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Valuing Free Agents


            It is every fan’s dream to be the General Manager of a baseball team.  Just look at the popularity of fantasy leagues.  But valuing a free-agent player in the real world is no easy task.  How can a GM predict the future production of a player?  There are certain rules which should serve as guidelines for any GM looking at a prospective player.  First is age: An average player will be in prime from about age 25-32. Afterwards, his productivity will drop off rapidly. Above-average players will be in their prime during these years, and still may produce for a couple of years afterwards. Superstars, however, can be productive well into their late thirties.  Also important is not just quality during these peak year, but at what age a hitter started in the majors.  A hitter who is putting up good numbers before age 25 will probably continue to do so past age 32. But beware hitters who start at age 25: Once past 32, they are a dangerous gamble.  It is also important to note a hitters plate discipline.  The number of walks vs. strikeouts is important at all stages of a hitter’s career.  Free swingers with few walks don’t last as long as guys who take as many walks as whiffs.

            Predicting pitching is harder since pitchers often bloom late in the their careers.  Furthermore, early bloomers tend to have arm trouble and often burnout early, like Dwight Gooden and Steve Avery.   Injuries are of course the wild card. It is hard to predict who will get injured, but injury-prone players tend to stay that way throughout their careers. This applies to both hitters and pitchers. I have used Bill James win shares system as the basis for most of my statistics.  I believe it is the single best stat ever created.  According to James, players with over 30 win shares in a season are MVP candidates, 20-30 are all-star players, 10-20 are solid regulars, and 0-10 bench players. Let us now turn to real-life examples.


Superstars: The Prime Years


            Some free-agent signings are no-brainers. The very best players in the game are worth paying top money, especially in their prime.  In 1992, Barry Bonds became the highest paid player in the game, with a contract averaging $7.3 million over six years for the San Francisco Giants.  Bonds became a full-time major leaguer at the tender of age of 21, when he registered 15 win shared for the 1986 Pirates, very impressive for player that age. Bonds continued to improve steadily over the next few years, and blossomed into a full-blown star in 1990, when at age 25 he won the MVP honors with 37 win shares. He was just as good over the next two years, with win shares of 37 and 41, good enough for another MVP in 1992.  Predicting his future performance when he became a free agent after the ’92 season, I have would bet on another 4 years at the superstar level, followed by another three seasons at a very high level into his mid-thirties.  The six-year deal the Giants signed him to was a fairly safe bet.  Bonds had come up early, and had peaked at a very high level. He was still in his prime at age 28, and was worth being the best paid player in the game.   

            In his next six years with the Giants, Bonds did not disappoint.  He led the league in homers and RBI’s in 1993, winning his third MVP, and taking an astonishing 47 win shares.  In the seasons that followed he registered win share totals of 25 (in the strike-shortened ’94 season), 36,39,36 and 34. He was the best player in the league once during this period, second-best three times, and third best once. It’s hard to argue with those kind of numbers. Signing Barry Bonds in his prime can hardly be considered a huge risk, and the players that followed him as the highest paid in the years that followed also were not much of a gamble.  Ken Griffey (1996), Greg Maddux (1997), and Pedro Martinez (1997) all signed contracts in the years that followed that made them the highest paid players in the game, and all were worth the money.

            After acquiring Shawn Green from the Blue Jays in very one-sided deal, the Dodgers signed him to six-year $84 million contract in November 1999. Since Green was only 27, and therefore still in his prime, six years wasn’t too long, as he would still be 32 at the end of the deal. Green came to the majors at age 22 in 1995, when he posted 10 win shares. Green burst out in 1998, with 21 win shares, and followed with 24 the next year. He was a bust in the first year of his deal with the Dodgers, posting only 22 win shares, but he followed with 34 in 2001, and 30 in 2002. Green was only 30 years old going into 2003, and expect two or three more years from him at around 30 win shares, before a slight decline. But since he is not being paid as much as some of the other stars in the game, I think it’s a good deal for the Dodgers.

            Another huge contract was given to Manny Ramirez in December 2000. The Red Sox signed Manny to an eight-year $160 million contract. Ramirez would be 29 in 2001, and hence 36 in the final year of his deal. Manny was a full-time regular with Cleveland in Indians at age 22, and at age 23 already posted 25 win shares. He continued to play at that level over the next few years, peaking in 1999 with 165 RBI’s and 35 win shares. Injuries limited him to 118 games the next year, but he still posted 27 win shares with a .351 batting average and 122 RBI’s. At the time of his new contract, I would have predicted another four or five years at 25-30 win shares, followed by solid, if unspectacular production in his mid-thirties through the end of his contract. Manny registered 25 win shares in 2001, although he missed some games due to injuries, and posted 29 in 2002.  He is a solid player, but I’m not sure if he will be worth $20 million a year in the last few years of his contract.

            Three days before Manny signed his deal, the Texas Rangers signed Alex Rodriguez to a whopping 10-year $252 million contract.  The deal raised eyebrows around baseball, and rightly so. A-Rod may be the best offensive shortstop in baseball history, and he was only 25 years old at the time, but no player was even earning $20 million a year. In fact, the closest was Kevin Brown at $15 million a year.  Furthermore, the Rangers had considerable leverage, as they were the only interested team.  They could have easily signed him for about $20 million a year, which would have left more room for the pitching they so desperately needed.

            There wasn’t really any doubt that Rodriguez was a great player,  nor that he would be in ten years time.  A-Rod tore up the minors at every level he played at, and as a 21-year old major leaguer with the Seattle Mariners in 1996 he led the league in runs, doubles, and batting average, for a league-best 34 win shares. He slipped a bit with 22 win shares in 1997, but was back up to 30 in 1998. Injuries limited him to 23 in 1999, but he posted 37 in 2000, the last year before his free agency. In his first year in Texas, A-Rod posted 37 win shares, but with no pitching, the Rangers languished in last place.  The exact same scenario played out in 2002, with A-Rod pacing the AL with 35 win shares, but with the pitching-poor Rangers again finishing in last place. For the rare player of his caliber, it’s reasonable to expect greatness into his mid-thirties, albeit at a level not quite as a high as in his prime.  A-Rod might not be scoring 37 win shares in the final years of his contract, but 30 are not out of the question for him.

            And of course, there are also times when the best players in their prime don’t live up to expectations.  In 2000 the Cincinnati Reds signed Ken Griffey, Jr. to a 9-year, $116 million contract.  Since he was only thirty years old and still in his prime, it was a good gamble.  In the three previous years Griffey had registered 36, 29, and 31 win shares.  He had come up to the majors at age 19, and as early as age 21 had registered 30 win shares. Going into the 2000 season Griffey seemed like a sure-fire hall of famer, the kind of player who is good until his late 30’s. If I were to predict his performance in 2000, I would give him two or three more years at around 30 win shares, followed by several more good years at around 25 win shares, before falling to around 20 win shares at around age 37. 

