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July 30, 2008
Transaction of the Day
One of the tropes I tend to hammer on is gunning for a team that's built to win in October, not simply get there. It's always lovely to run up a tri-pennant or say you were a wild-card heartthrob, but at the end of the day, it's actually winning a few post-season series that really makes all the difference in terms of winning hearts and minds, opening check books for subsequent season ticket sales, and getting better ad revenue. Winning's the gift that keeps on giving, good for attendance spikes, better local market media and ad revenue, and permanent satisfaction that you've done more than somebody like the Yankees or Braves lately. Who knows, it might even make you an acceptably Angeleno franchise, instead of a suburban wannabe.
This isn't going to be a paean to current GM Tony Reagins versus former GM Bill Stoneman; neither man is Branch Rickey, but Stoneman's already got a ring, Reagins has the ambition and the brains to add a second, and neither man is Bill Bavasi in terms of an unfortunate capacity to be smacked around by the reality stick. In terms of acquiring a premium first baseman to help make the difference between a merely good team and a squad good enough to take its best shot at the cream of the better league and then stomp the senior circuit, this does that.
In practical terms, Tex is the kind of slugger you love to have. Against top fireballers, he'll fight off being overpowered, get in a few rips, and take a base, that last representing something the Angels don't see much of; he simply murders off-speed pitchers. He's a true switch-hitter, in that he's not losing much to opposing pitchers because of their handedness. The Angels make a bit of a fetish of their mastery of situational hitting, and on that score, you would think that Tex should fit in, having already delivered on 16.3 percent of his baserunners; ranking 96th among the 378 hitters with 100 or more PA is more good than bad, and it's definitely not like they brought in someone decisively anathematic, like Jack Cust (298th). Consider the team-level rankings for non-pitchers:
Rank Team OBI% 1 Twins 16.5 2 Pirates 15.7 3 Rangers 15.6 4 Orioles 15.3 5 Angels 15.0 6 Phillies 14.9 7 Astros 14.9 8 White Sox 14.9 9 Royals 14.6 10 Brewers 14.6 11 Indians 14.5 12 Tigers 14.5 13 Rockies 14.5 14 Marlins 14.4 15 Mets 14.4 16 D'backs 14.4 17 Cubs 14.4 18 Yankees 14.3 MLB Average 14.2 19 Dodgers 14.2 20 Giants 14.2 21 Braves 13.9 22 Red Sox 13.7 23 Reds 13.6 24 Rays 13.5 25 Cardinals 13.5 26 A's 13.4 27 Blue Jays 12.9 28 Mariners 12.7 29 Padres 12.3 30 Nationals 12.2
All very interesting, and all very validating for the Angels' way of doing things, but the semi-amusing thing about this is that Kotchman wasn't a problem, at least not through this way of seeing things, because he was plating 18.3 percent of his baserunners, 40th in the majors. It's instructive to put those percentages in the context of the lineups that created those opportunities; the Angels rank 11th in the league in Equivalent Average, and 12th in the league in unintentional walks drawn. Playing in that low-OBP offense, Kotchman was getting significantly fewer opportunities than Teixeira was with the Braves, with only 174 PA with runners on base while spending most of the season hitting sixth, behind the heart of the order, while Teixeira had 247 batting fourth in the DH-less league, a slot where the pitcher's hitting (and rarely reaching base) affected his total opportunities.
So talk about Teixeira as an RBI guy in the middle of the order is relatively unimportant, not on an Angels team that's just not going to give him that many baserunners to plate in the first place. Instead, what's really going to matter are the things he can control-the power he'll deliver and the OBP that he'll add from the middle of the order. In terms of what he adds to the lineup, he spares them the indignity of Maicer Izturis batting third, putting some lefty-hitting power between Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter in the cleanup slot against right-handed pitching. Maybe that pushes Izturis to the second slot, where his past-but-not-yet present OBP skills might help maximize the value of the damage Tex can do. If not Izturis, maybe they push Howie Kendrick into the two hole and go for some short-sequence violence up front.*
In terms of the expense, giving up a bullpen arm and a still not-yet-something first baseman who's going to be arbitration-eligible and is only under control for three years is definitely a price worth paying, and against that you're getting two months with a premium first baseman in a lineup that needed a difference-making hitter of Teixeira's caliber. Beyond that, the Angels will also then get first shot at re-signing said premium first baseman (perhaps an attractive proposition, since the Angels are regular winners), and a pair of Type A free agent-generated compensatory draft picks if said premium first baseman decides that he doesn't like the color of your money, or that California taxes just aren't what he wants to pay. In the abstract, the picks themselves might have been worth it as a matter of repurposing Kotchman and Marek after both have come up short relative to the hopes invested in them as prospects, so from that point of view adding the two months with Tex at first base to take their best shot at winning the whole shebang just makes this that much tastier. Add in that they'll be up a spot on the 40-man over the winter, and it's a move that creates all sorts of little benefits beyond the big obviousness of adding Teixeira's bat.
