The Return on Jason Bartlett


Jason Stark just found the last smoldering ember of anything hot stove and Padres-related. Essentially Stark teased the idea of the Red Sox being interested in Jason Bartlett. He invited us onto a nice Persian rug, got us comfortable, then yanked the rug out from under us. Actually, we all understand and already knew the truth about moving Bartlett, but here’s what Stark had to say:

"If the Red Sox decide this spring they don’t like their shortstop options, one guy who’s still out there is Jason Bartlett. The Padres have been listening on Bartlett all winter. But the Red Sox would have the same reservations that have kept other clubs from dealing for Bartlett: He’ll make $5.5 million this year, and he has a $5.5 million option for next year that will vest if he plays even semi-regularly."

While a move involving Bartlett has all but faded from our thoughts, it’s not completely out of the question. However, any move will require a different mindset than we may be used to. Instead if contemplating who the Padres may get in return, the thoughts will need to turn to how much can the team afford to eat in Bartlett’s contract. At what point does eating some of the contract still allow the Padres to come out on top?

Bartlett is due to make $5.5 million next season. That’s bad enough as it is, but he’s also set to get an automatic $5.5 million option for 2013 if he reaches 432 plate appearances. Now just stop. I know each and every one of you let your mind wander. You let yourselves hope that Bartlett injures himself so the team does t have to grant that option. We shouldn’t be wishing harm on any player, so let’s consider other options.

By most calculations, 1 WAR is worth $5 million. Last season, Bartlett did not earn that. He was worth 0.1 win above replacement. 10% better than a replacement level player. Is it realistic to think Bartlett can produce more than that in a season?  Sure. Can he produce more than that next season?  Absolutely. Is he worth the financial risk?  Probably not. If 1 WAR is worth $5 million, Bartlett was worth only $500,000 last season. If you buy into this line of thinking (which I do), the Padres overpaid (read: wasted) $3.5 million on Bartlett. This is not as much a condemnation on Bartlett as much as it is on Jed Hoyer.

So let’s look ahead to 2012. If Bartlett can bounce-back and account for 1 WAR, the Padres will still be overpaying by $500,000 dollars. However, the drop off in production once Bartlett reached San Diego is so drastic, it’s probably more realistic to assume he earns a 0.5 WAR at best. If that happens, the Padres will be overpaying by $3 million. Below is an outline of potential WAR numbers and how much the Padres will overpay at each level:

0.0 – $5.5 million
0.1 – $5 million
0.2 – $4.5 million
0.3 – $4 million
0.4 – $3.5 million
0.5 – $3 million
0.6 – $2.5 million
0.7 – $2 million
0.8 – $1.5 million
0.9 – $1 million
1.0 – $500k
1.1 – $0

If the Padres are banking on a 1.1 WAR performance from Bartlett in each of the next two seasons, they will be sorely disappointed. It’s more likely that the Padres will find they have overpaid by about $6 million in 2012 and 2013 combined. Rather than continue to overpay a player who really isn’t adding much to the team, it may be time to consider how much of his contract the Padres can retain to get a trade done.

If they were to trade Bartlett, the Padres could reasonably eat upwards of $3 million over the course of the next two seasons.  Sure that money is wasted, but to be frank, it is probably wasted with Bartlett on the team as well.  Teams like the Red Sox may be willing to kick in a low level minor league player if the Padres eat $1.5 million of Bartlett’s contract per season.  That would make him a very affordable shortstop at just $4 million a season.  Beyond that, the Padres may not even have to eat the full $3 million.  If Bartlett does not earn the plate appearances with his potential new team, he doesn’t get the automatic option and San Diego just saved themselves $1.5 million.

Yet even if the team does decide to absorb a portion of Bartlett’s contract to sweeten the pot in any trades, they still need a player to fill the gaping hole at shortstop.  Who do they go to?  There are not many options available on the market that are cheaper and more productive (or even cheaper and equally productive).  From my reviews, there is exactly one free agent shortstop still available and that’s Orlando Cabrera.  Cabrera accounted for -0.4 WAR last season.  Not exactly an upgrade.  So that leaves in-house replacements.

In 9 plate appearances last season, Everth Cabrera managed a perfect 0.0 WAR.  That’s just 0.1 less than Bartlett’s 2011 production.  Given more plate appearances, Cabrera can surely produce at least 0.1 WAR.  In all likelihood, he could produce upwards of 0.5-0.8 WAR given more playing time.  In slightly more than what would amount to a full Major League season (182 games and 688 plate appearances), Cabrera managed a .236/.318/.328 line.  He was also worth 0.4 WAR.  Perhaps the biggest upside to using Cabrera is his salary.

The Padres would be paying Cabrera around league minimum for the 2012 season.  He does hit his arbitration years starting in 2013, but the club would have at least the 2012 season in which they could pay him well under $1 million for production that very likely exceeds that of Jason Bartlett’s.  So let’s do the math one more time.

If Cabrera can perform at a 0.4 WAR pace (for simplicity I’m just using his career total since it almost equates to a full season), he would be worth $2 million.  The Padres would only be paying him about $450,000 or somewhere around that.  They would be saving a little over $1.5 million on the contract.  If they trade Bartlett and eat $1.5 million of his 2012 contract, San Diego actually doesn’t lose any money.  They would break even.

While it’s not the best position to be in, the Padres need to start considering a trade of Bartlett that includes San Diego absorbing some of his 2012 and 2013 contract.  In the short-term (and even in the one-term), they could save money and get more production by doing so.