Travis Hafner – 2006 Fleer Ultra

March 19, 2011

You Sure You Want To Lock Up That Player?

Smart teams lock up their building blocks before they are free-agent (or even arbitration) eligible in order for cost certainty and to focus on other needs. The Indians first started to do this with the plethora of young players they had developed or acquired in the late 80’s.

Yet it’s important that teams keep in mind the kind of player you are locking up.

Pitchers, of course, are always crap shoots. Only a few escape without injury or a temporary (or permanent) loss of effectiveness. Hitters, however, tend to be a wee bit more predictable.

Just a wee bit, since you can never predict anything in sports, really, with 100% certainty.

There are certain kinds of players that you could probably predict will NOT age well more often than not, and care should be given when signing an extension or a free agent contract. Pronk is one of those players.

They have, as Bill James once put it, “old players skills”. That is, a young player with no speed, high walk rate, and high power rates. Normally, it’s also associated with a lack of defensive prowess but that’s not 100% certain. Many times, they have a lower BA than normal, but if their batting averages are high in the 20’s, in their early 30’s they start to decline faster  and they either adjust (like Jim Thome or Jason Giambi) or fade away.

Hafner was 29 years old in 2006. He was a butcher in the field and a load on the bases but could smack the ball around the park. He had three great seasons and Cleveland decided to lock him up. He wasn’t free-agent eligible but he was arbitration eligible and the Indians decided they didn’t want to lose him after 2008.

So they did the rational thing – signed him until…2012? (With an option until 2013.)

Hafner’s entire game is his offense. If he doesn’t produce at the plate he has no value. He also limits the manager’s flexibility. Victor Martinez couldn’t DH on off-days catching because of Pronk. When you’re dropping $66 million on a guy, you want him in the lineup every day.

Between 29 and 30, Hafner’s bat speed declined a skosh – enough for him to decline from 5.9 to 2.5 WAR.

Then, the injuries hit.

Sounds like an older player – declining value on offense then injuries. But he was only 30 when that started. Ta-dah, old player skills.

James first noticed this in a comment on Tom Brunansky. The same thing happened to Alvin Davis – who was out of the league by age 32 (which is surprising as heck to me).

So if the past is prologue, which it is, then if I have a 29-year old slow power hitter who walks a lot and struggles on defense in LF or 1B, I’d think twice about signing him much past age 32. Let someone else take that chance. Sure, they may become Jim Thome, but Thome for years has been a platoon player and not making $11 million a year.



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