23 January 2012
Are O's Still Looking for a Left-Handed Batter?
Posted by Jon Shepherd
Dan Duquette has mentioned in the past he is looking to add a left handed bat to the team. He has also expressed a desire to add someone with a ".380 on base percentage." Those two things are a tough combination to find a free agent whether at the beginning or end of free agency. At it stands, the only player who immediately appears as a fit is Prince Fielder. Fielder has been a good, but not elite first baseman. He tends to have on and off seasons that run the inverse of the infamous Star Trek rule (Fielder's odd years have been better than his even ones 17.1 fWAR vs. 6.4 fWAR). I think over the next eight years or so that Fielder will be a cheaper and better deal than Albert Pujols, but that he is not a great first baseman. It is on par with players like Mark Grace, Kent Hrbek, and Glenn Davis. Very good, but not great players. As such, it is difficult making a good argument that Fielder is worth 25 MM a year.
However, there are other options than Fielder. These options are not as flashy or dependable as the production that Fielder will provide. Additionally many of these second/third/fourth choices have issues with them which may explain why they are available at this late date.
Nine Potential Options:
The First Basemen
This position is one of several where the Orioles lack prime production. The current plan is to open the season with Chris Davis at first base. Davis, the long time Ranger who had his moments in Arlington, will try to make a home there, but will need to improve upon his contact rate to an acceptable level (producing a .280 to .300 batting average) to be useful to the team. The only other option there that could lead to league average or above production would be to shift Mark Reynolds back to first base. As it stands now, Davis is a left handed batter and an additional left handed batter makes little sense with respect to a platoon. Davis, however, could be a good offensive backup corner infielder.
36 years old
Branyan has been an extreme platoon hitter with a career +.105 OPS favoring his bat against right handed hitters. His career has been one where teams have seemed to have difficulty fitting him in as he is a solid defensive 1B who was above average against righties and replacement level against lefties. Such a player is difficult to find a spot on the bench as his role is limited to 1B and DH as well as being a target for a relief switch late in the game. In 2009 and 2010, Branyan hit quite well against right handed pitching with 905 and 874 OPS in Seattle and Cleveland. In 2011, the wheels feel off and had a line of 198/293/388 in 133 plate appearances. Optimism can be found for this year as his BABIP was 50 points below his normal level. BABIP tends to regress to a player's average BABIP. The cause for concern though that I see is that Branyan also saw a collapse in his ISO. He would be worth a Minor League invite.
29 years old
Kotchman has had high expectations placed up him, placing in the top 100 prospects for Baseball America in 2002 (22nd), 2003 (13th), 2004 (15th), and 2005 (6th). He was known for plus contact, plus discipline, and plus defense. The hope was that his gap power would play up as he matured. After a solid rookie year, his hitting sputtered out. The Angels eventually gave up on him and he moved around to Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle. Last year, everything came together again playing for the Rays. He showed a good hit rate (potentially inflated by a high BABIP) and played good defense. The Rays apparently did not believe his performance last season was in line with his talent level and chose to pay Carlos Pena instead. Kotchman would probably be a good play if the team did not already have Davis. I find him an improvement on Davis, but not remarkably so.
The Third Baseman
It is a matter of discussion when trying to determine whether Mark Reynolds is going back to third base because he is best suited there due to his skills or Chris Davis' shoulder. A platoon might work here with the left handed third baseman taking third and pushing Reynolds to first or DH when facing a right handed starting pitcher.
30 years old
Betemit is likely looking for a starting gig. He has predominantly played third base and he has defensively played that position quite poorly. Betemit keeps himself in lineups because he has keep his 800 or above OPS. He actually profiles as an extremely good platoon player with a career long 817 OPS against right handers and a 684 OPS against left handers. His defense is no worse than Reynolds', so he might be a decent choice as a 3B or DH against right handers and a left handed bat off the bench in cross handed matchups. He could also stand in at 2B or 1B in a pinch. He has never played the outfield.
