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January 8, 2010

Transaction Action

Buckling Up a Beltre

by Christina Kahrl

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At long last the Beltre/Kotchman wheel spins. I know I've been Tweeting (@ChristinaKahrl) about the eventual publication of this article for days, but as the non-trade of Mike Lowell reflected, there's a benefit to waiting to evaluate a deal involving players with injury histories until after they have their physicals. Beltre passed his, so voila, there's finally something to talk about.


BOSTON RED SOX
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Signed 3B-R Adrian Beltre to a one-year, $9 million contract, with a $5 million base player option for 2011; traded 1B-L Casey Kotchman to the Mariners for UT-R Bill Hall, a PTBNL, and cash. [1/7]

So the Red Sox have elected to take last year's wipeout on defense very seriously, because whether you look at just Defensive Efficiency (28th place) or PADE (18th overall), they weren't among the best, as well as behind both the Yankees and the Rays. So, getting Jacoby Ellsbury out of center and replacing him with Mike Cameron (from the entirely non-shocking developments file) came first, and now swapping in Adrian Beltre at third base after deciding that if nobody else thought Mike Lowell was healthy enough to play third for them, that was true in Boston too. You can call this a case of keeping up with the Joneses, but I guess I see this as a characteristic adaptation from a general manager who was already hip to defense back in 2004, when he traded away Nomar Garciaparra to bring in Orlando Cabrera.*

Whether you define the impact conservatively (via FRAA2) at perhaps 1.5 wins net, or liberally (via John Dewan's Plus/Minus) to wind up at a four-win swing on defense, the switch from Lowell to Beltre figures to make a significant impact. I don't know if I'd quite go all the way to four wins of difference, because Marco Scutaro's quality play at short figures to hoover up a few opportunities, which is another improvement on 2009's crew that, in isolation, was going to add up to perhaps another 1.5-2.0 wins. Switching from Ellsbury to Cameron should be good for at least another win or two, whichever system you use. Still, could the Sox really have added as much as eight wins on defense this winter? Since most defensive metrics are more suggestive than substantive, I might ballpark the difference at four or five, no small matter, especially for a team that, with the addition of John Lackey, should have a rotation that rates with any in the game's best division.

The other thing to remember is that these Sox have better depth than last year's. Taking on Jeremy Hermida gives them an alternative to Ellsbury in left, or to J.D. Drew if Drew breaks down, or to David Ortiz if Papi's pop-less. Add in the near-readiness of prospects like Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick, and we're clearly not in Mark Kotsay territory any more. The other element that adding Beltre does is buy time to see if Lars Anderson's going to get his prospect status back in order. Whether that takes a year or two, they have Beltre in play to fend off that particular day until Anderson makes the case for himself. (Of course, even then, we'd be talking about Kevin Youkilis making the move back to the hot corner at 32 or 33, and that may no longer be doable at that point.)

But will Beltre's bat play well enough in Fenway? We can set aside his awful career performance in Fenway; batting .179/.299/.232 in 16 games against a quality staff over five years is about as small-sample meaningless as a splice can get. Safeco was sapping his power by about 30 points of SLG relative to his career average, so a return in a healthy season to the .450 to .470 range would range from reasonable to mildly optimistic. He doesn't walk, but he should rebound from last year's career-low four percent rate, and with health, his clip for homers on fly balls should recover as well. They'll end up giving up a win or two at the plate, but it's still a net positive.

Does the deal make financial sense? The first year's far from cheap, especially for a player who might have had to fend off some show-me considerations after last year's injury-undermined campaign. Happily for him, with the present-day tendency to invest some hope and faith in defensive metrics, his market value didn't suffer too many dings. He'll achieve a $1 million buyout on his option at 575 plate appearances, and the option kicks up to $10 million for 2011 if he reaches 640 PAs. He's reached that mark just three times in his career, but it should be more achievable hitting in a quality lineup and should he remain healthy.