            But it was not to be.  In 2000, Griffey posted 24 win shares, not bad, but well below the 30 most baseball people expected.  Still, Griffey was supposed to rebound in 2001.  Injuries limited him to 111 games, but he was not especially productive during those games, batting .286 with 22 homers.  Injuries continued to hound Griffey in 2002, and early in 2003 he was injured again.  The case of Junior Griffey proves that is essentially impossible to predict performance with 100 percent accuracy.  If there was ever a sure thing in baseball before 2000, he was it.  His future is clouded, and due to his injuries, it is even harder to predict how he will do now.

            Another case of a superstar player falling below expectations came with the Orioles signing of White Sox slugger Albert Belle in December 1998 to a five-year $65 million contract.  Following a monster 1998 season in which bashed 152 RBI’s for a total of 37 win shares, the Orioles, in desperate need of a big slugger to make up for the loss of Rafael Palmeiro, rolled the dice on Belle.  His 37 homers and 117 RBI’s in 1999 were well short of the 50 home runs that were expected of him.  He registered 24 win shares, not bad, but less than hoped for.  Belle was hitting well in 2000 when a hip problem brought his numbers down.  He finally sat out, and then never came back.  A degenerative hip kept him from playing again. 

            Belle’s injury makes many view his signing as a disaster, but there was no way to predict that.  Belle had never been prone to injury before, and had he stayed healthy, he might have put up solid, if unspectacular numbers for a few more years.  Belle was a late bloomer who didn’t have his first monster year until age 27. But beginning at age 27, he put up win share totals of 27, 24, 30, 31, 18, and 37. Expecting him to reach 37 win shares again after age 32 was clearly unrealistic, but he might have been able to match the 24 win shares registered in 1999 for another two or three years, and then settled at around 20 for the remainder of his contract.  With Belle in the middle of lineup BJ Surhoff and Harold Baines had huge seasons, making Belle more valuable than the 24 win shares he totaled that year.  Most people say the deal was a bust, but I’m not sure it was such a bad gamble.  Besides, the Orioles insurance paid most of the remainder of Belle’s contract.

            And occasionally a player who is not anywhere close to being the best player in baseball gets paid the highest salary.  It happened in December 1991 when the Mets made Bobby Bonilla the highest paid player in baseball with a contract averaging $5.8 million a year for five years.  Most likely, the Mets were fooled by Bonilla’s monster year in 1991, when he had 31 win shares.  But that was with Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke in the lineup, and Bonilla had no track record of producing at anywhere near that level. The year before Bonilla only had 23 win shares.  He would be 29 years old in 1992, and unlikely to improve.  Furthermore, he never had a particularly good work ethic or attitude.  In 1992 I would have predicted Bonilla to average around 25 win shares over the next 4 years, before slipping in his fifth season.  What did Bonilla do? He was actually even worse than that, posting win shares of 18,16,19 over the next three years. The Mets, eager to offload Bonilla and his salary, finally found a taker (sucker?) with the Orioles in mid-1995, where Bonilla finished out his contract in 1996. He wasn’t much better his last two years, with win share totals of 22 and 19.  Bonilla stuck around for a few more years afterwards, never coming close to repeating his career year of 1991.  Incidentally, the Pirates made a similar mistake the next season.  Forced to choose between keeping Van Slyke or Bonds, they kept Van Slyke, whose numbers eroded quickly without Bonds in the lineup.  All along, it was Bonds who was the driving force of the Pirate teams of the early 90’s.

            Another team who made the mistake of giving an above-average player with one monster year superstar-type money was the Toronto Blue Jays with Carlos Delgado. Delgado’s first year with the Blue Jays was at age 24, and he improved steadily over the next few years, posting win shares of 18,24,21, before breaking out in 2000 with a tremendous 36 win shares. The Blue Jays were mightily impressed, and signed him to a long-term deal for top money. But the Jays should have been more careful.  Delgado was 28 when he finally had his huge season, and based on his previous numbers and arrival in the majors at age 24, he was not likely to repeat that performance. In 2001 he only posted 23 win shares, and in 2002 he registered 26. Like Bonilla and the Mets, the Jays let one huge season fool them. 

            And in the opposite direction, occasionally there are great player in their prime who do not get the money they deserve. In November 1998, second baseman Roberto Alomar signed a 4-year, $30 million contract with the Cleveland Indians, with a fifth year, $8 option. Alomar was worth a lot more money than that, however. After tearing up the minors as a teenage, Alomar made his major league debut as at age 20 with the San Diego Padres in 1988. He posted 22 win shares, showing a high average, good speed on the basepaths, and stellar defense. Alomar continued to improve, having his first huge season for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 at age 24 with 34 win shares, and followed with 30 the next year.  He wasn’t quite as good in 1994 and 1995, as he was hampered by injuries and did not have the same protection in the lineup, but he still posted fine numbers. The Orioles signed him to a three-year deal in 1996, and he immediately responded with a huge year, scoring 132 runs and posting 31 win shares.  Despite playing in only 112 games in 1997, he batted .333 and gained 21 win shares. 1997 was also the first year since 1990 that Alomar did not win the gold glove for his stellar play in the field. 

            But Alomar seemed to fade in 1998, batting only .282 with 19 win shares in a full season. Later it was revealed that the Alomar was upset with the Orioles, and did not play his hardest in the second half of the season. Perhaps this is why he was so undervalued that offseason.  Some said that he was now on the downside of his career, and now that he was 31 his skills would fade quickly due to his lack of fitness training. But people should have known better, even if they did not know why Alomar played so poorly in 1998. Alomar not only came up at a very early age and played well, he also peaked high, posting over 30 win shares three times.  At age 31, he was still in his prime, and it should have been clear that he would continue to produce into his mid-thirties, and probably later than that, albeit at a lower level. The Indians contract with him at a little over $7 million a year was a steal (Mike Piazza signed a deal worth $13 million a year the same month). Some folks were surprised by Robbie’s huge year in 1999 when he led the league in runs scored, as well as showed power by hitting 24 homers and driving 120 while stealing 37 bases, for 35 win shares, tied for best in the league. He also won his second consecutive gold glove.  But they shouldn’t have been. Certainly his huge offensive numbers where helped by the awesome Cleveland lineup, but he was a big part of it. Robbie didn’t quite match those numbers in 2000, with a solid 20 win shares, but was stellar again in 2001, batting .336 and driving in 100 runs, for a personal high of 37 win shares.

