Wednesday, November 05, 2003


Somewhere I remember King Kaufman calling Todd Helton the most overrated player in baseball history--actually, I remember where (Salon.com) and when (around the time the All-Stars were selected back in July). I'm too lazy to do the Google search to find it, nor would it matter if you didn't have a subscription to Salon. But that's not the point. The point is Todd Helton may have been the most interesting Hall of Fame candidate were he to play a long, healthy career exclusively with the Rockies.

The question now that Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd has said Helton's available is, What's he worth?

First, let's state the obvious: Todd Helton's a good hitter who happens to play half of his games in the most extreme hitters' park ever devised by man or beast.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's try to look at the details. This year, he hit .391/.480/.739 (1.219) in Colorado, and .324/.435/.514 (.949) everywhere else. Using ESPN's three year average from '00-'02, he's .385/.478/.727 (1.205) at home, and .297/.401/.534 (.935) on the road. Those numbers are pretty consistent. And so, despite being in a league somewhat below Giambi, Thome, and probably even Delgado, I think it's clear that outside of Colorado he won't turn into a pumpkin. Looking at their career road numbers, think Richie Sexson with better contact and strikezone judgement (.94 to .39 BB/K), but less power (.229 to .238 IsoPwr) and you've probably got a good idea of what he can do. Overrated or not, it still bodes well for any club looking for a big left-handed bat and/or a power hitting firstbaseman.

So, if you're Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, the Cubs, the Mets, or maybe even the Angels or Orioles, Helton still sounds like a good guy to get. Heck, he's even won some Gold Gloves, and despite that, he's actually a pretty good 1B.

But before you call Mr. O'Dowd and sign on the dotted line, consider the real fine print. Helton will make nearly twice as much as Sexson next year. Richie's owed $8 M next year, his age 30 season and the final year of his contract, while a 31 year old Todd Helton will cost you $11.6 M next year. And then $12.6 M the year after that, then $16.6 M the year after that, and then $16.6 M the year after that, and the same on and on and on and on until 2011 when he gets another raise to $19.1 M, before you can buy out the now 39 year old in 2012 for $4.6 M (unless you really, really want to pay that $23 M to play out the contract). Say what you will about OBP being three times more important than SLG, Helton's not nearly that much better than Sexson.

The problem isn't that Helton would likely only be a .950ish OPS first baseman anywhere but Colorado. It's that he's being paid as a 1.100 OPS first baseman regardless of where (and whether) he plays and will continue to be well past the age when most major leaguers retire. Somehow, this same O'Dowd signed Helton to a massive nine year deal without taking either into account. (And he's still got a job why?)

Yes, we need to put the contract into context. Yes, salaries looked like they would keep going up forever back in 2001. Manny Ramirez signed his 9 year, $160 M contract back in December 2000, and Alex Rodriguez signed his 10 year, $252 M contract a couple of days later, and then in Feb 2001 Jeter signed his 10 year, $189 M deal. So long contracts were clearly in vogue (however idiotic), and O'Dowd was able to ensure the fans that Helton would probably finish his career as a Rockie.

But was O'Dowd so blind that he really thought he was signing the same calibre of player as Ramirez and Rodriguez when he inked Helton to a 9 year, $141.5 M deal a couple of months later? It's not just that the market has changed. O'Dowd overpaid then.

It only looks worse because whatever Helton makes the next five years I bet will still be more than what you'd have to pay to get Gary Sheffield or Vlad Guerrero.

Oh, and did I mention he's got a bum back? And he's signed to 2011?

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