Bowden’s Big Splash

Vinny Castilla enters free agency as the reigning National League RBI champ and is as much a litmus test of team intelligence as Batista. Coors Field is one of the least understood aspects of player performance in baseball today, and there will undoubtedly be some GMs out there whose eyes light up at Castilla’s 35 homers and 131 RBIs this season. What the team that signs Castilla will be overlooking is the fact that he hit a Batista-like .218/.281/.493 away from Planet Coors this year, after hitting just .254/.289/.404 with the Braves in 2002 and 2003.

There are worse one-year stop gaps than Castilla, but teams need to understand that he’s no better now than he was this time last year, despite the superficially good, Coors-inflated numbers. Any GM who signs Castilla to anything more than a one-year deal for minimal money should be fired on the spot, no questions asked (although maybe “when did you have your lobotomy?” would be okay as they cleaned out their office).

— Yours Truly last week, in my evaluation of the free agent third basemen

I guess you could say Jim Bowden is lucky I’m not running things with the Expos, because his tenure as GM would have lasted about a week. In what is the team’s first major move since coming to Washington, Bowden signed the aforementioned Vinny Castilla to a lobotomy-induced two-year contract worth $6.2 million. And just to make the day complete, he also inked former Minnesota shortstop Cristian Guzman to a four-year deal worth $16.8 million.

The whole thing reads like a really cruel joke played on the new baseball fans in Washington: I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you now have a major-league baseball team to root for. The bad news is that your brand new GM just made his big splash by signing Guzman and Castilla as the left side of his infield. (Okay, so I can see where that might be more sad than funny for a lot of people, but I’ve been laughing since I first read about it last night.)

The Expos just committed to two years of a 37-year-old third baseman who has hit a combined .247/.291/.423 away from Coors Field over the past three seasons, and he looks like Barry Bonds compared to the other guy they signed. Guzman has hit .272/.303/.379 over the last three years, including an absolutely miserable .259/.281/.351 away from the Metrodome and its turf. And for that — for two guys who will struggle to get on base even 30% of the time — the Expos have paid $23 million and given up multiple draft picks.

I suppose the one nice thing about both deals being signed yesterday is that the fans in Washington now know plenty about their new GM right off the bat. For one thing, he clearly doesn’t understand the impact Coors Field has on offense, which isn’t such a wonderful trait for the person assigned to evaluate baseball talent to have. The other thing is that he doesn’t seem to place any value whatsoever on hitters getting on base, which is another not-so-good sign when it comes to any hopes of the team being competitive in the near future. Signing either Castilla or Guzman would have been bad enough, but signing both of them on the same day has got to be a tough way to start being a fan of a team.

While Guzman is just one of the first handful of free agents to switch teams this offseason, his signing, along with Omar Vizquel‘s three-year deal with Giants, gives quite a boost to the earning power of the deep crop of free agent shortstops. Yesterday I asked, “If Vizquel can get that kind of money for that many years, what kind of deal can Guzman, a soon-to-be 27-year-old shortstop … expect to receive?” Now we know: $16.8 million over four years (which, as a Twins fan who has watched Guzman’s entire career up to this point, seems almost impossible to believe).

I assumed from the size of the free agent shortstop pool that it would be a buyer’s market, but that’s exactly the opposite of what appears to be happening. If Vizquel and Guzman are being snatched up quickly for these sort of contracts, what kinds of deals are Edgar Renteria and Nomar Garciaparra mulling over? If a team is willing to guarantee Vizquel $12.25 million through his age-40 season and a brand new GM just gave Guzman $16.8 million, doesn’t that mean Renteria is in line for about 20 years and $400 million? Alex Rodriguez should see if he can get out of his contract with the Yankees, because he’d be looking at something resembling the Gross National Product.

Vizquel and the Giants got things started with a deal that I said “has the potential to be one of the worst of the offseason” and now Washington has signed Guzman to a deal that is not only awful, but downright shocking. Combine those signings with Castilla’s deal and the Phillies giving Cory Lidle and his 4.52 career ERA $6.2 million over two seasons and I think it’s safe to say the financial restraint a lot of people have been predicting is pretty much out the window. We’re less than a week in, but this has the makings of a very interesting winter.

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