April 20, 2014

The Scott Kazmir decision looms large for Indians

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Cleveland IndiansIn just over 48 hours, we’ll know. The Cleveland Indians have until 5 p.m. Monday to extend a qualifying offer over to left-handed comeback player Scott Kazmir.

That offer is a tricky situation. It would either make the soon-to-be 30-year-old Kazmir an Indian in 2014 at $14.1 million or, should he chose to decline the offer, would give the team yet another draft pick next June.

Yes, $14.1 million is an awful lot of money. That figure is conceived from the average of the top 125 highest-paid MLB players. It’s strange, we all know. Thus, such a deal would place Kazmir just behind Nick Swisher among the most expensive Tribe players ever. Kazmir and his decision-making group will then have exactly one week to ponder over whether to accept the offer. The deadline for qualifying offer decisions coincides with the GM/Owner meetings in Orlando.

So, digging through research and estimates and all their propietary databases, the Indians are likely mulling over this one question all weekend: Is Scott Kazmir worth $14.1 million?

My Twitter friend Steve Kinsella wrote about the topic earlier this week over at Wahoos on First. I give Steve a ton of credit already — he’s also a Rays fan, so he understands the dynamics necessary for economically sound baseball decisions. Here was his take on the Kazmir situation:

The more intriguing question for me is not whether or not the Indians should make a qualifying offer – the question I have trouble answering is why in the world would an agent advise him to accept it?

For Steve, it’s a no-brainer that the Indians will extend that $14.1 million offer to Kazmir. Think about that again: $14.1 million. One year. Scott Kazmir.

Another Twitter connection Lewie Pollis sparked an intense MLB Twitter debate three weeks ago with his return column titled “How Much Does a Win Cost?” The article was based on his undergraduate thesis research at Brown University. Here’s his discovery:

It’s a near-truism of sabermetrics that a marginal win costs around $5 million. If you get a two-win player for $8 million, that’s a bargain. If you get a one-win player for $6 million, that’s an overpay. In most corners of the analytical baseball world, player acquisitions and signings are judged as fair, ripoffs, or bargains according to this standard.

But there’s a problem: a win doesn’t cost $5 million. A win costs $7 million. Well, actually it’s $7,032,099, but calling it $7 million is fine.

If a WAR is truly worth $7 million in terms of Pollis’ actual data-mining from observed free agency deals, then maybe Kazmir for $14.1 million isn’t that obscene. In the end, the lefty had a 4.04 ERA en route to a 1.2 jWAR (average of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs calculations). It’d be a slight overpay, but perhaps not as obnoxious as first thought. That’s the logic many people said about the Tim Lincecum deal, which perhaps more practically actually increased the relative market value for a pitcher like Kazmir.

The biggest issue for the Indians is their starting rotation composition for next season. It was reported on Friday that Ubaldo Jimenez (obviously) declined his mutual $8 million option for 2014. That also was a no-brainer considering his fantastic second-half performance. The Indians still can extend an identical $14.1 million offer his way by Monday’s deadline.

Jimenez contributed a 3.30 ERA and 2.4 jWAR to the team last season. Add up the two starters’ contributions and you have 3.6 jWAR and 61 starts. The Indians clearly do not earn the Wild Card position without those two pitchers and their relative health, efficiency and production.

I wrote about the presumed 2014 Indians rotation back in mid-June. The team now has four no-doubt starters: Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar. Other options include Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, T.J. House and potential other free agent signings.

With the emergence of Salazar, does it now make sense for the team to only retain one of the two players between Kazmir and Jimenez? That perhaps wasn’t in consideration just four months ago. And, in the larger picture, it’s still nearly a no-brainer that Jimenez will decline his qualifying offer. He easily could nab multiple years at $14.1 million-plus on the free agent market. That’s what makes Kazmir’s status even more intriguing.

It’s uncertain whether Kazmir might actually accept the qualifying offer. That’s what puts the onus squarely on the Indians to decide whether it’s worth it to extend this opportunity. Remember however, that Kazmir didn’t exactly set the world on fire this past season.

In the end, he made 29 starts and posted an impressive 9.2 K/9. But his ERA actually was worse than the established AL average of 3.99. So the Indians would be paying $14.1 million to a starting pitcher who not only made just one MLB start in 2011-2012 but actually was below average last year? And it’s not like the Indians complicated salary cap situation (i.e. 2014 contract raises galore) behooves the team to spend money like crazy.

So yes, the Indians rotation remains a long-term unsolved mystery. There’s clearly a need for at least one more dependable starter on next year’s roster. And the beginning decision rests with the Indians potentially extending two players — one hated and one ignored heading in the 2013 season — behemoth qualifying offers for just one season.

Don’t get me wrong, the draft picks certainly look appetizing on surface, to add to the Indians pot for next June. But considering all the effects, I’m not certain I’m eager to live with the consequences should Kazmir actually decide to pick up the deal. Jimenez, sure, but Kazmir’s situation is just slightly different that the marginal value of the possible draft pick isn’t worth the risk of the acceptance.

That all being said, if the Indians were actually able to shop the $10 million owed to Asdrubal Cabrera? Then sure, the math works out that Kazmir’s $14.1 million is palatable. But assuming that Cabrera is nearly immovable, I’m not certain I’m happy with even extending the offer.

Photo: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

  • Ed Carroll

    Nice post, Jacob. I’m still on the side that extending Kaz the QO is a no-brainer (which is different from saying it’s ‘without risk,’ by the way).

    I’m glad to see other writers that see the big picture, and realize the most pressing need for this ballclub entering the offseason isn’t a bat (though I would like to pick one up) or a “closer” (ugh), but the starting rotation. Starting pitching depth is a myth, and even if he accepts the QO (which I think is highly unlikely), Kaz on a 1-year deal is still worth it.

  • Kildawg

    I think the Indians sign Kazmir to a more reasonable deal, like a 3 year, $25M deal (option on 3rd year worth 8M; first 2 years at 8.5M). Some team like the Yankees or Cubs will overpay Ubaldo; but if it’s the Cubs, maybe a sign and trade would be in the works.

  • Harv 21

    I see no chance Kazmir would accept a 1 year deal. He’ll be viewed by more than a few teams as a potentially dominant lefty starter whose speed and stuff has returned but who now has also learned how to pitch. A guy his age who just last year road buses in the Independent League, who has stared into the abyss of the real world, ain’t signing no 1 year deal.

    Tender the offer, collect your draft pick. Not rocket science.

  • Steve

    With both Jimenez and Kazmir gone, we’ll be a bit short on SP, as Ed mentioned above. If you think he’s returned to dominance (I don’t, but I still think he’s a nice mid-to-back of the rotation guy), you make a multi year offer.

  • papabearjere

    Kazmir’s FIP was 3.51 (xFIP 3.36, but I’m not a huge fan of xFIP). Solely sighting Kazmir’s ERA is misleading.
    Also, just because Kazmir gets a QO doesn’t mean he had to except it. If both sides wanted a long term deal it could have been worked out before the week deadline.

  • mgbode

    agreed on getting something done before the QO deadline, but if we extended Kazmir a QO for the value he will likely get on a 2yr contract, then that would have been the end of negotiations. he’d smile, sign the offer and ask the Indians if they want to add an extension on the end of it :)