The New York Mets signed free agent outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year contract today, worth a reported $60 million. This comes on the heels of a poor '13 season, with Granderson hitting a weak .229/.317/.407 in 61 games for the Yankees, limited by a hand injury. Can Granderson possibly live up to this contract and provide value for the Mets? Let's take a look at his career and potential future.
An outfielder at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Granderson had a terrific season in 2002, hitting .483/.552/.763 with nine homers, 17 steals in 17 attempts, and a 32/24 BB/K ratio in 207 at-bats. He ranked second in the NCAA hitting race, but despite his performance, he didn't get a huge helping of praise from scouts. Some saw his tools as only mediocre and felt he was a tweener, although some Midwestern scouts who had seen him a lot were more optimistic. He lasted until the third round in the draft, selected by the Detroit Tigers.
I saw him play in college and was very impressed, and felt his tools were quite solid and were being underrated. He hit .344/.417/.495 in 212 at-bats in the New York-Penn League. I gave him a Grade B in the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, writing "I think he's going to be one of the better players coming out of the '02 class."
Granderson played for Lakeland in the High-A Florida State League in 2003, hitting .286/.365/.458 with 11 homers, 49 walks, and 91 strikeouts in 476 at-bats. That may not look that hot, but his OPS was one of the best marks in the league at +22 percent. Scouting reports were muted, though...again, talk of mediocre tools. He didn't appear on the league Top 20 prospects list for Baseball America, and nobody really seemed impressed with him.
I lowered his grade slightly to a Grade B- and wrote that he could be a "good fourth outfielder or possibly a decent though not spectacular starter." Even that assessment was considered optimistic, although in retrospect I pulled my punches too much with him and should have stuck more strongly with my instincts that he was still being underrated.
Promoted to Double-A Erie for 2004, Granderson had an excellent year, hitting .303/.407/.515 with 21 homers, 14 steals, 80 walks, and 95 strikeouts in 462 at-bats. He saw action for the Tigers late in the year, going 6-for-25 (.240) with a double and triple. Although it looked like his Double-A numbers were way above his High-A marks, in context they really weren't: his OPS was +23 percent, almost exactly what it was the previous year.
However, with the surface numbers looking better, all of a sudden people started rating his tools more enthusiastically. They also praised his work ethic, leadership abilities, and intellect.
He looked like the same guy to me, the same guy I saw in college with solid tools and a great approach.
Other than simply maturing physically, I don't think Granderson changed much. He didn't gain loads of bat speed or completely turn into someone different. It was the perception around him that changed.
I had him as a Grade B again entering 2005. I thought he might struggle at first in the majors, but wrote that he had the intellect and confidence to adjust if he was given the chance to do so. That didn't really happen; he played well in Triple-A (.290/.359/.515) and didn't have a lot of difficulty in 47 major league games, hitting .272/.314/.494. In 2006 he played 159 games for the Tigers, and he's been a regular ever since, productive and durable until his '13 injuries. His peak seasons were 2007 at age 26 (7.7 WAR) and 2011 at age 30 (6.7 WAR).
Looking at the fate of the comparables, Gant had a bad year at age 32 (just like Granderson), rebounded with a decent season at 33, was bad at 34, then decent again at 35 before finally fading. Allison had a very good year at age 33, but got hurt at 34 and was out of baseball by age 35. Drew was productive at ages 33 and 34 but collapsed at 35. Sievers was excellent at 33 and 34, slightly above average at 35 and 36, then fizzled at 37.
Cruz collapsed at 32 and never recovered. Bay is still around at age 34 but his last good year was at age 30. Post was good at 31 and 32, fell apart at 33 and never recovered. Barfield was washed up at 32. Thomson was a below-average hitter but still in the regular Milwaukee Braves lineup at 32 and 33, had a good rebound year with the Cubs at age 34, then fell apart at 35.
Gibson was injured and ineffective at age 32 (just like Granderson) but hung around baseball until age 38, often playing well when healthy but having a hard time staying that way.
If the historical parallels mean anything, of the ten most comparable players through age 32, only one, Roy Sievers, was a productive, consistent, and durable player for the next four years of his career. Four, Cruz, Post, Barfield and Bay, were completely washed up by 33. The others weren't totally washed up at his stage and had at least one additional productive season, but were erratic and/or injury prone.
My guess is that Granderson will fall into the later category. I would anticipate a moderate rebound at age 33 but I wouldn't expect a full return to what he produced in his peak seasons, and the risk of complete collapse will logically increase every year.
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