Change-UpJanuary 02, 2008
Houston Signs a "Professional Baseball Player"
By Patrick Sullivan

There's a new sheriff in town in Houston and he plans on winning. Now.

Ed Wade has traded for Miguel Tejada, and acquired Kazuo Matsui. He has supplemented his new 32 year-old middle infield with another veteran, 34 year-old center fielder, Darin Erstad. He has made other moves as well, but I want to focus on the Erstad signing. From the Houston Astros press release:

Erstad, 33, hit .248 (77-for-310) with four home runs and 32 RBI in 87 games for the Chicago White Sox in 2007. Including 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim from 1996-2006, he has hit .284 (1582-for-5568) with 118 home runs, 657 runs batted in, and 292 doubles in 1,407 Major League games.

Can you imagine a more insipid, uninspiring way to rally the fans than to reel off meaningless counting stats amassed over the time frame referenced? Let's even forget about Erstad for a moment. Could a passage do a better job of highlighting the insignificance of counting statistics without context? I am not even talking about park effects or replacement level for a given year. How about just some indication of how he stacked up against his competition? Oh, he has hit 118 home runs in 11 seasons? Why didn't you tell me? 657 RBI? .284? Sheesh, sign him up!

Of course a presser put out by the acquiring team wants to paint the signing in the most favorable light. When a transaction lacking justification grounded in any sort of reason whatsoever occurs, you will often read and hear quotes about intangibles and counting stats. You cannot refute either and as such, the very items designed to evidence the rationale for the acquisition in actuality tell you very little about the incoming player. From the same piece:

"Darin is one of the prototypical professional baseball players," said Wade. "He's made a career out of playing the game the right way. Darin is a veteran who brings a lot to our club and will really help us."

In case you did not know by now, Ed Wade and I diverge on how we think of the "prototypical professional baseball players." In my view, a professional baseball prototype should have the ability to play professional baseball. Someone who plays the game the "right way" ought to have some baseline level of competence.

For seven seasons now, we have seen little evidence that Darin Erstad can play Major League Baseball as a regular without severely hampering his teams' ability to win games. His defensive contributions notwithstanding, and they have been significant over the years, Erstad has had no business in a Big League starting lineup since the 2000 campaign. To wit, here are the worst five outfielders in terms of OPS+ since the start of the 2001 season (3,000 minimum plate appearances):

                AVG   OBP   SLG  OPS+
D. Erstad      .270  .323  .369   83
C. Patterson   .260  .299  .415   84
J. Pierre      .301  .348  .376   86
J. Payton      .279  .324  .430   95
J. Encarnacion .267  .317  .436   97

Over the same period, and with the same minimum amount of appearances applied once again, here are the bottom five run creating outfielders since 2001:

               RC    PA
D. Erstad      375   3,314
J. Gibbons     384   3,035
C. Patterson   394   3,289
P. Wilson      409   3,159
J. Guillen     436   3,095

Picking on such low-hanging fruit is not especially gratifying but criminally egregious transactions of this nature that are justified by the team with the nonsense Houston has floated out there deserve to be highlighted. The incentive-filled $1 million guaranteed contract that Houston has furnished Erstad is one of the very worst signings in recent memory. In a desperate, flailing attempt at competing now, Houston continues to dig its own grave.


Given Erstad's defensive contributions in center field, I don't think he was a liability for the Angels in 2001 and 2002. In fact, the Halos won the World Series in 2002, partly owing to Erstad's play. He played superbly in the field and added value on the bases with 23 SB in 26 attempts (with neither showing up in a pure OPS+ evaluation). Ersty was a positive force in the postseason, too, hitting well in all three series, including a huge home run in the 8th inning of Game 6 of the World Series.

However, Erstad's remarkable season in 2000 and playing for a World Champion in 2002 led to him being overrated just as he was heading into the decline phase of his career. Had Darin played CF in 2004 and 2005 rather than first base and maintained the same offensive stats (which is far from a given), he would have earned his keep. However, as a first baseman, he was closer to replacement level. Perhaps that's the fault of the Angels' management more than Erstad.

In any event, after an injury-marred season in 2006 when Erstad fulfilled the last year of his multi-year contract, the Chicago White Sox inexplicably signed him to a similar deal as the one he just inked with the Astros. He "hit" .248/.310/.335 as a part-time CF and 1B. Why any team would give him a million dollars at this point in his career (a season in which he will turn 34 in early June) seems silly to not only Sully but to me as well.

