As another slow day at the winter meetings came to a close -- one signing, one trade -- the Los Angeles Dodgers made their best move in a very long time. Showing an appreciation of sunk costs and the value of short-term deals, the Dodgers signed center fielder Andruw Jones to a two-year, $36.2 million contract. The deal looks outlandish for its annual salary of $18 million, but the overall commitment makes it one of the great bargains in recent memory.
The signing was a surprise on many levels. For one, the Dodgers have made some terrible decisions over the past two years since Ned Colletti was named general manager. Colletti threw away more than $100 million last winter on free agents who combined to block better players and push the Dodgers away from contention. He's also shown a willingness to deal away the team's young talent for little return, and if trades of Joel Guzman, Edwin Jackson, and Dioner Navarro haven't quite burned them, the returns for those players have done nothing to help the Dodgers win, either.
Consider also that the Dodgers have an expensive albatross in Juan Pierre, the good-guy, bad-player combination to whom they owe $36 million over the next four seasons. Pierre was already an inadequate center fielder, and he'll be even worse, relative to par, in left field, where he may block a better player in Andre Ethier. That's a problem for another day; Jones is a three- to five-win upgrade on Pierre in each of the next two seasons. Consider that Jones' WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) in 2007, the worst year of his career, was 4.6. Pierre's WARP in 2006 and 2007 combined was 4.3. Jones' career-low EqA of .251 was within shouting distance of Pierre's career EqA of .256. He's simply a much, much better player than Pierre is, and we haven't compared their arms yet.
Jones had some difficulty getting traction in a market loaded with center fielders. He's coming off the worst season of his life, a .222/.311/.413 nightmare, and taking criticism for defense that is actually still above average, just not at the level he played when he was younger. When you look a bit more closely at Jones' season, though, you find that many of his indicators were stable. His walk and strikeout rates were slightly worse, but within the bounds of fluctuation. In total, 2007 was a typical Andruw Jones season less 15 homers, five singles, and some intentional walks. His fly-ball rate was unchanged, it's just that the balls didn't go as far. Given Jones' age and the stability of so many elements to his performance, I'm certain that he's going to bounce back to his established level, which in a neutral park would look like .265/.330/.500, with plus defense in center. He's the player people suddenly think Torii Hunter is. [Ed. note: Nate Silver adds that a PECOTA for Jones as a Dodger yields up .258/.345/.488 with 29 home runs and a 28.5 VORP. Tasty.]
I'm stunned by the length of the deal. Scott Boras was quoted as saying he didn't want Jones to have to play on a one-year deal, given that he'd just come off that type of season. A two-year deal, however, seems like the worst of both worlds: you're not getting the maximum aggregate amount of money, nor are you hitting the market as quickly as possible, as young as possible, after bouncing back. There's enough difference between ages 32 and 33 that I would think Boras would have wanted to have Jones be a free agent again next year. To his credit, Boras appears to have taken more into account than just dollars. Let's see who notices.
One year or two, this is a fantastic deal for the Dodgers, who get back-end-of-peak years from a Hall of Fame player without committing to his decline phase. Jones will bounce back in 2008, and he'll be a seven-win player over the two years of the deal. That's an enormous addition for a team that has been shooting itself in the foot for two long. What it means for Ethier or Matt Kemp is something that can be hashed out, but again, the player in the way isn't Jones, it's Pierre, who was a bad signing at the time, and remains so today. The Dodgers have an opportunity to show just how well they understand sunk costs by relegating Pierre to a fourth outfielder's role, to which he'd be reasonably suited. It would also give us a chance to test the whole "character" framework, to see if the fourth-best outfielder on the roster is able to accept that he, in fact, is that, and sublimate his desire to play more for the good of the team. That's leadership, right?
I love this contract. It will be far and away the smartest thing any team does this winter, and it pushes the Dodgers up a little bit closer to the Diamondbacks in the 2008 NL West race.