            The cash-strapped Indians dealt him to the Mets before the 2002 season, were he batted only .266 and posted a very disappointing 16 win shares that season. Nonetheless, the Mets exercised his 2003 option, and for a mere $8 million, they should have.  So how will Alomar fare in the last year of his deal? In 2003, Robbie will be 35 years old, and coming off a rather mediocre year. But he had no protection in weak lineup in 2002. Alomar had had some off years in the past, and rebounded quite well. I would expect him to easily top his 16 win shares from last season, because players don’t drop off from such high points so quickly. Alomar is a first-ballot hall of famer, the kind of player who is good into his late thirties. He may be back in 2003, but his superstar days are probably over.

            And what of Mike Piazza and his $13 million a year? The Mets signed him to a 7-year $81 million deal in November, 1998. Piazza came up as a catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 24 in 1993, and won Rookie of the Year, with an impressive 32 win shares. He continued to play well, batting for both power and average in the years that followed. He posted 33 win shares in 1996, and reached his peak in 1997, batting .362 with 40 homers, for 39 win shares. But Piazza and the Dodgers could not agree on a contract in 1998, and he was shipped of to Florida, and then New York. Despite all the moving, he caught fire in with the Mets, and posted a total of 33 win shares for 1998. Piazza would be thirty years old in 1999, he was already the best hitting catcher in major league history. He had posted win share totals of 33, 39, and 33 in the previous three seasons. He was very strong and in excellent shape.

            But Piazza also played the most demanding position in baseball, a place where most players don’t last very long, as the constant squatting takes its toll. If Piazza played any other position I would not have blinked at signing him to a lucrative six or seven year deal, but the fact that he was a catcher should have made the Mets pause. Catchers past thirty don’t tend to catch much longer. Maybe the Mets thought they could move him to another position, like first base, where he could extend his career. Piazza had always been a very mediocre catcher at best anyway. The Mets ended up giving Piazza seven years and $81, a little too long in my opinion, unless they planned on moving him from catcher.

            Piazza hit 40 homers in 1999, but his average dropped to .303, his lowest in the majors, for a total of 21 win shares. Piazza had a big season in 2000, batting .324 for 29 win shares, but he faded towards the end of the season. A weak Mets lineup in 2001 left him under 100 RBI’s, despite his 36 homers, for 21 win shares. Things were even worse in 2002, when the Mets efforts to give him help in the lineup failed, and Piazza posted only 19 win shares.  Piazza’s defense has also declined, as opposing runners steal bases on him seemingly at will. Piazza’s numbers haven’t been bad, but they aren’t quite worth they money. The Mets will get only declining numbers from him so long as they keep at catcher.


Superstars: The Later Years


            It is of course harder to predict how a superstar will perform when he is past his prime years of 25-32.  After the 1996 season, Roger Clemens demanded top money from Boston Red Sox, who weren’t sure whether he was worth it.  Clemens was 34 years old, and had gone 39-40 over the last four years, hardly Cy Young material.  The Red Sox let him go, and the Toronto Blue Jays decided to take a chance on him for three years and $21 million, which at $7 million a year was far less than the $11 million Greg Maddux received that offseason.  Clemens went on to win the Cy Young award the next two seasons for the Jays, before being traded to the Yankees for the 1999 season, where he struggled a bit.  Still, it was one of the greatest deals in history. 

            But could the Sox have known Clemens would return to form? Actually, yes.  Clemens was great from a young age, winning at every level in the minors, before doing well in the majors at the young age of 22. He won the Cy Young at age 24, and continued to the best pitcher in the AL afterwards.  Clemens posted stellar seasons in 1991 and ’92, but  faltered in ’93 going 11-14 with a mediocre 4.46 ERA.  But in the strike shortened ’94 season his 9-7 record did not accurately reflect his stingy 2.87 ERA.  The win shares system rates him as the third-best pitcher in the AL that year. The next year he was 10-5 with a 4.18 ERA, not bad, but hardly worth top dollar.  But the Red Sox may have undervalued Clemens mostly due to his 1996 campaign.  Clemens pitched 242 innings, posting a 3.63 era, excellent numbers, but poor run support left him with a 10-13 record.  But despite the won-lost record, win shares sees him as the fourth-best pitcher in the AL that year, with 20 win shares. All in all, the Red Sox could have predicted solid, if not quite Cy Young results from the Rocket for the next few years. Clemens further helped himself by committing to a rigorous workout regiment as he approached his mid-thirties, a necessity for an older athlete who wishes to stay competitive.  Clemens clearly exceeded expectations, but those expectations should have been fairly high. The Red Sox may have lost out on Clemens, but they did well by signing another superstar, Pedro Martinez the following year, to a contract averaging $12.5 million annually.

            Another 34-year old pitcher was signed two years later, when the Los Angeles Dodgers shocked the baseball world in December 1998 by signing Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract.  It was the most lucrative deal in baseball history, exceeding Mike Piazza’s $13 million annual contract.  There wasn’t any doubt that Brown was a great pitcher, but would he be at age 40?  In his earlier years, Brown was a solid pitcher, who didn’t live up to his potential as a great pitcher until age 31, when he posted a phenomenal 1.86 ERA with the Marlins in 1996. He was great in again 1997, and in 1998 he helped pitched the Padres to the World Series, where he gained national attention for his heroics during the playoffs.  The Dodgers needed an ace, and had the money to spend.  Brown, a very talented power pitcher, might have been expected to be a late bloomer who stayed good late, like Nolan Ryan or Warren Spahn.  It could therefore be seen as a reasonable risk, especially if you have the money, like the Dodgers did.

            In his first year, Brown anchored the staff and won 18 games, just what the Dodgers wanted.  He registered 19 win shares, and was the fifth-best pitcher in the NL. In 2000, Brown was slightly better, leading the league in ERA and registering 20 win shares, fourth-best in the NL.  So far, so good.  But injuries limited Brown to 115 innings in 2001. Although he was effective when he pitched, he only registered 11 win shares. Injuries further limited Brown in 2002, but this time when he pitched he was ineffective.  Brown still has three more years on his contract, but I would say that unless he is stellar in all three seasons, the deal was more or less a bust.  Had I been predicting Brown’s performance in 1998, I would expect another two or three years of stellar pitching, another two years of above average pitching, and maybe two years of very average results.  All in all, too much of a risk for seven years.

