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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.

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