Friday, November 13, 2009

What the Hell Were You Thinking? Gary Matthews Jr. Edition

*Over the next couple of weeks, Jorge Says No! will take an in depth look at some of the worst contracts in baseball. We'll evaluate why the player was signed, what went wrong, and future implications of the contract. Behind every bone head decision, there has to be a reason for it...right?*

Why Sign Matthews Jr: The Angels were looking to make a big splash on the free agent market by adding a productive hitter and a quality defensive outfielder. With those criteria in mind, the Angels targeted Gary Matthews Jr., a career journeyman who was coming off a career season with the Rangers. Matthews was always known for his defensive prowess in the outfield, but in 2006, Matthews exploded at the dish by hitting .313 with 19 home runs, 44 doubles, and 102 runs scored. The Angels viewed the 32 year old Matthews as one of the best outfielders on the free agent market and prepared to sign him to a huge contract.

As GM Bill Stoneman noted at the time:
"One of our objectives during this off-season was to improve ourselves in center field," said Stoneman. "We believe Gary is a great fit for this ballclub. In addition to his outstanding play in center field, he has the versatility to leadoff or hit deeper in the batting order."
What Went Wrong: This signing seemed doomed from the start. During his first spring training with the Angels, Matthews was linked in a HGH sting that led to Matthews Jr. being named in the Mitchell Report. During his first season with the Angels, Matthews played a solid center field (3.6 UZR) and hit for some power (19 home runs), but was generally viewed as a disappointment because the rest of his offensive numbers dipped. The Angels were not satisfied with Matthews production so the following offseason, the Angels went out and signed all star Torii Hunter to a 5 year/$90 million dollar contract even though Matthews Jr. was still under contract for the next 4 years.

For the past two seasons, Matthews has been the most expensive fourth outfielder on the planet (outside of Juan Pierre) and he has not been productive off the bench. His offense has been on the steady decline as his playing time has waned and even worse, Matthews defense has taken the plunge and he now ranks as one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball (-13.7 UZR in 2008; -24.6 UZR in 2009). To put things in perspective, fangraphs notes that Matthews has been worth negative dollars in 2008 and 2009.

Future Implications: The impact of the Gary Matthews Jr. signing is a topic that can be debated for years. On one hand, the Angels were still able to sign big name free agents like Torii Hunter while Matthews was under contract, but on the other hand, the Angels watched guys like Mark Teixiera and Francisco Rodriguez walk and they were unable to make a big push to sign any major free agents last season. Did Matthews Jr.'s contract prevent the Angels from making a big splash? Who knows.

Looking forward, Matthews Jr. wants out of Anaheim. His tenure with the Angels has been filled with frustration and it would be best for him if the Angels were able to deal him. However, that's easier said than done. Matthews is still owed 2 years/$23 million on his contract and I doubt there are teams that are eager to pick up his salary. The Angels could be stuck a very expensive and probably unhappy Matthews in 2010.

Lesson Learned: Be very cautious when signing players after career years. This contract looked absurd at the time and now it looks even more absurd. Matthews capitalized on one good season and the Angels took the bait. As a result, the Angels are paying the price for that decision now.


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