Rickie Weeks, Mystery Man

Apparently, February 16th was International Sign Your Breakout Star And Hope It Wasn’t A Fluke Day. Before the news broke that Jose Bautista cashed in on his power surge with the Blue Jays, the Milwaukee Brewers signed Rickie Weeks to a four-year, $38.5 million contract with an option that could up the deal to five years and $50 million.

Unlike the Jays, the Brewers aren’t gambling on a guy with questions about his ability to hit. Instead, they’ve decided to bet big on a guy with an entirely different problem.

The issue with Weeks is his lack of durability. The 28-year-old second baseman played 160 games last year and racked up 754 plate appearances. That was just the second time in eight pro seasons that he cracked 135 total games played (he played in 151 games between Triple-A and the big leagues in 2004). Here’s a full list of Weeks’ injuries since his 2003 debut with the Brewers, courtesy of the excellent Baseball Injury Tool:

60-DAY DL
2006: Torn tendon, right wrist. Missed 69 days.
2009: Torn sheath, left wrist. Missed 140 days.

15-DAY DL
2007: Inflammation, right wrist. Missed 19 days.
2009: Sprain, left knee. Missed 15 days.

Throw in seven day-to-day diagnoses that include dings to Weeks’ thigh, hand (twice), wrist, and face, and he has missed a total of 253 regular-season games due to injuries. If staying healthy is a skill, Weeks would be below the Mendoza Line for staying upright.

There’s no question that the Brewers are paying, in large part, for Weeks’ most recent season, one which saw him hit .269/.366/.464 and produce 6.1 Wins Above Replacement. That six win season was twice as good as Weeks’ next-best effort, a 3.1 WAR campaign in 2007. His next best year was 2008, when he barely managed a two win season. His offensive performance has been pretty consistent: Weeks’ .334 wOBA looks like an outlier given his .365, .365 and .368 figures in 2007, 2009, and 2010. The issue has always been injuries, and missed time.

So we — and more importantly, the Brewers — face a major challenge in trying to project Weeks’ future value. We can use Tom Tango’s contract value calculator, which uses a standard aging curve and subtracts half a win per season, while also assuming an MLB-wide salary inflation rate of 5% per year. The problem is where to start our projection.

For instance, let’s say Weeks’ 2010 was “real”, and that the Brewers were paying for him to keep doing that into the future. If he loses half a win per season, with 2010’s 6.1 WAR result the baseline, what’s his four-year projection? (We’re ignoring year five for the moment; Weeks’ option year would pay him $11.5 million, but the club can void 2015 if he does not make 600 plate appearances in 2014 or 1,200 plate appearances over 2013-14 combined. So…yeah, good chance that doesn’t happen.)

2011- +5.6 WAR, $5 million per win, $28.0 value
2012 – +5.1 WAR, $5.25M/win, $26.78 million value
2013 – +4.6 WAR, $5.51M/win, $25.36 million value
2014 – +4.1 WAR, $5.79M/win, $23.73 million value

Under this scenario, Weeks will have earned more than $104 million in value — almost three times the total value of the contract he just signed.

What if we assume Weeks is half that good, just a 2.55 WAR player (about halfway between his 2007 and 2008 production):

2011 – +2.80 WAR, $5 million per win, $14.0 million value
2012 – +2.30 WAR, $5.25M/win, $12.08 million value
2013 – +1.8 WAR, $5.51M/win, $9.92 million value
2014 – +1.3 WAR, $5.69M/win, $7.52 million value

Under this scenario, Weeks will earn $43.52 million over his four-year deal — just slightly more than what the Brewers will be paying him. In other words, if he’s less than half as good in 2011 than he was in 2010, and regresses gradually from there, on paper it would seem a fair deal.

Ah, if only it were that simple.

After rating him a below-average defender for every year of his career, Ultimate Zone Rating suddenly pegged Weeks as saving 3 runs more than average in 2009. In 2010, he snared another positive UZR of +1.8. Which is funny, because in Strat-O-Matic parlance, he’s always resembled a 2B-4 — a markedly below-average gloveman at a key, up-the-middle position. Total Zone Rating agrees with Strat’s diagnosis: For his career, Weeks shows a -64 TZ rating, including a -11 last season.

If UZR’s wrong and Weeks really is (still) a below-average defensive player, that makes him less valuable now, and assuming the trend holds, less valuable in the future. It also introduces the possibility that Weeks might become too much of a defensive liability to stay at second base. If he’s patrolling left field a couple years from now, the deal becomes a much bigger risk.

The other problem, one which a value calculator can’t fully address, is the timing of the deal. Paying one player full market value can be a reasonable thing to do, especially if that player’s marginal wins potentially make you a playoff contender, and if that player is a free agent, soliciting bids from many teams. But Weeks was not a free agent.

As Sky Kalkman noted, if you’re paying $4.5 million per marginal win (never mind $5 million or more), you’d need a $225 million payroll to win 95 games. That’s an extreme scenario — even clubs with the weakest farm systems will inevitably churn out a prospect or two who will deliver value while making a few hundred thousand bucks a year, plus there are always cheap pickups to be had on the open market. But the main point here is that Weeks was not a free agent. He had a year to go before he could walk.

If Weeks put up another 6-win season in 2011 (or even a 5-win season, if you assume UZR’s wrong) and remained unsigned long-term, his asking price would have skyrocketed, and the Brewers might have missed out on a potential bargain. But Weeks’ injury history suggests that’s unlikely. If he plays 60 games this season instead of 160, the Brewers might start regretting this contract years before it’s up.

Blending art with science as best as we can, the Brewers probably need Weeks to be a true 3-win player in present-day terms — maybe even a little better — to make the cost and timing of this deal worthwhile. It could happen; Weeks has done it twice before, after all. But it’s anything but a sure bet. The Brewers’ shortstop situation might be the key to a potential deep playoff run. But the man at the other side of the keystone could loom just as large.





Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.

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DonCoburleone
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DonCoburleone

I see a red flag in that injury list – seems like he has always had problems with his hands & wrists. Wouldn’t the most likely cause of that be something mechanically “wrong” with his swing? And if thats the case he’s always going to be battling injuries…

Tomas
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Tomas

Weeks already tweaked his swing in ’10. He used to ‘waggle’ the bat much more when he was at the plate, which some speculate may have contributed to the wrist injuries.

baumann
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baumann

Indeed. The 2009 injury where he missed the most time happened when his was simply practicing his stance, wagging the bat in the dugout.

Steven
Guest
Steven

And he had his wrists operated on. Supposedly there was a ‘genetic abnormality’ that cause his wrist injuries and his operating doc claims he should not have wrist troubles ever again