The two primary stories coming from Seattle include the Prince Fielder Saga and the signing of Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma. USSMariner and Fangraphs discussed these issues at length here and here, so I’m just going to give the abbreviated version with my take.
Iwakuma is not a special Japanese pitcher. He is not going to become Nomo Mr. Nice Guy, nor is he likely to be as good as Yu Darvish. However, he limits walks, keeps the ball down, and allows his infielders to make plays for him. When Brendan Ryan is your shortstop, these are good traits to have as a pitcher.
Here’s the bombshell. The Ms are paying him just $1.5M dollars to start, and up to $3.4M in incentives for meeting innings and starts quotas. If he sucks, we cut him before he hits his targets, and we’re out pocket change. If he’s good enough, we pay him his incentives, and we get a player worth anywhere from $5M to $15M for $4.9M. Using Dave Cameron’s words, “there’s literally no downside.” This is an intelligent signing by the organization. The kind of signing that doesn’t turn heads, but silently wins games. This is an example of Moneyball.
As for Prince Fielder, I have never been in favor of giving a squat, fat man a 6 or 7-year deal. But at least one person believes that Fielder and his agent, Scott Boras, may have missed the boat on their market. What this means is that Fielder might have to settle for something less than 7 years. If Fielder can be signed for three years, I’m so down.
Cameron comes from a different angle. Since we’re talking about Scott Boras, one of the shrewdest agents in baseball, maybe there’s no way to avoid 7+ years. Cameron lays out a contract he could support:
2012: $13 million
2013: $16 million
2014: $16 million
2015: $25 million (player option for remainder of contract)
2016: $25 million
2017: $25 million
2018: $30 million
2019: $25 million (team option, $5 million buyout)
This contract gives the player an option to test free agency after three seasons, so how could it possibly favor the organization? Here we go. If you look at this as a 7-year, $155M (150 + $5M buyout), that’s just shy of $25M per year, about what Boras is looking for anyway. It would basically be the same contract that has been in discussion throughout this off season. However, Fielder’s prime years are likely to last about 3 more seasons, at which point he can choose to hit free agency. With three good years in Seattle, he might very well test the market, and the Mariners will have had a great player in his prime without paying for the aging process.
Notice how back-loaded the contract is. The Ms could end up with three seasons of the Prince for $45M. He is likely to be worth something in the neighborhood of $70-75M based on free agent demand over those three seasons. That’s $25-30M in surplus value. The worst case scenario would obviously be if he under-performed and exercised his player option. Then we’d simply have the 7-year, $155M contract.
In other words, it’s like there’s a 50% chance we get massive surplus value, and a 50% chance we get a good-but-not-great Prince Fielder for 7 years. Though I pulled the 50% figure out of my ass, the point remains. This improves the expected returns for Seattle, while still offering Fielder his guaranteed 7 years. Is there a chance he gets injured and we get screwed? Sure. There’s always that chance. But my primary concern with a straight up 7-year deal is that there is virtually no potential for surplus value, and money could be more intelligently spent on guys like Iwakuma. With a contract similar to Cameron’s example, there would be a significant potential for that surplus value.
Conclusions: Iwakuma was a low-reward-but-NO-risk signing, and I love it. If Fielder can be had in some sort of 3-ish-year deal, I’d love it. Otherwise if a back-loaded contract with player option could give the Ms a shot at big-time surplus value, I’d love it.
Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most abbreviated article ever.