            The problem wasn’t the money, however, as much as the duration of the deal.  The Dodgers had money to burn, and $15 million may not be too much for an ace.  If I were the Dodgers I would have agreed to no more than a four-year deal with a fifth year option.  Had Brown proved effective for six or seven years, that would be a tolerable risk: The Dodgers could have resigned him to a new contract, just like the Diamondbacks did with Randy Johnson after his option year in 2002.  But tough-talking agent Scott Boras suckered the Dodgers into a long deal, much like he did with Texas and Alex Rodriguez.  It’s not over for Brown yet, but I would be very surprised if he is able to make the deal worthwhile for the Dodgers.     

            Another older pitcher was signed that same offseason, Randy Johnson.  Johnson was a year older than Brown, and the Arizona Diamondbacks offered him a four-year deal at $12.35 million a year, with a fourth-year $15 million option.  Like the Brown deal, the Johnson signing was questioned.  Not only would Johnson be 38 by the time the contract was up, but he had pitched poorly for the Mariners during the first half of 1998, before coming to the Astros and posting gaudy numbers. 

            The rest, of course, is history.  Johnson won the Cy Young award in each of his first four years of the deal, pitching better than he had at any other time in his career, and absolutely dominating National League hitters.  The Diamondbacks then happily picked up his option for 2003.  It was one of the greatest free agent signings in history.  But could the same be expected of Brown? First, it should be noted that there was really no way to have expected Johnson’s performance.  Certainly he was a great pitcher beforehand, but he actually improved after age 35, and continued to stay at that level.  Lefthanders and power pitchers tend to peak late, and Johnson was both.  That, along with his massive height, which required time to learn how to control, are the reasons for the Big Unit’s late arrival.  But there was really no way to have known ahead of time just how good his numbers would be.   The Diamondbacks took the right strategy with a fairly short contract and an option year as the way to manage the risk of signing an older player. 

            So what can we expect now from Johnson?  Well, clearly Johnson is in uncharted territory.  There have only been a few pitchers who were effective so late in their careers. One of the most similar was Warren Spahn, another left-handed power pitcher who developed fairly late. Spahn missed the early years of his career due to World War Two, and did not pitch his first full season until he was 26. He was great from that point on, and maintained his consistency until very late, amassing 363 wins. He had his last great season at age 42 when he won 23 games and led the league in complete games.  He collapsed quickly afterwards, however, and was ineffective and injured at age 43 before rebounding with decent numbers at age 44 and finally retiring.  Another pitcher who maintained effectiveness late in his career was the ageless one, Nolan Ryan. The Texas Rangers signed the 42-year old Ryan in 1989 and he responded with three good years in which he posted win shares totals of 18,15, and 13 at ages 42-44. Another example is Phil Niekro who posted 24 win shares at age 40, and had several more good years after that. Niekro was a knuckleballer, however, and knuckleballers often last a long time, ie. Charlie Hough.

            Other than these three there aren’t really any pitchers who have made it as long as the Big Unit (unless we look at Cy Young who pitched over 100 years ago).  I don’t feel that Niekro is even comparable since he was a knuckleball pitcher. That leaves two previous example, Ryan and Spahn. Of the two, I’d say Johnson is closer to Spahn, in that he was a late-blooming, power-pitching lefty.  Johnson is 39 in 2003, and will turn 40 halfway through the season. I think its possible that he can have another three good years, although not quite at the Cy Young level that he has been at. The Diamondbacks played it safe, signing Johnson to another two years, but at the handsome price of $33 million.  I think the Diamondbacks will get two good years out of Johnson, although injuries are the wild card. Players tend to become more injury-prone as they age, and the Unit finally went down early in 2003. But he will be back, and the Diamondbacks probably will get their money’s worth.    

            The same offseason that Brown and Johnson were signed as free agents, there were also two slugging first basemen who were looking for new teams: Mo Vaughn and Rafael Palmeiro.  Both had put up nearly identical numbers in 1998; Vaughn registered 25 win shares to Palmeiro’s 24. But Vaughn was 31 years old and Palmeiro was 34.  Shouldn’t teams have concluded that Vaughn would produce better numbers in the future? Actually, close examination would have predicted Palmeiro to be better bet than Vaughn.  A good hitter before age 25 will continue to hit well past age 32, but a good hitter who comes into his prime at age 25 is a big risk in his mid-thirties.  This explains the different career paths for Palmeiro and Vaughn.  Rafael Palmeiro played his first full season with Cubs at age 23, posting a high average, lots of doubles, and good plate discipline, striking out only 34 times versus 38 walks.  The only missing element was home run power.  But power is usually the last skill a hitter develops, and Palmeiro’s high number of doubles, high average and good plate discipline before age 25 boded well for future power, and after age 25, Palmeiro started hitting homers regularly.

            Mo Vaughn on the other hand did not have his first full season in the majors until age 25, and while he showed good power with 29 homers, he also struck out 130 times versus 79 walks.  Vaughn continued to improve and put up impressive numbers over the next few years, including an MVP award in 1995.  But Vaughn was never quite as good as his numbers made him seem. He played for a good hitting team in a hitter’s park, leading observers to overrate him.  In fact, according to the win shares system, Vaughn’s best year was in 1996 when he registered 29 win shares.  Other than that, he was never close again.  Vaughn registered only 24 win shares in 1995, the year he won the MVP, not even in the top five in the league, versus Edgar Martinez’s 32 win shares.  The 25 he registered in 1998 were his second best ever.  Meanwhile, Palmeiro already had two seasons with over 30 win shares by 1998, and was better earlier in his career than Vaughn.  Furthermore, Vaughn never developed plate discipline, averaging 150 strikeouts a year from 1995-98 against about half as many walks, while Raffy’s strikeout and walk totals remained about even.

            Taken as a whole, the numbers in the 1998-99 offseason predicted further production from Raffy, well into his late 30’s, while maybe a year or two more good seasons from Vaughn before a dropoff into mediocre territory.  The Anaheim Angels, however, ignored this information, however, signing Vaughn to a massive six-year deal worth $80 million.  The Rangers played it smart, and grabbed Raffy from the hands of the inept Baltimore Orioles at a bargain price of $45 million over 5 years.  It didn’t take long for the two players to go their separate paths.  In 1999, Vaughn registered only 19 win shares, although injuries limited him to 139 games.  But Raffy had a monster year, hitting 47 homers, 148 RBI’s, and a .324 batting average for a total of 31 win shares.  In 2000, Palmeiro continued to produce with 23 win shares to Vaughn’s 17.  Vaughn missed all of 2001 with a biceps injury, but even if he hadn’t, it is unlikely he would have matched Raffy’s 25 win shares that year.  Despite his injuries and declining production, the Mets decided to take Vaughn’s huge contract in 2002, as they were desperate for hitting.  But even a rich team with money to spend in need of power should have known better. Vaughn was very mediocre in 2002, registering 14 win shares, while Raffy continued his steady production with another 19 win shares.

