Free Agent Wrap-Up: The Fourth Wave

The free agent pickings are starting to get slim, so before we’re left wondering where Omar Daal and Brook Fordyce will end up, let’s take a look at some of the most recent signings …

*** Moises Alou | San Francisco Giants | two years | $13.25 million ***

This deal is getting ripped apart by a lot of people, but I actually think it’s pretty fair for the Giants. Sure, Moises Alou is 38 and isn’t the most durable player around, but it’s only a two-year commitment and $6.5 million a season for a guy who hit .293/.361/.557 in 2004 is a relative bargain. Of course, beyond his age and health, another concerning thing about Alou is that he hasn’t hit away from Wrigley Field. He batted just .247/.316/.400 away from the Friendly Confines this season (compared to .339/.405/.714 at home) and has hit a combined .264/.327/.417 on the road over the past three years. He now moves from Wrigley Field to SBC Park, which has typically been one of the tougher places for power hitters in all of baseball.

Assuming Alou isn’t a complete Wrigley-fueled mirage at this point in his career, he figures to put up some huge RBI numbers batting behind Barry Bonds and his record-shattering .609 on-base percentage. Bonds batted fourth in the lineup this season and San Francisco’s #5 hitters (mostly Edgardo Alfonzo, Pedro Feliz, and A.J. Pierzynski) combined for a measly .255/.317/.389 line to rank 15th in the National League in OPS by #5 hitters. Yet, they managed to drive in a total of 107 runs, seventh-most in the NL. Even if Alou just duplicates his disappointing numbers away from Wrigley over the past three years, he’s a lock to drive in 100+ runs in 2005. If he slugs anywhere close to the .557 he put up this season (or even the .462 slugging percentage he had in 2003), Alou might lead the league in RBIs. Obviously the RBIs won’t necessarily mean Alou is having a great year, but I bet they’ll make Brian Sabean happy he gave out this contract.

It is clear that Sabean is — to use a Jim Fassell line — pushing all his chips to the center of the table. Bonds is only going to be superhuman for so long, so Sabean has pieced together an extraordinarily “veteran” group of players this offseason without any sort of eye towards the future, signing guys like Alou, Omar Vizquel, and Mike Matheny. Just take a look at the likely Opening Day lineup for the Giants and their “baseball ages” in 2005:

C    Mike Matheny (34)
1B   J.T. Snow (37)
2B   Ray Durham (33)
SS   Omar Vizquel (38)
3B   Edgardo Alfonzo (31)
LF   Barry Bonds (40)
CF   Marquis Grissom (38)
RF   Moises Alou (38)

That lineup is almost laughably old. Plus, the team’s two main bench players, Michael Tucker and Feliz, will be 34 and 30 respectively in 2005. The pitching staff has a couple young guys on it, but starters Jason Schmidt, Brett Tomko, and Kirk Rueter, and relievers Matt Herges, Jim Brower, Scott Eyre, Jason Christiansen, and Armando Benitez are all on the wrong side of 30. San Francisco’s roster is about as sturdy as a house of cards and things are going to come crashing down as soon as Bonds stops hitting like Babe Ruth‘s big brother. With that said, they should have an interesting, competitive team for 2005 (albeit one that will keep the Giants’ training staff busy).

*** Eric Milton | Cincinnati Reds | three years | $25.5 million ***

As someone who has watched about 75% of Eric Milton‘s 199 career big-league starts, this contract is astonishing to me. Throughout his six seasons in Minnesota and his lone season in Philadelphia, Milton has always been a guy whose stuff and potential never quite matched up with his actual performance. He’s a rare lefty with a power fastball and he has excellent offspeed stuff, but he’s got a major propensity to serve up long balls on a platter and his career ERA is a thoroughly mediocre 4.76. In fact, once you adjust for ballparks and leagues, Milton’s ERA in 1,188.1 innings in the major leagues has been about 1% worse than league average, including 9% and 10% worse than league average in his past two full seasons.

There are worse guys to have in your starting rotation, but Milton is what he is at this point. He’ll be 29 in 2005, has never really had a great season, and is coming off a year in which he gave up 43 homers and 110 runs in 201 innings with the Phillies. People have been quick to point out that Philadelphia’s new ballpark played as a great place to hit homers last year, which is true, but Milton actually gave up more dingers on the road than at home (one homer every 19.8 at-bats at home, one homer every 16.2 at-bats on the road). Plus, he now moves to the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, another long-ball factory.

In addition to the home run problems, another thing that has plagued Milton has been his pitching with runners on base. He held batters to .231/.298/.458 with no one on base this year, but allowed them to smack him around to the tune of .297/.347/.555 with runners on (a difference of about 19%). And this wasn’t just a one-year thing, it was an often-discussed problem during his days with the Twins as well. For his entire career, Milton has allowed a .234 batting average with none on and a .298 batting average with runners on.

