The Detroit Tigers didn’t make a mistake with Anibal Sanchez‘s contract, even if they get nothing out of the $21 million they still owe him.
The Detroit Tigers have decisions to make this spring when it comes to the end of the roster. One such decision that’s garnered much attention has to do with Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, and Mark Lowe — three players who will make more than $30 million combined despite being marginal producers at this point.
That the Tigers are underwater on all three contracts is not in dispute at this point. No team in baseball would be willing to take on any of these players unless that Tigers offered to pick up the entire tab and, even then, most teams would probably still pass.
There’s an important distinction, however, between a contract that has negative value at present and one that simply a bad deal. This difference isn’t always understood. Here’s what Pat Caputo of the Oakland Press wrote last week:
"Sanchez represents a mistake from Dave Dombrowski in the relatively distant past. Lowe and Pelfrey are directly on current general manager Al Avila’s shoulders."
Let’s leave aside Lowe and Pelfrey at the moment and discuss Sanchez. Those contracts were questionable from the moment they were signed, but Caputo also calls the Sanchez signing a mistake, and I don’t think he’s correct.
Sanchez signed for $80 million of guaranteed money ahead of the 2013 season. Since that deal was signed he’s provided the Tigers with 11 wins above replacement (WAR) of value (according to FanGraphs). Teams generally get about one win above replacement for every $8 million they spend on the free agent market, so the Tigers would have expected about 10 WAR of value for the $80 million they gave to Sanchez.
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I occasional go out to lunch with one of my coworker friends, and we occasionally make Five Guys our choice du jour. If you’ve ever been to Five Guys you know that a regular order of fries can feed a small army. So, when this coworker friend and I go, we split an order of fries. He’ll put the fries on his order one time, and I’ll put them on mine the next.
This invariably means that when I pay for a full order of fries I only get to eat half of them. If you slice out that moment in time I’ve seemingly made a very poor deal, but wisdom the transaction can’t properly be assessed without considering the entirety of the agreement. The deal is obviously a very fair one — it only looks bad if we don’t consider the great deal I had previously gotten (getting a half order of fries and paying nothing).
Cool story, huh?
This, as it turns out, was how the Sanchez-Tigers relationship ended up. He gave the Tigers a tremendous amount of value in the early years of the contract, particularly in 2013 when he was a six WAR player while collecting only $8 million in salary.
The Tigers were a team with World Series aspirations, and they structured Sanchez’s contract to maximize their chances at that time by pushing some of his deserved money out into future years.
They leveraged the future a little bit back when their window for competitiveness seemed largest. This is what we want our teams to do, too. If the Tigers structured Sanchez’s deal in accordance with his expected production, they would have paid him much more in 2013 and would be paying him much less now.
That would have given them a few more million to bolster this year’s (probable to be) floundering team but would have damaged the title chances of the 2013 club by preventing additions like Torii Hunter.