Erstad may be a "protoypical professional baseball player" (whatever that might be), but how much did his leadership, clubhouse presence, and energy help the CWS last season? Although a million dollars may be pocket change nowadays, it seems like it could still be put to use in a smarter manner (such as scouting, player development, and bonus money), especially for a club that *should* be in a rebuilding mode.

Erstad replaces Orlando Palmiero as a punchless lefty pinch-hitter. Erstad brings better defense and baserunning skills to the table than Palmiero, but that's about it.

I think you are over-dramatizing the Erstadt signing. Erstadt is not signed to be a starter. Michael Bourn is the starting CFer. Erstadt is signed to replace Orlando Palmeiro as a lefthanded pinch hitter off the bench. And he is an improvement over Palmeiro, both offensively and as a defensive replacement, since Erstadt still plays a decent outfield and 1st base. Erstadt is terrible hitting against LHP, but if his batting assignments are limited to RHP, he is fine. His 07 performance indicates he can put up a .725 OPS and .340-ish OBP against righthanded pitching, which is OK for the 24th or 25th roster spot. How Erstad is used is up to the manager, Cecil Cooper, but we can look at Palmeiro and see that he was given 105 at bats in 2007 and only 5 of those opportunities were against lefthanded pitching. As an Astros fan, I'm OK with the signing because I realize the position Erstad is filling. The fact that Erstad can be a leader on a team which has leadership voids is worthwhile. It's not a great signing, but it isn't a bad one either. The Astros don't have any pure lefthand batters in AAA who can fill the role. Maybe there are better LHB free agents, like a Brad Wilkerson, but I doubt that they are willing to accept a pinch hitting role, not to mention that they would cost more. If Cooper ends up using Erstad poorly, like the White Sox did in 07, then you have something to complain about.

Although the following analysis has no bearing on the Erstad signing, it may have some implications for another player's career path.

Year   Age   OPS+
2000    26   137
2001    27    82
2002    28    86
Year   Age   OPS+
2005    25   117
2006    26    77
2007    27    83

Both Erstad and Crisp played CF during those seasons at a fairly high level and ran the bases well. They also experienced peak seasons at about the same age, then stumbled for the next two seasons. We know what became of Erstad. I wonder if Crisp will continue to follow his career path or turn things around this year?

Ed Wade is quickly ruining "my" team. I cried when I heard he'd been signed as GM. Of course, Cecil Cooper will be blamed for all the 2008 team shortcomings. Unfortunately, the over/under on McLane waking up and firing Wade is 3. By then, the team will be as good as the Devil Rays (circa 2000 that is).

Two things:

1) CJ, I think you make a good point in that Erstad figures to be an improvement over Palmeiro (amazing though that may be) and will cost just $50,000.00 more. Strictly in that vein, the signing is more or less harmless. I have two issues, however. One, I think if Cooper is like almost any other "baseball man" style Manager, he will have a hard time not playing Erstad regularly. I would be shocked to see him notch less than 300 PA's. Second, what I really take issue with is the spin on the team's press release. A simple "Erstad has a nice glove, can hit righties a bit, adds some outfield depth and should be a tremendous influence on our younger guys" would have been just fine. The "he is a .284 lifetime hitter and is the prototype" crap kills me.

2) Rich, that's a good catch on Coco. Both good fielders who experienced some early success. Both thought of as excellent men/teammates.

When the deal was made, my first reaction was similar to Sullivan's. I still don't think much of the deal, but in discussions I've had consider it not terrible either for the reasons given above. As a defensive replacement, he could make some sense for some team.

But I think the real issue is not the money or even his particular skills. Rather it is opportunity cost. Erstad on the roster means someone else isn't, and so the issue is whether the Astros would be better off having someone else, even an AAA type with some prospect status, on the roster rather than such a limited veteran. Apparently they think they can contend in 2008 and think Erstad will help by filling in here and there, but I think they are mistaken in that view and should not be wasting space with Erstad.

If Erstad bats 150 times, there's nothing wrong with the signing. The more he plays, the worse it gets. I'm still kind of annoyed that they let Craig Biggio bat 517 times last year and 548 the year before.

As a Phillies fan who suffered through Erstad-type signings throughout Ed Wade's tenure as GM, all I can say is this: apparently Wade signed Erstad because David Bell was no longer available. I sympathize with Houston fans, because they can expect more of the same from the man we called "Dead Weight" during is reign as Philly GM.

"His defensive contributions notwithstanding, and they have been significant over the years, Erstad has had no business in a Big League starting lineup since the 2000 campaign."

