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February 26, 2016

Transaction Analysis

Fowler Comes In WAY Under Budget

by Bryan Grosnick and Rian Watt


American League
National League

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Acquired OF-L Chris Coghlan from the Cubs in exchange for RHP Aaron Brooks [2/25]

It happened again. The Athletics went out and required an inexpensive pre-free agency regular with platoon splits, a low ceiling, a little positional flexibility. Coghlan had a career revival as soon as he stepped foot in Chicago after four disappointing seasons in Miami, and now he’ll attempt to do it again on the West Coast. In this move, the Athletics once again snagged an average baseball player with a wart or two, and may spend the rest of the spring trying to make a new puzzle piece fit their mishmash roster.

Before this deal, PECOTA was projecting Coghlan to post a .253 True Average in his upcoming walk year, but that mark would be decidedly less than ideal. He can do better, and has proved over the last two seasons: in 2014 he posted a .292 TAv, in 2015 he posted a .279 TAv. The former Cub’s critical flaw is a common one—nearly all the damage he’s done has been against right-handed pitching. Last season he took it to the extreme, as the Cubs barely used him against lefties (just 49 PA), but he posted a .208 OBP and .140 slugging percentage. Leveraged against right-handers, Coghlan can be an offensive difference-maker, but against southpaws he might as well be a hat rack.

It’s almost worth considering his offense a sure thing, but his position on the diamond is certainly not. His career has been a bit of a walkabout, moving from most of his time in the bigs patrolling the outfield to short stints in the infield. As a corner outfielder, Coghlan has been a mixed bag over his career: FRAA is certainly the high system on his defense, giving him good marks in Chicago (+7 runs); other defensive metrics DRS and UZR have pegged him as an awful defensive outfielder right up until 2015, during which he was about average. Joe Maddon, master of positional flexibility, also used him at first, second, and third base during his time in Chicago. He’s spent less than 200 innings in the infield, but the Athletics already appear to be punting infield defense, so you could imagine a scenario where he slots in at second or third base in a world where the A’s decide to get creative.

Of course, we already know the A’s are creative. The most interesting part of the deal is that the Athletics didn’t seem to need another guy like Coghlan. Even with his positional flexibility–and remember, he’s not really a good defender anywhere–he’ll need to be partnered with a right-handed hitter. On this roster, that means one of Khris Davis, Danny Valencia, Marcus Semien, Billy Butler, Mark Canha, or maybe Jed Lowrie. Davis is likely to play every day, Valencia is reported to be playing every day, and Semien is, at least in name, the team’s shortstop. Thanks to the presence of another lefty (Yonder Alonso), I’d imagine that either Butler or Canha would be the platoon partner for Alonso at first/DH. Since Butler can’t play defense worth a darn, let's assume Canha is Alonso’s partner, which leaves Butler and Lowrie as short-side platoon options. Either of those would be a bit of a surprise, but Lowrie seems a bit less likely to be platooned. He’s a switch-hitter (albeit one with a -.068 TAv platoon split last season) and perhaps the only other “true” middle infielder on the roster aside from Semien. Lowrie’s defense may be no great shakes, but Coghlan could still be a downgrade with the glove.

So that leaves Billy Butler, the team’s DH and also the A’s highest-paid player. Are the Athletics really ready to make him the short side of a platoon? If they want to run the best possible team out there for 2016 … yeah, maybe. Butler’s PECOTA-projected TAv is superior to Coghlan’s (.273 for 2016), but which of the two would you most likely project to beat their projection, Coghlan or Butler? My bet would be the guy who has outperformed the projection over the past two years—Coghlan—over the guy who has under-performed, in Butler. And that’s probably enough to turn them into a platoon, when the A’s will need to scrounge for every win.

However it plays out, the Athletics acquired an above-average regular in exchange for a middling relief pitcher in Brooks. Maybe they’ll deal Coghlan at the deadline, maybe they’ll deal someone else, but unless there’s a sudden and surprising breakout, the Athletics definitely won this trade on paper. The only “problem” here is that there doesn’t seem to be a natural fit, even for someone who logs some time almost every position. Part of me thinks that this deal is as much a referendum on the Billy Butler contract than on anything else—despite the investment, performance is still king. Beane and Forst have made a career out of zigging when other teams are zagging—they did it when they brought Butler in, and they’re doing it again now by adding a player who’s not an ideal fit. Even so, he’s a valuable player that Oakland acquired for a song, and that’s a very A’s move indeed. —Bryan Grosnick

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Signed OF-S Dexter Fowler to a one-year contract worth $8 million, with a mutual option for 2017; Acquired RHP Aaron Brooks from the Athletics in exchange for OF-L Chris Coghlan [2/25]

Well. There is a great deal to talk about with respect to this transaction, and only some of it has to do with the deal’s baseball implications. There’s the fact that, a mere 72 hours ago, we believed that Fowler had agreed to a three-year, $35 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles, there to play right field at Camden Yards. There’s the corresponding fact that nobody—not one person—had heard a whisper of this deal until a white-shirted Fowler strode out onto the Cubs’ Field 6 and greeted his cheering teammates. And there’s the CBA-driven oddity that Fowler, a 3.7 WARP player last year, was unsigned at this late date in the first place.

