Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Friday, December 24, 2004

A Tale of Two Sluggers

Something is rotten in the state of baseball.

Something is wrong with the economics of the off-season.

Last year, the word on the street was collusion. When Rondell White, Reggie Sanders, Jose Guillen, and Jose Cruz, Jr., all signed two-year, $6 million contracts, the c word spread through the baseball commentary community like wildfire. But now, in an effort seemingly to put collusion out of everyone's minds, baseball owners are practicing a new brand of philanthropy. A 33-year-old catcher gets $40 million for four years; a right-hander with a poor track record gets $21 million for three years; another right-hander with a good season gets $39.95 million for four years. But that's nothing compared to the developing situation involving a certain sought-after centerfielder.

Let's take a look at two players: Player A and Player B.

 2005 AgeCareer BACareer OBPCareer SLGHRRuns ScoredMVP Awards
Player A29.325.390.5892737651
Player B28.284.353.4901466160

Player A, as you may have guessed, is none other than the reigning AL MVP, Angels' outfielder Vladimir Guerrero. Last season, Vlad was one of the top-name free agents on the market. In the end, he signed a deal worth $70 million over the course of five years for an average annual salary of $14 million. While that's no small change, had Vlad been a free agent in the heady days of the early 00's, he would have commanded a deal worth close to $20 million annually.

Now, one year later, Player B, Carlos Beltran (with all 8 of his postseason home runs fresh in everyone's minds), is sitting comfortably in the same seat that Vlad occupied last year. He is the top outfielder and is being billed as the missing piece to every team's championship puzzle. In fact, Scott Boras thinks he's worth that $20 million a year that Vlad did not get. Boras wants to score a 10-year, $200 million, Jason Giambi-like contract. Even if Boras and Beltran — two killer B's in their own right — don't get that ludicrous deal, the Astros think that Beltran is worth $96 million over six season or $16 million a year. The Yankees are believed probably willing to match Houston's offer or put forth their deal for seven years and $15 million annually.

That, my friends, is rotten. Looking at their numbers, it's clear that Player B should not get the same kind of contract that Player A received. Player A has never hit below .300 in his career; Player B has hit over .300 only twice. Last season alone, Vlad hit a robust .337 to Beltran's .267. The differences in their respective on-base percentages is .037, and Vlad has outslugged Beltran by nearly 100 points over the courses of their careers.

So where's the difference? Beltran, as I mentioned, hit those 8 towering home runs seemingly bringing Houston to the brink of the World Series all by himself. He was instrumental in the Astros' late-season turnaround. Sure, Beltran's a good player. But he's not a $200 million great player. I wouldn't complain if Beltran were roaming centerfield in Yankee Stadium come April, but he's no Vladimir Guerrero.

Beltran’s worth went up with each ball to leave the stadium in October. There’s some magically blinding about playoff baseball. It makes everyone else forget the rest of the year. In a few days, when Derek Lowe signs his contract, he’ll enjoy the bonuses of a solid October. Lowe pitched 18 solid innings this October. They were probably the best 18 innings he had pitched all year. But with every 0 he threw up on the scoreboard, he probably was adding another $500,000 a year in his head.

In the end, Beltran is probably worth about $13-$14 million a year. Vladimir Guerrero last year probably took less money to go to Anaheim. He would have been able to squeeze more money out of George Steinbrenner had George paid attention to his baseball people instead of his desire for that “warrior” Gary Sheffield. While Beltran is indeed a solid presence in the field, he has not quite established himself at the plate the way Vlad has. He hasn’t developed the batting eye or the same stroke. He’s a proficient home run hitter, but that .100 point deficit in slugging is a big indication of the differences between the AL MVP and Carlos Beltran.

For one year, it looked like baseball had gotten it right. While there were whispers of collusion, the owners were signing players for reasonable amounts, and the players were accepting these reasonable contracts. But this year, seemingly when Kris Benson signed his overvalued contract, the floodgates flew open, and the owners and players blew caution to the wind. Pedro's contract, Varitek's contract, and J.D. Drew's contract are indicative of this trend. And while Beltran has yet to be signed, it's clear from these initial offers he has that his too will be an overvalued contract. As Major League Baseball claims it will struggle to find private financing to construct a new stadium in D.C., they certainly aren't having too many problems securing the private funds to overpay for second-rate players this year.

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