Are The Braves Making A Mistake By Extending Dan Uggla?

There have been many reports lately that the Braves are nearing an extension with newly acquired second baseman Dan Uggla. The figures are just rumors now, but the rumors are that the extension would be for around $12M per year (or a bit more), which seems eminently fair for his production levels.

What is more worrisome is the number of years on the extension. The rumors put the extension at five years (though I don't know if that is replacing his 2011 arbitration year or not; that'd make a big difference). Obviously, since Uggla will be in his age-31 season next year, a five-year extension is risky.

To me, it seems like the most likely scenario is that Uggla is worth the money through age 33, then begins to decline, being overpaid but still useful for the next two to three years. That'd probably make the contract an overpay, but not a drastic one. Really, though, the range of possible scenarios is so huge, and most of the other scenarios are Uggly* for Braves fans.

* Sorry.

I'd love to have Uggla beyond this season, but the risk of a five-year contract is extremely large. If this were a three-year extension, I'd be excited, but five years is pretty scary. After the jump, I try to find out just how scary a five-year contract for a player like Uggla is.

As Capitol Avenue Club pointed out recently, many players like Uggla have dropped off dramatically as they entered their thirties. If you haven't read that article, you should, but I'll recap it quickly here. Basically, he finds a group of 15 comparable players, only two of which maintained their production. Six dropped off significantly, and the rest are still active, though many of those don't look promising.

While I agree with CAC's overall point that a five-year extension is too much (I'd stop at four, even if it meant a higher average annual value), I am not sure that some of his comparable players are all that comparable. For instance, one of the players in CAC's sample is Alfonso Soriano. But offensively, I don't consider Soriano and Uggla to be very much alike at all. To wit:

  • Uggla walked twice as much in his age 26-30 seasons than Soriano did (10.8% walk rate for Uggla; 5.5% for Soriano). 
  • Uggla hit for a lower batting average (.263 to Soriano's .283).
  • Uggla struck out more often (22.5% to Soriano's 19.6%).
  • Uggla hit fewer homers (154 to Soriano's 187) and hit for less power overall (.224 ISO to Soriano's .243)
  • And of course Uggla stole many fewer bases (14 to Soriano's 165).

There are similar issues with many of CAC's comparables for Uggla. My biggest problem with his set of players is that many of them had lower walk rates. Only four walked at least 10% of the time (as mentioned above, Uggla's career rate is now at 10.8%, a figure he's topped in each of the last 3 seasons). Since I believe that a player's ability to draw walks is the single biggest factor in his being able to age relatively gracefully, I doubt that those players with low-to-medium walk rates can tell us much of anything about what Uggla is likely to do as he ages.

Let's use a different set of criteria to see if we can find some better comparables. Like CAC, I'm looking for players who accrued at least 2250 PAs during their age 26 to age 30 seasons while posting an OPS+ between 110 and 124 (Uggla is at 117, and 100 is average). I looked for all players who had a walk rate of at least 10%, a batting average below .280, and an isolated power (ISO) of at least .200 (Uggla's at .224).

I found 14 players besides Uggla. Of these, three are quite bad comparables because they were terrible at age 30, foreboding precipitous declines: Eric Chavez, Tony Clark, and Leon Durham. Uggla has obviously not entered his decline phase yet, so we'll just toss those guys out. Another, Nick Swisher, just finished his age-30 season, so he can't help us. That leaves 10 comparables.

I've broken these players into four groups. I listed each of them with their age 26-30 WAR and their age 31-35 WAR (I used Baseball-Reference's version since FanGraphs' only goes back to 2002). I also included their age when they had their last good season, which is especially relevant to this discussion. For reference, Uggla has been worth 14.9 WAR.

The Complete Failures

Rico Petrocelli
Age 26-30: 23.7 WAR
Age 31-35: 0.9 WAR
Last good season: Age 31

Jesse Barfield
Age 26-30: 22.9 WAR
Age 31-35: 0.3 WAR
Last good season: Age 31

Paul Sorrento
Age 26-30: 3.9 WAR
Age 31-35: 0.0 WAR
Last good season: 31

Works In Progress

Andruw Jones
Age 26-30: 23.8 WAR
Age 31-33: 0.0 WAR
Was decent in 2010 (1.5 WAR); will be 34 in 2011

Troy Glaus
Age 26-30: 11.9 WAR
Age 31-33: 4.0 WAR
Last good season: Age 31
Was not very good in 2010 (0.6 WAR); will be 34 in 2011

Pat Burrell
Age 26-30: 9.2 WAR
Age 31-33: 3.6 WAR
Had his best year in ages in 2010 (3.0 WAR); will also be 34 in 2011

Declined, But Still Good Players

Reggie Sanders
Age 26-30: 16.4 WAR
Age 31-35: 12.7 WAR
Last good season: Age 37

Ron Gant
Age 26-30: 15.1 WAR
Age 31-35: 9.4 WAR
Last good season: Age 37

Successes

Jorge Posada
Age 26-30: 16.6 WAR
Age 31-35: 24.5 WAR
Last good season: Age 38 (and he isn't done yet)

Greg Vaughn
Age 26-30: 12.9 WAR
Age 31-35: 14.8 WAR
Last good season: Age 35

Conclusions

Overall, of the 10 players, at least 4 were still useful (or better) through their age-35 seasons. If Burrell continues his resurgence in San Francisco, that'll make 5 out of 10. Of the 5 confirmed/likely failures, one (Sorrento) was clearly never as good as Uggla, so it's questionable whether he is comparable. Still, there are 4 pretty clear negative comparables: Petrocelli and Barfield fell off the map pretty much immediately, and Jones and Glaus seem unlikely to regain their former glory.

While these comparables paint a somewhat rosier picture than the ones in the Capitol Avenue Club article, it's still not exactly encouraging that the failure rate for these guys was around 50%. Given that none of the 5 clear failures were good after their age-31 season, the potential for a dead-weight contract is very high. The wise move would seem to be waiting until Uggla has played at least a half-season here before extending him, just to make sure that there aren't any early warning signs.

Of course, none of this is the final word on the subject. We don't know what the Braves know. They have lots of scouts, paid number crunchers, and decades of player-evaluation experience. If you trust the Braves' front office, then you should still feel pretty good about having Uggla around for five more years. If you think they are a bunch of screw-ups, however, the Uggla extension will seem like a catastrophe waiting to happen.

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