12 June 2008
Brian Roberts and the General Aging Curve
Posted by Jon Shepherd
The recent talk about potentially acquiring Rickie Weeks for Brian Roberts has brought up an uneasy reality. Brian Roberts will not be an above average second baseman for much longer. Many of us remember when he was battling Jerry Hairston, Jr. for playing time or impersonating a home run king. Many of us remember him breaking his arm and the 18 months it took for him to get back to his playing shape. During this dark period of Orioles history, Brian Roberts was the brightest and biggest star we had. He sometimes wondered aloud if the Orioles had any intention of becoming competitive, but he never whined about it or demanded a trade. He has been a near perfect ball player (what hGH?).
The problem now is that we have a time line in terms of when the Orioles will be competitive. We are not competitive right now. We are about three very good players from that point. We need upgrades at first base, third base, and shortstop. We probably need one at DH, too. Our pitching, at the moment, is solidly average. This offseason we could address first base with Teixeira and SS with Furcal. Nothing looks like a steep improvement in the following free agent class. That is the basic problem we have. We can improve in the short-term, but not the long term. This is where Brian Roberts falls. He is great for us in the short-term, but not for the long-term. His ability is probably worth about 3 games to us over a replacement level 2b, but when the difference is between 78 and 75 wins . . . what is the point? It makes sense to use his talent and exchange it for a piece or pieces that will actually be able to contribute in the future.
Now, some would argue that the point of baseball is to win games and that sending away talent is foolish. Well, that is simply short-sighted. Baseball is not about winning games. It is about winning championships. You are doing one of two things in baseball if you are successful: 1) sustaining a championship caliber team or 2) building a championship caliber team. Trying to be a 78 win team instead of a 75 win team does not always mean you are closing the gap toward becoming a champion. What shocks me is that people do not understand that this method of playing the middle is what we have done for 10 years. We have many examples of this behavior:
1. Signing Ramon Hernandez
2. Signing Dannys Baez, Chad Bradford, and Jamie Walker
3. Trading for Kris Benson
4. Trading for Jaret Wright
and so on and so on.
Spending millions of dollars that could be spent on signing bonuses to high contract demand draftees or exploiting latin american talent is where this money should go. We should not be giving up 10 MM or so and a draft pick for Dannys Baez. These short term moves immobilizes cash flow and places it in diminishing return investments. It has been thought that free agents place winning high in their choices of going somewhere or not. Well, that is true to an extent. What is also true is that if you marginalize yourself with 78 win talent, you may get the occasional free agent. It should be recognized that few good players hit free agency at a young age due to the increasing commonality of signing extensions. Acquiring marginal talent is an incredibly inefficient way to build a team. Out of the 100 MM dollars spent on the six players itemized, how many top tier amateur domestic and international players could we have signed? That is the problem with trying to net free agents through slight increases in play. You undercut your minor league player development with guys who you can sign as opposed to who is the best player.
So, yes, Brian Roberts is approaching that stage. He is a very good second baseman, but we are devoting money to him that will not help us become a championship team. To the right is a generalized age curve (from The Hardball Times). That should fit Brian Roberts age curve somewhat well. He is a second baseman, which narrows the curve. He also has above average power and great plate discipline, so that should extend it to about where it is now. It is pretty amazing how the graph matches Roberts career line. Right now his OPS+ is 121. In the projection under unlimited number of at bats, this is what we could expect:
2008 110 OPS+
2009 109 OPS+
2010 103 OPS+
2011 94 OPS+
2012 90 OPS+
2013 73 OPS+
The italics denote what an average 2B hits. It should be noted that this worth is with respect to average defensive play. Roberts play, which was very good three years ago, has been in steady decline since. This year he is actually below average. Based on UZR, he is the fifth worst defensive second baseman in the game. This could be the result of having played only a third of the season, but I doubt that changes much. In all likelihood, Roberts will be an average 2B in 2010 as opposed to 2012. By the time he is 34, he will be a bench player. His past career may be able to keep him a roster spot. He should be out of baseball by the time he is 37. Now, I should add the caveat that this is the generalized aging curve. He may be different as I mentioned before i think his eye and his slight power has him keep the curve even though he plays second base.
To compare with other second basemen, I have written a list of All Star 2B and when they became roughly average (solely based on batting, inclusion of fielding may reduce these by a year or two):
Willie Randolph 35 (last year 37)
Manny Trillo 31 (last year 38)
Lou Whittaker 37 (last year 38)
Steve Sax 31 (last year 34)
Roberto Alomar 33 (last year 36)
Carlos Baerga 26 (last year 36)
Ryne Sandberg 33 (last year 36)
Tommy Herr 33 (last year 35)
Mariano Duncan 30 (last year 34)
Jay Bell 34 (last year 37)
This list is filled with guys who had significant power, speed, and/or plate discipline. Almost across the board you see precipitous decline in performance with second basemen. The best you could hope for within these comps is Willie Randolph. With the increasing likelihood that Roberts has issues with defending his position, I'm not sure Randolph is a good comp because Brian might have to shift off 2B.
Should we extend Roberts contract if he wishes to stay in Baltimore?
Well, it depends. We can trade him now for cheaper talent that is more likely to increase our ability to contend as well as increase cash flow for reinvestment. Or, we can extend him at market value (~10MM) for four seasons (2010-2013) for average to below average production from a 2B. I would like to say Roberts is an essential piece toward attaining a championship in Baltimore. In fact, that is probably true. Sadly, his contribution will be to be traded for cheaper talent that will be better than Roberts when this franchise is able to hold its own against the best teams in the league.