Wednesday, April 06, 2005

the aramis contract

over at cub town, the ongoing analysis of the ramirez contract is in full swing. much of the debate is predicated, however, on a questionable starting point, articulated by rich lederer:

There is no doubt Ramirez is one of the top half dozen or so third basemen in baseball. He might even be the Cubs best position player. What do you pay for that?

and even more florid speculation from derek smart:

It's not unreasonable to think that Aramis could be in the top 5 on the next two MVP ballots.

no one can dispute that aramis had a great year in 2004. but i think someone has to say, before we hand him the mvp and silver slugger and the cy young to boot that 2004 was very unusual for ramirez. an overview of his career numbers will help to illustrate what i mean.

aramis' career on-base percentage coming into 2004 was .312, his career batting average .262. he had hit a home run every 25.2 at-bats.

in view of this, last season was one of two things for aramis: a huge step forward -- or a massive aberration. but which? parts of both, i think.

one can take the optimistic view that ramirez has turned a corner, and evidence that with the dramatic drop in strikeouts seen in 2004 -- falling to one per 8.8 at-bats from 6.1 in 2003 and 5.5 in 2002. which directly corresponds to his higher batting average. one can also toss out his dismal 2002 and look only at his collective stats for 2001/2003/2004 to say the best that one can say. if one looks at that line, 2004 doesn't look so terribly out of line with his late production in pittsburgh.

but it still is a big step. aramis set career bests in batting average (by 18 points), OBP (by 23), slugging pct (by 42), homers and runs. maybe he can maintain this level; maybe he can't. a reversion simply to his optimistic mean (.295/.350/.525) is more likely than not, if not the less-likely backslide toward his career averages (.273/.324/.467).

what sort of catagory would that put aramis in? compare .295/.350/.525 with all major-league third basemen over 2003/2004, and aramis ranks with the likes of mike lowell, eric chavez and adrian beltre. there is a decidedly higher level -- inhabited by scott rolen, a-rod and perhaps surprisingly melvin mora -- to which aramis might belong (offensively, anyway) if 2005 looks like 2004, but we don't know that yet.

aramis' deal looks like this: "Ramirez gets a $1 million signing bonus plus an $8 million salary for this season, superseding the $8.95 million, one-year contract he had agreed to earlier this year. He gets $10.5 million in 2006, $11 million in 2007 and $11.5 million in 2008." the kicker, of course, is the player option after 2006.

if we contextualize it with lowell, chavez and beltre, we can get a sense of the fairness of his deal. beltre's move to seattle this offseason was accompanied by a 5-year/$64mm contract. lowell is locked in at 4-year/$32mm guaranteed and expiring 2007. chavez signed what amounts to a lifetime contract with oakland, paying $8.5mm in 2005, $9.5mm in 2006 and 2007, and stepping up from there through 2011.

on the whole, then, seattle probably overpaid for beltre -- but ramirez does better than lowell, who makes less and has less future security. chavez's contract provides less, but has unimaginable security in its huge duration. on the surface, then, ramirez's deal is pretty much in line.

here the player option becomes an important point. the cubs are taking the risk on ramirez's performance. if he reverts to 2002 form, there's nothing the club can do but try to move him; this is no different from the risk assumed by the other clubs (vastly moreso by oakland). however, if chavez overperforms, he cannot decide to test free agency in 2006, as aramis can, in search of beltre or rolen money. this is tremendous leverage for the player -- especially one who may well revert to the mean -- and really puts ramirez's deal a cut above.

it's better to have ramirez for 2005 and 2006 than not to. but the cubs have adopted the risk of a four-year deal with the potential payout of only two, and for the privilege paid what seems the market rate for a third baseman of aramis' production. that's not a good deal -- and while i like that the cubs are trying to build goodwill toward players with an eye on the longer term, i think it has to go in the ledger as a qualified loss for jim hendry.

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