the Baltimore Orioles are going to officially announce their 6 year, $80-something million deal with center fielder Adam Jones. Jones has been a monster so far this year, batting .311 with an impressive 14 home runs and 29 RBI for the even more impressive first-place O’s. And yet as news broke of the deal Friday, sportswriters everywhere held no punches in crucifying Baltimore, marking them the latest franchise to overpay for a young outfielder who doesn’t play well enough in advanced statistics to ever be to the superstar they think he’ll become.
But an analysis of the Jones deal is an example of a situation where modern-day thinking, which seems to shift directly to things like WAR and BABIP, needs to take a back seat to the pointing to of more simpler, archaic numbers, logic and the present economy. This is a good deal for the Orioles, and here’s why.
When attempting to justify a player’s contract, one must first look at his statistics, combine them with his defensive tools and his ability to change a game, and then compare the contract in regards to the market. So let’s look at Jones‘ career numbers. He broke in with Baltimore in 2008 at age 23 after being acquired from Seattle as the main piece of the trade that brought Erik Bedard to Safeco Field. Most 23-year-olds are still able to develop their skills in the minor leagues, but not Jones. The Orioles gave him the starting center field job right away and he was an All-Star and Gold Glove winner the next year.
From Jones averaged a line of .278/16/66 from 2008-2010, respectable numbers for a player before his prime. It seemed as if he had finally blossomed last year in 2011, as he jacked 25 homers and drove in 83 in his age-26 year. He’s picked up where he left off this year and more so; through 45 games Jones has been one of the most valuable players in the American League.
There is a lot of speculation that Jones‘ numbers will experience a regression towards the mean, and that this contract – the largest ever given to an Oriole – was rushed thanks to an uncharacteristic month-long power surge from the center fielder. There’s one major flaw in this thinking – Jones is still creating his mean. There’s no reason we should think that a 27-year old Jones, fresh off a 25-home run 2011, will revert back to his 24 or 25-year old numbers. Players make progress and players get better, and that’s what we’re seeing right before our eyes. Will he hit 51 homers like he’s on pace to? Probably not. His numbers will recede from the torrid pace they are at so far this year, but that’s true for a lot of players. Derek Jeter and Johnathan Lucroy won’t be hitting north of .345 in September, and Josh Hamilton isn’t going to finish the year with 65 home runs and 186 RBI like he’s on pace to. There’s no reason Jones won’t be the .280, 25, 85 guy he was last year or better. And if he is, the contract is justifiable, especially in today’s market. Hamilton is going to demand $100 million in free agency next winter. And when he does, the deal for Jones, who is five years younger, more durable, and a homegrown talent in Baltimore, will look like a lot more of a bargain.
Hamilton is only the most extreme market example. There are more. Jones is a 4 1/2 tool player: a center fielder with speed, a fantastic arm, who makes great defensive plays, hits for power and a little average as well (yes, .280 is considered “hitting for average.” That number will probably improve a little, and even if it doesn’t, he’s still not Adam Dunn). For all intensive purposes he’s the best player Baltimore’s had since Miguel Tejada, who drove in 429 runs for the Orioles in four years while playing under a fake age in the heart of the steroid era. If we’re the kind of people who want to think that period in time never happened, Jones is the best Oriole since Cal Ripken. He’s a franchise player south of 30. How many other center fielders in the league fit those qualifications?
The answer is three – Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen and Cameron Maybin. Kemp is a clearly superior player, and is getting paid as such after signing an 8 year/$160 million deal last winter. McCutchen is two years younger than Jones and is considered a slightly better player, although he hit just .259 and struck out 126 times last year. McCutchen, who is still developing, just signed a 6 year/$51 million contract with Pittsburgh. The Pirates believe he is a player they can build around, and it’s believed across baseball that they got a bargain with his contract and that one day he’ll demand much more. But just because Pittsburgh got a bargain doesn’t mean Baltimore overpaid. In a world where Edwin Jackson (and his 12 wins per year) makes $10 million a year, Adam Jones is certainly worth a $14 million per salary. And then there’s Maybin, who’s only the franchise player in San Diego because the Padres are such a dismal franchise. As for other center fielders in baseball, none really fit into the same classification as Jones. Hamilton is older and has a drug and injury ridden past. Shane Victorino and Curtis Granderson are both on the wrong side of 30 and aren’t the best players on their team. Cincinnati’s Drew Stubbs is 27, but he’s been too inconsistent at the plate to be considered in the same class as Jones.
Perhaps skeptics of the deal are looking about 75 feet to Jones’ left at Nick Markakis. Markasis seemed destined to be a franchise player when he signed a 6 year/$66 million contract in 2009. For reasons unknown though, the right fielder has lost most of his home run and run-producing abilities since then. He’s only missed four games since signing the contract, so injuries aren’t the answer. The fact is that he simply hasn’t produced like he did before signing the deal, and now most Oriole fans consider him a $66 million sunk cost.
The same cannot be expected of Jones. The same cannot be expected of anyone; just because one seemingly team-friendly contract for a budding young star didn’t work out, does that mean you’re never going to try to lock up your best pieces ever again? It’s stupid to think that way. Jones is a much different player than Markakis too. He’s a lean, athletic type who yields just as much value with the glove as he does with the bat. Markakis has a good arm and plays a decent right field, but if he doesn’t drive in 100 runs he didn’t have a good year. Jones can impact the game on every single play, whether it’s hitting a jack or making a wall-scaling catch. He’s not exactly Matt Kemp, and he’s not exactly Andrew McCutchen. He’s different than anybody else in the league, and that’s what makes him so confusing, his skills so challenging to dissect.
One things for sure though, Jones is an absolute game changer, and he’s the best player Baltimore has right now. So they locked him up and paid him like that, showing fans that even if they’re still a few years away from contention, at least they have somebody worth paying to see. Nothing wrong with that.