I Said One Year, Ben, Not Three

Center Fielder, Shane Victorino

If Ben Cherington’s been reading this blog, it’s not too closely. While Victorino was a suggested target, the recommended contract length was one year, not three. But instead the Red Sox have bought themselves a new right fielder for almost the exact contract that Mike Napoli got.

The early reactions to the deal are, to put it kindly, not positive.

The most devastating review is probably Keith Law’s, however. In a post entitled “Victorino’s Deal Doomed to Fail,” he writes in part:

Shane Victorino’s three-year, $39 million contract with the Boston Red Sox vaults to the top of the rankings of the worst contracts signed so far this offseason, giving him virtually the same total dollars that Angel Pagan — a superior player — will receive in a contract that’s a year longer.

The Sox have now squandered a substantial amount of the payroll flexibility they obtained over the summer when they traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Los Angeles Dodgers just to rid themselves of two awful contracts, yet they have little to show for their recent spending spree.

Victorino is a platoon outfielder at this point, and paying him $13 million a year, even with the rapid salary escalation we’re seeing this offseason, is mad as pants. His bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season, and despite being a switch-hitter, he doesn’t really hit right-handed pitching

Well, why don’t you tell us what you really think, Keith. And while his concerns regarding the “squandered” financial flexibility are probably overblown – Alex Speier for one believes the club has “plenty” remaining – it’s difficult to argue the point that Victorino is, in fact, a platoon player at this point.

Career, he’s an .881 player against left handed pitchers, .727 versus right handers. The recent numbers are even worse: 2010-2012, Victorino put up a .701. And while it’s true that there are a lot of left handed starters in the American League East these days, that’s not a good number for an outfielder, and it’s downright poor for a right fielder. Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris writes that, adjusting for the positional switch, Victorino becomes a two and a half win player instead of a three and a half win player. Meaning he’d be worth about $27M over three years, which in turn implies that the Red Sox overpaid him by $12M. Which is one reason rumors are beginning to circulate that this is merely a prelude to a trade of Ellsbury: Victorino’s bat is slightly less of a liability in center than it is in right.

Still, I’m a bit surprised at the depth of some of the criticism. For one thing, a $12M overpay means the annual penalty for Victorino’s contract is $4M per year, which is absorbable for the Red Sox. It might not even be that much, in fact. Torii Hunter, who is admittedly a better player than Victorino but five years older, is making the same annual salary. The Cleveland Indians, meanwhile, were reportedly willing to go to four years, albeit at the slightly discounted rate of $11M. As Peter Abraham put it, the market is the market.

It’s also interesting that even statistically minded analysts like Law are so profoundly negative on the deal, given his value on the basepaths and in the field. Since Victorino became a regular in 2006, he’s been worth 3.88 wins a season per Fangraphs. More interesting, he’s been worth on average $16.7M per season by their math over that span, and apart from his rookie year has never been worth less than the $13M he’ll be getting for the next three years. In other words, Victorino has been a valuable player in spite of the platoon splits. Much of his value comes from his defense, where he grades generally as well above average, but he adds value on the bases as well. He’s stolen 34 or more bases four out of the last six years, with 39 coming last season. Even acknowledging that his move to right field and the fact that he’s entering his decline years are likely to negatively impact his value, characterizing this deal as “doomed” seems slightly hyperbolic.

The dollars involved in this deal are not ideal, clearly. But unlike Swisher, the Red Sox do not have to sacrifice a draft pick, and more importantly the $1M allocation for that pick, to sign Victorino. And while it seems like a clear overpay, the contract is a rounding error next to what we unloaded on the Dodgers. If we’re talking about platoon players and doomed contracts, then, compare the newly signed Victorino to the recently traded Crawford. Victorino’s R/L career splits, remember are .881/.727. Carl Crawford’s are .810/.688. Victorino’s going to get $39M over three years; Crawford’s owed $102.5M over the next five.

Crawford’s terrible contract doesn’t mean Victorino’s is good, of course. But it does provide some context: if both are mistakes, the choice between them is clear. Even if Victorino is in fact a platoon player, and of lower value in right field than center, he still has value in other areas of the game. He’s signed for high dollars, but not prohibitively high, and provides an insurance policy in the event that Ellsbury is hurt or traded, as well as a hedge in the event that Bradley’s not ready to take over when Ellsbury leaves.

It’s not a great contract, but neither is it the disaster it’s being made out to be.

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