I know, I know ... we should punt 2008, think about the long term, and play the kids. But playing the kids isn't going to be enough. This team is starved for talent and should be looking to bring in good players anywhere they can be found.
Signing a high-priced free agent on the wrong side of thirty makes sense to me only under the following conditions:
a) He has some marquee value.
b) He's not horrifically overpriced.
c) He fills an immediate need for the Giants, and thus can help make the next couple of years, which look to be bleak, a little more respectable.
d) He projects to still be a productive player two or three years down the road, when we might reasonably hope to have a contending team again.
Andruw Jones meets all four conditions, I think.
a) He's a former MVP, a perennial gold glove winner, and is in the postseason every year. That should make him famous enough to put butts in seats.
b) He is expected to sign for 5 years/$80 million, maybe less. I'll get into the math later, but as I see it this is substantially below the current free-agent market rates.
c) By "immediate need," I mean "someone to hit home runs." But though it may sound crazy, center field is a need as well. Although Sabean has been pathologically collecting center fielders , none of them is particularly good. Rajai Davis looks like a fine fielder but a marginal hitter. Fred Lewis is badly stretched at the position and can't hit lefties; the best role for him is as a platoon player in a corner. Roberts and Ortmeier obviously aren't solutions. Our best CF is Randy Winn, but he's not a good defensive player in center; at 33, he's probably headed downhill; and moreover, he's one of very few veterans on the roster who should have enough trade value to bring back a decent prospect.
d) Jones is 30, turning 31 early next season. He's one of the most durable players in the game, having been a regular for ten years and logging at least 154 games every single year. As a fielder, he's still exceptional. As a hitter, he's been up and down over the years, but generally quite good. His rotten 2007 is alarming -- but that rotten season is exactly what makes him affordable. I'm confident that that bad season was a fluke and that he'll be hitting .260 with a decent OBP and 30+ home runs for the next several years.
In 2007, Jones's component stats -- strikeout rate, walk rate, GB/LD/FB percentages -- were in their usual range, but the results weren't there. The first problem is that his batting average on balls in play was quite low, 30 points off his career level. This isn't really a concern; it will almost certainly come back up next year and he'll hit in the .260s again.
The other problem with his 2007 is more worrisome: he lost a lot of power. Specifically, although he was hitting as many fly balls as usual, his home run per fly ball rate dropped sharply, from an
established level of 21.1% down to 13.4%.
This is bad, but there's no particular reason to believe that it represents a real change in his ability. Spikes happen. Jim Thome's hr/fb rate took an even more precipitous dive in 2005; the next year, it was back in its normal range. Carlos Beltran had a bad season that year as well; after posting hr/fb rates of 17.6, 17.9, and 17.6, in 2005 he dropped to 8.8. The next year, he was at 21.1. ARod's hr/fb rates over the last five years have gone 25, 19, 26, 20, 27.
There is a potential physical explanation for Andruw's bad year: On May 27, he hyperextended his elbow making a catch, and it bothered him the rest of the season. We can also speculate that since he was in a well-hyped contract year, he was putting too much pressure on himself. There's no way to know exactly, but it seems far more likely that his bad season was a fluke than that a 30-year-old with a clean injury record and tons of natural talent suddenly went off the cliff and will no longer be the same player.
During his career -- including his early years as a part-timer, his awful 2007, everything -- Jones has averaged .263/.342/.497, creating 5.86 runs per 27 outs. Over the course of 150 games, that's 98 runs. Replacement level these days is in the neighborhood of 60-65 runs. So Jones is 35 runs better than replacement with the bat.
With the glove, he's not quite the marvel he once was, but he's still good. The Fielding Bible +/- system ranks him as the very best center fielder in the game, saving 20 runs or more above the level of the average CF. However, the other state-of-the-art defensive measurement, UZR, has him as almost exactly average. I don't know which of these is more correct (though I suspect it's the first one), but it seems reasonable to split the difference and call him 10 runs better than
Altogether, then, that's at least 45 runs better than replacement level, or 4.5 wins. Per Tango's salary
calculator, a fun little tool that factors in both inflation and expected decline in order to give a crude guess at a player's fair-market value, Jones could thus expect to receive $17-$19 million per season: four years for $75 million, five for $91, six for $106, in there somewhere. But because GMs overrate the importance of the most recent season, he's not going to get it.
The lesson of the Detroit Tigers' post-2003 turnaround is that it's not enough to draft & develop well or scoop up free talent or make sharp trades or sign expensive free agents. If you want to get from bad to good in a hurry, you have to do all of them at once.
This is one of the very rare opportunities to get a star free agent at a relative discount, and Sabean should go after it.