Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Buster's Big Break: Thoughts on last week's Posey extension

Shortly after Justin Verlander was awarded a massive contract extension from the Detroit Tigers, the Giants and their MVP catcher, Buster Posey, agreed to a new nine-year, $167,000,000 contract that will see him get paid between twenty and twenty-two million dollars annually between 2016 and 2022. My take on the signing and what this may portend for Los Gigantes, after the jump.

The most intriguing aspect of this equation is two-fold: The Giants are buying out the arbitration years and the first five years of Posey's free agency, but are investing significant money in a catcher who, while incredibly talented, has only had one season of 500+ PAs thus far and is likely to not remain a catcher through the life of the deal.

To be fair, Posey's first season saw him split time with Bengie Molina, while his second season was wiped out by a home-plate collision with Scott Cousins, then of the Florida Marlins. However, collisions at the plate are a part of the game and a part of the job of being a catcher, so while the injury sustained was somewhat of a freak accident, the potential for a similar play to injure Posey remains for as long as the man crouches behind home plate.

Even taking that risk into consideration, it is hard to argue with what Buster Posey has done on the field (when healthy) since he was promoted to the major-league level: two World Series championships, an NL Rookie of the Year award, an NL MVP award, an NL Comeback Player of the Year award, an All-Star appearance, an NL Silver Slugger, and a batting title (the first NL batting title won by a catcher since 1942). Suffice it to say that the four teams who passed over Posey in the 2008 draft (the Rays, Pirates, Royals and Orioles, who picked Tim Beckham, Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer and Brian Matusz, respectively) are probably still smarting from that wound.

There are basically two camps in this argument: Those who feel that Posey is an indispensable asset to the Giants and it was a necessary move to lock him up long-term, and those who feel that the move was made too early and was a knee-jerk reaction to a young star earning MVP accolades.

Those in the first camp will argue that Posey's career trajectory and current rate of production signals a high level of performance that should continue for several years (Posey is only 26 years old). By signing him to a deal now, the Giants are potentially avoiding having to overpay him in a couple of years, saving themselves some money while making sure a huge fan favorite remains in a Giants uniform. He is the face of the franchise, and keeping Posey, with his unique blend of talent, through his prime ensures that the Giants will remain an exciting (if not competitive) team.

Those in the opposite camp would likely argue that (other than a few rare exceptions) catchers do not age gracefully. The Giants had Posey under team control for three more seasons (through 2017), and signing him to a deal now was a knee-jerk reaction to an outstanding 2012 performance as the player hits his prime. Sure, he might end up posting more MVP-level numbers, but the risk that Posey will break down (as catchers are apt to do) is just as high. This is perhaps one of the two critical points for the camp opposing this extension.

What's more, the recent history of catchers receiving large contracts is not particularly great. Joe Mauer (the primary contractual comparison for Posey) is a fantastic catcher, but his massive salary has been part of the reason why the Twins are lacking the funds necessary to improve the team in other areas (this is more an indictment of the Twins' front office than it is of Mauer's play, which has declined from his 28-home run, 1.031 OPS/171 OPS+ 2009 season but remains quite solid). Posey is guaranteed $20,000,000 in 2016, then $21,400,000 annually from 2017 through 2021. There is also a $22,000,000 option in 2022 (with a $3,000,000 buyout).

Similar to Joe Mauer, Buster Posey's bat is the primary source of his value. While Posey's level of consistency may turn out to be an improvement over Mauer's, the odds are strong for both players that they will have to be moved off of the catcher position at some point in the future.

This is the other critical issue, and it exists for both teams: both the Giants and the Twins have generally weak offenses (the latter more so than the former), and both player's value is heightened because it is tied directly to the position they play. At catcher, a guy who hits .300/.400/.475 with an OPS above .800 is an outstanding player. However, if you shift that player from catcher to first base (the move most often made; recent examples include Ryan Doumit and Mike Napoli), their value is lessened. They are playing the least-demanding defensive position on the field, and their offensive prowess becomes less valuable at first base, as first baseman routinely produce high numbers of HRs and RBIs.

It is clear that this is not a deal-breaker for either franchise. For the Giants in particular, shifting Posey to first base might end up being an improvement, given the recent string of players they've had at first base in recent years who have had so-so seasons (looking at you, Aubrey Huff).

Perhaps the most compelling argument for those who are in favor of Posey's extension is that the extension is going to cost them more in the short-term but far less in the long-term as player contracts continue to increase. Josh Hamilton, a great player in his own right but one who has a lengthy injury history and is older than Posey by several years, received a five-year, $125,000,000 deal this past off-season to play for the Angels. That's $125,000,000 over five years for a player in his post-prime years (the deal covers Hamilton's age-32 through age-36 seasons). Posey, barring this new deal, would have hit free agency going into his age-29 season, still firmly during his prime. He plays a more critical position, is younger, and has a less extensive injury history with equally-valuable production, plus an increased level of defensive production, compared to Josh Hamilton.

Using this past off-season's top hitting free agent as a comparison, it is clear to see that Posey would have gotten far more in free agency than what the Giants just signed him for. Even if Posey's production dropped and he suffered another major injury that forced him to move off of the catcher position a few years earlier than anticipated, he would likely have received a contract of equal or greater value on the free agent market, where teams are more apt to splurge based on potential production.

The argument regarding Buster Posey's new deal has strength on both sides. There is a good argument that the Giants may have jumped the gun in signing him, but there is also quality regarding the argument that signing Posey now is beneficial to the Giants ball club in the long run. Time will tell whether Posey lives up to the contract, but at the outset, it seems like an intelligent move that involves a calculated risk. Suffice it to say that Brian Sabean could have (and in the past, has) done worse.

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