Marlins pay Buck a little too much for a little too long?

Lost amidst the clamor and confusion that was the Dan Uggla trade was another questionable move by the Florida Marlins front office. Yesterday afternoon, the Marlins signed free agent catcher John Buck to a three-year deal worth $18M. The deal accomplishes one goal that the Marlins set out to complete this offseason, which was to fill their catcher position in the wake of a 2010 season that had a John Baker injury, a Ronny Paulino suspension, and two minor league catchers combining for over 200 PA. In that sense, they fulfilled their obligations to the position.

But I think that the Marlins may have gone a bit too far with the signing so early in the offseason. Yes, Buck is probably a solid catcher, but it is unlikely that he is worth the money the team is paying for him for the amount of years they have committed. I am of the opinion that they paid a little too much money for a little too long, turning what could probably have been a solid deal into a bad one. Since I haven’t done the math, however, let’s take a look and see if I’m right.

Buck projected

Let’s go ahead and be systematic in our interpretation of this deal by running a projection. Buck is a 30-year old catcher who has shown one major skill consistently throughout his career: he hits home runs. This was the second time, however, that he hit them as well as he did. His 14.7% HR/FB% was second in his career, trailing only his 2007 season in which he hit 18 home runs with a 15.7% mark. However, Buck’s power has remained a constant through much of his career, as evident by his solid 12.7% HR/FB% mark.

Much of the rest of Buck’s game is pretty prototypical of a catcher. He doesn’t have the best plate discipline or contact in the world, as evident by his below average walk rate (6.5% BB% career) and his high strikeout rate (24.0% K% career). Despite a .335 BABIP this season, which pushed his batting average up to the .281 mark that it hit, he isn’t the type of guy who is going to rack up a ton of hits on balls in play. Rather than expect an average of around .280, a mark of around .240 is more likely. There has also been some word (according to ESPN’s Keith Law) that Buck drastically changed his approach when arriving to Toronto, which could mean that the weighting on some of his peripheral skills from his time in Kansas City are less meaningful than they would normally be.

For the projection, I did the same thing I did for Omar Infante last night, which was to weight the preseason CHONE projected rates for each wOBA component at (7/12) while weighing the current season at (5/12), thus yielding something very similar to a 5/4/3 weighted projection. Doing that for Buck’s offense, I got a projected .247/.302/.432 slash line, good for a .320 wOBA. Oddly enough, that came out extremely close to the Bill James projection showed on FanGraphs and the line CHONE had on the August update, so I feel pretty good about the guess. I pinned Buck for 450 PA (that number would be a career high for him), so with a .330 wOBA as league average, a .320 wOBA would be worth -3.7 runs compared to average for 2011.

I did my defensive projection in the same fashion as I did my projections for the Marlins. It is important to note, however, that defense for catchers is a lot more tricky than defense for fielders (which is arleady pretty tricky), so I regressed those numbers more to the mean than I did to the other positions. Instead of regressing 100 games to the scouting mean, I regressed 150 games. Doing this method gives me a value of -4 runs per 150 games, which means Buck would be worth about -3 runs in the 110-120 games he would play in order to rack up 450 PA.

Add all of that together and you get a value of 1.7 WAR in a short amount of time for Buck. I am fairly impressed with that total, even in such limited playing time. Then again, therein lies the value of a catcher, especially one who is just below the league average in terms of hitting. If Buck did for 2011 and declined 0.5 WAR per season, with some inflation of the dollars/WAR figure (starting at $4.4M / WAR), and you get the total value of the deal at $17.1M, not far off of what the Marlins paid. However, if you think the market will remain stagnant in dollars/WAR, the contract would be worth $15.8M, yielding a slight overpay.

Was it necessary?

So it doesn’t seem as if the Marlins really paid a whole lot more than what Buck was worth, even through his age 30-32 seasons. The question is whether the Fish could have gotten a better deal out of this. It seems the Marlins offerend a mostly fair deal; if the team was off, it wasn’t off by more than $3M to either side. But did the team have to commit three years and go for the seemingly extra money? This was Buck’s first good season, and it isn’t as if it was a perfect year either, as he did spend a good deal of time on the DL. Prior to the past two seasons (one of which was severely shortened by injury), Buck never hit better than a .319 wOBA and he’s always been considered a below average defender behind the plate. However, his most recent 639 PA have been excellent for a catcher, and maybe the Marlins figure that will hold up better, even as he moves from a right-handed power hotspot in Toronto to a park that helps to suppress bombs.

My initial opinion of a John Buck signing was looking at two years and $10M, but it seems that the Marlins would only be overpaying slightly even with the added third year. Given that the organization has only one catcher in their organization that has a future with the team (prospect Kyle Skipworth if he continues to develop), maybe the Marlins figured three years of Buck would give them enough time to stall until reinforcements arrive. If Buck performs as expected, I think the Marlins will ultimately be happy with the deal. If he falters (and with his skillset, that wouldn’t be surprising), the Marlins will then have committed too much time on a guy with plenty of obvious faults. Ultimately, I think the team gave the right amount of money, but took the offer one year too long.

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