            Writing during the 1998 season, Thomas Boswell recommended that the Orioles resign Palmeiro instead of going after Vaughn, since he reasoned that large barrel-chested hitters like Vaughn and Bobby Bonilla tend not to last into in their late thirties.  That may be true, but it’s hard to say.  What is not in dispute is that an aging player needs to work out hard and stay in shape, which the grossly overweight Vaughn did not do in 2002.  But even without looking at Vaughn’s body type and workout habits, it should have been clear that Palmeiro was the better bet at that point.

            The New York Yankees decided to go after Orioles ace righthander Mike Mussina following the 2001 season.  Mussina was 32 years old, however, but the Yankees nonetheless signed him to a six-year deal, worth $88.5 million.  Was it a good idea?  Mussina had come up at an early age, and was good right from the beginning.  In 1992, at the age of 23, Mussina posted 24 win shares, second-best in the AL, and his best season to date.  Mussina continued his steady pitching for the next few years garnering win shares of 11,18,20,13,19,15,17, and 18 in the years leading up to his free agency. He was the second-best pitcher in the AL in 1994, third-best in 1995, and fourth best in 2000.  Throughout he was durable, rarely prone to injury, and his great command led to lots of strikeouts and few walks. Mussina was a winner: The Yankees were smart to acquire him, even for a long-term deal.  In his first year with Yankees he won 17 games while posting a measly 3.15 ERA, for 20 win shares, second-best in the AL.  He faltered a bit the next year with his ERA rising to 4.50, but he still won 18 games while throwing over 200 innings, for 15 win shares. The Yankees shouldn’t worry too much in the short term.  Mussina has dropped to 15 win shares before, only to rebound.  He may not throw for 20 win shares again, but he will continue to win for the about next three seasons. I’d be worried about his production in the last two years of his deal at ages 36 and 37, however.

            The next year the Yankees went after another big free agent, and signed A’s slugger Jason Giambi to a 7 year, $120 million in the 2001-2002 offseason. Giambi didn’t become a regular until age 25, a little old for a superstar, and only posted 15 win shares.  But by 1999, at age 28, he was up to 30 win shares, and only got better, posting 38 in 2000 and 2001, taking MVP honors the first year. Throughout his career, Giambi’s plate discipline improved, as he led the league with walks in both 2000 and 2001, against less than 100 strikeouts. Although Giambi would be 31 in 2002, the Yankees four-year deal was a fairly safe bet. Despite his late start at age 25, Giambi’s peak years were huge, and his improved plate discipline also boded well for the future. In 2002, I would have predicted 30 or more win shares for the first three years of his deal, 25-30 in the next two years at ages 34 and 35. But even a hitter as accomplished as Giambi will probably fade a bit ages 36 and 37, maybe to about 20 win shares.  It thus seems that Giambi may be somewhat overpaid, but if there is any team that can afford to do so, it’s the Yankees.  Giambi did not disappoint in 2002, pacing the Yankees with 34 win shares.

            The top free agent during the 2002-03 offseason was another slugging first baseman, Cleveland’ Jim Thome.  Thome was coming of a career year in which he mashed 52 home runs for a total of 34 win shares.  Thome had been a consistent producer for the Indians for several years by 2003.  He had played fairly well at the big-league level in his time in the majors at ages 23 and 24, before breaking out at age 25.  His win share totals beginning at that age were 24, 28, 26, 19, 26, 20, and 34 in 2002.  If we were to predict his future performance, we would clearly see that his 34 win shares in 2002 at age 32 was his peak performance, and unlikely to be repeated again.  For a player of his caliber, I would predict another two or three very good years of 25-28 win shares, before dipping down in his mid-thirties to about 20 for another couple, followed by a big decline in his late thirties.  I’d say 37 might be the cut-off for a guy like Thome.

            Thome was highly coveted by the Philadelphia Phillies that offseason, who were trying to build a winner for the move into their new park in 2004.  The Phils went out and offered Thome a hefty six-year deal. The deal is a gamble, and expensive as well.  I’d say the Phils will get their money’s worth for the first two or three years of the contract, followed by a year or two of slightly below-expected performance, before really getting shafted in the last two years when Thome is ages 37 and 38.  Rafael Palmeiro might have been productive at those ages, but he started his major league career at a younger age, and has shown better plate discipline, not striking out anywhere near as much as Thome.


All-Time Greatest Players: The Later years

            And then there is that player who seems to defy all rules about aging hitters: Barry Bonds. Bonds had his best season ever in 2001, when he was 36 (he turned 37 about halfway through the season). He was almost as good the next year. How long can Bonds keep this up for? Well, first let’s chart out the top seasons by older players, until Bonds came along. The best season at age 36: Babe Ruth with 38 win shares (Bonds had 54). Age 37: Babe Ruth with 36 (Bonds had 49). Age 38: Ted Williams with 38. Age 39: Williams with 25. Age 40: Willie Mays with 27. Age 41: Honus Wagner, with 23. Age 42: Wagner with, 17.  That’s some pretty select company. You could certainly make a case that Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Wagner are the four best players of all time.  There is no doubt that each was the dominant player in his era, as Bonds has been in his time. Each was also very good at a very young age, peaking very high, and staying good late.

            Bonds shares all those same traits, except for one. His late career explosion in 2001 and 2002 is simply unprecedented in baseball history. Bonds not only had his finest season when he was 36 with 54 win shares, but it was also the greatest offensive season of all time, and third highest overall single-season total. In his next campaign, when he was 37, he posted 49 win shares, two higher than his previous high of 47 when he was 28 years old (The closest precedent is Honus Wagners’s all-time high of 59 win shares in 1908 when he was 34. Wagner’s previous high had been 46 at ages 31 and 32. But even that isn’t quite the same, is it?). It’s not clear why Bonds got better late in his career. Perhaps his improved plate discipline and increased strength training made the difference.  There have been allegations of steroid use, but players who used steroids tend to get injured often, while Bonds has remained healthy for nearly his entire career. Besides, Bonds workout regimen is so rigorous that his massive bulk could have been gained naturally. 

