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October 29, 2010

Warning Track Power

What To Do With Mark Ellis

by Chase Gharrity

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While the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants have plenty on their minds this week, 28 other teams are diving deep into roster analysis to determine whom they will retain for the 2011 season. One of the more interesting decisions to be made involves the $6 million club option the Oakland Athletics hold on Mark Ellis. While many fans have voiced their opinions about what the Oakland brass should do, there has been no clear message from Billy Beane, leaving those of us outside the front-office walls to speculate on if Ellis will return. Taking a look at the second baseman's recent performance, available free-agent options, and in-house replacement candidates, I hope to paint a clearer picture of what Oakland will do.

Ellis came up through the Kansas City Royals organization after being selected in the ninth round of the 1999 draft out of the University of Florida. The former Gator was sent to Oakland 18 months later in a three-team deal between the Athletics, Royals, and Devil Rays that involved three All-Stars, two Rookies of the Year, and one future Diamondbacks manager. Originally a shortstop, Ellis converted to a full-time second baseman after labrum surgery knocked him out for the entire 2004 season. Since that conversion, the South Dakotan has been widely regarded as one of the premier defensive second basemen in the majors, while also contributing some value with the bat. Below we can see what Ellis has accomplished over the last three seasons.

Year

Age

G

PA

H

2B

HR

BB

RBI

SB

CS

AVG

OBP

SLG

BABIP

TAv

WARP

2008

31

117

507

103

20

12

53

41

14

2

0.233

0.321

0.373

0.248

0.258

3.8

2009

32

105

410

99

23

10

23

61

10

3

0.263

0.305

0.403

0.280

0.253

2.1

2010

33

124

492

127

24

5

40

49

7

6

0.291

0.358

0.381

0.321

0.273

3.1

As we can see, Ellis, though no slouch, will never be confused with Chase Utley. He’s one of those guys who can do a little bit of everything with the bat, but there is no spectacular offensive tool here. You can guess that the Oakland front office loved to see an OBP near .360, though one can guess that no one was jumping for joy with a SLG well below .400 (which could be, in part, due to a 3.5 percent HR/FB rate; about half of his career mark). Regardless of the cause of the power outage, it seems clear that Ellis benefited in his out-avoiding behavior with his BABIP resting well above anything he has shown in the past. The Athletics recognized their second baseman’s numbers were deflated with a .248 BABIP in 2008 and rewarded him with the two-year, $11 million contract and the option in question. In return, Beane received a fairly inexpensive source of 5.2 wins.

Something the A’s will have to consider is Ellis' health. Looking at the number of plate appearances and games this Gatorian Gloveman has accrued over the last few seasons, it is apparent that his ability to remain healthy will not be receiving any sort of “plus” rating in the near future. Ellis has missed significant time due to hamstring issues, among other things. Given that Ellis is not getting any younger, a $6 million investment would be a bet on both his glove and his health. Hey, who knows, maybe the A’s decision of not renewing their athletic trainer’s contract could help things out in the health department.

Of course, any decision involving a club option needs to include an analysis of what other players are available. Taking a look at the free-agent second basemen, there doesn’t seem to be one standout name the Athletics could pursue. If they are looking for a defense-first option, Orlando Hudson could a consideration. However, with almost identical offensive numbers and defensive reputation as Ellis, a price tag that should exceed $6 million and a contract that could last multiple years and take away multiple picks in a deep 2011 draft, it would be hard to blame Beane for going another route. Also, given the Athletics had the 27th-worst homer and ISO numbers in the major leagues last season, they could look to go with an offense-first approach. Of course, looking at the list provided, there isn’t much in terms of the bat unless you’re buying what Omar Infante is selling, trust that Juan Uribe will not completely negate his value with his performance with the glove, or Felipe Lopez will have a complete resurgence to his 2009 value. With that in mind, it is no surprise that Buster Olney recently cited the lack of free-agent talent and the inevitable inflation of market value for below-average players as a valid reason the A’s should pick up the option.

