December 9, 2004

Radke Re-Signs

In the hours before Tuesday's arbitration deadline, as I sat white-knuckled, constantly reloading's front page in the hopes of seeing something new about Brad Radke's status with my beloved Twins, a little birdie told me that Radke and his agent, Ron Simon, were asking Minnesota for a three-year contract worth $33 million. After hearing that news (and it was accurate too -- or at least accurate enough to be reported in the newspaper the next day, which is all you can ask for from little birdies), I began to make peace with the fact that Radke had pitched his last game in Minnesota.

A three-year commitment for $11 million per season -- a full 20% of the Twins' projected payroll -- did not seem like something the team could swallow, and the prospect of offering Radke arbitration was even less palatable. What would happen if Radke agreed and the arbitrator decided he was worth $12 million in 2005, thus completely blowing apart the Twins' already-shaky budget for the upcoming season? No, as the minutes ticked away Tuesday night, it became quite clear that if Radke wanted to stay with the Twins, he was going to have to make some concessions.

Thankfully, he did. Whether you want to call it a "hometown discount" from a player who has been with one team for his entire 10-year career, a player choosing to give up a few million dollars to play in the place he wanted most, or just a rare case of a free agent not milking every last cent out of his freedom, Radke did it. He agreed to a two-year deal when he had been asking for three years, and he agreed to $9 million per season when he had been asking for $11 million. Those are, of course, the sort of compromises I dream of making ("I'm feeling charitable today, I think I'll accept $18 million to play baseball for the next two years"), but they are compromises nonetheless.

The big question now is whether or not Radke is worth that sort of money and, to be quite honest, I think the answer is pretty clearly no. It's not his fault, really, but rather the simple truth that a team with a payroll in the neighborhood of $55 million paying a good-but-not-great pitcher $9 million per season just doesn't make a lot of sense, at least not on the surface. But when you're dealing with a player who was an eighth-round draft pick of the Twins' back in 1991, came up through their minor-league system in the early 90s, and proceeded to pitch over 2,000 innings in his first 10 major-league seasons, all while being the lone bright spot on a lot of awful pitching staffs, you sometimes have to look beyond the surface.

While Radke will be 32 years old next year and has never been a dominant pitcher, the Twins know exactly what they'll get from him -- 30-35 starts, 200 innings, 10-15 wins, and a better-than-average ERA. He could have another couple years like his 2004 season, when he set a career-best mark with a 3.48 ERA, or he could have a couple years more like 2003, when his ERA ballooned up to a still-respectable 4.49. Either way, you'll get the starts (28+ in nine of his 10 seasons), the innings (200+ in nine of his 10 seasons), and the solid pitching (ERA+ over 100 in eight of his 10 seasons). He's not a #1 starter, but he's a perfect #2 guy, and that "ace" spot is all locked up by some guy named Johan anyway.

Is that worth an $18 million commitment? Not from a small-market team where that represents what will likely be around 17% of the payroll, but in general? Sure, at least in this market. Of the available free agents, I don't see a whole lot of guys who are in Radke's league and ready to sign for less than $9 million a season for only two years. When the Mets are giving Kris Benson three years and $22.5 million, and the Yankees and Phillies are giving Jaret Wright and Jon Lieber three years and $21 million each, I see no problem with giving Radke two years and $18 mill.

Compare how those four pitchers performed in their "walk" years:

                       IP      ERA+     VORP     RSAA     WS     WSAA

Brad Radke 219.2 136 60.1 32 19 6
Jaret Wright 186.1 131 40.3 17 13 4
Jon Lieber 176.2 104 27.3 2 11 2
Kris Benson 200.1 97 22.4 -2 9 0

Wright, Lieber, and Benson all pitched well enough in 2004 to put to rest any concerns about their checkered pasts -- at least for the teams that ended up signing them -- and cashed in with three-year deals worth in excess of $20 million. Yet, none of them were as valuable as Radke was in 2004, and it actually wasn't even close. Radke pitched the most innings of the four, had the lowest ERA when you account for ballparks and leagues, and dwarfed their overall production in Value Over Replacement Player, Runs Saved Above Average, Win Shares, and Win Shares Above Average (plus a whole bunch of other metrics with cool names too, I'm sure).

Over the last three years, Radke has a 4.14 ERA in 550.1 innings, while pitching in the American League, in a hitter's ballpark. Over that same span, Benson tossed 435.2 innings with a 4.59 ERA, Wright threw 261 innings with a 5.03 ERA, and Lieber racked up 317.2 innings with a 4.05 ERA, and they all spent a lot of time in the National League. If anyone in that group deserved a third year on his contract and another year of guaranteed millions, it is most certainly Radke, and the fact that he's the one guy locked up for just two more seasons says all you need to know about his desire to remain in Minnesota.

The other interesting thing about Radke's new deal is that it is nearly identical to his last contract, signed prior to the 2001 season, which paid him $36 million over four years. However, because the salaries escalated in his last deal, and because he got a $3 million signing bonus that was paid during the final two years, Radke actually made a total of $21 million in 2003 and 2004. All of which means he is essentially taking a pay cut, and perhaps more importantly, his weight on the Twins' payroll is reduced. Though I'm not sure how this new contract breaks down per year, it is likely that Radke's 2005 salary will be at least $2.5 million and perhaps as much as $3 or $3.5 million less than it was in 2004, which becomes awfully important for a team going through its yearly payroll crunch.

As is the case every year, this offseason represents a difficult time for Twins GM Terry Ryan. I have my complaints about him as a GM, but the one thing that I think is undeniable is Ryan's ability to walk the small-market tightrope each winter, shedding contracts, restocking the farm system, and putting the team in a position to win the next season, all while essentially maintaining his miniscule payroll.

Last offseason, the team lost both its setup man, Latroy Hawkins, and its closer, Eddie Guardado, to free agency, in large part because Ryan just didn't have the money available to keep them. Instead, he got back up on the tightrope and traded his starting catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, to the San Francisco Giants. In return, he netted two solid pitching prospects and Joe Nathan, who filled in for Guardado closing games with a 1.62 ERA and 44 saves, one short of Guardado's franchise record.

That same offseason, facing yet another money crunch when it came to re-signing Shannon Stewart, Ryan let Kenny Rogers and Rick Reed walk via free agency and dumped Eric Milton and the $9 million he was owed in 2004 on the Phillies, getting Nick Punto and Carlos Silva in return. Silva stepped right into one of the gaping holes in the rotation and out-performed Milton in nearly every possible way, from innings pitched to ERA, and did so while saving the team about $8.7 million.

There have been mistakes along the way, and I certainly don't agree with a lot of things Ryan does, but his yearly task of building a competitive team with a bargain-basement payroll when quality players are due for big raises each offseason is not an easy one. At the end of the day, there are very few GMs around baseball who I'd rather have up on that tightrope, and that's why the Twins will enter the 2005 season with Radke, and as the favorites in the AL Central.

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