Offseason in Review: What the Rangers Didn’t Do
Extensions, or Lack Thereof
The Napoli extension is a curious case. On the one hand, prudence would dictate the Rangers hold off on extending Mike Napoli after a breakout 2011 season, where Napoli well and truly outperformed his career norms. On the other hand, the Yadier Molina extension of 5 yr/$75 million has re-defined the catcher market, and both Napoli and Miguel Montero of the Diamondbacks cancelled ongoing extensions talks less than 24 hours after the Molina contract was announced. If the Rangers had acted sooner, they probably could have gotten something even more team-friendly than the Victor Martinez (4yr/$50 million) free agent contract.
In 2011, Napoli improved on his career fielding-independent metrics, going from an 11.6% to 13.4% in BB%, and cutting his K% from 24.5% to 19.7%. Those improvements represent real advances in his approach at the plate, and should most likely persist next year and through the rest of his career. That may not be the case for all the metrics that improved in 2011, however. His power progressed to a .312 ISO (basically SLG without counting the singles) from a career norm of .249, which in a younger player might a sign of developing power, but probably involved some luck in 2011 for Napoli. More significant is his BABIP jump from .303 to .344, meaning he will probably be less fortunate on the outcome of the balls he hits into play.
Luck notwithstanding, Mike Napoli really progressed last season as a catcher. With few catching prospects ready to make an impact at the majors, it might have been wise to sign Napoli to an extension before he has a chance to test free agency. However, it was impossible to predict that the Cardinals would splurge on Yadier, given how comfortable they seemed holding back on Pujols. To try to reconcile the seemingly contradictory contract negotiations, my guess is the Cardinals for ownership or cash flow reasons decided that the Pujols contract was simply far too financially constraining, and that they could use the savings to strengthen the team in other areas. For example, in addition to the Molina extension, the Cardinals also brought in Carlos Beltran.
After Derek Holland’s first full season as a successful starter, the Rangers had the opportunity to sign him to an extension in the mold of the Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Trevor Cahill, Ricky Romero, and Yovani Gallardo, which is to say about $30 million over 5 years. While it is too early to say if any of those extensions have worked out (the earliest was signed during the 2010 season), all 5 have pitched relatively well, and only Cahill is no longer with the team (a consequence of Billy Beane’s offseason prospect frenzy). The only issue is Buchholz, and his injury problems which led to only 82 IP last season. Its possible the Rangers hesitated on Holland because they are worried about an injury that might damage his long-term value. They might also have been given pause by his 2009 debut as a starter, where he posted a 6.12 ERA. The abundance of high-ceiling minor league starters might also have been weighing on their minds. Finally, and perhaps most likely, Holland and his agent probably noticed that salaries are responding to market forces and growing significantly; Holland might be better off simply waiting for a bigger payday, although that might always be a risk given the propensity of starting pitchers to fall prey to injury. In any event, if Holland has a great 2012 season, the Rangers will certainly regret not going through with this extension.
The Hamilton extension negotiations were actually covered by the media, and what they reveal isn’t pretty. In the words of the Rangers Assistant GM, Thad Levine, the Rangers and Hamilton “have a different idea” on what constitutes a fair extension (Jim Bowden with MLB.com). This different idea is probably due to the enormous cost of the Jayson Werth ($126 million/7) and Carl Crawford ($142 million/7) contracts, and the pitiful production in the seasons immediately following those contracts. Werth went from producing over 5 fWAR per season in the 2008-2010 seasons, to just 2.5 fWAR in 2011, while Crawford went from an astronomical 7.6 fWAR season in 2010 to just .2 WAR in 2011. For reference, 2 fWAR is an average major-leaguer, and 0 WAR is a Quad-A type player who bounces between the minors and majors.
Although Hamilton managed an MVP-Quality 8.5 fWAR in 2010 and a solid 4.2 fWAR in 2011, his injury history and relentless playing style make him a huge risk for a long-term deal. When there is significant risk is a purchase (for example, buying an “as-is” product), you usually get a discount. If Hamilton is unwilling to provide such a discount, than it makes sense for the Rangers to allow someone with the resources to assume that risk an opportunity to sign Hamilton. Though I don’t think the relapse had all that much to do with this, its another albeit small factor that increases the risk in signing Hamilton long-term.
Like the Napoli extension quandary, there are few to no minor leaguers who look capable of stepping up to the majors after Hamilton leaves. However, unlike the Napoli extension, Hamilton would represent the kind of investment that could cripple the team if it goes awry, and has a far greater likelihood of actually doing so.