A deeper look into the Nationals spending ways with relationship to WAR

As we wrote about last week, the Nationals have been the second biggest spenders this offseason, ahead of everyone except the Red Sox.

However, we also noted that it’s been shown that the dollars have not been spent wisely with the Nationals spending the most dollars per last season WAR of any Major League team. Is Mike Rizzo being a spendthrift with the Lerner funds?

WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement and it is a metric that has gained some widespread acceptance, appearing on ESPN graphics though not always discussed in the analysis. It is a relatively new statistic which incorporates nearly everything we know about a player, his wOBA, his UZR, his baserunning abilities, into one “total” counting statistic. The contributions of the player being evaluated using WAR are transformed into a number which represents the approximate number of wins the player is worth versus a theoretical “replacement” player. The comparison with a replacement player is necessary because we are interested in how good a player is a relative sense since there is not really an absolute manner in which to evaluate players—if everyone were at least as good Albert Pujols, would Albert Pujols be a Hall of Famer?

At my time of writing this, the major acquisitions made by the Nationals have been Jayson Werth (5.0 WAR last year), Rick Ankiel (0.7 WAR), and Chien-Ming Wang (DNP in 2010, 0.1 WAR in 2009). Did the Nationals overpay for this amount of WAR?

Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth signed a huge contract: seven years, $126 million. Now, obviously $126 million sounds like a raw deal for 5.0 WAR, but Werth will be playing seven years, and at about 5.0 WAR he could be worth about 35 WAR over that time. But Werth is somewhat injury prone (11 months on the DL from 2002-2009) and he will turn 32 next year, meaning his average and speed could begin to decline in the near future. If we discount him at 0.5 WAR as FanGraphs did then we see that Werth is projected to contribute about 24.5 WAR, and perhaps a bit less due to injury time.

As Dave Cameron writes in the above article, wins seem to be going for about $5 million this winter, meaning Werth should be worth about $122.5 million (note that my calculation was different than Cameron’s) in today’s dollars over the next seven years. This means that Werth may be slightly overpaid, but consider that the tax the Nationals must pay for being the sorry franchise that they are.

What worries me about Werth’s contract are the “fundamentals” supporting the J-Bird’s value. Werth has a very good career BABIP (.333) and his power is not at the elite level (career .210 ISO). The BABIP issue should be worrying because Werth is getting old and his ability to get base hits may erode with age. The power issue is not as worrying because Werth is currently a fleet-footed outfielder. The age issue will eventually push him out of the outfield, however, which will make him much less valuable (there is a positional adjustment for WAR that captures the fact that a good-hitting outfielder is harder to find than a good-hitting first baseman, for instance). A good fielder (career 10.3 UZR/150 in the outfield) expect Werth’s defense to decline as he ages as well. (I also want to note that Werth’s contract should be discounted because of the fact that the Nationals will lose draft picks as a result of signing him, the value of which should be worked into Werth’s contract. I did not attempt to do this, however.)

I have not done a projection which accounts for all of these things, but I would guess that an annual discount of 0.65 WAR per year might be more accurate than my original guess of 0.5. (If there is enough demand, I will attempt a more in-depth analysis.) With the discount of 0.65, Werth should be worth about 21.35 WAR, or a $106.75 million contract. At any rate, $126 million is a hell of a lot better for 21.35 WAR than for 5.0 WAR.

Rick Ankiel

If $5 million per WAR is the going price, then consider Rick Ankiel, 31, a steal at $1.5 million guaranteed (though I hear his contract is “laden with incentives”). Ankiel contributed 0.7 WAR, despite injuries, last season, a contribution worth $3.5 million a.k.a. more than twice the amount the Nationals must pay him.

If he is recovered from his leg injury, I think there is reason to believe that Ankiel could be worth a bit more than 1 WAR over a full season. But with Roger Bernadina and Nyjer Morgan (and Mike Morse) around, I wonder how much playing time The Wild Man will get. It could very well end up that Ankiel accrues only about 0.7 WAR again next year, at which case the Nationals will still come out in the black.

Chien-Ming Wang

Wang signed a 1-year, $1 million contract. If he can recover from his major arm injuries, Wang, 30, may be able to produce 1.5+ WAR season next year. I am saying this because Wang has always had great stuff in addition to a few great years at the beginning of his career, and, reportedly, his stuff looked “filthy” in Instructional League this year. Even at 1.5 WAR next season, Wang would still be worth $7.5 million meaning the Nationals would have again made a good deal. Of course, Wang’s performance could be very poor and his contract is “incentive-laden” meaning he may not end up as such a fantastic bargain as I am suggesting.

In Summary…

If we sum all the WAR I am projecting from Werth, Ankiel, and Wang, then we have 23.55 WAR at a price of a guaranteed $128.5 million which is of course much better than 5.7 WAR for the same price. More to the point, that much WAR is estimated to be worth $117.75, a bit less than the Nationals paid, with all of the discrepancy coming from Werth’s contract. Again, we can think of that as the “Nationals Tax” that must be paid to entice good players to come to Washington. And though the Nationals did likely overpay Werth, it was not by that much and, I think, critical for the Nationals to retain some level of respect around the league (we don’t want to become the New Kansas City, do we?).

But this article only presents a small part of the story, namely, whether the Nationals got ripped off by various sports agents this winter. The answer to that question is, in all likelihood, “Not really” and, in fact, the Nationals seemed to have done a good job ripping off Ankiel’s and Wang’s respective agents.

What this article does not directly address, is the question of what have the Nationals netted out of this. We have lost Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham; have we succeeded so far in replacing them? Or, even better, how much different will things be in their absence next year? This article is already too long, so I will not be addressing that question here, but stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for my answer. As a hint, however, I’m leaning toward “Things will be as good if not better next year in the absence of Dunn and Willingham.” I hope I’m right.