Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier agreed to an extension with the team yesterday, and he’ll now be locked in with the franchise for the next five years for a sum of $85 million. Additionally, there’s a vesting option for a sixth year for an additional $15 million.
Ethier close to deal with #Dodgers that would be guaranteed for $85M over 5 yrs. Vesting option for 6th yr that would raise value to $100M.
— Dylan Hernandez (@dylanohernandez) June 12, 2012
Ethier is a popular Dodgers player and fans are excited for good reason. Barring last year’s struggles, he’s been one of the few offensive constants for the team, and although he was born in the Athletics system, it feels like he was raised as one of the Dodgers own core players like Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw.
Sentiment, however, doesn’t win games, so it’s worth looking at the contract to see whether or not the deal was the correct move.
For his career, his slash line is .291/.363/.482/.845, and barring 2011, it’s been quite stable. If you discard 2011 as a fluke due to injury (as I’m prone to agree with), then you end up with player having an OPS around .850-.860, which is good for a .360-.370 wOBA. Ethier’s a better baserunner than you might expect, being of neutral value, if not slightly better.
Defensively, he has shown improvement and gets credit for that, but he’s still a below average defender when taking into consideration a larger sample size. If you like, he can be average, but that should be the extent of it. Scouting wise, I think it checks out. He has above average arm strength with plus accuracy, but his mediocre range hurts his value. He tries to compensate for that by taking quality routes, and he has average hands. I think where he loses a lot of value is in cutting balls off and on balls hit over his head. As long as the play is in front of him though, he’s a solid defender. For the sake of this analysis, I took the conservative approach and looked at it like he has always been an fringe/average defender rather than assuming he managed to magically go from a terrible defender to a good one in the midst of his injury prone 2011.
For playing time, I awarded him about 580-590 plate appearances, which seems fair to me, considering he has topped 600 plate appearances just once in his career, and I’ve given him that playing time in right field.
All of that is the explanation for the following calculation:
24.5 oWAR + 0.4 bWAR + -3.3 dWAR + 19.5 REP + -5.0 POS = 36.1 = 3.6 WAR
So 3.6 WAR is his estimated true talent level for 2013, which is the starting point of the contract.
As you can see on the surplus value chart for Ethier that I posted above, the regression of his WAR starts immediately in 2014. That’s because he’ll be 31 years old at the start of the extension, and batter aging curves aren’t all that friendly.
I know everybody is excited right now, and I’m not trying to be negative, but when players are signed into their mid-to-late 30s, bad things do tend to happen more frequently. In fact, the standard WAR regression is 0.5 per year, but I thought that was a bit harsh. So if anything, I’m being kind to Ethier in the realm of his aging pattern, because I do think that the linear regression model is a bit much.
Furthermore, as pointed out elsewhere, Ethier’s similar batters at this point in his career are a bit frightening to look at.
Every single player on that list saw their production plummet by their age 34 season, and most were out of the league the year after. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but suffice to say, it’s more than fair to have concerns.
A popular feeling out in the Dodgers fandom is that Ethier was a necessary signing, unless the Dodgers wanted their offense to suffer immensely in the coming years. However, that’s never wholly true, is it? I doubt they would feel the same way if it cost the Dodgers a chance at signing Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke or Mike Napoli or B.J. Upton. Or if it prevented a trade and sign with David Wright or similar type deals. In the same vein, I doubt Ethier would be viewed as a necessity if the deal was five years for $110 million or something similar.
The point is not to say that those things would or could have happened, but that there are always limits to how much any team absolutely needs any player. Every team has a budget, and all the contracts count, so getting value out of every one of them is of the utmost importance to continued and sustained success.
Most fans appear to agree that the contract overpays Ethier at least a bit, and I simply don’t accept the logic that everything is alright with that as long as it feels like it takes care of a need on the immediate horizon. Primarily because that’s the attitude that got the Dodgers linked with Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones and the likes to begin with.
With that said, for all the criticism he takes from people like me, Ned Colletti has done a solid job with extending players under team control to this point, and the proprietary information they have on Ethier would lead me to hope that they re-signed him because they think he could beat the existing odds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that history is on Ethier’s side.
I don’t feel the need to take a strong stance either way on this extension, because there are solid arguments for both sides, but I think the overwhelming optimism among fans right now might need a bit of blunting. There’s definitely considerable risk that comes along with this contract, and if there’s one thing we all learned from the Frank McCourt era, it’s that sacrificing future returns for immediate needs rarely ever works out like you want.