Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past: The non-signing of Vladimir Guerrero

Welcome to the latest installment of Yankeeist’s “Bizarre Moves from Seasons Past” series. We previously covered the trading of Mike Lowell, the non-signing of David Ortiz and the non-signing of Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season.

Following the Yankees’ World Series loss to the Marlins in 2003, every Yankee fan immediately turned their attention to free agency, armed with the knowledge that one of the most exciting and dangerous hitters in the game, Vladimir Guerrero, was hitting the market. Guerrero, who, up until that point had played his entire career in the barren baseball wasteland of Montreal, was fresh off an age 28 season in which he posted a 156 OPS+ and .418 wOBA and — while not exactly a defensive wizard — also boasted one of the most feared outfield arms in the game. And, perhaps most importantly, the Yankees were in the market for a new right fielder, having traded away malcontent Raul Mondesi during the 2003 season.

The primary knock on Guerrero was concern about a balky back, which somewhat surprisingly turned many suitors off. The Mets offered a base of three years, $30 million with incentives that would have pushed the deal to $71 million over five, but Guerrero wisely went with the guaranteed money the Angels dangled — $70 million for five years.

The Yankees sadly never even made an offer to Guerrero, as George Steinbrenner was utterly enamored of a 34-year-old Gary Sheffield. Granted, Sheffield was coming off an even more monster season than Vlad, with a 162 OPS+ and .434 wOBA, but given that Vlad was six years younger and one of the premier young sluggers in the game, Guerrero seemed like a no-brainer over an aging Sheffield. Brian Cashman obviously understood this and reportedly wanted Vlad; unfortunately this occurred before Cashman had the complete control over the team’s moves he possesses today, and as a result, Steinbrenner got his way, ordering Cashman to sign Sheffield to a reported three-year, $39 million contract.

Let’s take a look at what both gentlemen did through the 2003 season. I’m only going back to 1998, as that was Vlad’s first full season in the bigs:

Sheffield OPS+ Vlad OPS+ Sheffield wOBA Vlad wOBA
1998 155 150 .411 .400
1999 139 146 .402 .408
2000 176 162 .447 .434
2001 164 139 .418 .389
2002 138 160 .401 .418
2003 162 156 .434 .418

Both Sheffield and Guerrero were absolute monsters during this six-year stretch. Sheffield incredibly never posted a sub-.400 wOBA during this time, although would also never post a .400-plus wOBA ever again.

Now here are their numbers for the duration of Sheffield’s three-year tenure with the Yankees:

Sheffield OPS+ Vlad OPS+ Sheffield wOBA Vlad wOBA
2004 141 157 .391 .414
2005 137 154 .384 .401
2006 107 138 .350 .387

Vlad pretty handily outproduced Sheffield, and made every team that passed on him due to injury concerns kick themselves.

And for kicks, here are the Yankee right field numbers (2007 and 2008 are Bobby Abreu, 2009 is Nick Swisher) vs. Guerrero’s since Sheffield left the Yanks:

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NY RF OPS+ Vlad OPS+ NY RF wOBA Vlad wOBA
2007 113 147 .360 .393
2008 120 130 .368 .373
2009 129 106 .375 .343

So Vlad outproduced every Yankee right fielder for the entire duration of his initial five-year contract with the Angels. The 2009 season was the only instance since 2003 that the Yankees received more production out of right field than Vlad provided. As always, hindsight is 20/20, but passing on Guerrero was clearly a pretty lousy move on the Yankees’ part.

Just to be clear, Sheffield obviously wasn’t chopped liver at the time the Yankees signed him, but according to FanGraphs, the only year he came close to justifying his salary with New York was during his first season in pinstripes. On the whole, Sheffield was worth only $18.9 million while with the Yankees (granted, he was injured for the majority of the 2006 season), and at the end of 2006 they decided to pick up his $13 million option for 2007 and subsequently shipped him to Detroit for Humberto Sanchez, Anthony Claggett and Kevin Whelan, none of whom have amounted to anything for the Yankees and will likely stay that way.

How would the Yanks have fared had they — not the Angels — signed Vladimir Guerrero to a five-year deal to play right field? For one thing, they never would’ve traded for Bobby Abreu. It’s possible they still may have acquired Nick Swisher, given Vlad’s inability to play the field this past year, but then they would have had to figure out how to get plate appearances for both Vlad and Hideki Matsui.

Ironically enough Vlad is once again available, albeit as a shell of his former beast self. Of course, given the Yankees’ recent acquisition of Nick the Stick, this time the Yanks really don’t have a reason to finally fit Vlad for pinstripes, unless he can magically man left field.