Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Free Agent Sluggers (or, The Bagwell Dilemma)

My, my we need offense. And I'm not just saying that because we didn't score a run in the last 15 innings of the World Series. We struggled scoring runs all year, and everyone know it's our biggest weakness. Get through (or around) Berkman and Ensberg, and we might get blanked. Like we did 18 times last year.

A healthy Jeff Bagwell would fill this void. But he is not healthy. He's a shell of his former self — his OPS has dropped each year for the last seven years. Slowly, but steadily. And now, rapidly. Most of his falling stats have come from the slugging side. After slugging .615 in 2000, he fell to a career-low .380 in 100 at-bats in 2005, including a whopping seven extra-base hits. But we ought to throw out the numbers from last season.

One stat, though, still was remarkable despite the immense pain Bagwell was going through: His walk rate. His career-low .358 OBP last year was still third-best on the team. Even when he couldn't pick up a baseball bat — even after he altered his stance to take pressure of his shoulder — he could still draw walks like nothing else.

So as a disclaimer to this little aside on free agents, let's make a point clear: Bagwell is awesome. If he rehabs his shoulder and comes back strong, he'll be better than 99 percent of anyone we could sign to replace him. At 37, the man can still play ball. (Even Todd Jones thinks so)

So: If Bagwell can return, he will play first base. Berkman will play left, Taveras center, Lane right, Biggio second and Ensberg third. Those spots are essentially guaranteed. (I hesitate to put Everett up here because he was absolutely terrible last year. He should feel ashamed. If Purpura has a spare minute this winter, he should ask about Furcal and/or Nomar.) We might look to sign a catcher with pop, like Ramon Hernandez or Bengie Molina. But that's it for posible changes to our lineup. It will no doubt be improved by Bagwell's presence.

However, if Bagwell cannot return, we have several hard calls to make. Like what to do with Bagwell. If he can still hit but not field, he may want to be traded to an AL team where he could DH. I would not hold it against him. If he wants to try to hit 51 more homers to get to 500, I wish him the best of luck. It would be very hard to unload a significant portion of his contract on anyone: We'd no doubt be stuck paying nearly half of it. (Real quick: what teams might want him? Baltimore? Minnesota? Detroit? Kansas City? Anaheim? Seattle? Could you see him playing for any of those teams? Me neither).

If for whatever reason he couldn't hit, he might decide to retire. How about becoming our bench coach? Maybe Jason Lane will adopt his stance! Seriously, we could give him some sort of 10-year special services deal that we've given Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. The problem — and it's always a problem — is his contract. I believe I'm correct in assuming that Bagwell will collect the $24 million owed to him over the next two years (he has a $7 million buyout option for 2007). But I have a fool-proof plan that everyone will enjoy: re-negotiate his contract to pay him $3 million over the next eight years. Bagwell still gets his $24 million promised by his contract. The Astros get a huge financial break, and are awarded an extra roster spot. Everyone wins! (Obviously, this will never happen.)

(Another disclaimer: I am in no way hoping that Bagwell can't come back. I'm just speculating on what can be done if he can't.)

Disirregardless of what is done with Bagwell's contract, Purpura must find a way to bring another bat to the lineup. As mentioned above, Lane, Berkman, Taveras, Biggio, Ensberg and (sigh) Everett are in the lineup for sure. Which leaves our only potential positional upgrades at first base, corner outfield and catcher. (Since the catcher quagmire is also long and laborious, I'll leave that to another post).

So what are we looking for? Essentially someone who can replace Bagwell in the lineup. Someone who can provide protection for Berkman and Ensberg and sort of bridge a gap from those two to Jason Lane. Preferably a left-handed bat. Someone with good numbers w/RISP. If we don't have enough freedom of our budget, someone who can for a platoon with Chris Burke out in left field. (Luke Scott, in my opinion, is not ready. Although the clock has already begun ticking on his six years under club control, he needs more time in the minors.) Here are my picks: Brian Giles, Jose Cruz Jr., Bernie Williams. I'll mention , Jacque Jones and Matt Lawton too, but they aren't candidates we should be looking at.

