Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How The Cuddyer/Willingham Contracts Help Nick Swisher (And Potentially Hurt The Yankees)

Nick Swisher will head into the 2012 season on the last year of his current contract, one that has been incredibly friendly to the Yankees considering the production they have gotten since fleecing Kenny Williams trading for Swish prior to the 2009 season.  In typical Yankee fashion, they have not  discussed a new contract for Swish, instead choosing to pick up his 2011 option and then see where they are after the season.  That could end up working out well for Swish if he has a big year in 2012, but that won't be known for months.  What is known is that two players comparable to Swish both signed new contracts this past week, essentially laying the groundwork for a starting point to Swish's new contract.

Josh Willingham took a 3-year/$21 million deal from the Minnesota Twins to replace the departed Michael Cuddyer, who then signed a 3-year/$31.5 million deal with the Colorado Rockies.  If we're using these two as a measuring stick for Swish, at first glance it appears that we're looking at three incredibly similar players.

There's a little more consistency to Willingham's wOBA plot (purple), and some surprisingly similar fluctuation to Swish's and Cuddyer's breakdowns (green and orange respectively), but on average these guys appear to be basically the same hitter.  Swish sports a .254/.360/.466 tripleslash, .357 wOBA, and 117 wRC+ in 4,389 career PA, Cuddyer a .272/.343/.451, .345 wOBA, 111 wRC+ line in 4,555 PA, and Willingham a .262/.371/.477, .364 wOBA, 123 wRC+ line in 3,166 career PA.  All three guys have some pop and some patience at the plate to help cover for the fact that none of them are natural "elite" hitters in terms of batting average.  Working in these broad strokes, there is some basis for Swish's market value being set in a similar $8-12 million range

The advantage that Swish has over his counterparts is time, both in terms of the time he has on his side as a younger player and what he's already done with the time he's spent in the Majors.  Swish will be 31 next year, still in his physical prime, while both Cuddyer and Willingham will turn 33 before Opening Day 2012.  Those 2 years in hand put Swish in a much better position to demand more years and more money.  And looking at what Swish has already accomplished in a similar span of years helps to further separate him from Cuddyer and Willingham.  When these 3 players are compared in terms of WAR, the gap between them starts to increase in Swish's favor.

In a comparable amount of playing time, Swish (blue) has racked up significantly more cumulative WAR than both Cuddyer (green) and Willingham (red).  This added value for Swish can be attributed to his durability (at least 131 games played in every season since his first full one in '05 and at least 150 games played in every season since '06), his higher BB rate (13.5% career), and Swish establishing himself as an above-average defensive player at multiple positions over the span of his career.  Swish has provided positive defensive value as a corner outfielder and first baseman while Cuddyer and Willingham haven't done anything to get themselves confused for Gold Glovers anywhere in the field.  Not only is he younger, Swish is a more well-rounded baseball player who produces at a higher level.

That being the case, what kind of deal can Swish expect to get if guys who rate lower than him are pulling in 7 and slightly over 10 mil per year in their new deals?  As a player who will still be younger than Cuddyer and Willingham were this offseason, and one who has a better health track record, a 4-year deal should be expected to be the minimum offered to Swish in terms of contract length, with 5 not being out of the question if he has another good season in 2012.  And if he does continue his 3-year trend and have another good all-around season, Swisher would be in position to expect a significant boost in salary from the $10+ million he'll make this coming season.  $14-15 million per year wouldn't be out of the question, perhaps more if some teams were really interested in Swish's services.

And this is where things could get interesting for the Yankees.  One way or another, they're going to need a right fielder after the 2012 season unless they break their normal operating procedure and negotiate with Swish during the season.  But if the Yankees are serious about getting down to $189 million in payroll for 2014, which seems more and more likely with each passing day, then a "4-5-year/$15ish million per"-type contract might not fit into those plans.  As Larry Koestler pointed out yesterday, the OF free agent market in 2012 isn't a particularly deep one, so Swish very well could be the best available right fielder.  And there isn't anybody in the upper levels of the Yankee system who they can expect to step into the full-time RF role in 2013, unless Zoilo Almonte or Melky Mesa go completely off-the-charts H.A.M. in 2012.  Swish is going to have all the bargaining power with the Yankees and the Yankees are going to have a serious decision to make with Swish.

They could try to paint with broad strokes like we did earlier, show how Swish's career offensive numbers compare to guys like Cuddyer and Willingham, and attempt to lowball him on an offer for $10-12 million a year.  But if he posts his fourth straight season of 3-4-WAR production, Swish and his agent will know he's worth more than that, and they'll be proven right when other teams who are interested offer more.  If the Yankees weren't willing to get involved with a pitcher in his early-30s this year when the price was around $15 million per for 5 years and they had a clear need for rotation help, how likely are they going to be to get involved with an outfielder in his early-30s for the same figures when they don't have a clear need for offensive help?

There's a lot that could happen that could affect this situation once the season begins.  Swish could get injured and miss a lot of time, the Yankees could have some big improvements or regressions from some key lineup members in 2012 that could make losing Swish's production easier or more difficult to handle in 2013.  Who knows?  But right now, with the deals Cuddyer and Willingham got, and how favorably Swisher compares to them as a baseball player, the price and negotiating power in a deal are both increasing for Swish.  And if the Yankees have a desire to include Swish in their future plans AND trim payroll, that might not be a good thing for them.

(Graphs via FanGraphs.  Click for larger version)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Couldn't the Yanks offer a Swisher (or a Cespedes, etc.) a back-loaded contract that would kick in higher bucks after 2014? Like a $7M, $7M, $17M, $17M for an AAV of $12M?