Reviewing the indefensibles

This past January, we analyzed some of the worst deals of last offseason. More than one year of performance is needed to fully evaluate a deal, but that won’t stop us from trying. We already reviewed the best moves of last offseason a few weeks ago. Now let’s tackle the worst based on a single season.

Washington Nationals sign OF Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million deal

This one looked pretty bad in the offseason, and it didn’t get off to a great start. After developing into a true offensive force in his final years in Philadelphia, Werth’s performance was just mediocre in 2011. He hit .232/.330/.389 in 649 plate appearances with the Nationals, dropping significantly from his .296/.388/.532 breakout campaign in 2010 with the Phillies.

The good news for the Nationals is that while Werth’s season wasn’t seven-year, $126-million-dollar good, there are still some reasons for optimism. Werth wasn’t that bad in 2011, recording WARs over two according to both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. He stayed healthy and played a bunch of games. His peripherals didn’t crater. Werth’s walk percentage (11.4) and strikeout percentage (24.7) were only down slightly from his established norms in Philadelphia.

His BABiP dropped to .286 from a career .324 mark. While hitters control their BABiP to a large extent, there’s still plenty of fluctuation from a year-to-year basis. There’s a good chance Werth’s BABiP will creep back above .300 in 2012, and with that his batting average will rise. He also remained a base-stealing threat, going 19-for-22 on steal attempts. (He is a remarkable 96-110 in his career.)

Let’s face it, though, if this move didn’t look good last offseason, it certainly doesn’t look good now. Werth made just $10.5 million last season; he’ll start to really rake in the dollars over the next six years ($112 million of them, to be exact). Average offense from a corner outfielder just isn’t going to cut it at those dollar marks. While Werth is a good bet to bounce back next season, it’s still hard to see him putting up the kind of numbers in his mid-to-late thirties that will justify this contract.

Los Angeles Angels acquire OF Vernon Wells from Toronto Blue Jays for C Mike Napoli and OF Juan Rivera

Like the Werth move, this one has turned out even worse than you might expect for the Angels. Wells runs hot and cold with the bat, and this happened to be an ice cold year for him. He hit just .218/.248/.412 in 529 PA in Los Angeles. In 2010, Wells was a solid offensive contributor, hitting .273/.331/.515 in his last of twelve seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. Further hurting his value, Wells no longer patrols center field, and his defense in general has been in gradual decline.

Wells will turn 33 on December 8th, and the Angels will owe him $63 million over the next three years. In other words, they are going to be paying him like a star player, while his performance in two out of the last three seasons has been right around replacement level.

Wells has the potential to turn it around. In fact, he’s been flip-flopping between productive and non-productive offensive campaigns since 2006. What’s worrisome is that his walk percentage (3.8) and strikeout percentage (16.3) were both career worsts in 2011. His BABiP also fell to an unforeseen level (.214), likely aided by a lot of fly balls (48 percent) and not many line drives (12 percent).

Like with any down season from an established player, there’s a good likelihood that Wells will rebound to some degree in 2012 and beyond. Still, he won’t approach a $21 million-a-year level in his mid-thirties.

To make matters worse, Napoli went on to have a breakout year with the Texas Rangers. (He was dealt from Toronto to Texas for Frank Francisco before the season started.) Napoli never seemed a good fit in Los Angeles despite producing some pretty gaudy offensive numbers for a catcher.

In Texas, he hit .320/.414/.631, popping 30 home runs in just 432 PA. He also had a tremendous postseason, as you might recall. Furthermore, he shut down the running game, allowing only 21 stolen bases all year and throwing out 36 percent of would-be base stealers.

Juan Rivera hit .258/.319/.382, splitting time with the Blue Jays and the Dodgers. He actually had a better year than Wells.

Frankly, this deal had disaster written all over it, and it looks even worse for the Angels heading into 2012.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

New York Yankees sign Rafael Soriano to three-year, $35 million deal

The Yankees can outspend anybody, but that doesn’t make every dollar they invest a good one. They simply overpaid for relief pitching here.

Like anyone throwing baseballs upwards of 90 mph, Soriano has had some arm issues in the past. Elbow inflammation kept him on the DL for a few months last season, and Soriano was only able to pitch 39.3 innings. In those innings, he wasn’t that effective, putting up a 4.12 ERA and a K/BB ratio of two (both career worsts for a full season).