So what of Lowell now? It isn't the worst thing to have him still, even if he's currently bench-ward bound. As noted, Papi's hardly got cause to complain if he loses playing time, especially if it involves all starts versus lefties; should Ortiz repeat last year's early struggle to produce anything, Lowell might claim an even larger share of the at-bats. I figure it's more likely that Boston tries to reclaim some share of Lowell's 2010 payday by absorbing some of the expense to employ him somewhere else, but we're talking about opportunities at first base and DH, and much of the AL has already made its choices on that score.

Post-Publication Postscript: Ah, the rush to publish. I failed to bring up Bill Hall's benefits to the Red Sox. I see them as somewhat limited. We don't know that he'll do better now that he's back in a utility role, because after three years of failure as a regular at center and then third, what's on tap is reclamation, not a return to his 2006 peak season. As a worthwhile offensive contributor from the bench, he'll give the Sox a little of everything besides speed: some power, a few walks, roster space-saving (since he can play at least six positions). Mostly, what the Sox get is what the Mariners had: a utilityman whose upside is that he can be a good utilityman, and since the Brewers are footing the bill now as before, that's a nice little thing to have.

*: No, boys and girls, the Rays did not invent defense, or moves made to improve on defense. Neither did Theo Epstein, for that matter, and one of the lovely things about history is that it's the product of several zillion yesterdays that came before yesterday. Now, that middle-aged observation off my chest, get off my lawn before my sciatica makes me crotchety.


OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Re-signed DH-L Jack Cust to a one-year, $2.65 million base contract; designated 1B/3B-R Tommy Everidge for assignment. [1/7]

So, Cust got to be a free agent, and we all know free agency equals raises, right? Not so much. Last year, with arbitration spurring the negotiations, Cust made $2.8 million with as much as $450,000 in potential bonsues. (Some of them were somewhat improbable, like $50,000 for winning a Gold Glove.) So, in 2010, rather than re-spin the arbitration wheel, the A's non-tender Cust, liberating him to the wider market... so that they could give him a slight pay cut, albeit one not weighted down with the probable insult of trying to cut his pay via arbitration, and also free from the general dopiness of the panels themselves. Instead, Cust got to see that his market value wasn't worth more than what he was already making, and wound up settling for this deal, although this time around his incentives are PA-driven, and he could make as much as an additional $350,000, or slightly more than he did last season. So much for the "restraints" of salary arbitration.

Admittedly, I think that last particular talking point is wedded to a focus on top-tier players: of course the best players see their overall earning potential suppressed through arbitration. But the impact of the increasing number of non-tenders on baseball's middle class is that it achieves some of what Charlie Finley proposed, and Marvin Miller feared: it increases the number of players on the market, and can depress the kind of compensation they'll make. So for some serfs, there's clearly more to lose than their chains. Because non-tendered players and their employers are no longer handicapped by the old rule about re-upping with one another, the A's and Cust were free to get re-hitched after a quick review of the available DH jobs reflected that he wasn't going to find many other bids, and the A's were free of the rigmarole of going through the arbitration process while retaining Cust.

That said, was it a good idea? It certainly helps channel the Chris Carter vs. Daric Barton fight at first base into an early-season either/or proposition, because at least initially in-season, it's hard to envision the A's picking both and sitting Cust. So, Barton might have a multi-week or even a multi-month bid on the job, not unlike Rob Nelson in 1987, after which Carter's pure mashtastic excess might enter into the lists, perhaps not that much like Mark McGwire. It's up to Barton to make himself part of the picture after Carter arrives, and the only spot where that's likely will be if he hits well enough that Cust becomes a bench bat behind the younger duo.

The sad problem is that Cust's beginning to look like an old-player skills DH type who has shot his bolt: his EqA during his three-year run with Oakland has gone from .319 to .302 to .277. His walk rate's dropped from 20.7 percent to 15.2 percent. His ratio of homers among all fly balls dropped steeply last year, but in general he's putting more balls in play and swinging more often, and as a fly-ball hitter putting more balls in play means more fly-ball outs, and that's going to eat away at most people's home-run rate. How much of this is a batter the league's pitching has adapted to, and how much it's Cust's moving into his 30s, remains to be seen. While he improved in the second half (up to .250/.399/.426 after a .232/.322/.411 first half), there were a few odd developments last year as far as his struggling to do any damage against power pitchers, as his struggling against starters in his third at-bat after already losing ground from his first to his second.


