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November 09, 2010

Mercenaries

On the evening of November 1st, catchers BENGIE MOLINA and MATT TREANOR, infielders JORGE CANTU and CRISTIAN GUZMAN, and pitchers FRANK FRANCISCO and CLIFF LEE became free agents.

Guzman cashed $16 million during the past two years (mostly from Washington, thank goodness), for which he provided all of 0.6 wins above replacement. He nearly scuttled Texas’s trade for him, which in retrospect might have been better for all concerned. Guzman was a cipher at the plate, didn’t play after September 8th, and, worst of all, robbed the Newberg Report of its player-blogger. Although a better player than he showed in Texas, Guzman doesn’t bring much more to the table than Andres Blanco, who is under team control.

Like Guzman, Cantu could start for a bad team but is better suited to a utility role, at which he’d be useful to the Rangers. Doubtlessly, he’s seeking more at-bats and money than Texas would be willing to offer.

Treanor achieved six years of MLB service and free agency without ever earning more than $750,000, so, unlike Guzman or Cantu, he won’t be staring at a pay cut. Though Treanor is barely above replacement level, he’s a known quantity and works well with C.J. Wilson and others. I also doubt Texas will enter 2011 with Taylor Teagarden or Max Ramirez higher than third on the depth chart. Wherever he signs, a year at around $750,000 feels right.

Molina has hinted at retirement. Though he’ll always be remembered fondly in Texas , he’s very close to the end. From 2005-2009, Molina averaged 18 homers and 23 other extra-base hits. This year, those figures declined to five and 13. He could be an acceptable backup if so inclined, but it’s hard to envision him starting another 100 games for anyone.

A disastrous opening week and last-season injury cost poor Francisco a lot of money. Fact is, Francisco was the equal of Neftali Feliz after mid-April except for a substantial margin in BABIP. Thanks to the quirks of the free agent system, Francisco might spend 2011 in Arlington. Assuming Texas offers arbitration, and it should, the signing team will forfeit either its top pick or a second rounder in 2011. That eliminates half of his suitors, as hardly any team would forfeit its first-round pick for a good-but-not-elite reliever like Francisco. (The Wade-helmed Astros might, but they finished in the lower half of the standings and would surrender only a second rounder. In any case, signing Francisco to three years at $5 million per makes more sense than Wade’s similar tender to Brandon Lyon.)

Per Fangraphs, Lee has been worth close to $30 million in each of the last three years. He won’t make that much, but $20 million is a floor and $25 million is reachable. C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana both earn about $23 million annually. Despite all he provided for Texas, simply declining to bid for him would be defensible, albeit hugely unpopular. Lee is already 32, four years older than Sabathia and three years older than Santana when they signed their respective blockbusters. He’s also pitched 520 innings during the last two seasons (including playoffs). Do his age and workload merely confirm his durability or warn of impending breakdown?

If Texas could somehow sign Lee to an upgraded version of Roy Halladay’s deal – say, three years and $70 million plus a difficult-to-achieve vesting option – I’d be thrilled. That won’t happen, of course; Halladay was never on the open market and signed an extension with his present team. Despite his advanced age, offering Lee fewer than five years doesn’t get a return phone call.

Lee is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward signing. In any given season, he could raise a flag atop your stadium. He could also suffer an injury or show his age while absorbing funds that are no longer available for other players. I’ll understand if the Rangers are outbid, and at some point during the next three to four years Texas fans will likely sigh in relief as Lee nurses a sore elbow on New York’s disabled list. That said, his departure would leave a hole that can’t be filled.

Texas declined its half of a mutual option for 2011 with outfielder VLADIMIR GUERRERO, buying out his contract for $1 million and making him a free agent.

Evidently, the $9 million 2011 option was a contrivance to defer $1 million of his 2010 salary. Clever. So, should Texas want him back, and at what cost?

Part of the equation is simple. If any team offers a guaranteed two years, Texas should congratulate Guerrero’s agent and move on. A one-year deal is trickier. Offering less than Guerrero’s effective 2010 remuneration of $7.5 million seems superficially absurd in light of his .300 average and 29 homers. However, his performance after the All Star Game justifies concern.

To say Guerrero outright collapsed in the second half is an overstatement -- he had a fine September after a terrible July/August – but he certainly showed signs of reaching the bitter end, particularly in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the future Hall of Famer, one of 2010’s indelible images will be his stiff-legged bumbling in right field in Game 1 of the Series.

Per Fangraphs, Guerrero provided 2.6 wins above replacement for his employers in 2010, worth about $10 million on the open market but at a modest cost of $7.5 million ($6.5 plus $1 deferred) to Texas. As for 2011, let’s pretend his plate appearances drop from 643 to 550, his pro-rated offensive production (in terms of batting runs) declines by 20%, and he never steps onto the outfield grass. Such a performance results in about 1.4 wins above replacement, meriting $5.6 million in the 2010 dollars. That’s a reasonable guess, but recall that only two years ago an injured and suddenly, seemingly geriatric Guerrero managed only 0.8 wins. Also, he’s likely to spend a few games in the outfield, where his value decreases by the inning. I’d say the tails of his 2011 bell curve indicate a range between zero and 2.5 wins.

Undoubtedly, GM Jon Daniels won’t stand pat this winter; immediately after the Series, he stated his intention to enter 2011 with a better team. Unfortunately, resigning Guerrero doesn’t help to accomplish that goal, even if signed to a team-friendly deal. Vlad is unlikely to replicate or excel his 2010 and could deteriorate substantially.

What of the potential internal replacements? After several memorable trades and drafts, newfound postseason success, and years of memorializing by paid writers and assorted hangers-on, Texas’s farm system is receiving more mainstream praise than ever. That said, the farm isn’t an amorphous blob from which to draw useful parts at will. In truth, Texas is presently lacking in ready-for-promotion bats. (Note that the paucity of hitting prospects stems partially from two high-upside events: the trade of Justin Smoak [and others] for Cliff Lee, and Mitch Moreland’s graduation to the Majors.) The internal bat most likely to emerge from the farm to damage MLB pitching in 2011 belongs to Chris Davis, who may yet rejuvenate his career but has virtually no chance to earn a significant role on the active roster in March. Really, the pickings are that slim. Can you imagine Texas contemplating the out-of-options Max Ramirez or Chad Tracy (not the former AZ slugger), who has belted 43 homers in the last two years but is probably facing a second consecutive exposure to the Rule 5 draft? The most promising upper-level position player, OF Engel Beltre, needs to handle AA before entering the discussion.

Signing Guerrero to a one-year deal for $5-$6 million isn’t abhorrent, but again, at best it’s a water-treading move. At worst, it hurts Texas in the standings.

Here’s ex-Velvet Underground bassist/violist John Cale at CBGB’s singing about a different type of free agent. Joey Matches has his hip-hop. I have... this:


John Cale, “Mercenaries?, Sabotage/Live (1979)

Posted by Lucas at November 9, 2010 09:59 PM