Here’s what he’s done over the past three seasons:

2002-2004       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     AB/HR
None On        .220     .270     .403     .673     .222      25.3
Runners On     .320     .357     .564     .921     .302      17.5

If the Reds are fortunate enough that Milton’s knee injury that sidelined him for nearly all of the 2003 season doesn’t act up again, there’s a pretty good chance he will give up 350 runs and 120 homers over the life of this contract. The good news is that he’ll supply the fans in the outfield seats at the Great American Ballpark with plenty of souvenirs.

*** Matt Clement | Boston Red Sox | three years | $25.5 million ***

How Milton and Matt Clement end up with indentical contracts in the same offseason is beyond me. Consider their numbers over the past three years:

2002-04           IP      ERA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Clement        587.2     3.80     .223     .306     .360     .666
Milton         389.0     4.70     .256     .303     .461     .763

Milton missed nearly the entire 2003 season, while Clement has thrown 205, 201.2, and 181 innings in the past three years, and a total of 198.2 more innings than Milton over that span. Clement’s ERA is nearly an entire run lower, his batting average against is 15% better, and his slugging percentage against is 28% better. The one area they are even in is on-base percentage against, mostly because Clement is a power pitcher while Milton doesn’t walk anyone, but their OPS against shows Clement with a 15% edge.

Clement is a fine replacement for Pedro Martinez, who signed with the Mets for four years and $53 million last month. I’ll even go as far as saying that I won’t be at all surprised if Clement is more valuable than Martinez over the next three years. Though Red Sox fans may never realize it because of their memories of Martinez, swapping him for Clement while saving an extra year commitment and $27.5 million (and getting a pitcher who is three years younger) is an outstanding move by Boston and making the very best of a difficult situation.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

*** Orlando Hernandez | Chicago White Sox | two years | $8 million ***
*** Wade Miller | Boston Red Sox | one year | $1.5 million ***

These are the types of deals I actually like for free agent pitchers. For a fraction of the money and commitment teams have given to guys like Milton, Jon Lieber, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Russ Ortiz this offseason, the White Sox and Red Sox signed Orlando Hernandez and Wade Miller, who are every bit as good. Sure, Hernandez and Miller have significant injury question marks attached to them, but almost all pitchers do, and Milton, Lieber, and Wright in particular have had various injury problems in recent seasons. The difference with Hernandez and Miller is that there is very little risk along with the potential reward.

With pitchers — and particularly free agent pitchers who are typically nearing or already past 30 — it is all about risk and reward. Why risk $7-8 million a season for three guaranteed years on a guy who, if things go well, can give you 180-200 innings of above-average pitching each year, when you could risk $1.5 million for one year or $8 million for two years on a guy who is about 90% as likely to give you the exact same thing? These are two of this offseason’s best signings, not because I think Hernandez or Miller are particularly outstanding pitchers, but because the teams that signed them are only on the hook for a total of $9.5 million. That may not seem important now, when every free agent has that new-car shine, but when the Phillies are paying a 37-year-old Lieber $7 million in 2007 and the Diamondbacks are paying a 34-year-old Ortiz $10 million in 2008, it will be.

*** Orlando Cabrera | Anaheim Angels | four years | $32 million ***
*** David Eckstein | St. Louis Cardinals | three years | $10.25 million ***

These two signings essentially close the free agent shortstop market, with only guys like Rich Aurilia, Pokey Reese, Barry Larkin, and Deivi Cruz left to sign. Here’s how the exceptionally large and accomplished group ended up doing for themselves:

                    YRS     $(MIL)
Edgar Renteria       4      40.000
Orlando Cabrera      4      32.000
Cristian Guzman      4      16.800
Omar Vizquel         3      12.250
David Eckstein       3      10.250
Nomar Garciaparra    1       8.000
Jose Valentin        1       3.500
Craig Counsell       2       3.100
Juan Castro          2       2.050
Jose Hernandez       1       1.800
Royce Clayton        1       1.350
Jose Vizcaino        1       1.250
Neifi Perez          1       1.000

The thing that jumps out is just how much of a bargain Nomar Garciaparra ended up being. I figured he’d come at a major discount, but I never could have imagined David Eckstein getting two guaranteed years and another $2.25 million more than Garciaparra. The fact that both Cristian Guzman and Omar Vizquel also out-did Garciaparra in this market is nearly as shocking. On a lesser scale, how did the Twins get roped into giving Juan Castro two years and a total of $2.05 million when the going rate for a low-level, offensively-challenged shortstop (Royce Clayton, Jose Vizcaino, Neifi Perez) turned out to be a one-year deal and about a million bucks? Seems like that’s the sort of extra money that could have been put towards keeping Corey Koskie around.

Thinking back to the trade deadline, the overall feeling was that the Red Sox were sort of dumping Garciaparra by trading him for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz. That notion — which I shared to some extent — seems fairly ridiculous now, considering Garciaparra and Cabrera each signed for $8 million a season … and Cabrera got a four-year deal while Garciaparra signed for one season.

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