Sports

MLB Analysis: Did the Los Angeles Dodgers Overpay Andre Ethier?

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The Los Angeles Dodgers and Andre Ethier have reportedly agreed to an $85 million deal that will keep Ethier in Los Angeles through at least 2017. Although geezers like me cringe at such sums, it’s fair to ask if the signing is good news or bad. There are a number of stakeholders involved, so let’s look at the most important first – Dodger fans.

The deal is good news for Dodger fans on a number of levels. First, it’s nice to see LA’s new ownership group spending money on players rather than on themselves, their divorce lawyers, and their various girlfriends and boyfriends. The new team is on the right track. Second, unless traded, Ethier will spend all of his prime career years patrolling right field for the Dodgers. He’s been out there since being traded by the Oakland Athletics after the 2005 season for Milton Bradley.

No, that’s not a typo.

The geniuses in Oakland got Bradley; the Dodgers got Ethier. Fans love to be able to root for the same players year after year, and this deal almost guarantees that will happen in Chavez Ravine. Third, fans will get to root for more than just any player; they’ll get to cheer for one of the premier right-fielders in MLB. Ethier leads the National League with 54 RBI this year, and if he can avoid injury, he is perhaps on his way to the best year of his fine career.

Fans are already responding to a refocused Dodgers organization. The Dodgers’ attendance is averaging 3,000 more per game than it did last year, the final disastrous year of the McCourt era. By 2011, Dodger Stadium attendance had dropped to 11th in the league, averaging just over 36,000 fans per game. They’re currently 6th in the league, averaging more than 39,000 per game. Ethier’s signing shows the fans that current ownership is committed long-term to the team, rather than to themselves, and that commitment will likely pay off at the box office. So, the signing is good for the fans.

Given how Ethier stacks up against other top right-fielders in terms of talent and salary, the signing is also good news for the Dodgers’ pennant chances and their wallets. Ethier’s batting average was 4th in MLB among starting right fielders in 2011, and 5th in 2010. He hit .292 and was an All Star both years. He won a Gold Glove last year, and he won a Silver Slugger award as an outfielder in 2009. Ethier will certainly continue to help the Dodgers compete for a pennant in the NL West.

On the salary side, let’s look at the four right-fielders who rounded out MLB’s top 5 in batting in 2011. They were Hunter Pence (.314), Jose Bautista (.302), Carlos Beltran (.300), and Justin Upton (.289). Pence will be paid $10.4 million in 2012 and is eligible for arbitration next year. Bautista will make $14 million this year and is signed through 2015. Carlos Beltran is a free agent in 2014, and is making $13 million this year, down considerably from the $19 million the New York Mets overpaid him in 2009 and 2010. Justin Upton, who will be a free agent in 2016, is being paid $14.5 million this year. Under Ethier’s extension, he’ll receive almost $11 million this year, and that number will increase to $18 million by 2015. The last year of the extension, 2018, has a $17.5 million dollar vesting option with a $2.5 million buyout. Not including the option year, Ethier stands to make about $15.6 million per year over the next 6 years, including 2012. That amount tracks nicely with what his fellow elite right-fielders are being paid.

There is no question that Ethier is a top performer. What the fans see on the field is confirmed by comparing his stats to those of other right-fielders. Furthermore, his salary is in line with the going rate for right-fielders of his caliber. Setting aside philosophical considerations about whether anyone should be paid more than $15 million dollars per year to play baseball, in the context of MLB in the second decade of the 21st century, Ethier’s extension looks to be good for all concerned, including, of course, Andre Ethier.

Finally, Ethier’s deal is also good news for Hunter Pence, and Hunter Pence’s agent. Pence is eligible for arbitration at the end of this year, and free agency in 2014. The 29 year-old Pence’s 162-game averages over his career are similar to Ethier’s in nearly every offensive category. And while Ethier makes fewer errors in the field than Pence, Ethier’s career range factor per game in right field is below the league average for right fielders, whereas Pence’s range factor is slightly above the league average. Pence’s agent should make a copy of Andre Ethier’s contract Exhibit “A” when talking to anyone about Pence’s future.

So, my initial reaction to the preposterous sum of $85,000,000.00 notwithstanding, if Andre Ethier can stay healthy for the next five years, and if past is prologue in terms of his performance, then this deal is solid.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com