Unlike last year, when the Orioles began the free-agent shopping season by treating themselves to Miguel Tejada and Javy López, no free-agent sluggers have landed in Baltimore this offseason. Fans of the orange and black, watching other teams make the big moves, are getting impatient and frustrated. The local media are no different; everyone following the Birds seems to be hoping that their team will buy, buy, buy like it did a year ago. But this year, high prices and a heavy dose of fiscal discipline have left the team empty-handed thus far, although the O's have been in competition for a few of the top names.
Coming into the offseason, most observers agreed that the Orioles needed to upgrade their pitching. But after being rebuffed by Carl Pavano, the Orioles apparently have decided to take a pass on this year's middling selection of free-agent starting pitchers. And after signing left-hander Steve Kline, the O's don't seem to have much interest in the market for relievers either. Co-VPs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan have narrowed their focus to acquiring a new starter or two at first base or in the outfield. The team also could improve its bench depth, particularly at backup catcher.
This article and those that follow will assess how the market for hitters has evolved for the Orioles, beginning with the first basemen.
Are you still free? Can you be?
The following sources have been invaluable in keeping up with the constantly changing free-agent landscape this year:
- MLB.com's 2004 Free Agent Tracker filters the free-agent market by criteria you choose, such as position, team, and signed/unsigned status, and also links each signee to the news story covering his or her signing;
- Hot Stove Report from MLB.com dishes regular gossip on the status of top available players;
- Will Carroll's “Under the Knife: Free Agents” on BaseballProspectus.com offers free-agent medical ratings from a man who has carved out a valuable niche following ballplayers' health issues; and
- 2004 AL and NL player rankings as calculated by the Elias Sports Bureau are useful for determining draft pick compensation for free agents. If you don't understand the compensation rules or just want to cut to the chase, Baseball America editor Jim Callis has been posting updated changes to the draft order in his weekly Ask BA columns.
In contrast to other positions such as third base and shortstop, the free-agent market for first basemen has been relatively thin this year. After Carlos Delgado and the now-taken Richie Sexson, it's a big step down to the next level, which is occupied by ancient has-been John Olerud, followed by younger-but-hardly-better Tony Clark, Brad Fullmer, Robert Fick, and Travis Lee. (Those second- and third-tier guys are so unattractive that they make David Seguí look like a viable alternative. Well, on second thought maybe not.)
Scoring a hard-hitting first baseman would instantly upgrade the Orioles' lineup by enabling their incumbent at the position, Rafael Palmeiro, to rest and DH more often. In 2004, Baltimore's first basemen finished eighth in the league in OPS (.768, mostly by Palmeiro) while their designated hitters were last in OPS by a mile (.649). Adding a first baseman who can post an .850 OPS (as Sexson and Delgado handily can) and shifting Palmeiro to DH would improve the combined output from those positions by some 200 points of OPS. That could result in some 50 extra runs for the team next year (an estimate; the exact number of runs added would depend on factors such as how those OPS points are distributed, how many plate appearances they comprise, and how many of them come with runners on base). Assuming every ten extra runs result in one extra win (another reasonable, if general, approximation), that could mean five additional wins from those two spots in the order.
So when Pavano slipped away to the Yankees, the Birds took off after Sexson, a towering slugger and by most accounts the second-best first baseman on the market after Delgado. Like Pavano, Sexson listened to the Orioles' sales pitch but salivated at the chance to play close to home, opting for the Seattle Mariners' offer of four years and $50 million over a comparable bid from the Orioles.
Sexson offered some clear advantages over the more heralded Delgado. Although not quite of Delgado's caliber as a hitter—Sexson doesn't get on base as often as Delgado, although it is amazing that he walks as much as he does at 6 feet 8—at 30 years old he is three years younger than Delgado and a better fielder. Sexson would have fit another need for Baltimore because he is right-handed and has a career OPS of .863 versus lefties. The Orioles' .723 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2004 was 13th in the AL, so they could use some right-handed clout in their lineup.
However, Sexson needs to overcome serious questions about his health. He missed most of the 2004 season with labrum damage in his left shoulder—a crippling injury for a hitter—that required mid-season surgery. Despite appearing healthy during the winter meetings, he may not be the same player he was before the injury, and there is obviously substantial risk in giving four years and megamillions to a player coming off a major operation. Baltimore reportedly was unwilling to go beyond three years. Majority owner Peter Angelos has long been cautious when it comes to signing players with iffy medical records, and his team held true to form here.
Alone in a cold day dawning
That leaves Delgado as the most (some would say the only) desirable first baseman out there. Delgado is an enormously capable hitter, having posted a batting line of .282/.392/.556 (.948 OPS) in his career. If he remains healthy for another decade, he may yet find himself in Cooperstown when 2020 rolls around. Although a left-handed batter, Delgado is not an instant out against lefties—his career OPS vs. LHP is .827—and absolutely kills righties (.999 career OPS vs. RHP), so his bat would be a welcome, if not optimal, addition to Baltimore's lineup.
