Friday, December 29, 2006

Handy-Dandy Free Agent Signing Guide - Part 8

Who: Barry Zito
What Team: San Francisco
How Much: $126M
How Long: 7 years
What It Means: That the Giants have decided to build around pitching once Barry Bonds finally retires, gets arrested, becomes a full-time DH, or mutates into The Toxic Avenger.
Will They Regret It: Right around the fourth year or so, at which point he'll finally be old enough to be a real Brian Sabean Giant and then all will be forgiven anyway. The legend of Barry Zito is well known: he never gets hurt, he wins, and he's got a killer curveball. ALso, he's kind of a flake, but in a good-natured, won't-cause-your-clubhouse-to-implode-but-may-slip-hash-brownies-into-the-post-game-spread sort of way. That's the legend. The numbers actually support that, though with a few troubling signs. Yes, he's incredibly durable and chows down innings like Popeye on a spinach farm, but his strikeout rate (and, if memory serves, his velocity) have gone down for the last three years, and that's not an indicator of long-term success. A sneaky-big part of Zito's value is tied up in the memory of what he was in 2002 or so, and he's not that pitcher any more. He's certainly not going to be that pitcher in 2013, either, though a metamorphosis into Jeff Suppan is not entirely out of the question. Playing in another pitcher's park will help, but the Giants' outfield defense is far worse than the A's, and that's going to show up in Zito's ERA and extra base hit numbers.
Ultimately, the Giants overpaid to get the best guy left out there. They needed to replace Jason Schmidt, but seven years is far too many years to give any pitcher, even one as durable as Zito. Ultimately, it looks like Sabean is banking on Zito to be the rock that the Giants' young stud pitchers - Lincecum, Lowry, and Cain - anchor on to until they're ready to be aces, at which point what he's saving on them will roughly balance out what he's overpaying on Zito. Plus, having Zito locked up gives them a recognizeable name on the roster once Barry finally completes his transformation into the Abomination, and thus lets the marketing department breathe a little easier. For now, at least. But whoever follows Sabean - and if he's there for the entire length of this contract, I'll be very surprised - is going to be stuck with the really unpleasant end of this deal.

Who: Jeff Suppan
What Team: Milwaukee
How Much: $42M
How Long: 4 years
What It Means: Somewhere, a Jeffrey Hammonds baseball card just spontaneously combusted.
Will They Regret It: Not in a "my God, what have we done?" sort of way. More in an "enh, you know, I'll bet that really attractive blonde in my 11th grade algebra class would have gone out with me if I'd just asked at the time" kind of way, a vague disquiet that maybe, just maybe, they could have done better. The pluses to getting Suppan are that he eats innings like they're covered in rich, creamy marzipan, and that adding him weakens the Cardinals, whose rotation now apparently consists of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, the ghost of Hoss Radburn, and one of the dudes with no feet whom I've teed off against in Wii Baseball. Suppan isn't exactly a bad signing, and in this market this isn't exacly a huge contract, and four years isn't entirely out of the realm of common sense, but...this is one of those things that just has too many "ifs" attached to it. Ultimately, the move to Miller Park and the switch to the Brewers' defense (even sans Carlos Lee) from the Cardinals' gang of vacuum cleaners with gloves is going to hurt Suppan's numbers, and the Brewers. It's not a bad signing. It's just not a good one.

Who: Shea Hillenbrand
What Team: Los Angeles Angels of District Court
How Much: $6.5M
How Long: 1 year, with a vesting option for 2008
What It Means: Arte Moreno and Bill Stoneman have at least heard of this guy.
Will They Regret It: No, but they should. Hillenbrand, in addition to having the sort of personality that goes over in clubhouses like an autographed Terrell Owens jersey at Pat's Steaks, simply isn't that good. He puts up enough counting numbers to seem vaguely valuable, but he can't field, he wouldn't take a walk if it came with a free lap dance and prime rib buffet, and his power, relative to what you should be able to get at first base, is distinctly undersized. He's the classic "opportunity cost" ballplayer, in that his defenders will focus on what he did (hit 18 homers, batted around .290, drove in 80 runs, got dirt on his uniform) and not on what that spot in the lineup could/shoud have provided instead. Any time you get a 1B who hits for high-ish average but no power, the Mark Grace comparisons get exhumed, but he's really Richie Hebner without the walks. And that's not a good thing.
The ship is sinking, Shea. Good thing you've got a life raft made of money.

Who: Jason Marquis
What Team: Chicago Major
How Much: $21M
How Long: 3 years
What It Means: The best way to weaken an opponent is to steal his best players. Unfortunately, the Cubs stole Marquis instead.
Will They Regret It: They say that the only stat that matters is wins (conveniently ignoring the fact that the rules for assigning the magic "W" are about as screwy as the relationships on Grey's Anatomy). If that's the case, the Cubs faithful will take comfort in Marquis 12-15 wins each year, and will conveniently ignore the fact that it took five-plus runs to bail him out in most of those situations. Marquis isn't quite up to Bo Belinsky standards of chowderheadedness, but he's up there, and his win totals are largely a product of throwing in front of some legendary offensive production. Now, that may hold up in Chicago with a lineup of Lee, Ramirez, and Soriano, but Marquis has precious little room to slip in order to stay at least vaguely effective, and he's at the age where slippage is going to happen.
He's going to be bad, folks. Maybe not immediately, but soon, and for the rest of his deal - and that deal is so big that they're going to keep running him out there every fifth day no matter what. Those bats had better get cranking, because Marquis is going to need the help - and so are the Cubs.
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