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August 10, 2009

Transaction Prospectus

Playing What-If with Rios

by Christina Kahrl

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"Mine? Mine. Mine mine mine."
-Flock of (non-new wave) seagulls

Now that we're in the waiver/trade portion of the season, where teams looking to jettison expensive veterans can work out deals with claiming clubs or simply deposit those players with the claimants, we're into an interesting game of chicken. Do you claim players just to block rival teams you think might help themselves by going after the guy, with no intention of wanting him for your own team? Do you try to help yourself by grabbing high-salary players for yourself, and damn the future payroll consequences?

This can be easier with some veterans than others. When the Rays grabbed Russ Springer from the A's, he filled a specific need-he's a veteran reliever with value against right-handed hitters-who comes with minimal pain, since his deal only runs through the end of this season. In contrast, if the Red Sox had claimed Cristian Guzman (they reportedly decided against it), they'd have added an established veteran shortstop already under contract for 2010, whether they worked out a deal with the Nats, or simply had to swallow him at the Nationals' discretion.

All of that cleverness aside, the horror of claiming Alex Rios is that you might end up getting him. Taken on production alone, he's a disappointment, hitting .264/.317/.427 in his age-28 season, or right around what PECOTA would have projected as his 25th-percentile season, meaning that 75 out of 100 times, he was expected to do better than that. Evaluating him by Equivalent Average to sum up his offensive contributions, and judge him by the standard set by all corner outfielders-between right and left, they're putting up a .275 EqA this season, while Rios is producing at a .266 clip. That's decidedly ungood, and there's not a lot to suggest it's all a bad dream. The production's poor, and the price tag for adding him is already steep-as much as $2 million for the balance of this season alone.

The problem is that the expense of employing him gets so much worse from there, courtesy of the long-term deal Rios inked with the Jays in April of 2008. He's due at least $59.7 million through 2014, which PECOTA already didn't anticipate he'd come close to earning in terms of his pre-season projected production: if he'd hit his median projection this year and kept hitting it through 2014, we anticipated he'd be worth about $22 million. Even if he rebounds as much as his post-All-Star break spike suggest (he's been slugging .479 since), he's on tap for a bad year, one that will put a dent in any future expectations, but even if you write it off, it's still a player who's being massively overcompensated relative to his production in an outfield corner. Picking up that much extra cash makes for an ugly bottom line, and if the claiming club is the White Sox-the team that already added Jake Peavy's big contract at the deadline-it will be interesting to see what that means for their off-season activities, especially if keeping Jim Thome is on the agenda.

But what if Rios were a center fielder? That .266 EqA on the season is just a hair below the MLB average for center fielders (.268), after all. When Rios was pressed into action as a regular in center for the Jays in 2008, he did very well (by John Dewan's Plus/Minus metric), showing plus range as well as the strong arm that is such an asset when he's in right. Evaluate his offense in the context of major league center fielders, and he's about as useful as someone like Aaron Rowand (also liberally overcompensated), with an EqA of .266, and within easy hailing distance of Kid Gwynn (.272 EqA) or the much-loved Jacoby Ellsbury (.274). Given the White Sox' need for a starter at the position, you have to wonder, if they have claimed him and they do wind up with him, whether they feel that he can help them initially to help cover not just for Carlos Quentin's bad wheels and slack production since coming back from the DL, but more importantly that they're seeking a long-term solution to Scott Podsednik's limitations as a placeholder in the middle pasture. Adding Rios not only helps the Sox now, it would arguably give them their starting center fielder for several seasons to come. Jermaine Dye's under contract for 2010, and Quentin's under contract, so if they add Rios, center's the obvious long-term spot for him. It's a massive overpayment for a starting center fielder, but the market's going to only have an aging Mike Cameron and perhaps Marlon Byrd or Endy Chavez to offer. That's a starter on the wrong side of 35 and a couple of placeholders. Supply and demand's a bit of a snaggy/nasty problem when there's a limited supply, and you harbor higher ambitions involving winning the AL Central.

I'm always partial to an argument that a concept like "replacement level" is a sort of academic construct. Players aren't freely available in the way that, say, sofas are; one start-worthy sofa's value over a replacement-level sofa can be easily resolved by just going out and buying that quality sofa. (And no, you do not have to wait for Ikea to put it on waivers.) Unlike sofas, there is not a limitless supply of ballplayers, and they're not all freely available at the same time. If, between the trickle of off-season free agents at the position where you have a specific need, your own farm system, and the mish-mash of journeymen sloshing around the minor league free agency pool, there's nothing and nobody that grabs you when it comes to filling that specific need, you might understandably go after the best player at the position available at any price to try and help yourself, and hang the expense.*

The problem in Rios' specific case is that, at the price he has to be employed at, his production has been low enough that it's hard to justify backing up the car, throwing him into the trunk, and taking him home with you. That said, we're only weeping for Jerry Reinsdorf's checkbook, and we'll apparently know the answer on Tuesday. If they see Rios as their center fielder of the present and the future, they will at least get a better player than what they've tried to get by with these last couple of years, but that's the silver lining in one very expensive cloud.

