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November 2, 2008

Transaction of the Day

The Jacobs Deal

by Christina Kahrl

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IN THIS ISSUE

American League
National League

KANSAS CITY ROYALS
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Claimed RHP Jairo Cuevas off of waivers from the Braves; promptly released RHP Kip Wells. [10/24]
Acquired 1B-L Mike Jacobs from the Marlins for RHP Leo Nunez. [10/30]

The Royals have seemingly been without a first baseman ever since it was found that Mike Sweeney was was all candy-coated shell, nougat-free, and therefore easily crumpled, so you can understand a desire to address the issue pro-actively, especially through a method other than free agency as a way to acquire a major league-ready slugger a few years removed from free agency to try and control costs. This was something achieved, at least notionally, when general manager Dayton Moore traded for Rockies slugless slugger Ryan Shealy in his first few months on the job after replacing Allard Baird, but Shealy's subsequent repeated failures left the club still stuck at the spot.

On that score alone, this deal looks like an easy relative win for the Royals-where Shealy was untested, Jacobs already has three full seasons in The Show under his belt, and setting aside questions of position-relative performance for the moment, he can obviously hit for power against big-league pitching, having posted a .521 career SLG against right-handed pitchers in the major leagues. He's clearly an upgrade on Ross Gload, and some wags might suggest that he also spares the team the expense of having to erect a screen behind first to protect the innocent from Billy Butler's positionlessness beyond "batter." It's also an easy win if you want to evaluate it in terms of the talent surrendered in the deal; sure, Nunez is interesting, but he's also close to a text-book definition of live-armed fungibility. You can certainly credit Moore for doing something that might seem decidedly un-Royal, by acquiring an established, arbitration-eligible player from another franchise that's shedding salary, and banking on his club's ability to afford either three dates with the arbitration panel or perhaps a short multi-year deal that leverages Jacobs' ineligibility for free agency until after the 2011 season. Looked at in those terms, this looks like a reasonably tasty move that might only cost the team a few millions.

The problem is that it isn't really that simple. To take Jacobs' best (and perhaps only) virtue, his value slugging against right-handed pitching isn't set against the standard of "relative to all major leaguers," it's set against a much tougher standard-what you're supposed to get out of a first baseman. Jacobs' slugging .542 against right-handers is nice, and compares nicely to the all-first basemen slugging average of .463 (and the all-NL first basemens' mark of .473). However, keep in mind it was produced in a park that favors lefty power a bit, and was achieved in the weaker league.

So that's his signature virtue. Expand this to a review of his other assets, and Jacobs' productivity compared to first basemen doesn't rate all that well, which brings us to his vices. Beyond the slugging, Jacobs doesn't give you lots of balls in play, he doesn't get on base, he needs to go away entirely against most lefties, and as seen by almost any defensive metric you care to name, he's one of the worst gloves at first base in the majors. Using any rate-based evaluative metric is going to tell you a sad story: all big-league first basemen produced an EqA of .283 in 2008, while Jacobs finished up at .273, and that's with the advantage to his numbers that comes with missing the starting lineup for a quarter of the season, the price that comes with hiding him from left-handed starting pitchers. If Equivalent Average isn't your rate metric of choice, perhaps you'd prefer MLVr-and there, Jacobs does no better, rating 22nd among all first basemen with 100 or more PA, between Dmitri Young and Sean Casey, neither of whom would be hailed as solutions to the Royals' long-standing problem at first. Jacobs' unintentional walk rates of 5.3 percent versus RHPs in 2008 and 7.2 percent career-the guys he's supposed to be delivering against-is execrable coming from any position on the field, but coming from a first baseman, it represents a genuine handicap.

