December 4, 2013
Every so often, a bench player excels to such an extent in a part-time role that he transitions to starting, like a sitcom character who gets his own spinoff. Blocked by Charles Johnson when he first made the majors, Gregg Zaun became the Practically Perfect Backup Catcher, occasionally crossing over to first-string status as the opportunity arose. Craig Gentry is the contemporary equivalent—the Practically Perfect Fourth Outfielder, and maybe a little more.
Over the past three seasons, Gentry has recorded a putout on 11.1 percent of the balls put in play while he was in center field, the highest rate of anyone who’s spent at least 300 innings at the position. That’s a silly stat, dependent as it is on park configurations, the skill of adjacent fielders, and batted-ball breakdowns, but I like it because it tells such a simple story: the guy gets to a lot of baseballs. The less team-dependent stats tell the same story: Gentry is a fantastic center fielder, playing at something like a 30-run pace (over a full season) in each of the past three years, according to DRS and UZR. He also has a plus arm.
At the plate, Gentry doesn’t do anything flashy, but he does do a lot of little things—not the little things broadcasters love, but the little things that actually add value. His groundball stroke limits his power, but he makes a lot of contact. Combine a high contact rate with grounders and speed, and you get a lot of infield hits. Here are the leaders in infield hit percentage (infield hits over balls in play) over the past three seasons, minimum 700 PA (because Gentry has 709 over that span):
Gentry walks at a roughly league-average rate, but his career OBP is as high as it is (.355) because of his other easily overlooked offensive skill: putting his body in the path of the baseball, which he does as adeptly at the plate as he does in the field. In 2013, the average AL batter was hit by a pitch every 133 plate appearances. From 2011-13, Gentry was plunked every 29.5 plate appearances, which puts him in the Carlos Quentin class of extreme abuse:
Once he works his way on, he adds even more value. Gentry was worth close to five runs on the bases last season despite limited playing time, both because he takes the extra base and because he’s a high-percentage thief, boasting an 85 percent career success rate. Last season, he stole 21 out of 24; 2011, he swiped 18 bags without once being nabbed. (Gentry has often been used as a pinch runner, but as Russell Carleton’s recent research showed, pinch runners aren’t less likely to steal successfully, even though opposing managers know they’re going to go.)
So why is this wondrous being just the Practically Perfect Fourth Outfielder, and not a full-time starter? Against same-handed pitchers, he’s a career .271/.334/.335 hitter. That’s not awful, given his contributions in the field and on the basepaths, but Texas preferred to pair him with someone with more pop against righties.
And then there’s the lack of durability. The downside to being hit by all those pitches is that Gentry’s bones aren’t less breakable than other players’—last year, a fractured left hand cost him 22 games after he was hit by a Jarrod Parker slider in June. He had Tommy John surgery in college, later sprained a knee and (in a separate incident) fractured a wrist running into an outfield wall, and suffered a concussion after colliding with Aaron Hill’s hip while sliding into second. Sometimes, playing hard gets him hurt.
I called Gentry “the Rangers’ secret weapon” last May, and now he’ll do his damage for Oakland. The A’s should be a perfect fit for his skills, thanks to their big outfield and affinity for platoons. I used this table in a David Murphy-to-Cleveland TA entry last month, but I’ll repurpose it here with a different team name in bold:
% of 2013 team plate appearances w/the platoon advantage, AL (excluding switch-hitters)
Bob Melvin is one of baseball’s best managers when it comes to using matchups to hide his players’ weaknesses, so expect Gentry to continue to be used in a supersub role, spelling Oakland’s other outfielders in spot starts against southpaws and seeing action as a pinch runner and defensive substitute. However, Gentry is still cheap and under team control for the next three years, and Coco Crisp will be a free agent after next season. It’s not out of the question that Gentry could finally get a chance to start in 2015. He’s not really the +30 center fielder his relatively small sample in center suggests, and by the time he turns 31 he may have lost a step, but between the defense, the baserunning, and the adequate offense, he could be at least an average everyday guy.
(Lindblom, the other piece the A’s acquired in the Gentry trade, is a good makeup guy with a mediocre repertoire: a four-seamer that sets below 92, a two-seamer without much sink, an average slider, a below-average curve, and a fringy changeup. The 26-year-old will serve as starting depth for Oakland, and while he’s unlikely to see much time in a crowded rotation, he has found his way to the right park for his skills: he throws strikes and doesn’t get grounders, so the big park should be a boon.)
With Gentry on the roster, Seth Smith was expendable, and the A’s wasted no time in flipping him for Luke Gregerson. It’s surprising that the 29-year-old righty has picked up only 16 saves over his five big-league seasons, since his stats paint a picture of a pitcher who could close; perhaps he’ll get the chance if Jim Johnson gets hurt or departs at the deadline, though Ryan Cook is probably higher on the bullpen depth chart.
