December 28, 2012 at 12:12 pm by Andrew Sisson under Atlanta Braves
When Dan Uggla was traded to the Braves in October of 2010, many viewed the trade as a “steal”. The club was able to acquire a middle of the order bat for a utility type player and a replaceable left-handed reliever. The following January, he signed a five-year extension, which at the time wasn’t necessarily viewed as an overwhelmingly good or bad deal, but a scary one.
Uggla is now two years into his contract. In those years, he has been all over the spectrum. He was hotter than hot during his 33-game hit streak in 2011 and colder than cold during the second half of last season when he was ultimately benched. Overall, he hasn’t recreated enough of his numbers with the Marlins to justify a $62M contract.
I’m going to use the $/fWAR model in an attempt to quantify his past two seasons and then project his value going forward. Hopefully this will help put Uggla’s time in Atlanta into context.
We’ll start with his first two seasons in Atlanta. Uggla was a 2.5 and 3.5 win player, per FanGraphs, in 2011 and 2012. In both those years the market paid ~$4.5M per win. These combined 6 wins have been worth $27M to the club. Using $5M $/fWAR for 2013, and a 5% inflation rate going forward (could be higher with influx of new national TV money, but won’t change the end result much), I project he will have to be worth another 6.5 wins over the next three seasons to justify the contract.
Big picture, Uggla has been worth just under half his total value during the first 40% of the contract. As in many multi-year contracts, especially when signing players past their peak years, much of the value is provided upfront in exchange for a drop off in production during the latter years. This is no different with Uggla. The problem is that he is likely to see a continued natural aging decline going forward, but carries some additional risk of a sharper decline, which we may already be seeing, because of his physical makeup and skill set.
Uggla is essentially a one-tool player, with his power tool being above average. Lets remember, he wasn’t a top prospect and was once selected in the Rule 5 Draft. However, his power tool turned out to be significant enough that it carried him to becoming one of the best offensive performers at his position and overshadowed any weaknesses in other facets of his game. Unfortunately, it seems that his power has either vanished or is entered a significant decline. In 2012, he posted a career low .164 ISO and horrifying .384 SLG%, while hitting under 25 HR for the first time in his career. He was able to maintain league average offensive success in large part to a sizeable jump in his walk rate. His total value may also have been inflated in 2012 by defensive numbers, which were well above career levels. This could either be normal variation in advanced defensive metrics, better positioning on the field or Uggla was in fact a better defender at age 32 that he was during the prime of his career. I believe it is a mix of the first two scenarios and it is reasonable to suggest he regresses back towards career levels. Again, he is not an athletic player and this will only hamper his value as he ages.
The table below is how I project him going forward during the next three seasons.
I would estimate his average value going forward to be around 1.5 fWAR per season. This would leave his total value to the club about $12M under what his contract was signed for. Uggla would have had to produce about 60% of his total value during the first 40% of his contract in order for anyone to feel reasonably good about the remaining life of the deal. In my opinion, he could very well be a replacement level player by the end of his contract.
Could he exceed those expectations? Sure. If he continues to walk at a good rate, cuts down on the number infield fly balls and regains some of his power he could prolong his value as a player. Personally, I wouldn’t take that bet. Having an increasingly high IFFB% is a key sign because it could signal his upper cut swing is becoming more severe. He is trying to force power out a swing that once came more naturally. David also had a great take and gave his explanation for an increased number of infield fly balls back in July.
Looking at some recent players who were relatively short in stature and produced similar power numbers, it is hard to find many comparisons. Players like Miguel Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez were athletically gifted and provided a great deal of value on defense. Others like Gary Sheffield, Jeff Bagwell and Brian Giles were far superior hitters with tremendous bat speed. The only other similar players I can think of off the top of my head are Matt Stairs and Raul Mondesi. Stairs was able to DH, attempt to play outfield and pinch hit, while keeping his power late into his 30’s. Aside from one season, Mondesi’s power steadily trailed off after his age 26 season and was out of baseball after his age 34 season with the Braves. For what it’s worth, Uggla had the highest K% and lowest contact rate in the group. He was below replacement level for much of his 30’s. There is never going to be a perfect comp, but please feel free to discuss any other players that come to mind in the comment section.
While Uggla has indeed outperformed what he has been paid the first two seasons, he needed to outperform by a greater margin to make up for what will likely be a final two or three years of underperformance. It is hard to knock the front office for this deal though. They were able to acquire a player in a steal of a trade, at an offensively weak position, who consistently played 150+ games and had a nice string of 30+ HR seasons. Trading Uggla seems unrealistic at this point in time. Eventually it may happen and the Braves will have to eat salary. If the Braves still have money left over to spend this offseason, I wonder if they would entertain the idea of reworking his deal, making him more tradable and less of a payroll liability down the road.
The Braves took a gamble that he would be able to produce enough in the first couple seasons to make up the final years of the deal. That hasn’t happened and likely means the club ends up on the wrong side of the deal. The book isn’t closed by any means, but it very hard to see this contract working out in the Braves favor when it is.