Monday, December 06, 2004

2005 Dodgers: Ricky Ledee

The Dodgers signed Ricky Ledee to a two-year contract worth $2.5 million. Was this a good deal? Let’s consider his likely usage patterns.

First, the Dodgers already have three outfielders lined up to start in 2005 in Shawn Green, Milton Bradley, and Jayson Werth. Green will likely return to right field with Hee Seop Choi manning first base, as I doubt that Jim Tracy will plunge back into anti-Choi madness (also known as “Dusty’s Disease”). However, Werth is currently in recovery from his elbow injury, so the Dodgers may need someone to take over in left field for extended periods of time. Moreover, even when Werth is 100% the jury’s still out on whether he’s good enough to play regularly against right-handed pitchers, so picking up someone who can be adequate in the outfield against righties makes sense for the Dodgers. Furthermore, Milton Bradley has demonstrated a penchant for missing the occasional game, and beyond Werth, who can pass at centerfield but not excel, the Dodgers don’t have much in the way of major-league ready centerfielders. Grabowski can’t play centerfield. Jason Repko was the centerfielder much of the year at Vegas, and his seasonal major league equivalent average was .227, just below replacement level for NL centerfielders in 2004. Chin-Feng Chen fared better last season, with a .243 MjEQA, but my understanding is that his defense at centerfield is not above replacement-level. Henri Stanley had a cumulative .230 MjEQA last season while Cody Ross’ was .226, and neither is, to my knowledge, a defensive stud. That means that the best the Dodgers could do, without giving up any talent in a trade, would be to plug a player just slightly above replacement level for the league minimum.

Ledee has a .253 career EqA, and his EqA over 737 plate appearances in the past 3 seasons is .267. His EqA last season between the Phillies and the Giants was a paltry .245, substantially below average, but he was mainly used as a pinch hitter in high leverage situations; if adjusting for the quality of his opposition, that figure raises to .253. It’s certainly possible that Ledee experienced a sharp decline from which he will never recover on July 30 when he was traded, but I think a much more plausible explanation is that he simply wasn’t given much of an opportunity with the Giants and may have had issues with the hitter’s background at SBC Park, where he hit .069/.156/.103 after the trade. Whatever went wrong while he was in San Francisco is almost certain to be correctable, and I’d say that he’s a solid bet that he will be a hair above league average. His defensive has, historically, been just a hair under league average, and there’s no trend to indicate a decline.

How much is he worth, then? If he ends up being simply a fourth outfielder with 150 or so plate appearances, then his average win shares baseline is about 4. If he plays more often that that, due to extended injuries to one of the other outfielders, his baseline could equal about 10, although he might have to hit left-handed pitching more often, which brings his offense down a hair. If he takes over in a full-time platoon, that baseline can stretch up to 13. If Green, Werth, and Bradley all are completely healthy and there’s not much need for Ledee, his baseline could conceivably shrink to 2. So what amount of value could we expect from Ledee in these situations, if his contract is worth $1,250,000 per year? Here’s a chart using somewhat conservative estimates of his value (in part to restrain optimism, in part to reflect that his potential replacements would be slightly above replacement-level), Net Win Shares Value (NWSV), and Marginal Dollars per Marginal Win (MDMW):

2 2 0.5 -528,137 0.4 2312500
4 4 1 -106,275 0.8 1156250
7 6.5 1.3 104,656 1.4 660714
10 9 1.5 315,588 1.8 513889
13 11.5 1.8 526,519 2.1 440476
7.2 6.6 1.22 146,842 1.3 711538

For the NWSV calculations, I didn’t adjust for contract type; if considered only in the context of free agents, Ledee becomes somewhat more valuable. The last line is the mean of the five scenarios. What does this mean? A positive value for net win shares value is good, so unless Ledee collapses or is hardly used at all $1.25m is a pretty good deal. Using marginal dollars per win, Ledee also fairs well; the major league average last year was roughly $3 million, or $2 million if the Diamondbacks are thrown out of the equation. The $711,538 mean generated by this subjective analysis would represent a better MDMW than any major league team had in 2004. If a team with a $50 million payroll had that MDMW, they’d win 107 games. All in all, this looks like a pretty good deal to me.

Given the Dodgers’ resources and the shape of the free agent market, this was probably a pretty good deal. As I argued above, the Dodgers don’t really have anyone on hand to capably fill the fourth outfielder/backup centerfielder role, and they have a clear need for one with Jayson Werth’s injury concern and uncertain ability to be a sufficient everyday player. $1.25 is above the magical seven-figure threshold, so this is the kind of deal that’s likely to be called overspending. Perhaps, but the outfield market is thinner than the soup they served in Battleship Potemkin. Who who would be a better value? Doug Glanville? Tom Goodwin? Richard Hidalgo? Danny Bautista? The reality is that it’s unlikely that anybody with experience playing centerfield in the major leagues will sign for less than 900 grand or so, and Ledee is probably the best among this thin crop. Sure, the Dodgers could sign part of the Beltran/Finley/Magglio/Drew/Dye group for a lot of dollars, but none would be available for under $5 mil (well, possibly Dye) and doing so would foreclose the possibility of trying to find out if Jayson Werth can be a cheap and productive outfielder for the next several years (or, alternately, trashing Hee Seop Choi and bringing Shawn Green back to first base). With a pitching staff to rebuild, a third baseman to re-sign, and reasons to upgrade at second base and catcher, that seems like a substantial misallocation of resources. And even if they were to sign a bigger name and trade Werth or Finley, there’s still not a capable fill-in if injury strikes.

Look at it this way: With Ledee, the Dodgers can have a full outfield/first base setup of Green, Werth, Bradley, Ledee, Choi, Saenz, and 2 of Myrow, Grabowski, Repko, and Chen for $22-23 million and are very likely to get above average production overall, very unlikely to be stuck with a black hole at any of those positions if injury or ineffectiveness strikes, and have a good chance of that being one of the six or seven most productive OF/1B combos in baseball. Given that the vast majority of that comes from an inherited sunk cost (Green), I’m impressed. Now that the Moneyball genie is out of the bottle, there’s a tendency to think that any player making more than the minimum who is not playing an everyday role is simply overpaid and a waste of resources. That’s definitely true of the Juan Castro’s of the world, but Ledee is not a hack skating by on having played in the majors before; he’s very likely to be significantly above both hypothetical replacement level and the actual replacements the Dodgers have on hand, and paying an extra million a year for a win or two is not a bad idea.

This is not $43 million for Darren Dreifort or $16 million for Cristian Guzman. This is not the Twins, where the organization has an abundance of useful spare parts and should be channeling its limited capital into buying top-tier impact players but instead overspends for Juan Castro. This is an organization which has no appetizing replacement on hand and which is using its marginal resources to buy effective marginal pieces.

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