Delgado's health is not perfect, but in the near term it appears much less prickly than Sexson's. Delgado has been a relatively sturdy athlete over the years: in the last five seasons (2000-2004) he appeared in about 93% of his team's scheduled games, exceeding 160 games played in three of those seasons. However, his medical record has blemishes, including a few trips to the operating room. An Internet search produced the following information (unless specifically mentioned, the source for these items was Delgado's profile on MLB.com):
- 2004: Missed 33 games due to a strained rib cage (source: ESPN/AP).
- 2002: Was on the 15-day DL for the second time in his career from August 9 through 24 with tightness in his lower back. After the season had a procedure on his left knee to remove some scar tissue (source: SLAM!/Canadian Press).
- 1999: Missed the final 10 games of the season after fouling a ball off on Sept. 22 and suffering a non-displaced fracture of the right tibia.
- 1998: Had arthroscopic surgery performed January 19 on his right shoulder after suffering a torn labrum in winter ball...Activated from the DL on April 24 after rehab stints with Dunedin-A & Syracuse-AAA... Missed 20 games due to the DL and the club was 8-12 in those games.
- 1996: Had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on December 11 by Dr. Tony Miniaci (Toronto) and on his right wrist on December 17 by Dr. Frank McCue (Charlottesville, VA).
Delgado has been fortunate that his two most serious injuries, the fractured shin and torn labrum, were timed so that they had most of the offseason to heal. The offseason surgeries performed on his right knee and wrist appear to have been routine patch-ups that went smoothly. Delgado's on-field performance from 2000-2003 exceeded his numbers from 1996-1999, so he seemed to make a full recovery from those early operations. His most recent ailment, the rib cage strain, is not likely to bother him in the long term. Last month, Will Carroll gave Delgado's condition a green light, while he rated Sexson a yellow.
So far, the Orioles' interest in Delgado has been tepid; their initial discussions with his agent reportedly involved a three-year deal worth around $10 million per year. The Birds' chief competition for him appears to be the Mets, who have wads to spend and appear intent on making a big splash this winter, having already signed Pedro Martínez as they gaze longingly at Carlos Beltrán. Another team with confirmed interest in Delgado is the Texas Rangers, who would need to do some positional shuffling because Mark Teixeira was an All-Star first baseman for them in 2004. The Red Sox also allegedly have interest in Delgado, although they would first have to shed Kevin Millar or Doug Mientkiewicz to open up a spot in the lineup. The Yankees would enter the bidding only if they offload the rest of steroid-tarnished Jason Giambi's contract, an unlikely scenario. Moreover, their recent signing of Tino Martínez gives them insurance if Giambi is injured again.
How the endless road unwinds you
The teams in the running for Delgado have been wise not to yield to his initial demands of a four- or five-year contract and about $15 million per year. The key drawback that undermines Delgado's case is his age. He is not a typical first-time free agent entering the market in his late twenties; he is 32, and most players undergo a noticeable drop-off in production in their mid-30s. To better understand this, look at Delgado's most similar players through age 32 at Baseball-Reference.com. (The list was formed using Bill James's similarity scores, a rough method of comparing a player to others using their career statistics. A "perfect" score for two players with identical career records is 1000, so the closer a player's score is to 1000, the more similar the player is. The "through age 32" cutoff is used here because it produces better results for a player in mid-career such as Delgado.)
Similar Batters to Carlos Delgado through Age 32
- Willie McCovey (931) *
- Fred McGriff (928)
- Jeff Bagwell (898)
- Albert Belle (898)
- Mo Vaughn (897)
- Jim Thome (892)
- Jose Canseco (892)
- Jason Giambi (883)
- Ralph Kiner (878) *
- Gil Hodges (857)
This list of Delgado's statistical peers confirms that he is a rare talent as a hitter. McCovey and Kiner are in the Hall (a fact denoted by the asterisks), and Bagwell and Thome will have excellent chances of being enshrined when they hang it up. All ten of these hitters played at an MVP-candidate level in their prime, although only five of them actually won the award (can you name them?).
But peering closer at the careers of these mashers reveals a consistent and often marked decline in production or participation after they turned 30. Of particular interest are the top two players, McCovey and McGriff, who both played first base and registered similarity scores between 900 and 950, making them what James would call “truly similar” to Delgado as hitters. McCovey remained a dangerous hitter in his thirties, but had trouble staying in the lineup after age 32 due to assorted injuries; in only one season after his 32nd birthday did he play in more than 130 games or have more than 500 plate appearances. McGriff, on the other hand, was able to stay healthy after turning 32, but his production relative to his league declined; after posting an adjusted OPS+ of 120 or higher in each of his first nine seasons through age 31, he reached that echelon just twice in his next nine seasons.
