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August 8, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

B.J. Surhoff

by Christina Kahrl

Hey, maybe they are America's team, because I ended up getting a lot of thoughtful and articulate email from Braves fans defending the acquisition of B.J. Surhoff. Several of them tackled the subject of whether or not I gave the Braves a fair shake as far as what B.J. Surhoff gives them, especially in comparison to Al Martin.

Here's a sampling:

"I've seen a lot of junk that Al Martin is a better hitter than BJ Surhoff, and the Braves could have gotten him cheaper. Well, probably, but that's because Martin is less valuable as an everyday player. The Braves' outfield, in case you haven't noticed, is about dead. They're playing Bobby Bonilla, Andruw Jones, and George Lombard. Trenidad Hubbard had been starting, for Christ's sake. Reggie Sanders is on the DL, Brian Jordan is living off cortisone shots, and they need an "innings eater" out there while they all rehab. They really don't need an injury prone-outfielder who needs to sit once a week against lefthanders. Surhoff can hold the fort down until both Sanders and Jordan are free from injury. And if they can all stay healthy until the post-season, the Braves will have an excellent outfield and a great bench."

--Chris Ryland

"I can't agree that Martin is a better hitter. Even if you discount Martin's 1998 as a fluke, I don't see how he could be considered a better hitter than Surhoff, even before the parks enter into it. When you throw in Surhoff's durability, the difference in defense, Surhoff's ability to be an emergency catcher (keeping Cox from wasting a postseason roster spot on a player with no use) and that as far as I know he hasn't violated any of the laws of God or Man, Surhoff's a better player. Not that I agree with the trade, but be fair."

--Thomason McCutcheon

"I wanted to take issue with your comments about BJ Surhoff in your July 27-31 Transactions Analysis. First, he is a significant upgrade on Reggie Sanders for the rest of the season. More importantly, your comment about the Braves having a big salary commitment for two more years doesn't hold up. If the Braves decided to trade him this off-season, they could easily shed his salary and get some positive value. Sure, you know and I know that Surhoff is a mediocre corner OF, but much of the media and many major league GMs don't know it."

--Bruce Gilsen

Now some of what's being brought up here are some pretty solid points in Surhoff's favor. Setting aside his hitting for the moment, he has been an exceptionally durable player over the last several years, playing in 162 games in both 1998 and 1999. And there is absolutely no doubt that Surhoff, like Brian Downing before him, has gone from being an ex-catcher standing around in left to doing what Carlton Fisk and Dave Nilsson could not do, which is become a very good outfielder.

There's also no doubt that the Braves have depth problems in the outfield. Brian Jordan has had cortisone shots in both shoulders, one knee and an elbow. Reggie Sanders' bat has been AWOL for the entire season. Those two factors have ended up handing Bobby Bonilla considerably more playing time than anyone should have initially expected, and that isn't exactly a good thing. So clearly, the Braves could use some help in the outfield, and I'd agree that having a guy you can count on to show up every day is a valuable thing. I made that same comparison this spring between Fonzie Bichette and Joe Carter on the one hand, and Jeffrey Hammonds on the other, as a sort of sympathetic gesture to Jim Bowden's Reds and why Bichette, while he wouldn't be very good, wouldn't be completely useless either.

If we break down the issues in Surhoff's defense, the primary points that seem to be brought up in his favor are durability, defense, and hitting. I'll concede defense right off the top. What about durability? In terms of Equivalent Runs, or a measure of how much a regular like Surhoff has done for his team, Surhoff has produced all of 52 runs so far. For the sake of comparison, Al Martin, with warts like his platoon deficiencies, days off and all, has produced 51.7. For laughs, lets also consider that Bichette has cranked out 49.7; Bichette's major claims to fame are his ability as a 'run-producer' who can stay in the lineup, which sounds sort of familiar to some of Surhoff's strong points. Clearly, when it comes to regular players, we aren't talking about great offensive players.

Nevertheless, is Surhoff the right guy for them? I'm going to say no, in deference to Bruce, Thomason and Chris. While I especially like Thomason's point that Surhoff may prevent another Ayrault- or Fabregas-sized postseason roster atrocity, let's keep in mind what the Braves' lineup looks like:

C: Javy Lopez, bats R
1B: Andres Galarraga, bats R
2B: Keith Lockhart for the time being, bats L
3B: Chipper Jones, bats B
SS: Raffy Furcal, bats B
LF: Surhoff, bats L
CF: Andruw Jones, bats R
RF: Brian Jordan, bats R

The bench? Two switch hitters (Bonilla and Walt Weiss), three lefties (Wally Joyner, Lombard and Paul Bako), and one right-handed bat (Steve Sisco). As a lineup, that looks an awful lot like a team short on left-handed power, and one that prominently features four right-handed regulars, with only Chipper around to give the Braves a left-handed bat worth more than an extra-base hit per week.

Through Monday's game, the Braves as a team have hit .253/.333/.416 against right-handed pitching, and .326/.398/.487 against left-handed pitching. That looks a lot more like a team that needs somebody to fill Ryan Klesko's shoes than it does like a team that needs an everyday mediocrity like B.J. And I do mean mediocrity. Even if you don't think a .256 Equivalent Average is something to avoid in a corner outfielder, Surhoff's platoon stats aren't reason to believe he can fill Klesko's shoes. Against right-handers this year, he's hitting .280/.325/.430. I don't care if he plays left like Joe Rudi and stays in the lineup better than Cal Ripken, that's unacceptably bad from a corner outfielder.

Another point that has been brought up in Surhoff's defense is that Camden Yards is a pitcher's park, and that somehow Surhoff is better than his numbers show. That isn't really the case. Camden isn't a great hitter's park when its compared to the other parks currently in the American League, but it's not the Astrodome or Chavez Ravine either. One of the problems with park factors is that they're generated in comparison to their peers. If you look back five years ago, Camden was one of the better hitter's parks in the American League, and to my knowledge, its dimensions have not changed. If you wanted a short list of the better pitcher's parks in the AL, Baltimore doesn't belong on a list featuring Detroit, New York, or Oakland.

Lastly, while some people have worked miracles in terms of making big contracts disappear (John Hart making Marquis Grissom a Brewer deserves pride of place), counting on the stupidity of others as an evener for your own mistakes strikes me as weak reasoning. Surhoff's on tap for a lot of money, and he's obviously a declining hitter. With no Bavasi running a franchise, the Brewers feeling financially constrained, and the Orioles temporarily out of the ludicrous contract market, John Schuerholz is going to have an extremely hard time putting Surhoff into some other team's uniform, even if he ends up wanting to.

Chris Kahrl can be reached at ckahrl@baseballprospectus.com.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Brian Downing,  Comparison

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