|Wednesday, December 19
Updated: December 20, 2:37 PM ET
Cleveland's contracts could backfire
By Rob Neyer
It's not a headline that I ever thought I would see ...
There was a time, not so long ago, when the Indians made a practice of signing young players to long-term deals. In a span of just a few years in the early- and mid-1990s, the Indians signed Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome to multi-year deals well before those players reached free agency. Those moves not only locked up great hitters, but also happened to save the franchise a lot of money.
Well, the talent pipeline has dried up since then, with Richie Sexson and Sean Casey the only notable hitters produced by Cleveland's farm system in the last few years. And of course, both of them were traded away.
But Indians GM Mark Shapiro still has positions to fill, and it's hard to entice established major leaguers without dangling long-term contracts. So he's given out the long-term deals (four years to Matt Lawton and three years to Ricky Gutierrez), but this time the recipients weren't young players on the cusp of productive careers, but instead they were old players on the cusp of career decline.
Statistically, the most similar (recent) players to Lawton were Kevin Bass, Roberto Kelly, Ivan Calderon, Jeffrey Leonard, and Mike Davis. Let's look at what those five did in the four seasons leading up to their Age 29 seasons, and then in the four seasons after their Age 29 seasons:
Bass Games OPS 26-29 621 774 30-33 361 725
Bass was, like Lawton, a solid right fielder who played in an All-Star Game when he was in his late 20s. Bass played well in his Age 30 season, but missed much of the year with a broken tibia. After that he was a part-time player and didn't compile more than 402 at-bats in a single season.
Kelly Games OPS 26-29 466 764 30-33 414 788
Kelly remained productive in his early 30s, but didn't play as often. After a poor 1995 season (at 30) in which he played 136 games but posted a career-low OPS, Kelly became a part-time player, albeit a productive one.
Calderon Games OPS 26-29 522 780 30-33 130 636
Ivan Calderon's career fell apart after he turned 30. Due to a series of injuries, by the time he turned 32, Calderon was out of the majors for good.
Leonard Games OPS 26-29 488 761 30-33 508 711
Jeffrey Leonard had a couple of big years when he was 29 and 30, but never played particularly well again.
Davis Games OPS 26-29 543 758 30-33 67 699
Davis's last hurrah was a crucial walk in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series; the next season he played 67 games, and that's the last we saw of him.
Looking up at those numbers, does anyone else notice any sort of trend? Three of the five played significantly fewer games in the second four-year span, in large part because they simply weren't good enough to hold regular jobs. Four of the five saw their OPS decline, the exception being Roberto Kelly, who improved slightly (albeit with less playing time).
OK, so it's only five players ... but you know what? I ran the same numbers for the five most similar players to Lawton before 1980, and I found exactly the same thing. I won't belabor the point, but the five players were Larry Hisle, Jackie Brandt, Willard Marshall, Bob Skinner, and Jim Russell, and three of them declined significantly after turning 30 (the exceptions were Marshall, who did decline but not significantly, and Skinner, whose percentages actually improved slightly). All five played significantly fewer games in the second four-year period.
(If you're interested in Similarity Scores, check out Matt Lawton's entry at Baseball-Reference.com.)
None of this should come as much of a surprise. Nearly 20 years ago, Bill James studied the subject and concluded, "The peak period for ballplayers is not twenty-eight to thirty-two, as was once believed, but twenty-five to twenty-nine."
And after that? As a group, baseball players decline after they turn 30. That's not a problem if you're paying Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi, because when a superstar declines, he's still comfortably above replacement level, and will at least hold his job.
But if you're talking about Matt Lawton ... well, if history is any guide, there's a pretty good chance that by the third or fourth year of his new deal, Lawton will be fighting just to stay in the lineup.
Granted, there's a lot of talk that perhaps today's players are peaking later than they used to, that perhaps modern medicine and conditioning allows players to remain productive longer than they did in the past. To this point, however, that's all it is: talk. Smart people are doing sabermetric studies every day, and as far as I know, no one has yet proved that historical aging patterns are any different today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. And until someone does, there's not much evidence to suggest that signing 30-year-old players like Matt Lawton to long-term contracts is an effective use of financial resources.
Then there's Gutierrez, who at 31 is even older than Lawton. There aren't many truly similar players to Gutierrez at the same age, but the most-similar are Kurt Stillwell, Mike Bordick, Jose Vizcaino, Craig Reynolds and Pat Meares. One problem with that group, however, is that each member was a shortstop, and Gutierrez will presumably be shifting to second base, which of course makes his bat less valuable.
Bottom line, the Indians would have spent less money in 2002 if they'd actually kept Roberto Alomar. True, Alomar would likely have left as a free agent after the 2003 season, leaving the Indians without him or the players the Mets sent to Cleveland. But what have they really gained? For one season, I'd rather have Alomar than Lawton + Gutierrez. And down the road two seasons or three, it's unlikely that Lawton or Gutierrez will be championship-caliber players.
At this moment, Cleveland's starting outfield consists of Brady Anderson, Milton Bradley and Matt Lawton. At this moment, the Indians are down to one great hitter: Jim Thome. At this moment, the Chicago White Sox think they've got a great chance to assume primacy in the American League Central.
And at this moment, they're exactly right.
Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and to order his books, including the just-published Feeding the Green Monster, click here.