This doesn't mean that Jacobs is useless, nor do I mean to suggest that he isn't an improvement on the immortal Ross Gload. Going for the latter tack is an insult to straw in the realm of straw-man arguments; if you want to suggest that Jacobs is better than not having a first baseman, the state the Royals have inflicted upon themselves, you'd be right; you would also win similar "arguments" on where the sun sets or that food has nutritional value. The problem with employing Mike Jacobs is that it effectively requires you to get good OBPs from the other slots in your lineup if you want to contend as opposed to simply improve from getting nothing to getting something out of your first baseman. That's entirely possible, of course, but this is the Royals, and they're already stuck with question marks at three up-the-middle positions, and stuck with Jose Guillen's low OBP from one sluggers' slot, either in the outfield or at DH. If Mike Aviles is their shortstop and David DeJesus their center fielder, they would have a head start on that potentially good lineup, but if DeJesus is instead their left fielder and the more scouty concerns about Aviles' glove work at short prefigure a move, then that better Royal lineup winds up more a matter of wistful wishcasting of the type that only finds an outlet in Strat-O-Matic or DiamondMind.

Then there's the economic argument, which superficially seems like an easy win, but here again, it's not quite that simple. Adding Jacobs really brings home the concept of opportunity cost, because affording themselves the opportunity to pay Jacobs arbitration-inflated wages costs them money they might not have to spend on a player who might make a much more significant difference in their performance as a team. Whether that's a good or a bad thing might remain to be seen, because here Moore's track record is very obviously a bit uneven; if his first big splash in signing Gil Meche was a tremendous bit of scouting, signing Guillen was just as obviously an ill-conceived, expensive bit of subtraction by addition.

The other opportunity lost or deferred by picking up Jacobs is that Gload wasn't the best or only first baseman the Royals had at their disposal going forward from 2008. Even if we set aside the question of whether or not Billy Butler will ever master a position and hit (ideally, at the same time), his track record as a prospect is such that it would certainly be worth investing the time to find out. Even if you don't think he can, there's still Shealy. His much-belabored "hot September" got much of its heat from a weak schedule that allowed the 29-year-old to beat up on the young, the lame of limb, or the merely lame. His unintentional walk rate in Omaha this year (11.8 percent) was a career best above A-ball. Admittedly, I never was and am not now a big fan; aging right-handed power sources have been shorting out in the major leagues for decades. In a really good lineup that nevertheless had him playing every day, he'd have a shot at Jim Rice-level greatness-hitting into 30 double plays, not belting 30 bombs-but to repeat something of a refrain, that team isn't the Royals. Even if Shealy flubs his latest opportunity, it doesn't cost you the seven figures that employing Jacobs' brand of near-adequacy does to find out.

Now, obviously, a Jacobs/Shealy platoon suggests itself, although with Jacobs' abject defensive inability and Shealy's almost equally dubious utility at the position, if this were the '80s I'd be asking whether someone like Dave Bergman or Mike Squires was available. (I suppose it's this role that Ross Gload can carry.) Royals fans of a certain vintage should remember that they were able to endure the fielding follies of Willie Aikens or Steve Balboni, both leaden leathermen in their respective heydays, and both key players on Royals contenders when such a thing wasn't merely historical. However, even if you don't think Shealy can handle anything more than a platoon role, the Royals already had a promising in-house option to pair him off with: Kila Ka'aihue. Hitting 38 homers while drawing 100 unintentionals in 539 PA across three levels sounds like something and somebody worth taking a look at. The Volcano's eruptions this summer look like the kind of breakout you'd want to leverage into a starting player, not plug up with a three-year cork in the form of Jacobs' pre-free agency service time.

If this were the Yankees and not the Royals, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic about the trade. That's because acquiring Jacobs is a great piece of patchwork if you're a team with an immediate need at first, a lineup that's otherwise already strong, and because you're in a place where winning now is very possible. That's not the Royals. Acquiring Jacobs might be a big part of a power move into the high 70s in wins, maybe even third place in the AL Central. Boldly reaching for adequacy, like replacing Ross Gload, represents improvement of a sort, but whether it's worth the money it'll cost to employ Jacobs or the time wasted in Omaha for Butler or Ka'aihue because they're employing Jacobs seems pretty unlikely. While getting Jacobs for Nunez is, on its face, almost the same thing as getting Jacobs for free, it's not. The Marlins got the adequacy that Jacobs represents for three years at low cost, and now they're enjoying the benefit of sending the bill for Jacobs' now more expensive adequacy to a Royals team that had other options and no real need to get him, even at such a low price. Put it another way: given that all it took to get Jacobs was Nunez, what do you think the Royals can expect to get in return for Jacobs once they learn what we already know, that he's just a placeholder, and if Ka'aihue and/or Butler have made incontrovertible cases that the job should be theirs? How many teams need a platoon DH of moderate utility and increasing cost? The price paid in this one player to get Jacobs suggests what he's actually worth, beyond the economic factors.

