Contemplating Placido Polanco

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Contemplating Placido Polanco
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

During the offseason, there's going to be a lot of discussion about whether the Tigers will or should offer Placido Polanco arbitration. A lot of the discussion you will hear will be based on what he's done in the past, what he's meant to the team and maybe a little bit about how he deserves a job with the Tigers. Scratch all that. It's all emotional. It's crap and it really has no place in the discussion. 

Like Clint Eastwood told the kid in Unforgiven, deserve's got nothing to do with it. The Tigers are no doubt appreciative of everything Polanco has done for them, but I'd almost guarantee their view is what they owe him stops with the final check signed by Mike Ilitch. (Does he literally sign the checks? I don't know.) Bad baseball teams reward players for what they have meant to the franchise in the past. Good baseball teams look at what they're expected to do in the future, offer a fair salary for that level of production and part with a handshake if the player wants more. 

This exercise is an attempt to ape how I assume the Tigers will weigh the benefits and detriments of offering Placido Polanco arbitration. To do that, we should explore what that means—offering arbitration.

When a player reaches six years of major league service, they have the ability to go to free agency if and when their contract runs out or otherwise allows it. Before they hit the market, however, their current team has the opportunity to offer them arbitration. This is basically the team saying we wouldn't mind having you around for one more season. 

The player either declines the offer (and pursues free agency) or accepts (and prepares for an arbitration case). If they accept, the two sides try to come to terms on a one-year deal and if an agreement can't be reached the player and the team each give the number they think the player is worth.

Teams, especially the Tigers, generally settle somewhere in the middle of those two numbers. If they don't, an arbitrator reviews the case and awards one figure or the other. They don't mess with Mr. In-between. Keep that in mind because therein lies the most significant risk in offering Placido Polanco arbitration. 

If the player declines arbitration, they are severing ties with their current team and pursuing a better deal on the open market. When this happens, the team losing that player can receive compensation for the departing player. This is what happens when you hear about Type A and Type B free agents.

Players are granted this status according to a formula created by the Elias Stats Bureau. I won't get into the nitty-gritty of this, but if you're interested you can go here to get the details. All we need to know for this conversation is Placido Polanco is currently slated to be a Type B free agent, but he's right on the cusp of being Type A. This is important because this factors into the potential reward of offering Polanco arbitration. 

Having said all this, let's look at the pros and cons of offering Polanco arbitration or not. If you offer him arbitration, you risk getting him for one more year at a price that is at least close to what he'd be worth if he were a free agent. Polanco's 2009 season puts him at about a league average player and with recent trends that would suggest a value of about $8-$9M for that level of production. The possible reward would be his turning down arbitration and getting two draft picks if he's a Type A free agent and one if he's a Type B. (Clearly, for these purposes the risk and reward we're talking about are in terms of money. I understand there is some reward as well in Polanco accepting arbitration.) In that scenario, Polanco is likely gone and the Tigers need to find a replacement second baseman. 

If you don't offer Polanco arbitration, you certainly have to find a replacement second baseman and there is no potential for compensatory draft picks. At the same time, there is no risk of having to pay a league average second baseman somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million.

The way I see it, the Tigers' decision to offer arbitration or not hinges on two things. First, you have how likely it is that he accepts arbitration. Second, they must consider the value the value of Polanco compared to their other options. 

I think it's very likely if the Tigers offer Polanco arbitration, he accepts. The free agency market was pretty brutal for second basemen last year. I went to Cot's Contracts to look at who hit the market and according to their list, three second basemen were free agents and signed. They were Orlando Hudson, Felipe Lopez and Nick Punto. O-Dog hoped for something like two years and $10M if I remember correctly and ended up getting one year and $3M. That was the result of wrist injury concerns and his Type A status. 

In other words, teams probably thought he was worth more than one year and $3M. They just didn't want to lose a first or second round draft pick to take that chance, which is the expense of signing a Type A free agent. That's a cost that could be affixed to Polanco if he gets back to being a Type A, but signing a Type B costs nothing for the signing team. As for the others, Felipe Lopez signed a $3.5M deal with the Diamondbacks and Nick Punto got $8.5M for two years. 

So Polanco, who's making $4.6M this season, can either hit the free agency market and hope there is a team that values him enough to blow away the deals for second basemen on last year's free agent market (even less likely if he's a Type A free agent). Or he can accept arbitration and likely find some sort of middle ground between $6M and $9M. Look at those deals for second basemen again. Look at Polanco's age and performance this year, and tell me which one you'd pick. It would appear he could make as much in one year through arbitration as he would in two years on the free agency market. 

I suppose a wrinkle in our considerations would be the Tigers offering Polanco arbitration with an understanding that they would hammer out a two year deal for less per year than he'd get in arbitration. I believe that sort of thing has been done before, but that brings us to the second variable in whether they should offer arbitration—his replacement. 