Soriano still has the ability to be a productive set-up guy, but coming off an injury-plagued, somewhat ineffective campaign and heading into his age-32 season, it’s far from a given. The $25 million that Soriano will make over the next two seasons will barely put a dent in the Yankee payroll, but it’s still money that could be better spent, be it on bolstering the starting rotation, extending one of the Yanks’ young players, or improving elsewhere.

Florida Marlins sign John Buck to three-year, $18 million deal

Following his best offensive season in 2010, Buck predictably came back to Earth a bit last season. He hit .227/.316/.367 in 530 PA and popping 16 home runs after hitting .281/.314/.489 in 2010. Despite that big drop in batting average, Buck actually increased his on-base percentage slightly, thanks to a career-high walk rate of 10 percent (up from four percent in 2010). He also cut down on his strikeouts and lost a good bit of power from his 2010 form and career norms.

Really, though, the signs aren’t all bad here. His BABiP, which fell from .335 in 2010 (likely an unsustainable number for Buck) all the way to .268, should be expected to creep back towards Buck’s career mark of .286.

As mentioned, he improved both his walk and strikeout rates in recent seasons, and there’s a good chance that he can retain some of that going into next season. If Buck can find some of the power he had with the Blue Jays and Royals, he can provide very solid production from a backstop.

All of the sudden, with a new stadium on the way, the Marlins have already signed Jose Reyes and Heath Bell this offseason, and they’re were seriously courting Albert Pujols, too. The $6 million they owe Buck in each of the next two seasons really doesn’t look that bad at all, given the increase in their payroll and the idea that they should be competitive in the near future.

This deal is not a major one either way, but if Buck can build on last season’s positives and be the starting catcher on a playoff-contending Marlins club, it’s certainly a lot more acceptable than it initially looked.

New York Yankees sign Derek Jeter to three year, $51 million deal (plus a fourth year player option)

Not surprisingly, Jeter rebounded—albeit slightly—from a career-worst campaign in 2010. Thanks to a sharp increase in BABiP, his batting average rose to a more Jeter-esque level at .297. His walk, strikeout, and power numbers stayed relatively similar to his recent career norms, but thanks to that increase in batting average, his overall offensive value jumped.

Still, there are plenty of concerns. Even with the aforementioned jump in batting average, Jeter hit just .297/.355/.388. That’s a relatively empty .297 average. Jeter is a shortstop, of course, and that production is far from a negative at that position (shortstops, as a group, hit .266/.321/.386 in the AL in 2011).

Then again, he’s a shortstop, and his defense has never been a strength. One-year samples are not all that meaningful alone, but his performance by the advanced metrics followed a career-long trend. UZR had him at -6.5 runs in 2011, while DRS pegged him at 18 runs below average. We can’t expect Jeter’s defense to improve over the life of this deal, regardless of whether you believe he’s been properly valued in the past.

Further, Jeter missed a lot of time in 2011, hurting his overall value. He played in only 131 games last season, his lowest total since 2003 when he suffered a shoulder injury on Opening Day and played in just 119 games.

Let’s face it, Derek Jeter has had a Hall of Fame career, but he simply doesn’t possess $16-17 million in on-field value anymore. The Yankees likely knew that going in but really had no choice but to bring back the iconic shortstop.

Considering his off-field value as the face of the Yankees and his ability to still hold his own on the diamond, he may come close to, or even surpass, his contract. With that in mind, this is an admittedly controversial contract, and it’s probably tough to classify it as “indefensible” at this point.

References & Resources
Statistics from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference

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Red Sox Talk
12 years ago

It’s been reported that the Nationals want to use Werth as their centerfielder this season. While that will help them with overall offense, his value could be seriously derailed by his defense this year.

12 years ago

Werth in CF should boost his value, not hurt it.  He has always been considered a good fielder, and his CF play is more than adequate.

That said, he still won’t outplay his contract.

12 years ago

Can anyone figure out the Nationals’ strategy in general?  They seem to just pick up a bunch of odds and ends and hope for the best. They seem to have the ideal park to work around pitching, defense and speed.