The Left Fielders
Left Field is another area of some instability for the Orioles. They have seemed relatively unconvinced that Nolan Reimold was an appropriate solution for the past several years. The team has tried to play Felix Pie, Corey Patterson, Kyle Hudson, Matt Angle, and now perhaps Endy Chavez instead of using Reimold. Chavez, a lefty, has been rumored as being used as a platoon player, but lacks the bat to be effectively used. It may benefit the team more by relegating Chavez to being a backup centerfielder and use a more legitimate bat to pair up with Reimold.
38 years old
Damon was signed on the cheap by the Rays last year and was thrust into the lineup as a full timer. He showed himself to be unable to play the field and that his bat had deteriorated. The Orioles have been tied to him, but he would likely be an inflexible player who would be a detriment offensively.
36 years old
Guillen has not been a major contributor in the past three seasons. He still shows a powerful bat and a decent eye, but he no longer appears able to make enough contact. Pitchers appear to be going after him more directly than they use to. However, he does show more flexibility than Damon and that means Guillen can stand around poorly defending more positions than Damon.
40 years old
Ibanez is not a adequate defender. He hasn't been for years. For the Phillies, he had a good half season and the rest went to pot. Ibanez still does relatively well against right handed batters. He is the type of player I imagine that the old Andy MacPhail regime would be interested in. Ibanez had a down year last year and someone might take a chance that he could find his stroke again. I doubt he can though. He just does not have the bat speed anymore.
36 years old
Drew suffered from a shoulder impingement and a fractured finger which resulted in an awful season last year. He has said that he would continue playing only if he found the right, winning situation. Many players waiting for contracts have said that and it remains to be seen what Drew will do. If his shoulder is fixed, then it would be an easy decision to sign him and slot him in left field. Without looking at his medicals, he appears to me as a great buy low candidate. I would not want to spend more than 3-4 MM on him and would not wish to promise him a starting slot. The latter contingency may be difficult in convincing him.
35 years old
When the Cubs signed Fukudome they expected a superstar. What they got was a very good season, two average ones, and a mess of a final season. His numbers in Japan actually translated quite well with a high OBP. Somehow the frenzy of a top notch foreign player coming to the US escalated the cost beyond reason. Although he did not perform according to expectations, that does not make Fukudome a worthless player. Even last year's evaporation of any sense of power, Fukudome maintained an OBP over .350 against lefties. He could be useful as a 5th outfielder and an OBP focused platoon player against righties.
The Designated Hitter
One thing has remained the same even though there was a regime change: the expressed desire to keep DH duties open to give players rest. In the MacPhail era, this often unraveled into reserving the DH position to full time players like Aubrey Huff, Luke Scott, and Vladimir Guerrero. As the Duquette era begins, does he go out and sign a full time DH? Damon, Guillen, and Ibanez likely would qualify as that. So would our last option.
38 years old
The Athletics have tried for the past several seasons to take advantage of a cheap way to improve offensive production: strict DH bats. This included Mike Piazza, Frank Thomas, Jack Cust, and then Hideki Matsui. This approach has not exactly gone well for the Athletics. The poor success rate is likely a reason why it is relatively cheap to use this approach. Before last year, Matsui was a 850 OPS performer against right handed pitching. Last year, he was at 654. I don't see him bouncing back.
I see J.D. Drew, Wilson Betemit, or Casey Kotchman as the three targets that would be ideal. They are players with good reason for optimism and an outside chance of being useful in a deal that would bring back a B level player. That said, if the sole play is for a B level prospect then the cost at hand should be no more than 5 MM. Adjust for the probability of these players being tradable and I would be comfortable offering 3 MM with incentives. The only other one of these eight that I would be OK with offering a MLB contract would be Kosuke Fukudome. I could see offering him a base pay of 1.5 MM with incentives. There really are not a lot of great choices.