In baseball salary wars, I’ve always been on the side of the players. I’d much rather that the people who perform on the field get paid for their production rather than some fat cat owner. But the contracts given out so far this off season have even the staunchest player advocates scratching their head.
Here are some of the highlights so far in the 2006 free agent class: Alfonoso Soriano for eight years and $136 million, Juan Pierre at five years and $45 million and now Gary Matthews Jr. at five years and $50 million.
To put that last one in a bit of perspective, Matthews has been waived four times in his career. Clubs waive players when they don’t think they’re worth a spot on the roster and there’s no trade value for them. Matthews was waived by the Cubs in 2001, the Orioles in 2003, the Padres in 2003 and the Braves in 2004.
So, basically he went from having no value at the start of the 2004 season, the Braves kept DeWayne Wise instead of him, to being a $10 million man just three seasons later.
What on earth happened?
The easiest explanation is that the owners are making money hand over fist and are now spending like drunken sailors on shore leave. Another explanation is that the owners are no longer acting in harmony to suppress salaries. For an example of this type of illegal behavior, let’s look at the 2003 free agent class.
Four outfielders – Jose Guillen, Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Rondell White each signed for almost the exact same amount – two years and $6 million. Let’s look at those four players and how they compare to Matthews. All stats were for the year prior to becoming a free agent (’06 for Matthews, ’03 for the others).
Player Age Games Avg. HR RBI OBP SLG
Jose Guillen 27 136 .311 31 86 .359 .569
Kenny Lofton 36 140 .296 12 46 .352 .450
Reggie Sanders 35 130 .285 31 87 .345 .567
Rondell White 31 137 .289 22 87 .341 .488
Gary Matthews 31 147 .313 19 79 .371 .495
Lofton, Sanders and White all had much better track records than Matthews prior to the season in question. Guillen had the benefit of just entering his peak. But three years ago all 30 clubs felt that these four players were worth the same amount. Is this an interesting coincidence or collusion? This was also the same off-season that Vladimir Guerrero, one of the top players in the game, had trouble finding a team to offer him a contract. I wonder how much Guerrero would fetch on today’s market?
Anyway, what makes a club think that Matthews is worth this type of investment? He can play center field and is an above average fielder. Many remember his catch this summer where he jumped onto the wall with one leg to propel himself high off the ground to rob a home run. And his hitting numbers were nothing to sneeze at, either.
But the question clubs should be asking is if Matthews established a new level of offensive performance in 2006 or was it just a fluke season.
As a general rule of thumb, players do not make a great leap forward at the age of 31. Sure, you can find individual cases – Jose Cruz Sr. and Dwight Evans were much better in their 30s than their 20s – but generally players improve into their mid 20s, decline gradually into their early 30s and then decline rapidly after that.
Angels fans will have to hope that Matthews will be the exception that helps prove the rule. But more likely than not, they will come to view his contract as an albatross and will be actively shopping him and offering to pay a large chunk of his salary to get him off the team before his deal is finished.