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The Past, the Path Not Taken and the Present

2008 is over with and now that we some pretty accurate WAR values up on FanGraphs we can look back at some past performances and use hindsight on some old decisions. For instance:

In the off season following the disastrous 2004 season, rumors were abound that the Mariners were pursuing one of (I don't think they ever actually considered signing both) Carlos Delgado or Richie Sexson.

Carlos Delgado was coming off a down year with the Blue Jays, having established a previous level of being a 5-win player, he produced just 2.5 wins in 2004. Richie Sexson was coming off a nearly completely lost year in 2004 suffering a season ending shoulder injury just 23 games into 2004. Prior to that, Sexson was about a 3.5-win player.

Delgado, a left-handed batter, seemed like a better fit, but expressed a desire to play close to his Puerto Rican home and dallied on the Mariners' offer. As a result, Richie Sexson finally accepted a 4-year, $50-million deal and the Mariners ended their pursuit of Delgado, and he ended up with Florida (for a year) on a 4-year, $52-million contract with a fifth year option.

Four years later, how did those two players perform? Well, it's no surprise that Carlos Delgado greatly exceeded Sexson in performance. Delgado totaled 10.9 wins over the period from 2005-8 and was good enough to convince the Mets to pick up a $12 million option (correctly, as the marginal cost of the option was only $8 million).

Sexson was on pace to better Delgado through the first two seasons of the contract, accruing 7.2 wins between 2005 and 2006 (compared to Delgado's 6.9). Interestingly, that average of 3.6 wins per season were right about in line with Sexson's previously established level of performance. If he had maintained that through 2008, he would have ended up being worth his contract (showing how dumb that contract was, to need him to maintain that level just to break even). Alas, Sexson completely collapsed and was worth a staggering -2.2 wins over 2007-8, leaving him with a total of just five wins for the four year span of 2005-8.

So in hindsight, we totally should have signed Delgado right? Well...

Lets take another retrospective look, this time at our current projected first basemen, Russell Branyan. Branyan, under team control with Milwaukee at the time had his final two arbitration seasons in 2005-6. He had a team option exercised in 2007 and signed a minor league contract in 2008. All told, Branyan's earned about $3-4 million during that same four year period. In that span, Branyan accumulated 3.9 wins. Not bad for the amount of money paid him, but still quite a bit worse than Delgado, right?

Well, it's not that simple. See, WAR is a counting stat, not a rate stat and Russell Branyan was given just 870 PAs over those four year while Carlos Delgado had 2,527. On a rate basis, Branyan notched one win per 223 PAs while Delgado managed one win per 232 PAs. So not only was Branyan incredibly cheaper, but he was more productive on a per plate appearance basis over the 2005-8 seasons.

Now, that's ignoring a pretty big assumption that Branyan would be just as productive over 2,527 PAs as he was over 870, but that's not really the point here. The point is just to point to one example of how aside from some very very very few cases (Pujols and uhh... maybe Teixeira), signing big name first basemen to long term free agent deals is almost always a worse alternative than finding that latest example of Russell Branyan.