So many players, so little money

added 12/23/2002 by Todd Brody

When the Astros offered new one-year contracts to Jose Vizcaino and Orlando Merced last season, I thought that it was a pretty smart move by Gerry Hunsicker. Both of these players were having good (if not great) seasons, and I thought that they deserved new contracts, even if it meant committing nearly $4 million to retain their services. But baseball has changed over the past few months, and it looks more and more like the Astros made a mistake, moved to quickly, and spent too much money for reserve players. And the Astros are now paying for this mistake because they are unable, due to financial constraints, from signing players who they really need.

Baseball Prospectus ("BP"), a group that I greatly respect (and if you don't already buy their book and/or read their website, you should), made a lot of fun of the Astros for resigning Merced and Vizcaino. With respect to Vizcaino's resigning, BP said "[w]ell, thank the stars above, I mean, without cost certainty for Jose Vizcaino, what would the Astros have to do? Bid for him against the evil goateed Astros from the alternate universe? For a franchise to fail to understand Vizcaino's inherent interchangeability on the one hand, and his extremely weak market value on the other, really beggars description" And with respect to Merced, BP said: "[w]hew, that was close, I mean, if Orlando Merced hadn't had the good fortune to get this totally unexpected $1.7 million offer from this team that's supposedly losing money hand over fist, he might have had to be a Devil Ray or something. Thank goodness a fate so awful as that hasn't befallen yet another innocent. Among the god-fearing, that's what we call good works. Bless the Astros for their compassion and charity."

At the time, I thought that BP was nuts. Merced and Vizcaino were two of the most productive players on the team. Surely, other teams would pay a lot of money to sign them as free agents and it was well-worth for the Astros to resign both while they were under the team's control. Well, as it happens sometimes, I was wrong. See, I totally failed to understand the market realities under the new collective bargaining agreement. And maybe the Astros made the same mistake.

In today's financial environment, it is not worth paying a lot of money for veteran bench players because they are easily replaceable from a large pool of capable bench players. This glut of available talent results, in part, from the fact that teams have declined to tender contracts to role players who are subject to arbitration because the arbitrators award too much money. These players are now free agents and they are not going to get big contracts. A great example of this is Frank Catalanotto who batted .330 in 2001 (nearly leading the league), but struggled last season with injuries. Last offseason, there was talk about the Astros trading for Catalanotto to play third base, but the price was too great. This offseason, the Rangers didn't even tender him a contract. Why? Because he made nearly 2 1/2 million dollars last season and he would likely get more in arbitration. The Rangers didn't want to spend that much money on a bench player. Catalanotto will be lucky if he gets a one-year, million dollar contract this season. Jose Cruz, Jr., is another example. The Blue Jays didn't tender him a contract because he made $3.7 million last season, was subject to arbitration, and his salary wasn't going to go down this season. A .240 hitter shouldn't make $4 million. And now he won't. Robert Fick, Shane Spencer, Marlon Anderson are all good players, but none of them were tendered contracts by their old teams and they are now available - at deeply discounted rates.

The Astros didn't have to pay Vizcaino $2 million and they didn't have to pay Merced $1.7 million. Mark Loretta (who is just as good as Vizcaino) was just signed for $1.25 million by the Padres (and that was before all of these players were non-tendered by their teams). Using Loretta's contract as a benchmark, the Astros probably could have signed Vizcaino and Loretta (or players just like them) for a total of $2 million. And given the budget that Gerry Hunsicker has to work with, the $2 million the Astros could have saved by holding back a few months is a big deal.

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