Gregerson has been one of baseball’s hardest-working and most effective setup men for several seasons, ranking third among relievers in innings since his 2009 debut. While he doesn’t throw as hard or rack up as many strikeouts as he used to, his slider still misses bats, and he’s never had a FIP above 3.40. Despite his heavy reliance on a slider—he and Darren O’Day were the only pitchers (min. 50 innings) to throw the pitcher more than 50 percent of the time—and a sinker, two offerings that typically leave pitchers vulnerable to opposite-handed hitters, he has surprisingly small platoon splits.
(My question was why teams still pay for relievers when there seem to be so many low-cost, equally effective relief finds.) This winter, though, the A’s are buying off the rack and paying full price, although their new relievers still cost little talent to acquire.
After adding Scott Kazmir, the A’s had relatively few areas on the roster to spend, so they’re devoting some dollars to the back of the bullpen (still fewer of them, though, than it would have cost to bring back Grant Balfour). Between the bullpen spending and the high price paid for Gentry—Oakland’s no. 2 and no. 8 prospects, according to Jason Parks’ list from last month—it looks like Billy Beane is doing all he can to maximize the A’s chances of ending their World Series drought soon. —Ben Lindbergh
Acquired OF-R Michael Choice and A-ball 2B-R Chris Bostick for OF-R Craig Gentry and RHP Josh Lindblom. [12/3]
This is the best kind of trade: one that both teams could win. The exchange of dissimilar players (speed and defense for power) gives it variety, and the fact that it went down between division rivals adds to the intrigue, making it perhaps the most interesting transaction on a day that was packed with them.
With Gentry in Oakland, Leonys Martin takes over full-time in center, with Engel Beltre sliding into the departed fourth outfielder’s role. Choice, who got a cup of coffee in September, is big-league ready, according to Jason Parks, and could be starting in left field on Opening Day. PECOTA projects him for a .257 TAv for 2014, but if the 24-year-old eventually turns into the slugger his raw power suggests he could be, the Rangers will be pleased with this swap. —Ben Lindbergh
The 10th overall selection in the 2010 First Year Player Draft, Choice entered the prospect scene as a potential impact power bat with some on-base ability. He has largely maintained that profile through his first four professional seasons, though the plus-plus raw pop has failed to fully manifest in games outside of a 30 home run 2011 campaign, which Choice spent in the hitter-friendly High A California League.
The former UT-Arlington standout generates big raw power through top-tier bat speed and solid strength in his six-foot, 220 pound frame. The bat jabs in and out of the zone quickly, however, and utilizes little in the way of swing plane/pitch plane overlap. The result is a fair amount of swing-and-miss and more frequent soft contact as he’s climbed the developmental ladder to face arms more capable of exploiting his shortcomings via quality off-speed and breaking stuff.
Defensively, Choice profiles as a future left fielder with average arm strength and solid run and routes that could play in limited center field exposure. The power is easy to dream on, and if Choice can make enough hard contact against big-league arms he could produce 25 to 30 home runs a year out of the sixth spot in a lineup.
Chris Bostick was popped by Oakland in the 44th round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft, and through his first 213 minor league games has shined as a potential late-round steal for the Athletics and their amateur scouting department. Last season saw Bostick complete his first year of full-season ball, and the New York native proved up to the challenge, posting a .282/.354/.452 triple-slash and 14 home runs over 555 plate appearances.
Bostick handles the barrel well and utilizes a compact stroke with some whip in the stick that allows him to work pole to pole. He showed a penchant for squaring the ball up and producing regular hard contact against a solid slate of Midwest League arms, and he runs the bases well, showing good reads and an ability to stretch first-to-third and second-to-home on balls to the outfield. Defensively, he has soft hands and an athletic lower half that allows him to cover solid ground at the keystone and operate effectively around the bag and on his pivots.
The projected profile isn’t sexy, but there is good value to be found in a potential major league regular with an above-average hit tool, good instincts on the bases, and an average or better run-prevention game at an up-the-middle position. He’s two full years away from contributing with the big club and has the bulk of his developmental arc ahead of him, but Bostick represents a solid risk/reward investment while adding further depth to the Rangers’ bounty of up-the-middle prospects. —Nick J. Faleris
Acquired OF-L Seth Smith for RHP Luke Gregerson. [12/3]
Trading Gregerson wasn’t the worst idea, since he’s entering his walk year and the Padres aren’t hurting for bullpen depth, although the $5 or so million he’ll make in his third year of arbitration must have limited his market. Maybe that’s why the Padres wound up with Smith, another impending free agent who seems somewhat superfluous on San Diego’s roster as it’s currently constructed. With Carlos Quentin in left and Will Venable, a better version of Smith, splitting time between corners, Smith’s playing time will be limited, barring a trade. He might miss Melvin’s efforts to limit his exposure to lefties, but at least we know he can see—after undergoing LASIK surgery following a summer slump, he hit .341/.431/.568 in a small sample the rest of the way. If you’re a Padres fan searching for upside, you can cling to the hope that Smith that won’t make any more outs now that he’s no longer astigmatic. —Ben Lindbergh
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @benlindbergh