            So how much longer can we expect big seasons from Bonds? Well, he starts 2003 at age 38, coming off a 49 win share season. If Ted Williams could hit for 38 win shares at age 38, Bonds certainly can match that, and probably top it.  He can also probably easily top Williams’ 25 win shares at age 39 and Mays’ 27 at age 40. For that matter, I’d bet he could even match Wagner’s 23 at age 41 and 17 at age 42. Why do I think Bonds will be able to do all this? I would say there are two factors. One is that the sample size for the all-time greatest players is so small that it makes it difficult to really know what the upper age limit for great players is. Prior to Bonds, we are only dealing with about the 4-5 top players of all time. Of those, Babe Ruth’s hot dog and beer diet didn’t contribute to his longevity like’s Bonds rigorous training does. Ted Williams was still hitting well when he retired, and could have continued to play well for a couple more years, but we’ll never know what he could have done. Bonds and Mays are essentially the same player, save for Bonds peak years when he was slightly better, and more importantly, Bonds came along after the advent of strength training. The new and improved modern conditioning techniques are probably the real difference between Bonds and his predecessors. His rigorous training and eating habits might allow him to shatter all of the above totals for greatest older player, just as he has been doing over the past two years.

             Apparently the Giants realized all this, and signed him to a five-year $90 million deal in January 2002, with the final year as an option.  He certainly delivered in 2002.  How will Bonds do for the remainder of his contract? I’d be willing to bet on solid production from him for another three year, if not four years, providing he maintains the desire to play, and discipline to adhere to his training program. Bonds is a once in a generation player, the Honus Wagner/Ted Williams/Willie Mays of our time. Those players don’t come around very often, and when they do, they can productive much later than any other player. And besides, there is another benefit with Bonds. Fans will come to the park just to him, even if he isn’t a great player anymore. He will be chasing many records in the years to come, and fans will want to see him try.  The Giants took a risk, but it wasn’t a bad one.


Lesser Stars and Above-Average Players:

             Above-average players often present difficulties in predicting drop-off points.  They are not going to be effective quite as late as superstars, but they most likely will produce past age 32, unlike average players. In May 2000, the Cardinals signed Jim Edmonds to a six-year $57 million dollar contract, set to begin in 2001. Edmonds didn’t have his first full season in the majors until age 25, when he posted 21 win shares for the Angels. He continued to produce at about the same pace over the next few years, before being traded to St. Louis. When the Cardinals signed him to his new deal in May 2000, he was 30 years, and a fine outfielder, but certainly not a great player.  Edmonds contract would from ages 31-36. Based on his prior record, it seemed like a rather large gamble. But Edmonds settled into a groove in St. Louis, posting 29 win shares in 2000, and 30 in the first year of his new deal. He then posted 29 again the following season. Edmonds reached his peak at age 30, and stayed at the same level at ages 31 and 32. It’s a little late in a player’s career for his peak, but certainly not unprecedented. I would not expect 30 win shares from Edmonds again in 2003, and I would be worried about his production in 2005-06, when he will be 35 and 36 years old. Good as Edmonds may be, he is not a superstar, and he may cost the Cards in the last two years of his deal.   

            In December 1999, the Cleveland Indians signed 37-year old pitcher Chuck Finley to a three-year $21 million contract.  The Indians wanted Finley mostly for his reputation as a Yankee-killer; He had a 16-9 career record against the Bronx Bombers at the point.  The Indians had a huge regular season in 1999, and although they folded in the playoffs that year, they believed they were close to beating the Yanks.  But the Indians should have known better than signing Finley.  In the three years prior, Finley had registered win shares of 11, 17, and 14. If I were predicting Finley’s performance over the next three years, I would predict one year of about 14 win shares followed by 10 or less the next two years.  Finley turned a good season in 2000, going 16-11 with 15 win shares.  But injuries limited him to 113 innings and an ERA of 5.54, for a meager 3 win shares.  Finley struggled again in 2002, before being shipped of to St. Louis for their pennant-run, where he picked up his game a bit.  Not only was the Finley deal a poor one based on his prior statistics, it locked up money that the Indians needed elsewhere.  Cleveland lost Manny Ramirez to free agency after the 2000 season, Juan Gonzalez and Roberto Alomar after 2001, and Jim Thome after 2002.  Cleveland’s glory days are over, thanks in part to lousy contracts.       

            A similar situation occurred after the 2002 season, when the Atlanta Braves decided to part ways with left-handed starter Tom Glavine, who was also 37 years old at the time. In the three years prior, Glavine posted win shares of 21, 16, and 18.  In his prime Glavine had been a better pitcher than Finley, registering over 20 win shares 7 times, while Finley only managed that once.  Of some concern was that after pitching great in the first half of 2002, Glavine fell apart in the second half.  Still his overall numbers were good, and I would focus on his cumulative stats rather than his two very different halves.  If I were to predict Glavine’s performance over the next three years, I would guess he will be around 15-17 for the next two years, before dropping to about 10-12 in the third year.  The Mets decided to pay him $36 million for three years.  It’s much more than what Finley earned, but its money better spent.  It’s also less of risk for a rich team like the Mets. You never know what you’re going to get, but all in all, it’s not a bad gamble for the Mets.  But that’s because unlike Finley, Glavine is not an above-average player, he is a superstar.

            The same year the Mets signed Mo Vaughn, they acquired Jeromy Burnitz from the Milwaukee Brewers. Desperate for offense, they liked the fact that Burnitz had averaged 34 homers and over 100 RBI’s over the past four years.  The Mets should have been more careful.  Burnitz was 33, and for a slightly above-average player, that is dangerous territory, especially with Burnitz high number of strikeouts.  In his peak years in Milwaukee before coming to the Mets Burnitz had put up win shares of 19,19,16, and 18.  But as he aged and his strikeouts remained high, Burnitz did not make any of the adjustments necessary for an older player.  Furthermore, he struggled trying to find a batting stance, and ended up with a crazy, swing from his ankles approach.  As a result, his first year in New York was a disaster.  He barely broke the Mendoza line, with a .215 batting average and only 19 home runs, and finished with an astonishing 7 win shares! Certainly I would not have predicted such a large drop-off, but that is the point: A slightly better than average player nearing his mid-thirties is a risk.  Even if he fixes his swing, and plays better in 2003 I doubt he will approach even 16 win shares again.


Average Players:

            If above-average players after age 32 are a risk, then the rule on lesser players is even more obvious: Don’t do it!  Ask yourself, would you take a 32 year-old outfielder who two years ago batted .236 with 12 homers before “rebounding” the next year by hitting .266 with 18 homers? I certainly wouldn’t. But that’s exactly what the Pittsburgh Pirates did in 2001, signing free agent Derek Bell to a two-year contract.  Predictably, Bell was terrible, playing in only 46 games and batting .173 before being released with a year left on his contract. Bell did have one big year, in 1998 when he produced 22 win shares.  But that was at age 29 with a great lineup to protect him. Three years later, with two mediocre seasons behind him, the Pirates should have known better. The irony is that the Pirates are just about the last team that can afford to make such gaffes.

