Clubhouse Chatter: A Puzzling Decision

Loaiza is now a very rich man.

The A's shocked almost everyone with their announcement on Monday that they had signed free agent Esteban Loaiza to a three-year, $21 million contract. Having had a good ten hours to absorb this news, I have to say that I still find it puzzling. It's just so, well, out of character. I mean, this is the franchise that practically trademarked fiscal responsibility. The A's signing Loaiza for $7 million a year is like the Republican Party approving a large government spending bill. It's just odd.

To be fair, it isn't as if the A's just gave $9 million a year to a reliever with only one year of experience closing games. Come to think of it, I wonder what was in the cranberry sauce during the Oakland A's front office alumni Thanksgiving dinner this past week. It appears only the patriarch of the family is showing any of its trademark restraint, as Grandpappy Sandy turns away the opportunity to overpay for Ramon Hernandez and Brian Giles (although taking on Mike Cameron's contract without knowing if he'll be fully recovered from his horrific accident isn't exactly a penny-pinching move). But I digress.

On the surface, Esteban Loaiza is a perfectly fine starting pitcher. On some teams, Loaiza would be the ace of the staff. On most teams, Loaiza is a solid number two starter. However, on the Oakland A's, Loaiza falls somewhere in between Dan Haren and Joe Blanton in the four spot, at least as long as the A's keep Barry Zito. So it seems odd that the number four starter would be making as much as the number two, three and five combined.

It also seems strange that the A's would choose to bestow their richest free agent contract on a player not in the organization in at least a dozen years on a starting pitcher who is coming off of a season that saw him post a 4.71 ERA outside of the soccer pitch at RFK Stadium. Yes, Loaiza threw 217 innings and struck out 173 batters while walking only 55. And yes, Loaiza is only two seasons removed from a dominating 2003 campaign that saw him go 21-9 and amass a 2.90 ERA for the Chicago White Sox. But this is also the guy who was lit up for much of the 2004 season, which was split between a mediocre stint with Chicago and a disastrous time with the New York Yankees where he completely forgot how to throw a strike.

So it is not so much that Loaiza is a bad pitcher, because he is most certainly not a bad pitcher. And there is certainly no question that adding Loaiza to the mix of a starting rotation of Zito, Rich Harden, Haren and Blanton makes the team better next season. However, it doesn't change the fact that the A's have committed $7 million of their precious dollars to a pitcher who will be 36 in the final year of his contract. It's the sort of move that A's fans so richly ridicule San Francisco Giants' GM Brian Sabean for making on a regular basis. And, by the way, it is the Giants whom the A's outbid for Loaiza's services, which makes this story even more odd. When was the last time the A's and Giants were interested in the same player?

Mostly, this deal strikes me as odd because in order for it to make fiscal sense for the A's, a couple of things have to happen. For instance, many people assume that the A's would keep Loaiza for the first year or two of his contract and then dump him when they need salary "cap" room. But we thought that would be the case when the A's inked Mark Redman to a three-year deal, as well. I think we all discovered the inherent contradiction in that idea with Redman. Had Redman pitched up to his abilities, the A's would more than likely have kept Redman through the duration of his contract because he would have been a decent value. However, since he didn't pitch well, the A's needed to move him after the first year of the deal because he wasn't worth the money they were giving him. Unfortunately, since Redman was a disappointment, he was hard to move and the A's were forced to package him in an exchange of bad contracts that will keep the A's locked in a bit of a financial pickle through 2007.

If Loaiza pitches with the same effectiveness that he did with the Washington Nationals at RFK or as he did in 2003 with the Chicago White Sox, the contract will be a good deal. However, if Loaiza regresses to the pitcher he was in 2004, his contract will join Jason Kendall's on the albatross list. And for a risk-averse franchise like the A's, that is a pretty big leap of faith and one I wish the A's had made with an offensive player rather than a pitcher. After all, the A's only won 11 out of 67 games in which they scored three runs or less in 2005. Pitching is great, but if you can't score runs, you aren't likely to win very many games.

It just seems like an odd allocation of resources to put more money into an already crowded (and outstanding) starting rotation. Harden and Haren aren't going anywhere and, likely, neither is Blanton. The A's also have Kirk Saarloos under control for a few more seasons at a bargain price and he pitched as well as anyone would have hoped a fifth starter would in 2005. Oakland is also on the hook for likely $2 to 3 million for Joe Kennedy, whom the A's thought highly enough of last season to send Colorado one of their better infield prospects in order to acquire him. And the A's will need to make a decision on whether to tender Juan Cruz or let him go. In the minor leagues, the A's will have a presumably healthy Dan Meyer and two former high first round draft picks in Adam Johnson and Matt Roney serving as extra insurance (not to mention an emerging Shane Komine, who has looked outstanding since coming off of Tommy John surgery). So starting pitching depth (or pitching depth in general) doesn't appear to be a glaring need for the A's even if they deal one of their pitchers.

However, the A's are still faced with an offense that sports no DH, two below-average hitting corner outfielders (although Nick Swisher could easily be an average hitting corner outfielder with some improvement on his rookie season) and little bench depth, and they are now $5 million closer to their self-imposed salary cap for 2006. I'm sure that Billy Beane has a plan for how he will beef up the A's offense, but I'll have a tough time stomaching the typical arguments that he didn't have enough money to acquire a good hitter if he is unable to improve the offense substantially after giving Loaiza $5 million next season and Jay Payton $4 million (although I suppose that the A's will save at least $1.2 million in salary by forfeiting their 2006 first round draft pick, which they will lose for signing Loaiza before the arbitration deadline in two weeks).

Finally, this deal worries me for the simple reason that the A's have "struck out" on the free agent pitcher route recently. From the "three Mikes fiasco" in 2002 to the ill-advised Redman signing (yes, he was technically a free agent) to the failed Arthur Rhodes experiment, the A's recent track record with free agent, middle-aged pitchers has been shaky at best over the past several years. Although that isn't a real reflection on the Loaiza deal, it is a cause for trepidation when this deal has that same feeling that some of those other deals caused.

If the A's were in need of starting pitching, I'd give this deal a big thumb's up. Certainly $7 million doesn't get what it used to, and there have been worse pitchers signed for more money in the last couple of seasons. But I just don't see where this fills an immediate need for the A's, and finding an undervalued asset isn't that useful if the asset is only undervalued by other teams and is over-valued on your books for as long as he is on your roster. Because Billy Beane has done a great job with the A's over the years, I'll give him the benefit of waiting to the end of the off-season make a full judgment on this signing. However, I think we need to show some healthy skepticism about this deal for now.

The veiws expressed in this column are the author's own and are not necessarily reflective of the views of OaklandClubhouse.com and Scout.com

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