*: Or, to stretch the metaphor, you find and buy a fabulous sofa made with gold thread woven through white rhino leather and you buy it at full price, because it's what's available (and you have appalling taste), rather than pick up a bean-bag chair at your neighbor's yard sale or take a wood-working class and fashion and self-stain a couple of stools you made yourself. These would be replacement-level options, certainly. Relatively cheap, too, although it might be just a variation on a theme of disappointing any visitors you receive, although at least they wouldn't call the police after you bored them with your wood-working war stories or successful feats in shopping cheap.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I could be wrong, but I don't think Dye is under contract for 2010. I'm pretty sure there is a 12 million mutual option for 2010. I have no idea if that is to both Dye and the White Sox's liking, but if I'm correct about the contract, the Sox are not guaranteed to have Dye out there next year.

Aug 10, 2009 13:22 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

It is a mutual option, but it's one that they can, might, and really probably should elect to pick up, and one I'd doubt Dye would discount to take his chances at his age when we just saw what happened to Bobby Abreu, among others.

Aug 10, 2009 14:34 PM

To stretch the metaphor even further, sometimes you buy the sofa second-hand, and discover some change between the cushions.

So, let's flip the supposition by stating that *Rios* is the second-hand sofa, and his potential return to close-to-All-Star-form would be that change between the cushions.

Aug 10, 2009 14:05 PM
rating: 0

Too stretch the metaphore even further, Rios is an old coach laying in your marn that cats and racoons piss and shit on and when someone asks you too if they can have it you can't understand why but can't wait too see it go.

Aug 10, 2009 15:07 PM
rating: 0

barn sorry not marn

Aug 10, 2009 15:07 PM
rating: 0

sometimes you find stains though....

Aug 10, 2009 16:15 PM
rating: 0

And sometimes you simply find Alex Rios. Which is exactly what the White Sox found.
And by clearing out RF of Rios and the ledger of Rios' contract, Travis Snider can come back up and whoever is the Blue Jays' GM next season will have a fair bit more cash to play with to build a team around Halladay. A team of Toronto's means may be able to overcome one ridiculously compensated player (Wells) but two is simply too much.

Aug 10, 2009 18:32 PM
rating: 2

In other words, Alex: we hardly knew ya. But we knew ya too well...

Aug 10, 2009 18:33 PM
rating: 0

Now wait a second here. Last month when we were all bemoaning VWells' contract, Rios' was being held up as the kind of asset you hold on to. Being offered the chance to dump a big contract is one thing, but comparing him to a barnyard couch is another. Rios will likely play quite well in Chicago and looks like a rather smart pickup. Talk about exploiting the market weakness, the Sox should be given a better look. This is the Beane action of the moment. Everyone is really talking about the money, not the players and I suppose that's fine. But the White Sox added Peavy & Rios at relatively little cost when they don't have a great pipeline in the near future. They are starting to have real stability in the management side as well. This should be judged as win-win, not the Sox mistake.

Aug 11, 2009 04:30 AM
rating: 0
Matt Kory

I wouldn't say they added Peavy and Rios at relatively little cost. They will pay a lot for both in terms of salary, and they had to give up a number of very good prospects to get Peavy. These aren't bad moves for Chicago (necessarily), but to pretend they got both for free is silly.

Aug 11, 2009 07:14 AM
rating: 1

They gave up no elite prospects and 2 really good prospects for Peavy.

Aug 12, 2009 11:35 AM
rating: 0

Put in CF Rios has more value, to be sure, but he was never going to play CF regularly in Toronto. I don't remember where Rios was lauded as a great asset, but his contract, when compared to Wells' was much better value. But it still did not come close to justifying the outlay in dollars.

Aug 11, 2009 04:39 AM
rating: 0
Christopher Jensen

Christina... your stuff always cracks me up - yet is insightful. Nice work.

Aug 11, 2009 06:26 AM
rating: 0
Randy Brown

Speaking as a Tigers fan...I think this is a very good move for the White Sox (and given the relative prices paid, I think it's a better move for them than the Peavy deal). Why the single-minded focus on only his 2009 stats? The guy has .280-.290 level EQAs the 3 years prior. He fills a void in centerfield and he's got a skill set that ages well.

Aug 11, 2009 06:57 AM
rating: 3

this is the question for me...acknowledging that the .266 EqA is 25th %ile, and then treating it like it's his actual worth is odd.

Aug 11, 2009 09:12 AM
rating: 1
Richard Bergstrom

If the Cell inflates Rios's offensive numbers and if he plays a passable CF, I can see the White Sox flipping him a few years down the road before he gets too expensive. Besides, who knows if the market rebounds and contracts start going crazy again a few years from now.

Aug 11, 2009 10:18 AM
rating: 1
John Carter

I wonder if the Jays tried to waive Wells first and no one bit. Perhaps, it would have been too embarrassing to even try.

Without regard to cost, Rios is the more valuable commodity. Wells might approach useless soon and I don't think the Jays have any promising CFs on the farm.

Aug 11, 2009 10:37 AM
rating: 1

Funny to think now there was some Rios for Lincecum trade talk a few years ago.

Aug 11, 2009 17:52 PM
rating: 0
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