            Unfortunately, the Pirates are not alone. The Orioles made a bone-headed move with David Segui, signing the oft-injured 32-year old first basemen to a four year deal in 2001.  Segui’s career high was 16 win shares, and he had reached 15 twice. Is this the kind of player who in his thirties deserves a long term deal worth $28 million? Not surprisingly, Segui did not deliver. His 14 win shares in 2001 were more than I expected but hardly worth $7 million a year. Injuries struck him down for nearly all of 2002, and he was injured again early in 2003.

            An almost identical move was made by the Red Sox before the 1999 season, following the departure of Mo Vaughn. The Sox signed former Kansas City second baseman Jose Offerman to a four-year $28 million dollar deal. Offerman had a career year in 1998, batting .315 and posting 29 win shares. But he had always been a mediocre player before 1998, never posting more than 18 win shares in a single season, and he would be thirty years old in 1999. Fooled by his big year, the Sox bit. His 1999 season was impressive, as he posted 19 win shares, effectively silencing some of his critics. But posted shares of 9,14, and 4 over the next three years. It was hardly a $28 million performance.


Diamonds in the Rough:

            A good GM should not only look at star players, but should also keep his eyes open for diamonds in the rough, that is underrated players who can be acquired for cheap. Perhaps the best example of an underrated player who can be acquired for cheap and really help a team is Matt Stairs.  Matt Stairs doesn’t really look like a baseball player.  He is listed at 5-9 and 217 pounds.  He looks like a rec league softballer who goes out after a game and pounds beers.  That’s probably the main reason why he was overlooked for so many years by so many teams.  But the man can hit.  Stairs didn’t even make the draft, and was signed as a free-agent by the money-conscious Expos.  Despite leading his league in average in 1991, and playing well in triple-A ball in 1993, the Expos didn’t give him much of a chance, selling his contract to a Japanese league team later that year.  Stairs played well in Japan, but they weren’t too impressed with either, and he signed as a free agent with the Expos again in late 1993.  The Expos didn’t even wait three months before pawning him off to the Red Sox for a nondescript pitcher.  Stairs once again proved that he could hit in 1994, tearing up the league on Boston’s double-A team, and doing well at triple-A Pawtucket in 1995.  Apparently the Red Sox still weren’t impressed, and they granted him free agency. 

            Finally, Stairs was picked up by an organization that did appreciate him, the Oakland A’s.  But even the A’s made him play in the minors too long.  In 1996, Stairs put up huge number at Edmonton, before being called up and performing well at the major league level.  1997 was to be Stairs first full year in the Show.  He was now 28 years old, and should have been called up for full-time duty two or three years earlier. Stairs finally proved he could hang with the big boys, batting .298 with 27 homers in part-time duty.  The next year, now finally playing full time, he knocked in 106 runs while batting .294.  In 1999 he hit 38 home runs while driving 102 runs.  These performances garnered the A’s win shares of 15,20,20 all for next to nothing! Stairs numbers went down in 2000, but he was 31 years old. But the lesson is an important one: Players who don’t look athletic but can hit in the minors will also hit in the majors.  Furthermore, they can be acquired at a bargain prices.

            Stairs isn’t the only such diamond in the rough.  Troy O’Leary came up in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.  Despite hitting well in Triple-A in 1994 as well as with the Brewers in a brief stint later that year, the Brewers decided not to keep him.  Instead, the Red Sox picked him, and for next to no money, got the following win share totals from him in the years beginning in 1995: 12,12,15,14,19,11.  That’s six years of solid major league production from a guy nobody wanted.  It’s especially galling for a poor organization like the Brewers to lose that kind of production to wealthy team. 

            The Cleveland Indians lost out on a productive player in Dave Roberts. Roberts played well in Triple-A ball in 1999, 2000, and 2001, but despite this, the Indians didn’t give him a chance to play full time. They finally traded him to the Dodgers and he responded immediately, stealing 45 bases and posting 19 win shares in 2002. But he was already 29 years old, and should have been playing at the big league level several years earlier. The Dodgers nearly missed out on another such an opportunity with Paul Lo Duca. Lo Duca was a catcher in the Dodgers organization, but as long as Mike Piazza was around, he wasn’t likely to see much playing time. But Piazza was traded in 1998, which should have cleared a space for Lo Duca in 1999. He had a huge year in triple-A ball the year before, and was clearly ready for the big leagues. But the Dodgers decided to trade for Todd Hundley instead. Hundley put up rather mediocre numbers in 1999 and 2000, while Lo Duca tore up the minors yet again. Then in 2001, the 29-year old Lo Duca finally got his chance. He made the most of it, batting .320 with 25 homers, for a cool 28 win shares. He was good again in 2002, posting 19 win shares. But he should have been the full-time catcher two years earlier. 

            Kevin Young was another such diamond in the rough, who finally hit well when he got the chance with the Pirates, although they ended up keeping him for too long.  Like other players, he reached 32 or 33 he was a big gamble. As for current players, I would bet Jeremy Giambi will produce well for the Red Sox, who acquired him at a low price, and Erubial Durazo, finally given a full-time chance to play in the majors, will hit well in Oakland.


The Coors Field Effect:

            So different is the baseball played at Coors Field in Denver that I have devoted a special section to it.  Coors field is the greatest hitter’s park of all time.  The gaudy numbers hitters put up at Coors tends to make both hitters and pitchers true value harder to gauge.  The thin air at Coors allows the ball to travel 10 percent farther than at sea level, while at the same time making curveballs harder to throw. All this makes it hard to judge a good player at Coors.

            One of the first victims of Coors Field was curveballer named Darryl Kile. Kile was a bit erratic in his early years with the Houston Astros, but blossomed in 1997 with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA.  The Rockies, forever in need of quality pitching, signed him to a three-year deal.  The next year Kile led the league in losses with 17, and posted a 5.20 ERA. He was even worse the next year, with a 6.61 ERA.  The Rockies mercifully traded him to St. Louis, and in 2000 he was back to normal, winning 20 games with a 3.91 ERA. He was even better in 2001, posting a scant 3.09 ERA. Kile was still pitching well at the time of his tragic death halfway through the 2002 season. 

            Rockies management decided that curveballers were not going to be effective at Coors, and settled on a sinkerball pitcher, Mike Hampton, with the hope that the groundballs Hampton would induce could get the job done at Coors.  So in December 2000, the Rockies went out and made Hampton the highest paid pitcher in history at eight years $121 million.  Hampton was a star pitcher, and at only 28 years old, still in his prime.  In 1999 he was the second-best pitcher in the NL with an impressive 24 win shares, and the next year he was the fifth-best pitcher in the NL with 18.  If you’re going to pay that kind of money, Hampton is the kind of guy you’re going to spend it on right?

