You'll often hear about teams holding "open competitions" during Spring Training to fill some role, whether it's a spot in the batting order or a slot in the bullpen. Sometimes these competitions don't make a good deal of sense, like Randy Wells competing to be Chicago's fourth or fifth starter when he's been the club's second-best pitcher in the past two seasons. But sometimes, a team just decides to go into spring with a gaggle of potential options, hoping that just one of the guys will stick. If you get enough aging veterans, Quad-A players and fringe prospects together, you might just be able to squeeze a solid regular or a couple good platoon options out of 'em. Or at least that seems to be the logic.
This is generally what happens when a team's most obvious option at a given position, i.e. the most expensive option, isn't exactly someone that the team is excited about playing. One of the most obvious risks of handing out long-term contracts is the possibility that the player's skill set sees a major change or decline, essentially turning the player's contract into a sunk cost. But one of the most fascinating things that you'll see in MLB front offices these days is the significant hesitation with which executives determine whether a player is truly a sunk cost or not- this is why guys like Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez are still in Mets camp even though you could argue (state as fact?) that the team is basically screwed if they're looking to those kinds of players to win them ballgames.
You can look no further than the keystone competitions taking place in Port St. Lucie and Lakeland, the respective Spring Training homes of the Mets and Tigers, to wonder how these kinds of situations might play out. Going into next season, both of these clubs are spending significant money on a second baseman. The Tigers are paying Carlos Guillen $13 million for this season, and they've already said that they expect him to be their second baseman once he's healthy. The Mets aren't paying Castillo nearly as much, only a "paltry" $6 million, but they similarly entered Spring Training harboring hope that he'd emerge as a legitimate option at second base.
But one can't help but wonder why Detroit is so set on playing Guillen, or why New York is so interested in giving Castillo an extended look, given how they've played of late. Guillen is 35, has played 59 career games at second, and has accumulated 2.5 WAR in the past three years. Castillo is the same age and has spent practically his entire career at second, but he's been worth just 2.8 WAR over the past three seasons and put up his worth offensive numbers since 1998 last year. These guys are declining, and have been for a couple years now.
I'm not necessarily saying that Guillen and Castillo are utterly incapable of being useful. Castillo is one year removed from a .387 OBP, and even while struggling over the past two years Guillen has still been a roughly league average hitter. But it's never a good habit to bank on guys in their mid-30's that won't provide defensive value and need to improve upon their most recent offensive performance in order to be effective. And given that both teams have compiled a variety of intriguing options that are not only younger but have the potential to be long-term solutions, I'm still trying to figure out why both teams are so committed to their aging veterans. Beyond Guillen, the Tigers have Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore and Danny Worth competing for playing time at second base, and the Mets have Brad Emaus, Daniel Murphy, Ruben Tejada and Justin Turner duking it out along with Castillo.
How is Detroit going to better off with Guillen, when Marcel projects Rhymes to bat .282/.340/.418 and the 27-year-old grades out better defensively? How could New York prefer to play Castillo over Emaus, who put up a .397 OBP between Double-A and Triple-A last year, or Murphy, who's projected to bat .278/.329/.435 by ZiPS? I get the idea that front offices don't want to admit mistakes, and there's some allure to playing a guy with name value like Castillo or Guillen. But these guys aren't going to provide much in the present, and they don't provide anything in the future.
I suppose the Tigers are being more reasonable here, because Guillen is owed so much money and they're fully committed to competing in 2011 after a busy, expensive offseason. But clubs need to properly weigh the risks and rewards of retaining a potential sunk cost. And if these teams are doing their due diligence, then Castillo shouldn't be around come Opening Day, and Guillen's string shouldn't be too long.