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There’s a joke about the Athletics getting slightly worse and slightly cheaper with every transaction they make. On the surface, this is another one of those trades, all about service time and controlled cost at the expense of making the currently-constructed team slightly worse.
Or is it? Coghlan is a serviceable utility player who had two excellent seasons in Chicago, but since arriving in Oakland he’s been an unmitigated disaster. In 51 games, he’s posted a triple-slash line of .146/.215/.272, so he’s probably very excited about the change of scenery he’s about to get. With that miserable of a performance, moving Coghlan may actually make the team better–PECOTA’s rest-of-season projections have him lifting his True Average from .173 thus far to .248 going forward, but even that’s not too exciting.
In return the Athletics get their own fallen talent. Alcantara looked like a dynamite prospect, one of the first to come to the big leagues from the Cubs’ positional-player overload in 2014. He’s flitted between the middle infield and the outfield in the minors and majors, but has spent the whole 2016 season at second base–probably his best defensive position. Defense and speed are the key strengths, but there’s even power with 10 homers in his 2014 half-season in Chicago. The only problem–and it’s a serious problem–is his strikeout issue. PECOTA projects Alcantara to strike out 28 percent of the time, which is nearly untenable as a top-end slugger and doesn’t work at all as a middle infielder.
But despite that, if you trust in PECOTA, this deal is an absolute no-brainer for the A’s. Alcantara is projected for a True Average this season just a hair under Coghlan’s projected number: .241. That’s not good, but it’s not bad when combined with speed for days and a little defense and versatility. Of course it’s possible that the strikeouts will continue to trash his ability to produce at the major-league level. The young middle infielder was blocked in Chicago, but no one is blocked in Oakland.
The Athletics have always played a high-risk, high-reward game with their transactions, looking to win big on those moves that swap established talent for future value. They eschew blue-chip stocks for penny versions, except in their case they just need to hit occasionally to make a big profit. This one? They didn’t pay much to acquire their latest reclamation project, and with the way Coghlan was playing, may have improved their everyday lineup by removing him. Anything Alcantara provides now is found money, which is heartening for the A’s, if perhaps disheartening for those of us who still remember his potential as a high-floor super-utility player. —Bryan Grosnick
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Acquired UT-L Chris Coghlan from Oakland Athletics in exchange for UT-B Arismendy Alcantara. [6/9]
I’m not a soft factors guy, but Chris Coghlan can’t be properly understood without soft factors. The Cubs reacquired him for hard, cold, logistical reasons, not because of soft factors, and we’ll talk about those reasons soon enough, but there’s no good way to look at what lies ahead of Coghlan without considering his story—the person behind the absolute worst True Average in baseball this season (among those with at least 150 plate appearances).
Coghlan’s career—hell, his whole life—has seen a cruel and unending series of sharp rises and falls. The 2009 NL Rookie of the Year was demoted to the minor leagues in late July of 2010, because the Marlins never understood Coghlan, never appreciated him. Eventually, it began to seem that no one understood or appreciated him. Coghlan would come up, hit well at times, struggle at others, go through streaks and slumps, and then be either benched or relegated back to the Pacific Coast League. Not only would the team who drafted him in the first round in 2005 not give him a full-fledged chance to prove that his rookie romp had been real, but the other 29 teams seemed not to value him any more highly, or at least not to care enough to pry him loose from Florida. Finally, the Marlins non-tendered him in December of 2013. A team that had just lost 100 games had no use for him.
So Coghlan picked himself up, the way he’s been doing since he was not quite 16, when he lost his father in a car accident, and since two years after that, when he passed up the chance to sign as an 18th-round pick with the Diamondbacks and went to the University of Mississippi instead. He signed with the Cubs in January of 2014, and by early May, he was back in the big leagues. He had a .284 TAv in over 900 plate appearances as a Cub.
