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Too much money, not enough production

Just when we're feeling all warm and fuzzy about the Anaheim Angels, they have to do something monumentally stupid.

Let me present to you, dear reader, the statistics posted over the last two seasons by a certain Major League Baseball outfielder, with his 2002 numbers projected to the full season:

Games Runs RBI OBP Slug OPS
2001 157 89 63 .331 .360 691
2002 147 90 81 .321 .388 709

To be sure, this fellow's not a terrible player. But he doesn't really get on base often enough to hit near the top of the lineup, nor does he hit the ball hard enough to bat in the middle of the order. If he plays good defense and doesn't make a lot of money, you can slot him down near the bottom of the lineup ... and work on finding somebody better.

Unless you're the Anaheim Angels, in which case you bat him No. 2 and you sign him to a four-year contract extension for $32 million.

No foolin'. That's how much and for how long the Angels are going to pay Darin Erstad.

And do you know what the funniest/saddest part of this story is? The media coverage. (Unless you're an Angels fan, in which case the saddest part is the contract itself.)

In the Los Angeles Times, Bill Shaikin wrote (with no apparent hint of skepticism), "Jeff Moorad, the agent for Erstad, confirmed the deal and said Erstad likely would have commanded a more lucrative deal had he waited to test the free-agent market ..."

Agents are paid to lie, of course, but Moorad is probably right. Erstad probably could have gotten more money if he'd waited until after the season. Why? Because a significant percentage of baseball executives are incompetent. If Joe Shlabotnik came on the market next winter with Erstad's numbers, ol' Joe would be lucky to get a minor-league contract with a half-hearted invite to spring training.

But Darin Erstad once had a great year. Ergo, he must be great. Even though Erstad is, in the real world, in the world where pigs don't fly and dogs don't talk, not great. Not even particularly good.

Of course, it's not just the executives who have problems understanding such fundamental truths. Writers miss them, too. I'm sure that Bill Shaikin's a fine writer, but what does this mean?

While Erstad's statistics are not spectacular -- he is hitting .283 with seven home runs -- Angel teammates and management said his speed, defensive prowess and leadership more than justified the average $8-million salary of the new deal. He was a finalist for the American League All-Star team this season.

Erstad's statistics are "not spectacular"? Saying that Erstad's stats are "not spectacular" is like saying that Enron's not profitable. It's like saying that Bill Clinton is not pure as the driven snow, or that David Wells is not skinny, or that Bud Selig is not a wiz at public relations.

Because unless Erstad picks up the pace, substantially and soon, he's going to finish 2002 with virtually the same lousy numbers as he did in 2001. In another article, Shaikin described Erstad's 2001 statistics as "horrific." Yet nobody -- not Jeff Moorad, not Bill Stoneman, not Bill Shaikin -- is characterizing Erstad's 2002 season as "horrific." Why not? Because the Angels are winning, and because Erstad's batting average is marginally higher. Neither of which are compelling reasons.

(Oh, and when did we start keeping track of All-Star team "finalists"? Does this mean that whenever a team doesn't have a single obvious candidate for the All-Star team, we have to remember who made it from that team and the second choice? According to that "logic," does Aubrey Huff deserve to forever be remembered as a "finalist for the 2002 American League All-Star team"?)

Different paper (L.A. Daily News), different writer (Gabe Lacques), same silliness:

Because Erstad wanted to stay, and because he's become such an important cog in their lineup and clubhouse, it made for an easy negotiation... Injuries and the distraction of a divorce sent his average plummeting to .258 last season, but he has rebounded this year, pushing his average above .300 before a recent slump...

Did you catch that neat little trick? Instead of mentioning Erstad's actual batting average, Lacques tells us that he was hitting .300 before his recent slump, as if the slump isn't germane to our evaluation.

And what I want to know is, if injuries and divorce caused Erstad's poor 2001 numbers, what's his excuse in 2002? Because they're just about as bad. And what about 1999, when they were even worse?

In the Orange County Register, Bill Plunkett wrote approvingly of Erstad's extension, too.

So you've got three baseball writers, and not one of them showed the slightest understanding that Erstad isn't a good player and certainly isn't worth $8 million per season. I could not find one BBWAA member in all of Southern California, not even one, who wrote the truth. Who wrote that the Angels are wasting their money.

The bottom line is that of Erstad's last four seasons, only one might even be considered good. Granted, that was actually a great season, but if you see one great season and three poor ones, which do you think is representative? In the wacky world of professional baseball, though, it's the anomalous season that's considered the archetype.

And it's exactly this sort of idiocy that's as responsible as George Steinbrenner -- more so, really -- for driving up salaries. Here, let's compare Erstad to another young center fielder, combining last year's and this year's numbers.

Games OBP Slug OPS SB CS
Erstad 257 .327 .370 697 41 13
Beltran 265 .353 .509 861 58 5

In addition to those numbers, Beltran's also got a higher batting average, more doubles, more triples, more home runs, and more walks. Oh, and he's generally considered the superior defensive center fielder. By virtually any objective measure, Beltran is twice the player Erstad is.

The Royals, of course, hope to sign Beltran to a long-term contract. But for the love of Pete, if Erstad is worth $8 million per season, what is Beltran worth? You don't think Beltran's agent collapsed to the ground in paroxysms of euphoria when he heard about Erstad's deal?

Speaking of which, the Angels have now committed $60 million next year to just 10 players, only one or two of whom might reasonably be considered superstars.

So next season, you're going to see two things happen in the American League West. You're going to see the Mariners come back to the Athletics. And you're going to see the Angels join the Rangers in Never Never Land, that baseball fantasy world where money is no object but good sense has gone missing.