Brian Giles
Why he's good: Career .950 OPS. Led the majors in walks last year. He hit only 42 homers in two-and-a-third "disappointing" seasons in San Diego. The only real disappointment came when Giles had to bat at home. He hit only .267 / .378 / .417 in Petco Park, a huge contrast to his 1.008 OPS on the road. No wonder he didn't resign with the Pads. There's no doubt he is declining, but last year he countered the downward trend with an upswing in all his averages. His .423 OBP was higher than his career stats (.413). He's very durable, sitting out only seven games in two years with San Diego. And his defense is above average.

Why he'd fit well with us: His power numbers, most noticeably his home run totals, have dwindled since the trade to San Diego. He'd get his confidence — and swing — back with the Juicebox's short porch in right. More importantly, at least to Drayton, Giles is a hard and serious worker with a good attitude and great approach to the game. He's a gamer — the kind of guy the Astros will want on their side. The teammates, as well as the city, will embrace him.

Downsides: He'll be 35 in January. But has not the city of Houston discovered the fountain of youth? His power numbers have taken a dive since he slugged .622 in 2002. His speed isn't what it used to be, on the base paths or in the outfield. His arm is accurate, but I don't know if he'd play right over Lane or not.

Let's talk money: He hasn't gone unnoticed by any means. But if Giles ever hit 30 homers for a contender, he'd be a rich man by now. His 15 homers in a contract year really cost him a couple million. Now, instead of making what he deserves to make ($10 million/year), a fortunate team can nab him for a bargain ($8 million/year?). He nixed a three-year, $21 million extension from the Padres, which was really an insult more than anything. We should be willing to go as high as $18 million for two great years. Unfortunately, we most likely will not be able to sign him if Bagwell doesn't restructure his contract.

Jose Cruz Jr.
Why he's
good: Correction: He used to be good. He hit 64 homers in two years with the Blue Jays! Sure, he's only hit 77 in the four years since, but he seems to have found his power stroke at the tail end of the year with the Dodgers. At 31, he might be on the verge of a breakout year. Also, the man takes a ton of walks and hits from both sides of the plate, making him a dangerous asset. He's used to playing centerfield, but he can play any outfield spot, and likely will in Houston.

Why he'd fit well with us
: Yes, his pops coaches first base. Yes, he went to Rice with Lance Berkman. Those things shouldn't suddenly make him a great hitter again, but they'll definitely allow him to fit in more comfortably. He'll like the "Cruuuuuuuz" chants. He'd be a great fit in the lineup between Ensberg and Lane.

Downsides: He's definitely a question mark in terms of offensive production. His optimum performance could be as good as .280 / .380 / .450, which would be a tremendous improvement to our offense. But he could sink to the .750 OPS -guy we've seen the past three or four years.

Let's talk money: He may have priced himself out of our range with his offensive outburst in Los Angeles. But the Yankees won't sign him, and the BoSox already gave up on him. So it's doubtful anyonewill give him more than a 2-year, $7 million deal, which is what I'd gladly give him.

Bernie Williams
Why he's good: Jack says he's a borderline Hall-of-Famer. I doubt that, but check out his career stats: an .863 OPS on average is phenomenal. Yes, he sucked last year, posted career0lows across the board. But some of his craptitude can be attributed to injury and possibly pressing. Over his career, he's showed patience and power from both sides of the plate. And his home and away splits are nearly identical. In 2004, he posted a .262 / .360 / .435 line, which I think is still reasonable for him if he stays healthy in '06. (By the way, his .688 OPS in 2005 was better than FOUR of our starters: Ausmus, Burke, Taveras and Everett. As bad as people said he was in NY, we had four guys worse than him. Ha.)

