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The Flip-Flop: Sign Soriano!

I have to admit that I've gone back and forth about the prospect of the Phils signing Alfonso Soriano. At first glance, I don't see how the money can be worth it, and I've been worried about not only overpaying for a player I'm not convinced is a superstar but also the short- and long-term opportunity costs of such a move, from surrendering the team's hard-won financial flexibility to the notion that Soriano's $16-17 million obligation in 2010 would mean parting ways with Chase Utley.

Upon further review, however, I think I've decided: screw all that and sign the guy. But only if the Phillies also keep their current much-maligned strikeout-prone left fielder, Pat Burrell. The reasons why actually have more to do with money than the usual numbers we traffic in at TGP.

For one thing, I think we might be missing how much different the market is in winter 2006 than a year or two or five ago. Given baseball's unprecedented financial health and the prospect of five more years of labor peace, $16 million a year doesn't mean what it used to. Strangely, the Phils are in prime position to thrive in this brave new world.

Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus recently put this a lot better than I could:

The thing to tuck away as we head into the Winter of the Massive Cashier's Checks is that our scales are not correctly calibrated for what we're about to see. Every contract is going to be a head-scratcher, because all the new money coming into the industry is, as it has done for decades, going through the owners' pockets and into the players'. The notion of cost-per-marginal-win, or the examples of contracts that have been signed in past seasons, won't help guide our evaluations. It may be impossible to evaluate the deals we'll see beyond the skills, age and projected performance of the player being signed, and how that impacts his team's chance to win. There will be no bargains in this market, at least not in the moment; it will take a year or two before we know again what "overpaid" and "underpaid" means.
When Soriano and Zito and Carlos Lee sign, there will be a lot of talk about how crazy the deals are, how the money the 2006 free agents compares to the money made by superior players who signed in previous seasons, like Carlos Beltran or Vladimir Guerrero. Don't fall into that trap. It's a new game this winter, with record revenues, a record number of teams pursuing talent, unprecedented labor peace fueling optimism and the persistent idea that no team is more than a year away from the World Series. What you're about to see simply cannot be compared to what has come before.

The nature of markets is that contracts go up in both the nominal and absolute sense, and what might look insane at the time often comes to seem reasonable in retrospect. After winning the Cy Young Award as a Montreal Expo in 1997, Pedro Martinez signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox that I remember blew my mind: six years, $72 million. Over those six seasons, Pedro notched 101 victories and put up an ERA below 2.50; Boston got value and then some. Three years later, in the craziest free-agent winter yet seen, the Red Sox signed Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal; each year since then, he's finished in the top 10 in MVP voting (this year's results pending), hit at least 33 home runs, and put up an OPS over 1.000 five of six times (the low year was 2005, when Man-Ram slipped all that way down to .982). That's value.

Will Soriano put up Manny Ramirez numbers? Certainly not. (In fact, were I Pat Gillick, I'd be trying to trade for Ramirez.) But over the next two seasons, he could mean the difference between a playoff berth and another near-miss--and that has economic value as well. Writing yesterday about the Red Sox and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Sheehan noted that "playoff appearances are the real moneymaker for teams, worth up to $25 million." Even if you're bumped off in the first round, that's got to be $5-8 million in real-time revenues, plus whatever positive consequences in merch and season tix sold for the following year.

Meanwhile, the concern that a long-term obligation to Soriano could impair the team's chances of re-signing Chase Utley and/or Ryan Howard is a valid one, but in my opinion it's extremely unlikely to be determinative on that question. If one or both slugging infielders truly wants to test the free agent waters, he's going to do it regardless; putting a winner on the field in the meantime likely would improve the odds they'd stick around. And while this might sound slightly blasphemous through the eyes of today, given that both will hit free agency in their early 30s it's a valid question whether the Phils might not be better off parting ways with them when the time comes.

This piece is already getting long, but I want to double back to the point about Pat Burrell. Because the market has changed, the Phillies' remaining obligation to Burrell--$27 million for two years--doesn't look bad at all. Consider the report that J.D. Drew might be about to sign a two-year, $30 million deal with (again) the Red Sox. Is Drew  a vastly better player than Burrell? He hits for a higher average, plays better defense, and doesn't clog up the bases; Burrell hits for more power and--his nagging injuries notwithstanding--has been a much better bet to play a full season than his refusnik predecessor as the Phils' top draft pick. His clubhouse reputation is no worse than Drew's, and might be better. Given the choice between paying Burrell $27 million or Drew $30 million over the next two years, I think it's a close call. If the Phils keep Pat and hit him 6th, starting around 85 percent of the games, I think another .270/.380/.510 season is much more likely than anything like a collapse.

My final point is that the Phils would be better off loading up for a playoff push over the next two years, going with both Burrell and Soriano offering right-handed power from the outfield corners. Yes, they'd combine with Ryan Howard for 450 strikeouts, but 120 homers and 375 RBIs are worth that. Save a little money by trading Aaron Rowand for relief help or prospects and play the much cheaper, higher-upside Victorino in CF. The Phils' pitching staff looks to be slightly above-average next year; let's brutalize opposing pitchers, score 900 runs, entertain the fans and finally print some playoff tickets we can use.