Yesterday, I suggested that the most baffling things that baseball front offices do is go out of their way to attain replacement or barely above replacement level talent when similar production can likely be found not only within their own system, but also for free or little cost on the free agent market. As the Minnesota Twins near a three year pact with Josh Willingham that will pay the left fielder $21 million over the life of the contract, I wonder if this should be amended.

When I look at recently signed free agent contracts, the first thing I attempt to do is put myself in the shoes of the general manager who made the deal with the player. What is the team’s expectation for production from the player that they’re signing? Then, based on FanGraphs’ calculation that every win above replacement on the free agent market is currently worth something close to $5 million, I calculate if the expected production matches the money being paid, including potential inflation increases.

It’s far from a perfect model, but it gives me a rough idea of what the team is expecting from a player that they just signed. If that expectation is reasonable, I’ll label it an even deal. If it underestimates the player, I’ll label it a good deal. And if it overestimates the player, I’ll label it a bad deal.

According to this model for evaluation, the Twins have probably signed a good deal with Josh Willingham. He’ll have to provide less than four wins above replacement over the length of the contract for the Twins to get their money’s worth. Yes, Willingham will turn 33 years old later this winter, but considering that he’s earned almost eight wins above replacement for the Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics over the last three seasons, four WAR more shouldn’t be a problem.

The problem, or perhaps better put, the question is: Why? Why would the Minnesota Twins need Josh Willingham? Sure, the team hit the fewest home runs in the American League last season and Willingham did hit almost 30 dingers last season.

Aside: Although it will be interesting to see how his pull swing plays in Minnesota where the dimensions are a bit deeper than in Oakland, but there also isn’t air off the Pacific Ocean keeping balls in the park. Here are Willingham’s home runs (blue) and fly outs (orange) at Oakland Coliseum as if they occurred at Target Field.

My bigger concern for the Twins is that with Willingham, their payroll projection rises to almost $100 million for 2012. That’s a lot of money for a similar team to the one they fielded in 2011 when the Twins accumulated almost 100 losses and finished last in the weakest division in baseball.

Yes, you can point to the time that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau spent on the Disabled List and suggest that they won’t miss nearly as much time this season. However, you can also point to the departure of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel. While neither player is a superstar, they still provided more production to this team that Willingham alone won’t be able to match.

With the Tigers being the Tigers, the Indians getting better and the young Royals team with largely improved pitching and more experience, how likely is Minnesota to make up the 32 games that they were behind Detroit last season?

So, that’s why I question the purpose of signing a 33 year old to a three year deal worth $21 million, that despite my questions, will undoubtedly provide good value to the Twins.

And The Rest

Today in you might want to sit down for this: The New York Mets aren’t sure if Johan Santana will be healthy enough to start the season with the team. [ESPN]

There’s now a mystery team involved in the Jimmy Rollins free agent sweepstakes. I don’t know what city they’re from, but their nickname should be the Masochists. [Twitter]

Hold on to your butts, the Blue Jays, Rockies and Cardinals are all interested in Carlos Beltran. [CBS Sports]

Scott Boras created a 73 page binder for prospective suitors of Prince Fielder. [ESPN]

Jeff Jacobs has a Hall of Fame vote and you do not. [Hartford Courant]

Aramis Ramirez took a back loaded contract with the Milwaukee Brewers to help out with current financial crunch. [Twitter]

Ken Rosenthal sees big deals on the horizon with both the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves holding multiple assets to trade away. [FOX Sports Yard Barker]

The Oakland A’s avoided arbitration with Dallas Braden. [Twitter]

Finally, it can be a confusing time for young baseball players. [NotGraphs]

Comments (17)

  1. Beltran? B.S.

    Unless there are some moves being made to get rid of:

    and get back some pitching, I can’t see how Beltran makes any sense… Yet another case of the Jays being used by an agent to drive up prices I’d bet.

    • I tried to imagine a scenario in which Beltran came aboard earlier. Actually, it was Beltran and Pena, but Drew quite rightly pointed out the whole knees issue. Probably not a welcome sign for Beltran written in the Dome’s artificial turf.

      • True. You’d have to think he’d get a Vladdy type of approach and be a part time OF and part time DH in order to save his knees.

        Meaning he’d take EEs job…. meaning we’d have to deal EE or make EE our LFer whenever Beltran isn’t out there and unload Thames and Snider.

