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December 20, 2005

Prospectus Today

Nomah...Dude!

by Joe Sheehan

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NomarWatch officially ended yesterday, as former All-Star signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, ostensibly to be their first baseman. The last two weeks had been filled with rumors, as Nomar Garciaparra was linked to the Indians, Yankees, Blue Jays, Pirates, Knicks, Red Wings, the Dutch National Team and Steve's Lumber and Auto Detailing.

What I fail to understand is the elaborate pursuit of the player or the hype that surrounded it. Garciaparra is at a point in his career where you have to question his ability to both stay on the field and be a productive player when he does so. Over the past two years, he's played in a total of just 143 games, hitting .309/.359/.484 for the Red Sox and Cubs. Here's that two-year line in toto:


       AB     H   2B   3B   HR    BB   SO   SB  CS   AVG   OBP   SLG
      531   164   33    3   18    36   54    4   1  .309  .359  .484
(Aside: Sophia--I really should have dubbed her "The Baseball Gal" all those years ago--just walked in and asked me what I was writing about. When I told her, she said, "It's going to be good for [the Dodgers] if he can stay healthy." This is…unusual, not unlike having one of our cats offer an opinion on immigration reform. She likes doing this every now and again, dropping baseball knowledge that makes some sense but sounds completely incongruous coming from a woman who, at best, tolerates the game.)

Now, that stat line doesn't look so bad. You might argue that getting an 840-OPS hitter heading into his age-33 season for a one-year, $6 million commitment is a pretty nice deal, even if you acknowledge that the player might never play another game at shortstop. The problem is that when you look deeper, there's both a pattern of steep decline and a major split hidden in those overall numbers, and those two things combine to make Garciaparra a questionable investment.

Start with the pattern. In three seasons, Garciaparra has lost a big chunk of his power and almost all of his speed. He hit 13 triples and stole 19 bases in 2003. He had neither a triple nor a stolen base in '05. His ability to hit for average may not have changed--batting average can fluctuate wildly for a hitter whose skills are stable--but the drop in power, which is 70 points of slugging and 50 points of isolated power, is probably real.

That last trend also reflects Garciaparra's loss of a significant driver of his big numbers. Since 2003, when Garciaparra hit .243/.286/.401 outside of Fenway, he's been fairly ordinary when outside of an environment that was well-suited to his free-swinging, drive-the-ball approach. Outside of Fenway Park the past three seasons, Garciaparra has hit .281/.325/.448. That's the player the Dodgers have just signed, and he bears little resemblance to the guy who hit .372 nearly six years ago.

Garciaparra's career path actually hews to typical as closely as any player's. He reached the majors quickly after being drafted and was a regular at 24. He had four great seasons leading up to a .372/.434/.599 peak in 2000, at age 27. He missed most of his age-28 season, then played at 29 and 30 at a reduced level before injury-plagued years at 31 and 32 coincided with diminished performance, most notably an inability to play shortstop adequately.

So what you're left with is a past-prime ex-superstar who has been removed from the environment where he's had the most success, and is now being asked to do on-the-job training at a new position in a difficult hitters' park with, basically, the rest of his career on the line. Were Garciaparra being asked to play a position with low expectations for production, his chance to be worth the money would be greater. However, his reluctance to play second base, and the Dodgers' investments elsewhere in the infield, mean that Garciaparra is slated to play first base at this time. That's a lot to ask of a guy who posted a .263 EqA in 62 games last season.

It's hard to see how the Dodgers have even upgraded the position. It's established by now that the baseball industry simply doesn't like Hee Seop Choi, who has been defined by what he cannot do rather than what he can by two organizations, and who hasn't been given a fair shake outside of a half-season in Florida in 2004. Even in a difficult 2005 season, however, Choi put up a line of .253/.336/.453, good for a .274 EqA in Dodger Stadium. At worst an average defensive first baseman, and heading into his age-27 season, it seems certain that he would be a better choice than Garciaparra in 2005.

Let's make this clear: the Dodgers are replacing Choi with a player Choi out-hit last season (and posted comparable numbers to in 2004), a player who's likely going to be inferior defensively, who will cost more money, and carry a greater risk of injury and decline. They're getting a more famous person in the deal, one whose aggressive approach at the plate may play better than Choi's disciplined one, but whose edges are all stylistic.

Forget the names for a second, and forget the fact that Garciaparra was a great player through 2003 and once a member of the vaunted "Trinity" of AL shortstops. Forget that scouts abhor Choi. Based solely on performance, age and salary, this signing, this choice, makes no sense. By signing Garciaparra to play first base in 2005, the Dodgers have likely gotten older, more expensive, and worse on both sides of the ball.

This deal could work out. Garciaparra could reverse every trend on the page and recover to hit .300 with lots of doubles and some homers, take well to first base--a position he's never once played as a professional--and be a part of the Dodgers' resurgence. Choi could find his way to another organization and scuffle, although I doubt he will. Looking a bit deeper at his performance last year, you see that he hit .263/.346/.475 when playing first base, a very good line given his home park. A brutal performance in 45 pinch-hitting appearances--.190/.271/.310--helped to drag his numbers down. Left alone to be at least the left-handed part of a platoon in a neutral park, Choi could be at least a .275/.360/.510 guy, and possibly more. Again, he's just 27 in '06.

I would be very surprised if Garciaparra had a .346 OBP or a .475 SLG next season.

In a curious, complicated and contentious winter, the Dodgers have just made perhaps their strangest move yet. Combined with the trade of Milton Bradley and Antonio Perez for a corner-outfield "prospect" who hit just 18 homers at Midland, they have swapped most of their roster's upside for better citizens, nabbing a PR boost that will be forgotten by February, if not Friday. The distancing from all things that smack of the previous regime may not qualify as "cleansing," but it does threaten to keep the Dodger scoreboard neat and clean in 2006.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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