Why he'd fit well with us: He wouldn't have to play center, and his lack of speed would be excusable in our short left field. He'd give us another switch hitter with power from both sides to complement Berkman. He's a stand-up guy, a clubhouse guy, someone the Astros always look for in their signings. And he'd be our first black player since — who? Mike Jackson? Tony Eusebio? I guess Gipson is black... Anyway, he could really make a second home down here and I'm sure the team would welcome him.

Downsides: He's 37. That's old. Really old. He put up at least a .900 OPS for seven straight seasons from 1996 to 2002. He hasn't posted an .800 OPS since. His decline could be drastic, and he might well fall off the face of the earth. Also, injuries are a huge risk: his knees are no more. He might be looking to sign with an AL team to try and be a full-time DH.

Let's talk money: It's hard to say what kind of contract this guy will get. His great career stats conflict with his horrendous 2005. I wouldn't be surprised if some dumb team inked him for $8 million a year (Texas? Baltimore? Detroit?). Assuming the conditions are right, I'd give him a one-year contract stuffed with incentives. Start him at $4 million and let him play his way up to $5 or even $6 million. But who knows, he might even retire.

Jacque Jones
I don't like Jacque Jones. Actually, I don't like the idea of signing a player who is that worthless against left-handers. It really limits his effectiveness. I usually like platoons, but Jones will want to start everyday and will command a contract that will make it seem stupid not to start him everyday. He can't be had for less than $5 millon a year, and a platoon player is not worth that much.

Matt Lawton
He's a good player, and we could probably get him cheap. But he took steroids, so there's no way the Astros will ever touch him.

Keep in mind, everything hinges on Bagwell. His contract is a big issue, but perhaps even more so is his spot in the lineup. I mean: If he can play, our outfield is pretty much set: Berkman, Taveras, Lane. There's almost no point in signing any of these guys if Bagwell's playing. (Maybe Cruz, to split time with Taveras?) In any case, everything hinges on Bagwell, and hopefully we will know his status sooner rather than later.


Jack said...

Good stuff, Andy. Like you say, much of this offseason hinges on Bagwell's shoulder. The sooner we know if he'll be able to play 1B for the Astros in '06, the better. I have a bad feeling that we might let this go kinda the way we let the Beltran negotiations go last year - wait 'til the last minute, realize things aren't going to work out, and miss out on all the big names.

If Bagwell's healthy, then I agree with your statement that we won't be able to afford any big-name free agent bats. We could still make some small moves (trade for Estrada, sign Damion Easley, etc.), but forget Giles.

If Bagwell's not healthy...that's where things get interesting, as you noticed. We'd basically be forced to trade him, because no one wants a $17 million pinch hitter. And so what if you 'can't see him in any other uniforms'? I'm sure people thought the same thing about Ken Griffey Jr. with the Mariners, Roger Clemens with the Red Sox, etc. Bagwell has been with the Astros for much longer than those guys, I know, but I think we'd have to try and trade him.

Ok, basically I've done nothing but agree with you so far. Time to argue:

I'd much rather get Jacque Jones than Bernie Williams. Jones might not get as much money as you think - his stats are superficially low because Ron Gardenhire is an idiot and plays him against lefties. What you call a downside - he can't hit lefties at all - might actually not be such a bad thing, as it allows Chris Burke some much-needed playing time when a lefty is starting. And now let's talk about defense. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the difference between Bernie Williams's defense and Jacque Jones's defense (wherever they play in the OF) is close to 20/30 runs a year. That's HUGE. Jones has much better range, a better arm, and is a better person. All right, maybe not the last one, but Jones is 30 (Bernie is 37), is excellent defensively, and has a career 830 OPS against righties. I'd give him 2/10 or 3/12. More later - gotta teach.

Andres said...

$5 million for a platoon player? No! That's ludicrous! Good teams will bring in lefties to face him, and he'll be out of the game. He might only get 500 at-bats. Not worth it.

Wesley said...

A quick comment on the Bagwell personal services contract. The Astros really need to lock up Brad Ausmus's post-player days now. Ausmus will be a great manager at some point in the next 15 years. Getting him started as a coach or minor-league manager after he retires would be huge for the Astros organization.