The Athletics may need to consider what they have in-house. Below are the numbers for a few potential internal replacements.

Name

Age

Level

G

PA

H

2B

3B

HR

RBI

SB

BA

OBP

SLG

BABIP

Adrian Cardenas

23

AA-AAA

109

467

123

23

1

4

53

6

0.304

0.379

0.396

0.304

Adam Rosales

27

MLB

80

279

69

8

2

7

31

2

0.271

0.321

0.400

0.339

Eric Sogard

24

AAA

137

597

154

28

6

5

65

14

0.300

0.391

0.407

0.338

Steve Tolleson

27

AAA

80

339

97

17

3

9

43

8

0.332

0.412

0.503

0.378

If you asked A’s fans in 2009 who would be the successor to Ellis, the most common answer would have been Cardenas. However, the man “who could hit .300 in his sleep” has failed to show offensive and defensive consistency at Triple-A for the last two seasons. While the ability to hit for average still shows flashes of its former self (especially in Double-A), the power and speed have lagged behind significantly, leaving Kevin Goldstein to doubt possible improvement in those departments. If the A’s played in Midland, Cardenas might have two batting titles by now. Unfortunately for him, the best he’ll do in 2011 is get another look in the spring and say a few prayers that he can improve his BABIP in Triple-A.

Rosales, many A’s fans’ favorite hustling utility man, may have the best power potential of those on this list. Acquired in the impressively Beane-ish Aaron Miles deal, Rosales could contribute 20-plus homers in a full season given the opportunity. However, the Athletics may value Rosales, who is capable of playing any non-catcher infield position as well as the outfield corners, more as a utility player. Also, while he had no errors during his 393 1/3 innings at second base when he was, coincidentally, filling in for an injured Ellis, defense has always been a bit of a question for Rosales; he may be a better fit for a corner. Perhaps he will be a contender to replace non-tender candidate Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base. If the A’s are purely looking to get more power from the position at the expense of some value on defense, Rosales may be the best man for the job.

The third candidate is Sogard, a glasses-wearing, college-educated, on-base machine. The 24-year-old is one of the youngest players on this list, but probably has the most advanced approach at the plate. Though he has similarly mediocre power and speed numbers when compared to Ellis, Sogard is also a sound defender at second. While it might be a stretch to call Sogard the next Ellis, I wouldn’t find it surprising if the former Arizona State Sun Devil contributed 70 percent of Ellis’ value for 1/12th of the price. Coming over from San Diego along with Kouzmanoff, Sogard is a true “A’s-type player” and a clear target of Beane’s. Did the Athletics’ GM envision a starting role for the “Mad Scientist,” or was he just added for organizational depth? The Ellis decision will give us a better idea of how much faith the brass in Oakland has in Sogard and the upper levels of the farm.

Finally, Tolleson will also get a look for the second-base job. Tolleson was acquired off waivers from the Twins this season. Capable of playing both middle-infield positions, he has enough range for the position but no one will confuse him with a Gold Glover. Tolleson is a “meh” player with the bat as well, though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the line he posted this season. However, if one dives under the surfaces of the numbers, we can see that he got a bit lucky with balls in play, which inflated his overall production. Tolleson is Triple-A depth at worst and a major-league utility guy at best.

 As we can see, there are no surefire replacement options for Ellis available right now. While it might be cheaper to have Sogard or Tolleson win the job and allow Beane to pursue a high-profile power bat, Ellis at $6 million still just makes too much sense. And with the Eric Chavez and Ben Sheets contracts coming off the books, there’s no reason why the alleged author of Moneyball can’t still net Oakland some slugging percentage. Barring some sort of no-brainer trade, Oakland fans can expect to see one of the few remaining members of its last playoff team in 2006 around for one more season while prospects such as Grant Green, Jemile Weeks, and even Cardenas, get another year to develop into potential replacements. If Ellis provides his typical 2-3 wins, this should not be an upsetting proposition for the folks of the East Bay.

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