If there's really something to credit Tony Reagins for, it's some combination of the following factors:
*: I know, sabermetric orthodoxy insists that lineup order doesn't matter; I guess I keep forgetting to drink all of my Kool-Aid, especially when lineup-related research depends on so many lazy assumptions and/or involves redoing some of the same Markov Chain analysis that's been done for decades, all of which ends up suggesting that... well, that Joe McCarthy or Earl Weaver or Casey Stengel or Bobby Cox are smarter than the models (or the modelers). Consider me a firm believer in the proposition that much of sabermetrics is about the documentation of already-observed phenomenon, and that the best-placed observers did not and do not need sabermetric re-educations, they need to be learned from to create historically-informed sabermetrics.
Many thanks to William Burke for his indispensable assistance with some data research.
Acquired 1B-L Casey Kotchman and RHP Stephen Marek from the Angels for 1B-S Mark Teixeira. [7/29]
Yesterday, Joe explored the reasons why Frank Wren wasn't going to get anything like the package that John Schuerholz surrendered to bring in Teixeira, which is pretty straightforward: Schuerholz was getting an impact player who could help his team win two division titles as well as an element of certainty as far as the makeup of his lineup over the winter of 2007-08, while Wren's giving up just one shot at Tex's helping you win something, plus the attendant draft picks. Even so, this isn't a package that really helps the Braves all that much, not in any meaningful way beyond controlling costs, and given that they can look forward to three years in arbitration with Kotchman, perhaps not even that.
As a result, since Kotchman's going to be a seven-figure player for the rest of his pre-free agency career with the Braves after his two-month introduction, the real question is whether or not he's worth it, or if he isn't the sort of player you go out of your way to avoid this kind of commitment to. The answer isn't really a very happy one for Braves fans. Kotchman's usually evaluated in terms of power potential (mostly unrealized) and fielding acumen. Granting him the fielding, that leaves us with the first baseman's primary responsibility, hitting prowess. Kotchman's career has had its share of hiccups, between too much time spent cooling his heels waiting for the organization's man crush on Darin Erstad to subside in 2005, to a 2006 season wiped out by a bad case of mono, but last year, aged only 24, it finally appeared that he was breaking out, delivering a .294 Equivalent Average, and he also reached that stathead's joyspot by walking at least once every ten plate appearances. The power was all against right-handers, and not really masked by any park effect; he had an ISO of .189 against right-handers, and .082 against lefties, so decent work, but not game-breakingly great.
This year, he hasn't improved any in the power department while getting dramatically worse as hitting coach Mickey Hatcher's latest hacktastic hero, as his walk rate's dropped to less than four percent, with no commensurate payoff at the plate. Slick-fielding moderate-powered first basemen who hit .269/.307/.414 against right-handed pitching don't get compared to John Olerud or Wally Joyner, they get "maybe he'll grow up to be Vic Power or even Pete O'Brien if things start going right for him." If that doesn't sound like a championship ballplayer, you're beginning to get the idea. Obviously, his inconsistency is both his bane and his best defense against criticism; as he moves deeper into his expected peak period through his age-25 through age-29 seasons, if he can lean more towards that 2007 campaign, he's a worthwhile placeholder. If he keeps up the Mickey Vernon-like see-saw between millstone and asset, however, he'll be an exasperating player who will be hard to trade high when his value's up, and hard to stomach low if he continues hitting the way he has this year.
The second player in the deal, Marek, has value, but it's not really enough to say this is an exchange that's going to do the franchise that much good. He's a max-effort hurler who has been moved to the pen in his first season in Double-A this year, and with consistently good velocity and a usable curve to keep people honest. With 57 strikeouts in 46 2/3 IP, he's punched out slightly more than 28 percent of the hitters he's faced, but he's also walked 21 hitters. He's not overly fly ball-prone, which bodes well for his future in any environment. You can always hope that some Braves scout might think they can work with him to perhaps move him back to the rotation and maximize the value he might have; he did manage to strike out more than seven per nine over 25 starts in Rancho Cucamonga in the high-offense Cal League last year. However, it initially looks like he's slotted to stay in the pen, where maybe he becomes a useful guy, and maybe he knocks around for a while as something less than a premium reliever; the margin between the two is very slim, and so broad that it seems unlikely he'll do all that much to recoup the value expended-both Teixeira and the draft picks that left with him-in the deal.
To give Wren credit, he was in a tough spot, and he also wound up having to make a pretty quick call. The Angels gave him an erratically valuable first baseman who will be under team control for the next three years, and a live-armed minor league reliever. It isn't inconceivable that Wren will look good in a year or two, especially if Kotchman finally finds himself and settles in, but even if he just recaptures the walks, a low-powered first baseman is the kind of player who you have to compensate for in your lineup, not build around.
Thanks to Kevin Goldstein for his insights into all things of a prospect-y nature.