The Tigers don't need to look very far to find Polanco's most likely replacement if he's allowed to leave Detroit. He's an hour south and his name is Scott Sizemore. After missing a lot of 2008 with an injury, Sizemore has not only established that he's healthy but also shown that he can knock the crap out of the ball. Splitting time between Erie and Toledo, he's hit .307, smacked 16 homers and struck out 88 times compared to 60 walks. If that doesn't float your boat, maybe you like that he's stolen 20 bases in 24 tries. 

I don't know about you, but I look at those numbers and then at Polanco's line of .273/.320/.387 and feel it's a pretty good bet Sizemore could duplicate Polly's production at the plate, if not improve on it. I understand Polanco's numbers could change between now and the end of the season, but I don't think it will be enough to change this conversation.

So let's get back to the defense. The Tigers are keenly aware (or are said to be) of the impact defense can have on their team and going from one of the better defensive second baseman to just an average one is going to cost them some hits and runs in the field. Here's where the decision gets a little tougher. 

Let's give Polanco the benefit of the doubt and say the line above is at least comparable what he's going to do next year. Baseball Prospectus's projection system, PECOTA, had Polanco pretty much pegged for 2009 and predicts similar output for 2010 so I feel comfortable making that assumption. 

If you go to minorleaguesplits.com, you see that the Major League Equivalent for what Sizemore has done this season is .263/.330/.395. That's remarkably similar to Polanco's contribution this season and what we're expecting Polanco to do next season. I realize it's foolhardy to assume Sizemore will just do the same next year, but his 2008 season - shortened by injury - throws off his preseason projections which didn't expect such a good 2009 season. So let's write their offense off as a push and it basically comes down to Polanco's defense versus Sizemore's smaller salary. 

The defensive metric, UZR, has Polanco's defense as about ten runs better than an average second baseman. Most of what I've seen has Sizemore as just an average major league second baseman defensively. Let's say, though, that he gets the rookie jitters and turns out to be below average. Let's go extreme and say he's ten runs below average there. If their offense is equal, that would mean Polanco's defense was worth twenty runs compared to Sizemore's. 

Interestingly, for the purposes of salary calculation and considering value to a team, ten runs are considered the equivalent of one win. That means with what could be considered Polanco-friendly terms, Polanco would be two wins better than Scott Sizemore. You may remember earlier I called Polanco about a league average second baseman. League average is usually assumed to be about two wins better than "replacement level", which is usually defined as a league minimum guy you can pick off the scrap heap. 

So if you go with Polanco and these assumptions (equal offensive output, much better defense from Polanco), you get essentially equal value from these players when you consider production compared to cost. Polanco on the Tigers means he accepted arbitration and my guess is that means he's getting paid close to the market rate for a league average free agent - about $8M. Sizemore, with these assumptions, represents less output on the field but with a league minimum salary. 

As I mentioned, though, that's true with the assumptions we made and I think the assumptions we made favor Polanco a little bit. Sizemore has some room for improvement offensively since he's a younger player. However, he could also bomb out in his transition to the majors. Polanco is an aging player and while we saw some decline this year, the Tigers probably gain some comfort for a fairly long and consistent track record. 

I'm actually pretty comfortable that the Tigers could look at those risks and rewards as a push. I'm less comfortable that Polanco will continue to be such an excellent defensive second baseman (I used only 2009's numbers and it's a good year for Polly on D) and that Sizemore will be so terrible. If the Tigers are more confident in his second base defense, that pushes things in Sizemore's favor. How much in his favor depends on how much the Tigers think they can undercut Polanco's value on the open market. 

There you have it. I think that is a fairly reasonable way to consider whether the Tigers will or should offer Placido Polanco arbitration. If the Tigers were to take a similar approach and come to similar conclusions, their decision would come down to what they value more - higher confidence in Polanco's likely performance or the payroll flexibility that would come with Sizemore.

Personally, I think the money the Tigers have tied up in their payroll will lead them to the decision to let Polanco go by not offering arbitration. I think - and I hope they agree - that $6-$8M they'd have to give Polanco will be better spent on other arbitration eligible players or maybe a free agent who fills a hole that won't be so easily filled internally. 

A couple things before I close. I think if I were taking this exercise to its true limits, I probably should have assigned a probability to their offering him arbitration and his turning it down. Then I should have looked up the likely value of the picks they'd receive if he turned it down. I probably also should have explored other potential replacements at second base. I hope you don't mind that I skipped those parts of the analysis in the interest of space and sticking to the more predictable and likely scenarios. 

The other thing is I hope it's been evident this article is more than a post about whether the Tigers should keep Placido Polanco. It's intended to be a template for the factors I think teams consider when weighing the value of a player to their team. It may have taken a long time for me to go through it, but it's really not that difficult a process and all the tools for the analysis done above are available on the Internet (with links above!). Some of the things I referenced aren't freely available (and aren't linked), but similar tools are on fantastic sites like The Hardball Times or Fangraphs.com. It's truly an amazing time to be a baseball fan.

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