Following the departure of Robinson Cano, the Yankees signed Brian Roberts to an incentive-laden deal to be their primary second baseman in 2014. Once a star player, Roberts has fallen on hard times in recent years, mainly due to his inability to stay on the field — the 36-year-old hasn’t played a full season since 2009. It’s been years since Roberts has been a productive player, but the Yankees seem to think there’s at least a small chance that he can recapture some of his former glory. The projection systems don’t agree — all peg him for close to a replacement level performance in 2014.
Signings like this seem to have become commonplace for the Yankees in recent years. This time last year, the Yankees were even kicking the tires on guys like Scott Rolen, Derek Lee, Troy Glaus, and even Chipper Jones to fill the holes in their lineup. Since 2011, Brian Cashman’s brought in a parade of fallen superstars who’s value had hit rock bottom. Some have had some success — Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez, and Alfonso Soriano. Yet, others were flops. Travis Hafner, Andruw Jones, and Mark Prior all faded into obscurity after disappointing stints in pinstripes. Ichiro Suzuki is probably just months away from suffering a similar fate.
Every time the Yankees are linked to one of these guys, I think back to a quote from Assistant GM Billy Eppler from a couple of years ago:
“One thing to remember is that all of these players were stars,” said Billy Eppler, the Yankees’ director of professional scouting. “If you are going to do a reclamation project then do it with these types of players because if there is still something there and it comes out, you are getting all or a big part of a star. What do you get with a reclamation project of an average player?”
Could the Yankees be on to something here? Maybe they’ve stumbled onto some kind of market inefficiency: former superstars who appear to be at the end of their careers, but have one more dead cat bounce left in them.
I decided to find out if these formerly great players were any more likely than your average scrub to outperform expectations. I looked at all of the batter seasons from 2011-2013 by a player over 30 who was projected for less than one WAR by PECOTA. I plotted their actual WAR minus projected WAR against their highest single season WAR and labeled the players who were Yankees.
It doesn’t look like there’s any hidden value this type of player — at least none that isn’t captured by the PECOTA projection system. If there was actually something to Eppler’s theory, we’d expect to see a positive correlation, which we do not. That red trend line’s about as flat as flat can be. Still, bringing in last decade’s all-stars doesn’t seem to do much damage, either. On average, they tend to live up to their projections — no better and no worse. One thing that is clear is that the Yankees have brought on more of these types than probably any other team over the last few years. In the above graphic, the Yankees had five of the 18 players who once posted a WAR greater than five.
Roberts was one of the best second basemen in baseball from 2005 to 2008. It’s easy to look back on those years and imagine a return to prominence, but the fact is that Roberts’ glory days were a long time ago. They tell us next to nothing about the type of player he is today and what he’s capable of going forward. Sure, there’s a chance Roberts could pleasantly surprise us this year, but the same could be said about pretty much anyone. A breakout from Roberts probably isn’t any more likely than a breakout from someone who’s never been more than a scrub. The projection systems unanimously project Roberts to be barely above replacement level in 2014 — a bench player at best. Expecting anything more from him would be wishful thinking. A return to glory may have been a reasonable expectation in 2010 or 2011 and maybe even in 2012, but not this year. It’s just been too long since Brian Roberts has been a good player.