But we’re not here to talk about any of those angles, interesting though they are. We’re here to talk about the implications of a simple fact: On Thursday morning, the Cubs organization was home to (among others) outfielder Chris Coghlan, and this Friday morning it is home instead to Dexter Fowler and Aaron Brooks. What does that mean for Chicago?

Quite a lot. We’ll get to Brooks in a moment, but let’s for a moment consider instead the Coghlan->Fowler upgrade. Coghlan is a good player, and he would’ve contributed positively as a Cub in 2016. He can play all three outfield positions (center field only in a pinch), has a good eye at the plate, and has a reasonable degree of power. All good things.

But he can’t really hit lefties: His TAv against them, last year, was .141, compared to .294 against righties. And that made it quite difficult for him to be more than a very solid fourth outfielder in a Chicago outfield rotation that also (prior to yesterday’s chicanery) included Heyward, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez. Manager Joe Maddon would of course have found a use for him, but his role was limited.

Enter Fowler, who can play pretty much every day, and can play center field to boot.

Fowler’s presence in center allows the Cubs to move Heyward back to his natural home in right field (although he’ll still back up Fowler in center, as Fowler will back him up in right), pushes Soler to a backup position in both right and left (to Kyle Schwarber), and gives Baez (who’d been getting reps in center, during winter league) the opportunity to focus more on his infield work (at second, shortstop, and third base) for the time being. It also probably means that Matt Szczur is no longer needed on the roster (he’d been wanted for his ability to back up center field), which opens the door for Tommy La Stella to grab the second utility infielder role (he plays second, third, and occasionally first), which provides Kris Bryant (who’s also played center field in the big leagues) the opportunity to slide into left field late in games if necessary.

Oh, and Schwarber is planning to catch a few games, too. And we haven’t even talked about Ben Zobrist.

Dizzy yet? That’s a natural byproduct of the extraordinary flexibility the Cubs have built into their roster this season. On any given day, the Cubs can run out a lineup of big-league stars explicitly tailored to the opposing starters’ weaknesses, and then run out a second string of perfectly competent big-league regulars to take on the opponent’s bullpen. Against righties, the lineup will probably be Schwarber-Fowler-Heyward. Against lefties? It’s probably Soler-Fowler-Heyward, with Schwarber either on the bench or behind the plate. And if the starter has a reverse-split? Then…

We needn’t go on. Chris Coghlan was a very good fourth outfielder. Jorge Soler is a better one—a starter on nearly all teams—and Fowler’s profile in the lineup (where his on-base percentage will be just as valuable as it was last year) and in the field gives the Cubs an astonishing array of depth and talent to deploy at the time of their choosing. And the price they paid for the privilege? A mere $8 million, plus or minus the net value of Coghlan/Brooks, and presumably another $5 million when Fowler declines his half of the mutual option for 2017. The Cubs wouldn’t have gone out and got Fowler at the price the Orioles were willing to pay, of course, but Fowler took a discount to come back to a city he connected with, and thereby put a deal on the table that the Cubs couldn’t afford to turn down.

Ah, Aaron Brooks. The man about whom many words would likely have been written, were it not for what came right afterward. From the Cubs’ perspective, Brooks has a few pleasant qualifications: He’s tall (6-foot-4), he walks many fewer people than he strikes out (7.8 K/9 vs. 1.8 BB/9), and he has minor-league options left. The first two qualifications make him merely a typical Cubs pitcher of the last few years; the last makes him a perfect fit for an incredibly crowded bullpen and rotation picture in Chicago this year. Brooks won’t make the big-league bullpen out of spring training—not unless lightning strikes, like, 10 other people between now and April—but will instead head to Triple-A Iowa, there to await big-league disaster or a September roster expansion. But, enough words about him, because this deal wasn’t really about him. I mean, the Cubs are always after pitching depth—who isn’t? But what they needed to do yesterday, fundamentally, was move salary so they could pick up Dexter Fowler. And move it they did, in the form of acquiring Aaron Brooks. —Rian Watt

Bryan Grosnick is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here
Rian Watt is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rian's other articles. You can contact Rian by clicking here

Related Content:  Dexter Fowler,  Chris Coghlan,  Aaron Brooks

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