            Well, as long as your team doesn’t play in Colorado. Hampton was effective the first half of 2001 but ended up with a 5.41 ERA and only 11 win shares.  He was even worse in 2002, with only 5 win shares.  Like Kile, the Rockies decided to trade Hampton.  But would there be any takers? The Atlanta Braves, ever mindful of pitching, decided to take Hampton, but only after forcing the Rockies to pay a large share of his remaining contract.  Was the Braves gamble a good one?  Certainly, it was.  Until 1999, Hampton was a solid pitcher. For the two years after that, he was on of baseball’s best.  28 year-pitchers don’t decline that quickly, and whatever effect Coors had on him will most likely be gone soon, just as it was for Darryl Kile. I don’t think Hampton will ever post 24 win shares like he did in 1999, but the high teens are certainly within reach.

            Whereas the Hampton deal was a reasonable gamble for the pitching-poor Rockies, another pitcher they signed that same year was not: Denny Neagle.  Neagle had been a fairly good pitcher in his prime, peaking at 21 win shares in 1997. But his career was on the downside, as he posted poor seasons in 1999 and 2000. Yet the Rockies went out and paid him a huge amount, five years $51 million.  Signing a washed-up 32 year-old pitcher is not a good idea, unless you can acquire him for cheap and hope he will surprise you.  The only people Neagle surprised were the Rockies, with a 5.38 ERA in 2001, and only 8 win shares in 2002. Neagle then declared he wanted to somewhere where he was appreciated, but not surprisingly,  there were no takers.

            Just as Coors Field skews pitching statistics, it skews hitting statistics, leading some teams to overrate Colorado’s hitters.  Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this came when none other than the cash-strapped Brewers went out and spent $21 million on free-agent Jeffrey Hammonds in December 2000.  Hammonds had put up huge numbers that year batting .335 and knocking in 106 runs.  There were two reasons the Brewers should have been skeptical of Hammonds.  One is the Coors Field effect: Hammonds giant numbers only translate to 14 win shares, certainly not worth $7 million a year.  But second, Hammonds had been injured throughout his career, never playing in more than 123 games in a single year!  He was also thirty years old.  If I were to predict his performance over the next three years, I would guess he’d be injured for about half on the season for his first two years, putting up mediocre numbers, before collapsing into horrid numbers his third year. 

            In his first year with the Brewers, Hammonds didn’t even play half the season. In just 49 games in 2001, he put up poor numbers.  He then sent a new personal record for games in 2002 with a whopping 128, while putting meager numbers that earned him nine win shares. And in 2003? I’d guess he won’t even top nine win shares.  The irony of this is that the Brewers are just about that last team that can afford to sign such poor contracts.  And yet they should have known what to expect based on Hammonds past performance.  The rule for Coors Field players is simple: Beware of hitters, and keep your eyes open for undervalued pitchers.


Future Free Agents

            So, how can we value future free agents? Let’s take a look at some guys who will become free agents soon, and see how much they’re going to be worth.  1999 Rookie of the Year Carlos Beltran plays for the cash-strapped Royals.  It’s unlikely they will be able to resign him, and some teams have already thought about trading for him during the 2003 season.  At the tender age of 22, Beltran showed early promise, garnering 18 win shares to win the ROY award in 1999. Injuries limited him the next year, but he was back in 2001, posting an impressive 27 win shares. He had 21 win shares the following season, along with 29 homers, a personal high. Beltran has the potential to be a great player. His home run and walk totals have increased every year, showing the increased strength and discipline we expect from a player as he reaches hid mid-twenties.  He also has speed and is a good outfielder. He still strikes out too much, and his average slipped a bit in 2002, but Beltran very well could emerge into a superstar.  Playing for a fairly good hitting Royals team, I believe Beltran will shatter his previous high of 27 win shares this year.  If he does, he will be a 27-year old free agent at the end of the year with a good track record. I would not hesitate to sign him up for six or seven years at $15 million a year.  If Beltran falters this year, which I think is unlikely, or if he shows little improvement, staying at around 20 win shares, I would still be willing to sign him for five years at around $10 a year: Beltran is a rare five-tool player, the kind of guy who doesn’t come along very often.

            Another big-name free agent on a poor team is 2002 MVP Miguel Tejada.  The Oakland A’s have already said they won’t even try to resign him, leaving other teams drooling at the prospect of acquiring him. Is it a good idea? Tejada had 23 win shares in 2000, 25 in 2001, and 32 in his MVP season of 2002. It’s been a steady progression, and he is only 27 years old.  But 2002 was the first time Tejada batted over .300, and his plate discipline remains poor.  I’d day a lot of his future value will determined by how he bats this year. Another 30 or more win share with a high batting average, and it will be clear that he is a first-tier star.  But a slide back to 25 win shares with a low batting average and few walks will be 2002 was his peak season, and I would value his future worth much less.

            Perhaps the best young free-agent pitcher this year will be Kevin Millwood. Millwood pitched well as a 23-year old in 1998, before breaking out with a huge 1999 season gaining 22 win shares, third best in NL. But Millwood faltered badly in 2000 and 2001, before coming back together in early 2002 and finishing with 19 win shares. Millwood is only 28 years, and it is not uncommon for young pitchers to go through tough seasons early in their careers.  I’d bet Millwood will good again this year for the Phillies, and if he is, he will certainly be worth signing to a lucrative four or five year deal.

            The real prize of this offseason, however, will be Montreal rightfielder Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero will only be 28 years old next year, and has been an established star for several years. After tearing up the minor leagues, Vlad came to the majors in 1997 at the tender age of 21, and posted good numbers right away. He blossomed into a full-fledged star the next year, with 29 win shares. He posted nearly identical seasons in the years that followed, with 28, 29, 23, and 29 win shares. He hits for power and average, steals bases, and shows fairly good, if not great, plate discipline. He also has a cannon for an arm, and often overthrows his target. The only real knock on him is that he hasn’t improved as he has aged, as one might expect. But he is still young enough where his stats could get better.

            Although we haven’t seen what his 2003 season will be like, I would not hesitate to sign him at the end of the year, regardless of his performance this year. At worst, he will post about 29-30 win shares for the next five or six years, before leveling off a bit for another two or three years. At best, he may develop further, and post win share totals in the mid-thirties.  I would be willing to offer him a contract similar to Manny Ramirez’s: eight years, $140 million.  He is not quite worth Alex Rodriguez years (ten) or money ($25 million a year). I believe that Vlad’s best days are still ahead of him, and teams should eagerly try to acquire him.    

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