tony’s comments notwithstanding.