Today's big news in the world of baseball (at least so far) was the massive extension offered to Andre Ethier by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ethier is in the midst of a very good season, and at the age of 29, was just about to hit free agency at the end of 2012.
Ethier's not an elite hitter like teammate Matt Kemp, but Andre puts good wood on the ball, managing a career triple-slash line of .291/.363/.481. That's a good average, a solid OBP, and a pretty fine slugging percentage. Not too shabby. He's in the middle of what looks to be shaping up to be his finest season to date, already having accumulated ten homers and 53 RBI in less than half a season. And though he's not an elite runner or fielder, I think that the way his bat plays in Los Angeles has us all agreeing that...
The Los Angeles Dodgers just made a huge mistake in signing Andre Ethier to a 5-year, $85 million dollar extension.
You know who else can play right field for the Dodgers, other than Andre Ethier? Basically anyone on an MLB roster. Right field is one of the easier positions to play in terms of talent level, and teams can find literally dozens of players on their major and minor league rosters who can fill the position. Do you have a third baseman who looks a step slow? Put him in right field. Do you have a first baseman who has some athleticism? Put him in right field.
So there's no real demand for the position the same way there is for catchers, or center fielders, or shortstops. Players who play in right are judged by their bats, and Ethier is no exception. I'll let you in on a secret, though ... no lie, he's actually a pretty great hitter. His career wRC+ is 130, meaning that he's about 30% better than the league average offensively, after adjusting for league and park. But the bat isn't the only thing that goes into a player's value, and Ethier has a history of losing value thanks to a not-too-impressive glove. Andre averages about 2-3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) per season, which shows up as about good enough to be a league-average starter. That's not terrible, but it's hardly worth a contract as lucrative as the one he just signed.
For fun, let's look briefly, at the last outfielder to sign a contract valued at $17 million annually. This one was an eight-year deal, inked by Alfonso Soriano of the Chicago Cubs. In the first five years of his deal, which should arguably be the BEST years of a long-term deal, Soriano has managed 15.5 wins above replacement (WAR) according to FanGraphs. That's about three wins a season. This is also a player who (a) has managed 500 PA or more in all five seasons (b) used to have tremendous defensive stats and (c) had a history of stacking bigger numbers of counting stats than Ethier ever accumulated. Soriano even managed to amass seven of those WAR in the first year of his deal, something that Ethier is highly unlikely to ever accomplish. I'm not sure anyone has ever considered Ethier on the same level of performance as Soriano as a ballplayer during their primes, though to be fair, their bats play similarly enough, with Ethier scoring a bit higher for his career than Soriano.
The truth of the matter is, Andre Ethier is a good hitter, and that makes him a valuable ballplayer. A team with lots of other excellent pieces in place (read: the Red Sox, Rays, or Braves perhaps) would be smart to add Ethier as a complementary piece, and perhaps for a chunk of cash less than what he just signed for. $10 to $12 million dollars a year sounds about right to me. He's just not as valuable as the average joe might think given his counting stats. A bad-to-average defensive outfielder with an unreal bat is ok at that price, but a just-pretty-good bat isn't. But of course Andre Ethier is overpaid ... almost every free agent signing is an overpay based on previous numbers.
Just because the Dodgers and their new ownership group have the money to spend on a player like Ethier, doesn't mean that they should. There's a lot that a team can do with $85 million dollars over five years. Sure, for a team like the Dodgers, the opportunity cost is low, but does anyone really think that Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton is going to draw more than the deal Ethier just got when they hit free agency this year? Either of those players has a track record of similar production as Ethier, just doing it more with the glove than the bat. Either player provides more WAR, and is younger at that.
Perhaps I'm over stating things when I say that this is a big mistake, but the limited financial resources that all teams operate under are tricky to judge. The Dodgers could spend the money they spent on Ethier adding pieces all over the diamond; looking at their current roster composition, the team could go for big upgrades at first base, left field, third base, and (like everyone else) in starting pitching. But instead, they committed a great deal of time and money to a player who is, at best, an above-average regular in an easy-to-fill position. In three years, I bet Dodger fans will be wishing that this money was spent elsewhere.