We hear a lot about the bad contracts that the Tigers have coming off the books this offseason, but I’m often confused as to why Jeremy Bonderman is lumped in with the likes of Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis. Sure, all three ended their tenures in Detroit poorly, but let’s not judge a contract solely on it’s end result. Actually, that’s my philosophy on all baseball decisions. If a move doesn’t (or does) work out in a specific instance, it doesn’t mean the decision wasn’t (or was) the correct one.
Confused? Probably. Here’s a hypothetical example. Say the Tigers are up by one run against the Twins, and Joe Mauer is at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in bottom of the 9th inning. Maybe, for whatever reason, Phil Coke and Eddie Bonine are the only relief pitchers who are available to pitch, and they’re both ready in the bullpen. Jim Leyland decides to make a move to the pen (the previous pitcher is gassed and it’s obvious he needs to be removed), and he selects Coke to come in to face the dangerous lefty.
We would all agree that it would be correct to select Coke over Bonine in this situation. But what if Coke gives up a hit and the Tigers lose? Does that make the decision wrong? What if he selected Bonine instead, and Mauer flew out to end the game? Would that be a good decision? Phil Coke would get the Tigers out of that jam way more often than Eddie Bonine would, so the correct decision would be to always select Coke over Bonine.
Just like we wouldn’t know if Coke would succeed in getting Mauer out, we can’t know if a player will be valuable throughout the life of his contract. A certain amount of risk is always assumed when handing out any contract, and sometimes good contracts end up with horrible results.
Before I get to Jeremy’s specific situation, I want to pose a question. What if Max Scherzer was a free agent right now? What sort of contract do you think he would deserve (both length and dollar amount)? Here are Max’s peripheral numbers for his first two full years in the league (2009 and 2010):
Now let’s finally get to discussing Bonderman. The extension came prior to the 2007 season (when he would still be just 24 years old). The deal was worth fours years and $38 million (hat tip: Cot’s Baseball Contracts). The first three years of the contract were buying out his arbitration years ($6.5 million, $6.5 million, and $12.5 million), and the fourth year was free agent money (another $12.5 million). Forget what he’s done, or rather hasn’t done, since getting the new contract. Let’s focus on the information that Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers’ brass had at the time of the contract.
Here’s Bonderman’s peripheral numbers in the years leading up to his new deal:
But Jeremy probably should have been in AA in 2003, and probably AAA in 2004. In any case, let’s just look at his last two years so we can get a good comparison to the numbers we saw from Scherzer.
Scherzer struck out more batters over the two years (although they were identical in their last year), but Jeremy had a better time with walks and strikeouts, and so FIP likes his two season better than Max’s. According to fWAR (FanGraphs WAR, that is), Jeremy’s two seasons were more valuable than Max’s were. And he was two years younger.
FanGraphs estimates that each win above replacement was worth $3.7 million on the free agent market in 2006. That means Jeremy had just given the team over $51 million in value over four years, and they were about to give him a deal for the next four that was worth $38 million. Sounds like a nice deal (for the team) to me.
It didn’t work out in the end, but it looks like a very good contract according to the numbers. My guess is that you’ll hit on a lot more contracts like this than you’ll miss. I don’t blame Dave Dombrowski that this time it happened to be a miss.