July 15, 2002
Hot dogs and proven veterans

Kevin links to this report that shows that the Astros' concession prices are among the highest in baseball. That's a legitimate gripe, but I think Kevin goes off base here:

Granted, nobody has to pay [high concession prices], and I don't. But it shows some real nerve for Drayton to ask so much from fans when he won't even shell out the cash to keep, say, a Castilla or Alou or Astacio, or consider trading for Hampton (who is on the trading block, but deemed too expensive).

Kevin is making the assumption that the Astros would be better off if their management had shelled out the bucks to retain veteran free agents Vinny Castilla, Moises Alou, and Pedro Astacio. I would argue that it made good baseball sense as well as good financial sense to let them all go.

First, there's Moises Alou. There's no question that he was a very productive player in his time as an Astro. Unfortunately, he entered the 2002 season as a 35-year-old left fielder with a history of injury problems. He's had a huge dropoff in productivity, with an anemic .244 batting average, a miniscule .380 slugging average, and only eight homeruns. The Cubs are on the hook for Alou for three years and $27 million.

Vinny Castilla has always been an overrated offensive performer thanks to the time he spent in Coors Field, the greatest hitting environment that baseball has seen in over fifty years. He's another 35-year-old, though free of the nagging health problems that have plagued Alou. Like Alou, he's having a poor season at the plate, with a crappy .274 on-base percentage, a .383 slugging average and nine homeruns. The Braves signed him for two years and $8 million.

Geoff Blum is keeping third base warm for the 'Stros until Morgan Ensberg is ready. He has better numbers that Castillo in batting average, OBP, and slugging, he's six years younger, and he can play the outfield in a pinch. I can't find 2002 contract info for him, but he was a one-year signee by the Expos in 2001, so he's likely got a one-year deal this year as well. As this is only his fourth major league season, he's also likely to be a low-cost player.

Daryle Ward is eight years younger than Alou, and is also outperforming him in average, OBP, and slugging. Ward has actually not done as well as he was expected to, but unlike the 35-year-old Alou, there's still room for Ward to improve. And like Geoff Blum, he's cheap.

So, by letting Alou and Castillo go, the Astros have gotten better production for less money. However popular these guys may have been, I find it hard to argue with that.

Unlike the hitters, Pedro Astacio has had a fine season. He's 9-3 with a 3.14 ERA, tenth best in the league. He also would have cost Houston $9 million to keep him in 2002. The Astros had picked him up last year when rookie phenom Carlos Hernandez went down. This year, with a projected rotation that included Wade Miller, Shane Reynolds, Roy Oswalt and Hernandez, the 'Stros had to decide if they'd be better off with Astacio, a 33-year-old who had also had injury issues, or someone from the colection of Dave Mlicki, Tim Redding, or one of their other kids. The difference is that if AStacio had bombed out, he'd be an untradeable multimillion dollar albatross. If a kid like Redding bombs out, or Kirk Saarloos isn't ready, Houston has the room to make a move. Gambling on Astacio would have worked, but it's important to remember that the gamble involved high stakes and came with a limited upside.

I can understand where Kevin's coming from with these complaints, but I think it's misguided to call a refusal to overpay for veterans when a decent and cheap alternative exists a lack of commitment on the part of team ownership. Remember Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell? Their signings at the beginning of the McLane era was proof of his desire to win. Too bad neither player actually contributed to any winning.

There's a larger point here, and it's that many major league teams make this kind of decision incorrectly as a matter of course. They do so in part because of backlash from fans, media, and their own players, who don't see that $27 million for Moises Alou today is $27 million that won't be available for Oswalt or Lance Berkman tomorrow. Bill James demonstrated 20 years ago that the vast majority of players hit their peaks around age 27, coincidentally right at the time that they tend to become high-priced free agents. If more owners started to learn the difference between replaceable talent and non-replaceable talent, they'd have no need to call for a salary cap.

I should note that the guys at the Baseball Prospectus beat this horse all the time. Their regular Transaction Analysis feature is a treasure trove. If you consider yourself a serious baseball fan and you don't read the BP, you're like a French Lit major who's never read any Sartre. Don't leave home without it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 15, 2002 to Baseball