Hopefully everyone still has a belly full of turkey and a fridge full of leftovers. Let’s work off the Thanksgiving hangover with a mailbag. Just two questions this week, but they’re good ones. Remember to send in any questions via the Submit A Tip box in sidebar, otherwise let’s get to it…
Shaun asks: What are your thoughts on Koji Uehara as a relief option? He was pretty good in Baltimore last year in relief. According to MLBTR “but is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.86 ERA and a whopping 11.00 K/BB ratio in 43 relief appearances.” Or do you see him as a sleeper closer candidate for Tampa Bay so ARod can ruin his ninth innings?
I like Uehara and think there’s a good chance he’ll out-perform every free agent reliever not named Rafael Soriano or Mariano Rivera in 2011. He doesn’t walk anyone (just 1.30 BB/9 when you remove intentional walks) and misses a ton of bats (8.38 K/9 and 12.1% swings-and-misses) with his fastball-splitter combo, two traits you absolutely want in a late-game reliever. Uehara stepped in as the O’s closer late in the year, though Yankee fans surely remember two of his more memorable blow-ups (video and video).
There are two major drawbacks with Uehara, however. He’s an extreme fly ball guy, with a whopping 82.5% of the balls put him play off him over the last two years resulting in something other than a ground ball. It’s no surprise that he’s given up 12 homers in 110.2 MLB innings (0.98 HR/9). The other issue are the injuries. Uehara’s missed 212 of 364 total days over the last two seasons with everything from a chest contusion to a strained flexor tendon in his elbow to a hamstring strain. He’s not young (36 in April), so it’s not something we can simply brush under the run.
Uehara made $5M in each of the last two seasons, though he originally signed that contract as a starter. I’m not sure what kind of salary he’s looking for, but at his age and with his injury history, I can’t imagine any team will guarantee him more than one year. Regardless, I think that other clubs with more pressing needs in the back of the bullpen will pursue Uehara more aggressively, perhaps to be their closer. Because of that I don’t think the Yankees have much of a shot to sign him without overpaying, and given his extreme fly ball tendencies and medical history, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Tyler asks: At what point does a bad contract become worth it? Take for instance, AJ Burnett. Despite his ups and downs, he pitched brilliantly in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, and made his horrible 2010 season a little easier to accept. Without him, it’s doubtful the Yankees win the 2009 Series. So is that one Championship worth an $80+M contract? Does he need to contribute to one more? Two more? Is his deal more valuable than Mike Mussina’s because it resulted in a Championship?
There’s two ways to answer this. The nerdy way would be to compare Burnett’s total WAR to what the league is paying per win and use that. Right now it’s about $4M per win, give or take, so A.J. would have needed to post a 4.0 WAR season (or thereabouts) to justify his salary. He didn’t, but that’s just one-fifth of his contract, so there’s still a long way to go. His two seasons in New York have totaled $20.6M of production based on the data at FanGraphs, during which time he’s been paid $33M. Based on this method, he’s not “earning it.”
The other way to look at this is completely subjective; how much do you personally value that World Series title and how much do you feel Burnett contributed to it? Obviously they don’t win it without him, but is that championship in year one enough to justify a five-year deal? The Yankees and their fans aren’t exactly long-suffering, so the value of a World Series victory to them isn’t as great as it is to say, the Indians or Brewers or Rays. Do I think that last season justifies his contract? I don’t, but you might feel differently.
Really, it’s all about expectations. The Yankees expect a certain level of production out of every player they employ (fans have their own set of expectations, which are quite often unrealistic), and whether or not he reaches that level of performance is what justifies the cost. I suspect the Yanks were counting on getting one very good year, two good years, one bad year, and one year lost to injury/replacement level production out of A.J. when they gave him that contract. He’s already gotten the bad year and one of the good years out of the way, and the odds are against him providing that very good year based on his age and recent performance.
Mussina’s situation is different because he was fantastic with the Yankees, it’s not like he failed to perform and needed a World Series win to make his resume respectable. No one should be complaining about what Moose did in pinstripes, he was worth every penny of both contracts no matter how you look at it (FanGraphs values his Yankee career at $106.4M without counting his great 2001 season, and he was paid just over $109M during that time). With Burnett, we’re just in wait-and-see mode. Some might feel that the World Series win makes his contract worth it automatically, others not so much. It’s all about preference.