Blue Jays astutely following the John Hart Model
In signing both Vernon Wells and Eric Hinske to five-year contracts, the Blue Jays are following a plan that should lead to future success.
If it's true that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, it's also true that a lot of knowledge can be a wonderful thing. Power.
Granted, this knowledge doesn't come cheap, as the Jays are on the hook for nearly $30 million from 2003 through 2007, with both Wells and Hinkse scheduled to earn approximately $14.7 million after signing new five-year contract extensions.
Do these deals make sense for Toronto? To answer that question, you have to answer two other questions:
1. How much money will Wells and Hinske make over the next five years, absent long-term contracts?
2. How much money is a lot of knowledge worth?
Unfortunately, we can hope for only hazy answers to both questions. To answer the first question with any sort of precision, we'd have to know what's going to happen to baseball salaries over the next five years and we'd have to know how well both Hinske and Wells are going to play. We can make educated guesses, but even Theo Epstein's Back Bay Think Tank couldn't come up with exact answers.
As for how much knowledge is worth, that's the sort of question best answered by economists operating on the far edge of theory. Which is to say, one can't really know much of anything.
Nevertheless, while acknowledging a considerable amount of ignorance, signing Wells and Hinske to long-term deals seems pretty smart to me.
Courtesy of Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster (the book you need if you're drafting a Rotisserie team, or if you're a baseball columnist who can't be bothered to run his own numbers), here are three seasons for Wells: past (2001), present (2002), and future (2003).
Age OBP Slug 2001 22 .323 .442 2002 23 .306 .457 2003 24 .315 .477
Those 2001 numbers include some "translated" minor-league statistics, while 2003's numbers are Shandler's projection. If there's anything to worry about here, it's Wells' poor on-base percentages. We're not exactly looking at Corey Patterson, but .315 simply isn't what you hope to see from one of your key hitters. Balancing the OBP, though, is Wells' reputation as one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.
Same numbers for Hinske:
Age OBP Slug 2001 23 .311 .438 2002 24 .365 .481 2003 25 .350 .453
Hinske's performance isn't as consistent as Wells', but Shandler (and probably Blue Jays management) is confident that Hinske will continue to play well.
The key to these signings is something that I've not explicitly mentioned yet: age. We can't commend the Jays for locking up Wells and Hinske for another five seasons, because they already were locked up for another five years. Both are just entering their second full seasons as major leaguers, and of course players aren't eligible for free agency until after their sixth season.
No, what's important here is that while the Blue Jays have committed a significant amount of money to Wells and Hinske, the commitments expire just about when Wells and Hinske are likely to stop getting better. Typically, ballplayers peak sometime between their 26th and 29th birthdays. Wells' new contract expires when he's 28, and Hinske's expires when he's 29.
This is essentially the John Hart Model (Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle, Jim Thome), as opposed to the Cam Bonifay Model (Kevin Young, Pat Meares, Mike Benjamin). And if there's one thing we've learned over the last decade or so, it's that the John Hart Model makes a lot more sense than the Cam Bonifay Model. Even if it turns out that the Blue Jays overpay Wells and Hinske, any monetary loss is likely to be more than balanced by peace of mind.
Speaking of the Pirates, a few readers have wondered (via e-mail) why Pittsburgh would sign geezers like Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders, when they already had perfectly serviceable hitters like Adam Hyzdu and (especially) Craig Wilson.
Hyzdu's a non-factor. You have to admire his stick-to-itiveness -- he spent 11 seasons in the minors before finally getting a shot in the majors -- but he's 31 years old and he's got a .310 career OBP in 122 games. Hyzdu's probably good enough to hang around for a few years as a bench player, but he's not really starter material.
Wilson's younger and he's better, but he's pretty awful in right field, and the Pirates are trying to win with a bunch of young pitchers. What they should do is install Wilson at first base, but unfortunately Kevin Young and Randall Simon stand in the way. That said, Young's contract (finally) expires after this season, and Simon is bound to find his true level before long. So don't be shocked to see Craig Wilson manning first base for the Bucs in 2004 (if not sooner).
But why sign veterans like Lofton and Sanders?
Performance, and credibility. If Sanders is reasonably healthy, he can still hit. No, his stats for the Giants last year weren't brilliant, but he did half his hitting in the National League's pitcher-friendliest ballpark. This year, he may benefit from cozier surroundings. Lofton's on the wrong side of his career, but he remains a pretty good bet for a .350 OBP and he allows Brian Giles to play left field, which is exactly where Giles belongs.
Rebuilding is fine, but if you can sign good players and they won't stand in the way of particularly talented young players and they're cheap ... well, I don't know why you wouldn't want to do that. No, Reggie Sanders isn't going to someday wear a World Series ring with Pirates etched into the platinum. But the Pittsburgh Pirates are a product, and Pittsburghers want to see a quality product now. You can't blame them, and you can't blame the Pirates for economically attempting to put that quality product on the field.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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