Vizquel to the Giants

The first free agent to switch teams this offseason is Omar Vizquel, whose three-year, $12.25 million contract with San Francisco also has the potential to be one of the worst of the offseason. It’s not that Vizquel isn’t a solid player, as he hit .291/.353/.388 this year along with his typically overrated defense to rank sixth among American League shortstops in Win Shares. I have even been talking him up as a low-cost, short-term fix for teams in need of a starting shortstop, but as you can probably figure out for yourself, three years and $12.25 million aren’t exactly low cost or short term.

Vizquel will be 38 years old in 2005, which means the Giants just locked him up through his age-40 season in 2007. He has hit .276/.343/.391 over the past three years, which is perfectly good production from a shortstop, but he played just 64 games in 2003 and missed 14 games this season. Vizquel also failed a physical last offseason because of a knee problem, which stopped him from being traded to the Mariners for Carlos Guillen (who went on to hit .318/.379/.542 this year after being traded to Detroit).

All of which is a long way of saying that the Giants just committed to a three-year contract and paid what seems to be a premium rate for someone who is old, has injury concerns, and is far from a star to begin with. I’d say the odds of Vizquel being worth what San Francisco will be paying him in 2007 are very remote, and history is definitely not on his side. The last 40-year-old everyday shortstop was Luke Appling way back in 1947 and the only other shortstop in baseball history to get more than 500 plate appearances in a season at age 40 was Honus Wagner in 1914.

This deal also does two other interesting things. The first is that it essentially sets the market for what is a very deep class of free agent shortstops. Now when guys like Orlando Cabrera, Cristian Guzman and Edgar Renteria are negotiating with teams, they can bring up the fact that a soon-to-be 38-year-old shortstop who has never really done much at the plate just signed a three-year deal for over $4 million a season. 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 who has never really done much at the plate, expect to receive?

The other thing is that the deal really hammers home the fact that the Giants have no interest in first-round draft picks, and in fact appear to be intentionally losing them. Last offseason they signed free agent Michael Tucker before the deadline for teams to offer players arbitration, thus handing over the 29th overall pick to Tucker’s old team, the Royals, and now they’ve done the exact same thing with Vizquel and the Indians. While I can’t say that I agree with the strategy, it certainly is an interesting one. In fact, it is in direct contrast to Oakland’s plan each year, which is to basically hoard as many draft picks as they can for losing free agents and then use them to restock their organization.

Last offseason I wondered why the Giants didn’t just wait a little while on Tucker so they could sign him and keep the draft pick (since I didn’t expect the Royals to offer him arbitration), but now I realize San Francisco GM Brian Sabean sees the loss of a pick as a bonus that comes along with signing their first free agent of the offseason. In other words, if you don’t believe paying a first-round pick the sort of money it takes to get them to sign is a smart investment, then certainly losing the pick for signing someone a couple weeks too soon is of no concern.

Of course, one could say that the Giants’ undervaluing and now completely discarding their draft picks might be what has led to them filling major holes with players like Vizquel and Tucker when they’ve got one of the clearest windows of opportunity for winning in baseball history. They’ll win 90 games a year as long as Barry Bonds is extending his streak of National League MVPs, but there is and has been the potential to do a lot more than that.

Take a look at the lineup the Giants figure to trot out next year, along with their “baseball ages” for 2005 …

C    A.J. Pierzynski      28
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   Michael Tucker       34

Assuming Bonds loses his ability to make a complete mockery of baseball’s record books every year at some point, this is team that is going to come crashing down in a hurry. At 28, A.J. Pierzynski will be the only regular under 30, the entire team revolves around a 40-year-old leftfielder, and two of the three most important defensive positions are manned by 38-year-olds. And, of course, they have very little in the way of position-player talent in the minor leagues, which means they’ll have no ability to restock the team with young hitters anytime soon. But at least they won’t be on the hook for paying a big bonus to some teenager in June.

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