The Fascinating Case of Rickie Weeks
Say you’re a Major League Baseball General Manager and your long-term planning shows an opening at second base in 2012. The farm system looks bare at the position and nobody currently on the big club looks like a candidate for the job that season. The plan would be to make some calls to feel out the trade market and parallel track an approach focused on the free agent market.
A look at the 2012 free agent class shows that Rickie Weeks would have to be high on your list of acquisition targets, but now comes the hard part. How do you budget for Weeks? What will the market bear for a player of Weeks’s skill and performance history?
Rickie Weeks, to date, has underachieved. Coming into the 2010 campaign, the second overall pick in the 2003 Amateur Draft had hit .247/.351/.415 for his career. He’s struggled with the glove, his bat has been inconsistent and he can’t seem to stay on the field. Weeks has never played more than 130 games in a season.
Still, he has shown flashes. He hit .251/.422/.481 in the second half of 2007, his 24-year old season. The enormous difference between his on-base percentage and his batting average suggested Weeks might be a special player, a middle infielder with superb pitch recognition skills and excellent power. From August 1st through the end of the 2007 season, Weeks hit .273/.442/.553.
Now a darling breakout candidate, a kid on the cusp of superstardom, the incredible finish to the 2007 campaign would not carry over. 41 games into the 2008 season Weeks was hitting .184/.317/.329. With a low batting average that was unlikely to remain suppressed for a full season, Weeks once again finished strong, hitting .261/.373/.448 over final two months of the 2008 season.
So now Weeks was entering his 26-year old campaign. He had amassed a good amount of Major League service time and even if he was inconsistent, he had played at a high enough level for extended stretches that there was still plenty of hope that Weeks could fulfill his promise. Perhaps his biggest drawback early in his career, his erratic fielding had even begun to stabilize in 2008. 2009 would be his year.
Unfortunately, 2009 would be anything but Weeks’s year. He would tear the tendon sheath in his left wrist on May 18th in the midst of his best season to date. For the first time in his career he was off to a good start, hitting .272/.340/.517. Now a wrist injury would call into question how he might ever bounce back.
A player has a few opportunities to make a lot of money in Major League Baseball. A draft pick as high as Weeks receives a hefty signing bonus. A player can start off his career with enough promise to compel their employer to buy out arbitration years and maybe a free agent season or two. Sticking at second base, think Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia for these sorts of contracts. Players can also make a lot of money on a year-to-year basis in arbitration. And finally, guys can hit it big on the unrestricted free agent market. For Weeks, the wrist injury that took out his 2009 season also eliminated any hopes he may have had for a big contract or multiple lucrative arb years before he became a free agent. His window was closing.
Understandably given the nature of his injury, Weeks started slowly this season. On May 23rd, he was hitting .246/.338/.374. Since then, he’s been one of the very best players in baseball. Weeks is hitting .307/.407/.589 over his last 58 games while playing a decent enough second base. He homered for the third consecutive game last night. Already he has been worth 4 Wins Above Replacement (according to Fangraphs), a higher total than any other full season of his career and remember, he has been strong finisher his whole career. At 27, Weeks seems to be putting it all together.
This brings me back to the beginning of the piece. What do you make of Rickie Weeks if you need to look to the free agent market for a second baseman in 2012? He might be a top-10 player in all of baseball, he might tank, his fielding may regress to the point where he must be moved off of second as he ages, the wrist injury could pop back up in some form or another. You get the picture. Right now, he is probably the most difficult player in baseball to project.
For his part, Weeks has eight months of baseball that will in all likelihood set up the rest of his life. If he performs, he will earn tens of millions of dollars well into his 30’s. If he doesn’t, he will likely play out lesser contracts for (relatively) short money.
From a baseball analyst’s perspective, when you take into account the factors that go into projecting future performance, there is no greater enigma right now than Weeks. And from a human perspective, for anyone trying to earn as much as possible in their respective fields, how can you not relate to a guy who has faced this much adversity and is now pushing for his chance to fulfill all that promise and strike it rich? Weeks has a small window to show what he can do. Meanwhile, teams around the league have to decide what sort of commitment they’re willing to make to a player who would come with no shortage or risk or reward.