In his first major free agent signing as a general manager, Dayton Moore inked Gil Meche to a 5 year, $55 million dollar contract at the 2006 Winter Meetings. Ironically, it was one of Dayton's most criticized moves, both by Royals-centric fans and writers and the general baseball punditry. The most positive responses I can recall were framed as well, it may not be totally insane. Nobody really liked Meche. Nobody. The halfhearted defenders of the move had little to say about Meche, and pointed more towards the move as a sign that the Royals were willing to spend, a curious defense if you think about it.Two and a half years later, the Meche signing is one of Dayton's greatest triumphs as a general manager. In fact, given how badly so many moves have gone since, that contract is probably playing a huge role in keeping him employed.
While we all know that generally speaking the Meche contract "has worked out" the deal itself remains extremely interesting on a number of fronts. I still don't know where the Royals version of Gil Meche came from and I still don't know where the Royals figure of $11 million dollars annually came from either.
Let's take a look at the original criticisms of the Meche signing and see how they look in 2009.
Criticism One: Gil Meche Isn't Good
This is the easiest one to tackle. The foundation of the negative response to the Meche deal, most people just did not like Gil Meche going forward back in the 2007 off-season. In six years as a Mariner, Meche had a 4.65 ERA in a pitcher's park. Since returning to the Majors in 2003, Meche had failed to post an ERA+ above 100, meaning that, adjusted for park and league, he had been a below average pitcher. Despite pitching half his games in Seattle, he had a home run problem and had a checkered injury record. Both the traditional and advanced stats (despite some small gains in 2006) didn't paint an exciting picture.
Everyone knows that Meche has been good as a Royal, so we can make this quick:
|FIP||AL SP Rank -WAR|
No one, perhaps outside of Dayton Moore, saw Gil Meche as the 10th best starter in the AL, but that's exactly what he was in 2008. 2009 is a bit troubling, as Meche has quietly slipped back to his Seattle FIP range, though he's also battled injuries all season.
Criticism Two: $11 Million a Year for Gil Meche is Too Much Money
As the numbers above underscore Gil Meche has been worth the money. The Fangraphs WAR system values his 2007 season at $17.2 million and his 2008 campaign at $21.6. Currently, Meche's 2009 has been "worth" $7.2 million. On the whole, even with 2009's downturn, he's earned his money. Mostly...
However, I do have a fundamental hesitation with using the model on Fangraphs, or similar sabermetrically derived formulas, to evaluate free agent signings. The problem is that the way that these formulas locate and define player value has little connection to the ways in which value is defined and paid for on the free agent market. So player X gets signed because of his steals, playoff experience, batting average, reliability, and lack of an arrest record, and then ends up being valuable, in reality, because of his OBP and defense. These formulas use real-world spending to set their win values, but the win values themselves are not actually being bought on the market most of the time. Finally, if there's one GM who we absolutely know is not even looking at a formula of this type, it's our beloved Dayton Moore.
So if we return to the mainstream context, W-L record, ERA, reputation in the game, etc. The Meche deal still looks like an outlier. Here is a massive list of starting pitcher contracts signed during the 2005-7 period. (I'm sure, I've left someone out, but there's no central year-by-year sorted FA database to go by.) Obviously, the figures are in millions.
|Per Year Salary||Total Value|
There's a little bit of everything on this list, from immediately horrific deals (Zito) to deals that were panned (Lowe) but turned out to be great. The Meche deal is by no means the best contract on this list, but it isn't the worse either. Obviously, the context varies, and a number of these contracts likely include what could be considered hometown discounts (Buehrle, Oswalt). Lastly, the free agent market wasn't the same each off-season. Still, it's an interesting picture.
What stands out to me is that back in 2006, Gil Meche maybe had a better reputation/expectation level than three or four guys on this list. Maybe. The guys in his salary neighborhood had all generally done things which had earned them traditional chops on the market.