To understand what has happened to Coghlan this season, you have to understand what happened late last season. That’s when, with Javier Baez on the roster, Jorge Soler finally healthy, and Kyle Schwarber an established part of the Cubs’ lineup, Coghlan started losing playing time. He spoke about it with a few media members, not in an angry way, but pointedly. He was confused. He was hurt. Coghlan had come a long way since his rookie season. Losing his father had brought out the fierce and hard-working survivor inside, but it hadn’t made him any better or more complete a person. That’s not how loss works. Coghlan did slowly find actualization. He matured considerably as he waded through adversity with the Marlins. He got married, learned how to look around the clubhouse and see something more than a bunch of guys threatening his place on the roster, and shored up some of the insecurities that had held him back both on and off the field as a younger man. It took too long, but the first year and a half of his time with the Cubs had finally seemed to reward that maturity, that growth. And then it didn’t.
Over the winter, Coghlan didn’t pop up in trade rumors much, even though he was a reasonable trade candidate. He and his wife had a baby in December. He re-signed with the Cubs and avoided arbitration in mid-January. He reported to spring training knowing he would have to win some playing time if he wanted to play as much as he had in previous seasons, because the corner outfield rotation included not only Soler and Schwarber, but potentially Kris Bryant and Baez. Still, he seemed a good bet to get plenty of playing time against right-handed pitchers. Maybe the whole thing from the previous year would blow over. And then it didn’t.
What happened in Oakland wasn’t bad luck. Coghlan does have a .170 BABIP that contributed to his .173 TAv, but he’s also struck out over a quarter of the time, walked less than a league-average hitter, hit for barely any power, and stands 187th (of 244 qualifying hitters) in both average exit velocity and the percentage of total pitches seen hit into play at 100 miles per hour or faster. Coghlan has been running bad, and he’s unusually prone to that. He will have months in which he posts a sub-.600 OPS, at least once per full season of playing time. He will also, if given the chance, have at least one stretch of 120 plate appearances or so over which his OPS is north of .900. While streaks aren’t predictable or predictive, there are hitters who run hotter and colder than others, and Coghlan is a streaky dude. In this particular instance, you can’t possibly convince me that February didn’t follow Coghlan into April and May, making a cold streak much colder than it needed to be, sending him spiraling downward each time he nearly corrected his course.
When you’ve been through losing your dad and losing your job and being mistrusted everywhere, when you’ve been stuck on a losing team for what seemed like forever and you finally land on your feet, securely situated in the majors with the best team in baseball, when you start your family in a place because you feel a little more steady than you ever have before, and when all of that gets yanked away and you’re suddenly hoping you can just escape the park each day without getting liquid shit on your shoes, that will more than mess with you. That will turn you inside out. That will make you swing wildly and loosely and hopelessly, make you try to hack your way out of the jungle and just get tangled in the vines.
I don’t know if being brought back to Chicago will restore Coghlan’s confidence, give him the opening and the stability and the positive vibe he needs to get his groove back. He’s not coming home to a full-time gig; he’ll share time with Albert Almora Jr., come off the bench a bit, and have to look over his shoulder some if Soler’s or Tommy La Stella’s hamstring heals quickly. It might only hurt and frustrate Coghlan to rejoin a team that went 41-17 without him, a team that cast him off to bring back a player (Dexter Fowler) who has outperformed him in a really striking way this year. It might, frankly, leave him feeling less embraced and less appreciated than ever. If things break the other way, though, if the team can show him that they really appreciate the chance to bring him back, and if he can bring both a positive outlook and a willing ear for coaching with him to the clubhouse, Coghlan might get another chance to be part of something special, and if he does, I think he’ll take advantage of the opportunity.
For the Cubs, it’s a whole lot more simple than that. Injuries are piling up for them. Schwarber is out for the year. Soler might be gone for a while. La Stella’s been slumping, and is now limping, too. Miguel Montero missed a good chunk of the early season, and still doesn’t look right. Coghlan is a left-handed hitter who can handle himself in the outfield and offers enough upside to potentially minimize the impact of those losses. At such a small cost, it’s a no-brainer. Coghlan could have a huge, positive impact on the team’s offensive depth, and (the complicated dynamic of this particular homecoming notwithstanding) he doesn’t represent the sort of risk to their clubhouse dynamic that some other additions might have posed. This is the most Epstein-Maddon move ever, in that way. —Matthew Trueblood
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