SEATTLE MARINERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Acquired 1B-L Casey Kotchman from the Red Sox for UT-R Bill Hall, a PTBNL, and cash. [1/7]
Signed CF-R Franklin Gutierrez to a four-year, $20.5 million contract extension, with a club option for 2014 (avoiding arbitration). [1/8]

Ah, the tragedy of evil geniusdom. Because let's face it, Jack Zduriencik's got all of the appurtenances, a la Ernst Stavro Blofeld: Bald pate? Check. Fiendishly clever plan for total domination? Check. Shortage of vowels? Check. Nearby volcano retreat? See what I mean? It's just too easy, although I don't think he was wearing a Nehru jacket at the Winter Meetings.

The tragedy is that, as with any evil genius' plan for total domination, there's the one part of the nefarious scheme that just goes begging for self-foiling. Often, it's describing this handicap in the plan at length; I encourage all aspiring evil geniuses to try to break themselves of this habit via playing it out of themselves by picking up a copy of the game formerly known as Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond (designed by a Seattle resident, no less).

Sadly, no amount of evil glamour, head-shaving, or table-game fun is going to cure you of the handicap to any quest for domination: poorly selected henchmen. (Certainly, there's a large number of people in Chicago completely sold on the suggestion that Milton Bradley's up to no good.) Kotchman is perhaps the biggest tease on the first-base side of things since, who, Travis Lee? David Green? Mickey Vernon, equally ill-starred but without the good bits? Kotchman's a plus defender by reputation, which is lovely, and fits in nicely enough with a club. He's certainly had his problems in the past, having seen his career stalled or derailed by mono early on; that wasn't recently, however. In three years as an everyday big-league first baseman, his EqA has dropped from .287 as an Angel in '07 to .258 and .261 as he skipped from Anaheim to Atlanta to Boston to the bench. His ISO has dropped from .172 to .137 to .114.

That said, I do expect some measure of improvement. Maybe being traded by the Angels, the team that employs his dad, was shocking. Maybe he was pressing with the Braves, and that only got worse as he started to go stale as a reserve with the Red Sox, with his EqA plummeting from .276 as a Brave to .203 with the Red Sox. He'll only be 27 in 2010, and there doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong. He seems like a reasonable bet to rebound, but the question is how high, and how much you allow for those aforementioned maybes. Never expected to become one of the big-time boppers at first base, Kotchman might wind up as a relatively cheap patch at the position, but it would be a surprise if he wound up regaining all of the ground lost since 2007, especially having to call Safeco home. However, getting back into the high .270s and providing value on defense doesn't seem like a stretch. His power won't return into the high .400s in SLG, but his walk rate should tick back up towards 10 percent as an everyday player. While the Mariners have their happy John Olerud-enabled past to encourage them as far as going with a medium-power first baseman, PECOTA's top comp for him is Sean Casey, a few cuts below Olerud-level goodness. However, add top-shelf defense to that kind of hitter, and that's a useful, complementary player to have.

The real question is whether it's useful enough in a lineup that's now counting on Milton Bradley as its left fielder and Ken Griffey Jr. as its DH. Do the Mariners really have enough sock from their corner slots? Having Jose Lopez at second and Gutierrez in center helps, certainly, but overall, this just seems a bit short of the slugliness you'd really expect to on a contender. While the decision to avoid pretending that Russell Branyan was suddenly going to become a reliable commodity seems sensible enough, the quandary is whether or not Kotchman fills the Mariners' need for power. Adding Bradley, Figgins, and Kotchman should net them at least 100-120 walks, which wouldn't quite put them at last year's league average, but it's a massive upgrade from their last-place finish in the AL.


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:  A's,  Jack Cust,  The Who,  Year Of The Injury,  The Call-up

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You Could Look It Up: ... (01/08)
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Premium Article Transaction Action: AL... (01/07)
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Premium Article Transaction Action: Od... (01/10)
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