Finally, to touch base on the waiver claim as Moore raids his former employers in Atlanta, Cuevas might represent an easy one-for-one replacement for Nunez. He may be a reliever in the making-he's a beefy guy with a violent delivery that perhaps exacerbated the labrum issues that shelved him much of the season. His fastball sits in the 91-93 mph range and touches the mid-90s, but his curve and changeup aren't great. If the Dominican's lack of a solid secondary pitch, the health woes, and the fact that he'll be 25 all add up to a change in roles, it wouldn't be entirely surprising, and if it pans out, it would rate as a nice little free-talent find. If it doesn't, consider it a case of nothing ventured, nothing gained.

FLORIDA MARLINS
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Activated OF-L Alejandro De Aza and RHPs Lee Gardner and Henry Owens from the 60-day DL, and outrighted all three to Triple-A (which wound up meaning New Orleans in this year's off-season affiliation reshuffle); outrighted RHP Doug Waechter to Triple-A. [10/1]
Acquired RHP Leo Nunez from the Royals for 1B-L Mike Jacobs. [10/30]

In short, credit Marlins GM Larry Beinfest for understanding that he has depth at the position, and that Jacobs is pretty thoroughly replaceable. There isn't going to be a good apples-for-apples comparison to be drawn here to evaluate the deal for the Fish-they're saving money while creating an opportunity for somebody else to be at least as productive as a below-average first baseman who came with certain handicaps (such as left-handed pitching, wearing a glove in the DH-less league, or getting on base). Add in that the Marlins added an arm with upside, and the ways to score this deal for the Marlins are to see how they replace Jacobs, what they do with the savings, and whether or not Nunez turns into something. It's significant that all three of these things could turn out well for them.

As far as how easy it might be to replace Jacobs, consider that he ranked behind both Josh Willingham and Jorge Cantu in MLVr, a pair of players who might be ready for a position change. (Obviously, Dan Uggla does as well, but that would be gilding the lily, considering how much of a relative improvement over Jacobs that Uggla would be, but there's also the question of whether or not Uggla might also get dealt before his arbitration-related raise goes onto the books.) Should the Fish not wish to move anybody, they have both near- and medium-term options already in-house. Initially, there's the ready availability of Dallas McPherson, a player who, like Jacobs, possesses one real skill, mashing home runs; McPherson's even the same age as Jacobs. If not McPherson, there's Gaby Sanchez, who because he's already 25 really has a relatively limited window to make it, or who might make a great platoon partner for McPherson right now-wouldn't that be ironic, that one great first-base platoon came out of this deal, but it's in Miami? Beyond that pair, it'll be interesting to see if Logan Morrison adds power to his repertoire after escaping the Florida State League, but hitting .332/.402/.494 as a 20-year-old in High-A this season is pretty impressive.

Finally, there's the pitcher they received in return. He wasn't dominating with the Royals; his 4.79 FRA isn't any different from Waechter's 4.76, and Waechter was just excused from the 40-man. Nunez limited righties to .230/.284/.290 last year, which is tasty, but he needs to add something with wiggle to chop down lefties at something better than a .272/.355/.420 clip. The best way to evaluate Nunez may be to defer a bit to scouts and evaluate him on the basis of his tools. Nunez averages 94 on his fastball; he supplements it with a slider and change, but his low strikeout rate suggests that he needs polish, especially if he's going to be something more than a situational right-hander. Only 25 years old, he has time to learn, and then use that fastball to better effect.

Which leaves the money, and there, we can only guess. I suppose it's the Lorians' business whether they tuck it into a bank or a few thongs, or add it to a multi-year offer for Hanley Ramirez, or spend it on their legal team that's fighting the good fight with Norman Braman to reach the promised land of a publicly-financed stadium. Some of these things are more sensible than others, of course, but given that the franchise is in an odd position for the time being, their decision-making process cannot simply be reduced to simple cost-cutting or talent-for-talent exchanges.


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

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