How can you disqualify his defensive contributions in your analysis, especially when defense is Erstad's strongest attribute? Erstad signed for $1MM, which is chump change in the FA market. How little money does this guy have to sign for before someone won't rip him and the team that signs him to be a backup? I disagree with 95% of what has been done in Houston so far, but getting upset over a small deal for a backup who can have a positive impact on other guys in the clubhouse is a little overdramatic.

There is plenty of evidence that Erstad is nowhere close to the fielder he once was and he will play 2008 as a 34 year-old. He's not getting better.

As Bob R mentioned, the problem with signing Erstad is the opportunity cost. Allocate the money elsewhere (Rich throws out some good suggestions above) and find a replacement. And really at this point, any number of options available for less than half the cost of Erstad would be able to replicate his output.

I disagree with the analysis. While Erstad is far from a quality major leaguer there is a reason he is receiving under the major league average in salary.

A while back the hardball times wrote a piece on the cost of a win. It came to about $1.5M (

According to Erstad's last four seasons, he has been worth about 1.5 WSAB. Or, over $2M.

I'm not certain what the value of WARP is, however if it is similar to WS, he has been equally as valuable.

Are there better ways to spend $1M? Certainly. Is this the worst way to spend $1M? Far from it! All in all, as the 25th man on a roster where the money was going to be spent somewhere, there really isn't any harm in spending it on Erstad.

1M is pocket change to a MLB team so that part is mostly harmless.

Also, if Erstad is used just right he might barely have some use. First of all he is a wonderful defensive replacement, good to have when Carlos Lee is in your OF. Also, Erstad has no power and can't hit lefties. At all. So leading off an inning versus a RHP he is better than some players.

But bottom line is the Astros are almost certainly going nowhere in 2008, but at least they play in baseball's worst division.

"When a transaction lacking justification grounded in any sort of reason whatsoever occurs"

"criminally egregious transactions of this nature"

"Erstad is one of the very worst signings in recent memory"

"Houston continues to dig its own grave."

To me that's an awful lot of vitriol for this type of a signing. Has Darin Erstad's offensive value been overrated throughout his career? Yes. Is the term "professional hitter" functionally empty? Probably. But, ironically, this analysis seems far more based on emotion rather than reason.

You know it probably is too much vitriol.

But the signing and Houston PR spin is symptomatic of a mindset and approach that get my dander up.

Even wasting resources on setting out to determine whether Erstad would be a worthwhile signing or not seems crazy to me. He's been the worst outfielder playing regularly for a long time now, he's 34, and he was just guaranteed a million dollars by a MLB team. It just strikes me as nuts.

Erstad can lead the NL in productive outs

$1 million is a lot, until you think about the fact that $400,000 will be the minimum salary in the industry next year...with most players with any substantial major league experience getting paid more. Sully, you make a good point about the uselessness of the stats in the press release. But the Wade quotes simply strike me as Bull Durham-type cliches for GMs.

Whats worse:
D. Erstad at $1M plus incentives - or, just over 1% of the Astros 2007 payroll.


R. Johnson at $3.3M - or, just over 4% of the Jays 2007 payroll.

I think it has come to the point where it is just easy to point and laugh at anyone who signs Erstad, regardless of the value or role the player will take on.

The difference between Erstad's contract ($1M) and the MLB minimum ($400k) still works out to $600,000. It may sound like "pocket change" as both John and I described it, but when an organization fails to sign its top two draft picks over a disagreement on bonus money, then this kind of dough becomes much more meaningful in a real sense.

Granted, Houston has changed management since the last draft when it only signed three picks in the first eight rounds and nobody higher than a fifth round choice. I called them out on it in August in a "A Recap of the First Round Signings" and am totally bewildered by the team's off-season moves.

As I stated above, I believe the money spent on Erstad could have been "put to use in a smarter manner (such as scouting, player development, and bonus money), especially for a club that *should* be in a rebuilding mode."

Rich, no doubt the Astros' most recent draft outcome was pathetic, but I don't think it has anything to do with signing Erstad. I suspect the Astros' inability to sign more draftees in 07 had less to do with the team's ability to pay, and resulted more from a misguided devotion to staying within MLB's slot guidelines. Ultimately, Ed Wade will be judged by how well his regime drafts and signs players.

I can understand legitimate disagreements with the Astros' off-season trades. I think the Astros have taken a high risk strategy. The Tejada trade was particularly questionable, IMO. But it is clear that the Astros believe that they are in a weak division and can construct a contending team. However, a lot of things have to go right for that to happen. And the Astros may have bet too much on that possibility. We'll see. In my view, the broader strokes of the Astros' off-season moves are more worthy of debate than a relatively minor decision to sign a veteran as a utility player for the bench.