The names further down the list offer comparable cautionary tales of injury or decline. Bagwell, like McGriff, has been durable, but the effectiveness of his bat has eroded each year since he passed age 32. Belle and Vaughn each played just one full season after turning 32; Belle's degenerating hip forced him to retire early, while Vaughn called it quits this year when he found no solutions for his arthritic knee. Thome is still going strong at 34, but odds are that he won't be when his contract ends in 2008. Canseco's once-smoldering bat flickered then faded to black in his thirties, as myriad health issues pushed him out of the majors by age 37. Giambi had a forgettable, injury-ruined 2004 at age 33. Kiner retired at 32 due to a troublesome back condition. Hodges had just two good seasons after turning 32 and was essentially a non-factor after he turned 36 due to chronic knee pain.
Here's a more statistical angle on Delgado's expected durability and performance over the next three seasons, using the statistics of his ten most similar batters at ages 30-32 and 33-35. First, durability:
|Player||%GP, 30-32||%GP, 33-35|
(Age is calculated as of July 1 of the given season. Some zero-games-played years from ages 33-35 were included for Belle, Vaughn, and Kiner, although technically they were retired and not playing for a team in those seasons. Giambi and Thome have played just one season each in their age 33-35 period, so their statistics count proportionally less in the group average. Delgado's numbers are not reflected in the group averages.)
The above table shows that Delgado's ten most similar batters played in 93% of their teams' scheduled games from ages 30 to 32, so they were slightly more durable than Delgado in that respect. However, that percentage collapsed to 59% over the next three years. Just four of the ten played in as many as two-thirds of their team's games from their age-33 season to their age-35 year. Delgado's body may not look like it's about to fall apart, but the injury rate for lumbering, muscle-bound sluggers like him from ages 33 to 35 is alarmingly high. And modern medicine has not been a panacea; four of the six players most hurt by injuries have played during the last ten years.
What happened when Delgado's statistical antecedents were healthy and in the lineup during those same two age ranges? To answer that, we'll turn to Equivalent Average (EqA), a rating of offensive production developed by Clay Davenport of the Baseball Prospectus. It compensates for contextual differences in run scoring caused by a player's league and home ballpark. A league-average EqA is .260.
|Player||EqA, 30-32||EqA, 33-35|
(For normalization purposes, era-adjusted EqA's are used here rather than season-adjusted EqA's. The averages were calculated using the equation
EqA = (EQR2/Out/5)^0.4.)
When in the lineup, Delgado's top ten historical peers as a group saw a decline of some 25 points off their Equivalent Average in the three seasons after they turned 32. What does that mean? In 2004, 25 points of EqA separated David Ortíz (.320 EqA, .301/.380/.603 BA/OBP/SLG) and Kevin Millar (.295 EqA, .296/.381/.472). Those 25 points of EqA meant a decline of about 40 runs over an entire season at 2004 levels. In other words, 25 points of EqA can mean the difference between an All-Star, MVP-contending masher and an average-to-slightly-above-average slugger.
Arc of a diver
The conclusions are inescapable: of the players who most closely matched Delgado's statistics through age 32, most broke down physically in their mid-thirties, and even when healthy they were markedly less potent than they were from ages 30 to 32. Delgado may look like a great acquisition based on what he's done up to this point, but the historical precedent suggests that he is standing on the precipice of injury and decline. Even if Delgado stays healthy over the next few years, his production is likely to fall to about 90% of his peak level. That's still good, but hardly worth breaking the bank for. And if Delgado's health deteriorates, he certainly won't be worth the big bucks.
With this in view, if the Orioles pursue Delgado, they would be would be wise to keep the length of the contract short (i.e., two to three years) and the base salary under $10M/year while including sizeable bonuses contingent on playing time and performance. The Birds may be reluctant to make a deal with incentive clauses, however, after the unpleasant experience with Palmeiro's contract this past year. But the bottom line is that if Baltimore finds itself in a position where it must guarantee Sexson-like dollars to secure Delgado's services, it should shift its focus elsewhere.
An important concept to remember when making free-agent decisions is the defensive spectrum. If a star hitter declines in the field due to age or health, he can usually move to a less demanding position to keep his bat in the lineup at less cost to the defense. But if that star hitter plays first base, which falls on the far left side of the defensive spectrum (i.e., is the least demanding position defensively), he has nowhere else to go but DH. This lack of defensive flexibility makes aging first basemen relatively unattractive candidates for multi-year deals when there are comparable hitters available at other positions. So if the Orioles have $10-15 million to spend on a major free agent hitter this winter, they would be better served if they spent the money on a top-notch outfielder, even if it means that they will have to fill the first-base slot with Palmeiro, Jay Gibbons, Javy López, or other options.
And what about those outfielders? Stay tuned for the next installment.
Answer to the trivia question: The five of Delgado's ten most-similars who won the MVP award were McCovey (1969 NL), Canseco (1988 AL), Bagwell (1994 NL), Vaughn (1995 AL), and Giambi (2000 AL). Belle probably deserved the award more than Vaughn in 1995, though.