At the LA Times Dodger blog today, Steve Dilbeck argues that the Dodgers need to lock up Andre Ethier to a long-term contract, suggesting that his value is at its lowest and that an offense which is hardly imposing can’t afford to be without him after 2012. There’s logic to the premise, of course, and I’m on record as saying that I think all of the pieces are in place for Ethier to have a big season. But you already know my response to that idea, which is that signing Clayton Kershaw is a much higher priority and that a moody platoon player who is a good-yet-not-elite hitter isn’t necessarily someone I would want to invest big money into as he enters his 30s. (That’s if Ethier would even want to stay, and there’s more than a few hints that suggest he may not, or if he’d even be willing to sign now when he knows his leverage is low.)
That’s not what I want to talk about, though, because you how I feel and I know that many of you feel similarly. What interests me more right now is trying to figure out just how much a big 2012 could enhance Ethier’s value on the market, because there’s a big difference between a deal for, say, 3/$36m (which I’d certainly love to do) and something more like 5/$85m (which I’d run away screaming from).
Over the last four offseasons, only eight outfielders have signed with a new team for at least three years, and they’re not all great comparables for Ethier for a variety of reasons. Somehow I doubt he’s matching the 7/$142m Carl Crawford got from the Red Sox or the $126m that Jayson Werth picked up from the Nationals; at the other end of the spectrum, the paltry (by comparison) $21m that Josh Willingham took from the Twins this winter and the $15m over three years that Marlon Byrd received from the Cubs aren’t even worth discussing. It’s also hard to include the 3/$31.5m that Raul Ibanez received when he went to the Phillies, because it was covering his age 37-39 seasons. And because Ruben Amaro hands out money like Ned Colletti hands out backloaded two-year contracts to veteran infielders.
Now we’re left with just three somewhat similar yet still imperfect comparisons. I’m tossing out Michael Cuddyer‘s 3/$31.5m from Colorado, because he’s already 33, and let’s face it, Ethier’s not signing for that unless 2012 is a disaster. We’re also not looking at Milton Bradley‘s 3/$30m, because his market was so skewed by his personal and injury histories, and again, Ethier’s not signing for that.
That leaves us with one last comparable, and this one’s actually worth investigating: the 4/$66m contract Jason Bay signed with the Mets before the 2010 season. Bay entered free agency for the first time having just completed his age-30 season, just as Ethier will, and he did so with a bang, hitting .267/.384/.537 and 36 homers for a playoff Boston team. Like Ethier, Bay graded as mediocre or worse in most defensive metrics, and he took a 131 career OPS+ into free agency, which is almost exactly what Ethier put up between 2008-2010. While Ethier can look forward to having only Josh Hamilton as power-hitting outfielder competition in next winter’s free agent group, Bay scored his deal in a similar environment, with Holliday being the only other outfielder to top Byrd’s $15m deal.
The big difference is that Bay was coming off one of his best years, setting career highs in homers & RBI and finishing seventh in the AL MVP voting, and had put together a string of good years around a disappointing 2007. Let’s say Ethier, no longer bothered by the knee injury that sabotaged his 2011, can put up a year that is the average of his 2008-10 campaigns. That’d be a season that looks like .289/.366/.504, with 25 homers and 88 RBI, and if he can do that or more, he’d have a pretty good chance to match Bay’s contract. Let’s be honest, though; we saw how ridiculous this winter was as far as free agency costs, even without four of the traditional big market teams (Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Mets) in the game. Considering the lack of power available next year, and figuring that neither the Red Sox or Yankees have long-term solutions in right field, Ethier – if he has the 2012 I think he might – could potentially talk his way into more of a 5/$80m type of contract.
That’s where things get tough, because we don’t yet know who will be the owner of the Dodgers at that point or how Ethier’s relationship with the club might be if he hasn’t signed. (I’m assuming there’s less than a 1% chance he signs before the season, because of the current financial state and because we’ve heard little about any talks; these type of deals rarely happen in-season.) That’s an awful lot of money to commit to a guy who can’t hit lefties, isn’t a great defender, and is heading into his 30s; on the other hand, he’s one of the more popular Dodgers and if he leaves, you have to replace that offense somewhere.
To be honest, the cleanest solution might be for him to have a great season but for Ned Colletti’s patchwork collection of misfit veterans to fall apart, leaving Ethier as a very valuable trade chip at the July deadline. If he can be used to get a nearly-ready top third base prospect plus some other parts, that’d be hard to pass up.
Of course, this all depends on Ethier having a bounceback season. If he doesn’t, then maybe his price drops to where it’s palatable to keep him – but if he’s coming off two disappointing years in a row, how much do you want him? I’m not sure it’s an overstatement to say that Ethier could have something like $40m or more riding on 2012. It’s a big season for the Dodgers. It could be an even bigger one for Andre Ethier.