The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


Arbitration Blues

Tuesday marked baseball's arbitration deadline about which I had much to say in the Twitscape regarding both the Yankees and Dodgers. Neither team offered any of their free agents arbitration, decreasing the likelihood that they'll return, but the landscapes surrounding those decisions are quite different.

The Yankees' only Type A free agent is Johnny Damon, who's coming off an excellent season capped by a key role in the team's World Series win. He made $13 million a year over the life of his deal, but just turned 36. A one-year deal for him to return via arbitration might have cost the Yankees $15 million, a figure that apparently was too rich for Brian Cashman's blood. Damon's got a strong enough hand that he can likely do better in length if not average annual salary, even from the Yankees (two years, $25 million with an option, perhaps).

What's annoying is that because he's a Type A, foregoing the arbitration offer costs the Yankees two high draft picks, one in the 16-30 range of the draft (the top 15 picks are protected), the other in the supplemental phase (31-50, roughly speaking). That's a substantial amount of value; four years ago, colleague Nate Silver estimated those two picks as worth $9 million for the 16-30 and $3 million for the supplemental. Since then, the market has leveled off, inflation has occurred, and WARP has changed, but if anything, the value of those picks is probably higher. Apparently, the fear of being stuck with a pricey one-year deal — though really, it's difficult to get too badly burned on such a pact — outweighed the return for the Yanks, offering further evidence that even Cashman is on a budget.

The Yankees also decided not to offer arbitration to Andy Pettitte and Hideki Matsui, but both of them are Type B free agents, meaning all the Yankees turned down was the right to supplemental picks worth about $3 million apiece. Weighed against the higher likelihood that both would accept and win their cases at prices out of Cashman's control, again, the risk was apparently too great. It's still a likelihood that at least Pettitte returns; the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement struck down a provision that teams who didn't offer arbitration to their free agents were prevented from signing them until the following spring. Now, the two sides can hopefully negotiate a more sensible deal.

If the Yankees' moves generated a few headscratches, the Dodgers' moves left observers — and particularly fans of the club — slackjawed. They had two Type As, Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf, both of whom were extremely unlikely to return. Hudson, who was benched in September and never regained his job, poured gasoline all over whatever bridge back to Chavez Ravine existed, while Wolf, as the second-best pitcher available on the market after John Lackey, will almost certainly draw multi-year offers that would exceed what he could get in arbitration. Neither of the two was offered arbitration, a pair of decisions that offer resounding evidence that GM Ned Colletti's hands have been tied by the unseemly divorce proceedings of the McCourts.

The Dodger blogosphere understandably went into a lather over the news, and I threw some fuel on the fire via Twitter: "Picturing Colletti wearing nothing but sandwich board reading 'What part of "We have no money" don't you get?'" I wrote, followed shortly by a back-of-envelope calculation based upon Nate's research: "So, for avoiding 4 bonuses ($1-2 mil per, max), Dodgers lose out on $24 mil of picks by not offering Hudson & Wolf arb." The conclusion, to me, was obvious: "Frank McCourt hates America more than he does his wife."

As heads cooled, the reality of just how screwed the Dodgers are began to set in. In the aftermath, Colletti framed the non-moves as "made strictly from a baseball perspective," adding in a separate note (link unavailable), "While I am blindfolded and bound to this chair, it really is a comfortable chair. I ask my family and friends to remain calm and don't try to be heroes, as I am unharmed and will be released if you comply with the demands."

Despite having lowered payroll by $18 million dollars between Opening Days 2008 and 2009, clearing $30 million more via the current crop of free agents, and saving about another $13 million via Manny Ramirez ($8 million in lost salary due to the suspension, and $5 million less in 2010 than in 2009), the Dodgers are expected not to make any major additions this offseason because eight key young players — Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Hong-Chih Kuo, James Loney, Russell Martin, and George Sherrill — are arbitration-eligible, and thus in line for sizable raises. Furthermore, not only are they pennywise and pound-foolish when it comes to a substantial return on a relatively small investment in 2010 first-round picks, but they've been that way for longer than most of us realize. In an around-the-horn play, True Blue LA pointed me to a Memories of Kevin Malone entry which in turn pointed to a Los Angeles Times piece containing research from Baseball America, including the following double whammy:
The Dodgers have paid $8.5 million in signing bonuses for draft picks over the last two years — the lowest figure among all major league teams, according to Baseball America.

The Dodgers, so proud of their heritage in Asia and Latin America, today are a non-factor in bidding for top amateur players abroad. In 2008, according to Baseball America, major league clubs combined to sign 115 such players for bonuses of more than $100,000. The Dodgers did not sign one.
Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Still on a roll, True Blue details a laundry list of cost-cutting maneuvers over the past two years; basically, because of a mandate that they be more or less payroll-neutral, their big trade acquisitions have cost them better prospects, such as Andy LaRoche, 2007 second-round pick Michael Watt, and Indians' top prospect Carlos Santana, a 22-year-old catcher whose loss resounds given Martin's 2009 decline. Quoth colleague Kevin Goldstein: "Santana's bat is so special that if he was a first-base prospect, he'd still be elite." I asked Kevin if he would rank among the game's top 10 or 25 prospects in his 2010 Top 100 list, and he suggested that he'd likely be somewhere in between those two numbers. Ouchie.

The big concern for 2010 comes down to how the Dodgers are going to fill their rotation behind Clayton Kershaw, Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. They have some in-house prospects (Scott Elbert, James McDonald and Josh Lindblom) and suspects (Eric Stults, Charlie Haeger), but none of them is so obviously ready that they are a guarantee to fill even one spot. Which means that they not only need to find the next Randy Wolf, but they'll need substantial reinforcements as well. And I don't mean Jeff Freakin' Weaver or Braden Freakin' Looper. Their road back to the playoffs, let alone the NLCS, just got a bit harder.

Even so, Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman outlines a best-case scenario expectation for 2010, while Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness offers a modest proposal that the team trade Andre Ethier for pitching. I don't really think the choices help the 2010 club enough to tempt Colletti, who's been forced to think about nothing but This Year by ownership's shortsightedness, into attempting the pursuit of any of them, but it's an interesting piece if only because it serves to remind that the team may need to breach its current core in order to improve in other areas.

It's a dark day for Dodger baseball, as both Weisman and MSTI conclude. I concur, to the point that I'm going to have to substantially rewrite my Baseball Prospectus 2010 team essay in light of this news. Which is about the last thing I need given all the other fires I've got going.

• • • 

In better news, ironically released the same day (perhaps to soften the blow of the arbitration shitstorm), the Dodgers made it official that Vin Scully would return for his 61st season in 2010, and that he'd continue to do NL West road games as well as the home games. Big League Stew calls attention to the good news with a three-minute clip of Scully highlights dating back to the days of Jackie Robinson, and including some non-baseball ones. True Blue LA ups the ante with a link to Scully's nine-minute call of the Kirk Gibson home run in the 1988 World Series. Also on YouTube is Scully's incomparable call of the four consecutive homer game set to a video-game re-enactment. Bask in some of the work of the game's greatest announcer, and remember, Dodger fans, that we at least have that to look forward to in the coming year.

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