        …. it just doesn’t make sense. Too much complication for not much gain.

        I hope AA is spending his time on improving the pitching instead of this

  2. One aspect of sports that WAR will never truly account for….fan perception. Adding talent and signing players can oftern be about keeping positive fan perception. A team that knows they will not compete may be willing to overpay a middling bat to appease the average fan base. The experienced die hard fan will know what’s going on and cry fowl, but the average fan may see these as positive moods, thereby keeping fan engagement up slightly through down years.

    • Disagree.

      These fans might see the initial move as a committment to “win now” or whatever. But if the player you sign shits the bed during the season those fans will lose interest and/or turn on the new acquisition pretty damned fast.

      Fans like wins. Wins bring fans. You get wins by having good players… players that are better than replacement level… players who help to provide more wins than average…. more Wins Above Replacement

    • Players never result in a spike in attendance, whereas wins almost always do. We went over this during the winter meetings, showing that after any big acquisition the rise in attendance is always what is expected based on wins.

      • I agree on the attendance figures, but have we ever analyzed revenues? Other revenue streams could increase with a player signing without affecting the attendance. What is the fattest revenue stream in baseball, probably TV contracts. All you need for TV contracts is a large market and some marketable names, you don’t neccesarily need a winner.

        I also agree with IMW when considering educated fans. However, how many fans have you ran into know nothing about sports? I’d say half of the people I run into only like sports to fit in. Those include all the fans that were excited about Frank Thomas coming to TO. The true fans, we knew that was a waste of time and money.

        • I’d agree on the revenue side of things, at least in the short-term; jerseys ain’t cheap.

          With the Angels, they’re an interesting case in that they’re trying to pry LA away from the Dodgers, and their big signings are likely to help them do that. They can now point to the Dodgers’ near-MVP and Cy Young and say “so what? We’ve got the best player of his generation plus a top line pitcher PLUS talent elsewhere.” That’s very valuable for their unique situation of being direct competitors with another team in the same market.

        • Local TV rights are usually locked in for a long time though, and aren’t going to be fluxed by one season of increased ratings, even if those do occur with a name acquisition.

          Merchandise money all goes to the league anyway and is split 30 different ways from there.

  3. Best Comment from that Hartford Courant article:

    Phil_J at 10:11 AM December 14, 2011

    Mr. Jacobs,

    You look like a child molester. Since I can’t prove otherwise, you ARE a child molester. I’ll wait a few years; if nothing comes of it I’ll stop calling you that.

    How’s that for logic? Pervert.

  4. I like the Willingham move because I think the AL Central is so lousy that despite finishing in last place last year, they could win the division this year and his extra ~2 WAR really could make a difference. I firmly believe that an AL Central team doesn’t need to go through the rebuilding stages that AL East teams need to undergo. This is what confused me about the White Sox trading Sergio Santos–they had no need to go through a rebuilding mode (and even if they are rebuilding, trading a young, cost-efficient closer makes no sense.) An AL Central GM can succeed operating differently (less progressively) from an AL East GM. And once a team makes the playoffs, the sample size is so small that they have a shot at winning the world series.

    • I agree with the sentiment. I still don’t think the Twins are even that good though.

      • The Twins have such a weird variance because of all the injuries that I don’t think we’re going to figure out how good they are until June.

        I think they don’t even know. This deal is them basically saying “pass” and moving on.

        (Also, while I appreciate the $5M / win figure, I think we need to think more in economic terms – specifically, the marginal cost of a win. WARs between 1 and 3 are relatively cheap, but the marginal cost of WARs above 6 are many times greater. Just assigning it a flat rate isn’t fair to both high-performance players and overvalues low-performance guys.)

        • I agree with Stephen–it will be difficult to tell how good the Twins are until June, not just with regard to the talent on their own team but also because it’s difficult to tell how good the other teams in the Central are. Even the Tigers, for example, are counting on guys like Peralta, Avila, and Fister repeating successful seasons and I just think that’s a stretch. I certainly don’t think the Twins are all that talented, but that division is so shaky that I think they’re in the mix.

        • Although 1-3 WARs should be considered cheaper than one player providing 6 WAR, teams don’t necessarily operate like that. Dave Cameron had an excellent piece in fangraphs illustrating this last month or so.

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