This is where the element of mystery comes in. Where did the 5/55 figure come from? How much did the Royals overbid their nearest competitor? Obviously, we'll never know. This offseason Dayton established pretty clearly that he's can easily operate completely outside the bounds of an established market. I'd love to know what Meche's second-best offer was.
Look, even if the Royals had signed Meche for a $6 or $7 million per season deal, people still would have howled, because there was just so little enthusiasm for Meche out there. But the fact is, that he signed for an $11 million dollar annual average. This does tamper down the degree to which Meche has been a bargain. In 2008, when he was the 10th best starter in the AL, he was also around the tenth highest paid starter in the AL. (Which is itself a complicated issue considering pre-arb players, guys who signed later contracts, etc. But hey, that's the game.) This leads into the third criticism of the signing.
Criticism Three: Last Place Teams Shouldn't Sign Top Free Agents
This is a more philosophical position which is hard to pin down a defined yes/no evaluation to. The argument, which has been consistently expressed by Rob Neyer on the Meche deal, is that essentially, if you're a losing ballclub, any free agent dollars spent, above whatever imaginary minimum floor of respectability you want to set, is wasted money. Sometimes it is also put forth that Meche's $55 million could have been better spent on three $15 million dollar players, though this requires the right guys on the market and an extremely deft GM.
So the Royals were bad in '07, bad in '08, and bad in '09. They'll likely be bad in '10. So even if we assume that the Royals make the playoffs in 2011, or even, gasp, win the World Series, all in all, Gil Meche spent four years on a losing team. The money spent from 07-10, which merely helped the Royals win 4th place once or twice and kept them from losing 100 games, was largely money wasted.
This is where you get into complex and murky issues of fan psychology and establishing yourself as a player within the industry. I don't know about you, but for me, if a team sucks, they suck. It's like being pregnant. The Royals suck at 75 wins and they suck at 65 wins, so that isn't a big threshold for me. I think everyone comes down a little differently on this one. I can say that if the Royals washout again in 2010-11, I will feel that the Meche contract was more or less a waste. Not that it was Meche's fault in any way, just that overall, it was a gamble that didn't pay off. Like paying for an expensive meal on a bad date.
Regarding being a player in the industry... well, obviously this didn't happen because three years later we're still reading about -- from the same people no less -- about how the Royals have to overpay a little because they still don't have a great reputation. Perhaps it's really important for Moore to be able to strut around at the Winter Meetings, but past that, I don't see much effect.
Don't tell me you're committed to winning. Just shut the #@*# up and win.
Meche's five year contract carried with it measures of security and risk. Maybe the Royals would be contenders by 2008 or 2009. Starting pitching is tough to find, and for the next five years the Royals would have at least one guy there they knew about. One bad season or one minor injury wouldn't kill the contract's value.
When Meche was signed, even the harshest critics would admit that by 2010-11, Meche's annual salary of $12 million just wasn't going to be that much. To an extent, this has been the case. However, midway through Meche's deal, the recession hit, and as such, the annual exorable rise of free agent salaries took a break, especially in the non-Yankee universe. As such, some of the banked value the Royals thought they were gaining back in 2006 has not accrued.
Perhaps Meche's reliability, which is tied to all those years, has truly provided a number of people within the organization, including other players, with confidence and emotional stability. Perhaps Zack Greinke really was impressed enough with his contract to take the Royals more seriously. Perhaps Brian Bannister dreams of being part of a playoff rotation with Meche. Who knows? We've really seen very little in the way of stories like this, aside from some quotes from Greinke, who I believe is such a unique personality that it's very difficult to pin down a direct Meche benefit.
However, the flip side of the long-term deal is that you leave yourself open to risk for more years. Meche is unlikely to be worth his salary in a WAR sense in 2009 and injury concerns have resurfaced. Who knows what 2010-11 will bring for Gil Meche? The infamous $55 million dollar contract, which was mentioned every time Meche made a start in 2007, which has worked out so far, still has two years and change remaining.