Over the last two days, two American League teams have had to make decisions about their aging yet productive designated hitters. The Rangers held a $9 million option on Vladimir Guerrero, while the Red Sox had a $12.5 million option on David Ortiz. Boston decided to pay Ortiz, while the Rangers chose to let Guerrero become a free agent. Why the different decisions?
Well, there’s one obvious factor that help explains the different paths Boston and Texas took – the Red Sox just have more money to spend than the Rangers. Boston spent about $100 million more than Texas in 2010, and even with the Rangers having new ownership and the projected revenue gains from a World Series appearance, the two franchises are not operating under the same budget. The Red Sox can afford to pay market value or above to retain players that they want on their team, while the Rangers have to be a bit more choosy.
That said, the Red Sox don’t make a habit out of paying a premium to players just because they can. They let Jason Bay leave when they deemed that his price outstripped his value last winter, and have shown that they are willing to let popular players leave if they believe they can get a better return on their investment by going another direction. That they were willing to pay Ortiz $12.5 million for 2011 shows that they don’t believe that they could have done significantly better at the position for the money.
The Rangers, on the other hand, are willing to take the risk that Guerrero goes elsewhere in order to gain the opportunity to shave a few million off his price tag. Their hope is that the market won’t support a $9 million payday for Vlad in 2011, and they’ll be able to bring him back at a lower figure. That the Red Sox were willing to pay $12.5 million for Ortiz may not help their case much, however.
Ortiz is both better and younger than Guerrero, but not by that much in either case. His .380 wOBA was only marginally better than Guerrero’s .360 mark this year, and even when you adjust for park effects, the difference in offensive value comes out to about one win over the course of the season. In terms of age, they’re only nine months apart.
The big difference between the two seems to be the timing of when they produced during the season. Ortiz was famously horrible in April again, but then went back to being one of the league’s best hitters after that. Guerrero, meanwhile, was a monster during the first half of the season, but fell off dramatically in July and August and then struggled in the playoffs as well. The Red Sox ended the year watching Ortiz hit well, driving his struggles from their recollection. The Rangers spent the last few months watching Guerrero look old, and that is the freshest memory they have of him.
I would imagine if the schedule of their production had been flipped, we might also have seen two different decisions on their options. Even though there’s not much data to support the idea that second half stats are useful in projecting future performance, there is certainly a natural tendency to place more value on the most recent events. In Guerrero’s case, he slumped at the wrong time, and now he’ll have to see what the market is for his services once again.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.