12 March 2014

Are Defensive 4th Outfielders Scarce? or: Will We Miss Xavier Avery?

Xavier Avery is Running to Second | Photo by Keith Allison

On August 30th last year the Orioles were seven and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox in the race for the American League East Division Crown.  That race was effectively though not mathematically over.  Three years prior, the Red Sox made a show of squandering an eight game September lead when Robert Andino sent Nolan Reimold home as Carl Crawford floundered for a sinking liner in left.  However, that kind of collapse is incredibly rare and not exactly what one plans for.  A more realistic collapse was placing a bet against the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland Athletics.  Both teams were four games up (a rather far distance to climb in four weeks), but the odds were are least playable that one of those clubs could come across some hard times.

Earlier in the summer, the Orioles addressed weaknesses in their starting rotation by acquiring the solid, but not particularly inspiring, Scott Feldman and Bud Norris.  The Feldman acquisition included catcher Steve Clevenger who is a favorite for the backup catcher position this season and who plated the first run of Spring Training.  The Orioles sent out eternally promising Jake Arrieta and the wildly chaotic Pedro Strop along with their third and fourth international amateur bonus slot money.  Bud Norris came over with the third Astros international amateur bonus slot money in exchange for L.J. Hoes, Josh Hader, and the Orioles' first round competitive balance pick.  All in all, it does not cost much in terms of value.

The Orioles were largely unwilling to send over anything of value in trades last summer.  Perhaps the most value could be found in the international and domestic money slots they sent out as well as L.J. Hoes, if you are one of the few who still think something could come from that swing.  In another deal, the Orioles acquired Francisco Rodriguez for Nicky Delmonico, who would be hard pressed to make anyone's top 10 list due to him not exactly having a position and not exactly being able to square up on a lot of pitches from low minors pitchers.

What the team had not addressed was their designated hitter situation.  Up to that point, the only life they saw from the position was a few games from Danny Valencia pounding left handers.  Beyond him, the club was challenging the record for the fewest runs created in a non-strike season from the DH position.  The Orioles tried hard for two players in the August waiver trade window: Josh Willingham and Michael Morse.  The Twins refused to discuss anything less than Eduardo Rodriguez, so that option faded.  The Mariners were open to dealing the unproductive and often injured Morse to the Orioles for an upper minor leaguer by the name of Xavier Avery.

The complaint we had about this deal was that Morse was not an improvement on anything the team had.  Against left handed pitching, that was certainly true.  Against right handers, Morse from previous seasons would have been pretty useful.  In other words, the bet on Morse was to invest a low value prospect on a chance that Morse was not as injured as he seemed.  Unfortunately, an undisclosed wrist injury (and perhaps his existing injuries) had that bet go bust.  Morse did nothing for the Orioles and actually hurt them in his 30 plate appearances and producing a -35 OPS+.

Which leaves us to wonder, what did the Orioles actually lose in Xavier Avery.  He should not be much of an unknown to those who follow the team.  He was selected in the previous regime as a raw toolsy outfielder with great speed, but poor baseball skills.  He surely progressed through the minors, performing ably but not exceptionally.  At the major league level, he was a poor route runner in the outfield, but made up for that with his speed.  His arm was weak as was his bat.  All that said, he was a capable defender in left field and could play center field for a bit.  His offense was poor, but there was a very slim chance that the 23 year old might be able to do more with his package.  Avery also had an option for the 2015 season, meaning that he could serve as a team's fifth or sixth outfielder without the club being concerned about whether or not he would pass through waivers.

It is difficult to quantify Avery's chances of breaking out.  We could argue quite a while with mathematically derived comps.  I see no point in that.  Instead, let us simply think about current value.  In doing so, I asked ZiPS founder Dan Szymborski for a list of outfielders from which we might be able to figure out who might be comparable base talents to Avery.  I took Dan's projected values for fielding and weighted out to 120 games in the outfield.  I marked Avery as the lowest talent and considered everyone above him as a replacement for him.  In left field, Avery was marked as being a +3.5 run saved defender.  I counted all available left fielders with that defensive rating and above.  I also counted all centerfielders who scored 10 runs worse (-6.5) and better.  I removed all in that group whose bat was projected to be less than Avery's 71 OPS+.  I then also removed all players who were protected by their team this past off season.

That leaves us with this list:

Player B Age PO OPS+ D/550 Role
Jacoby Ellsbury L 30 CF 110 7.0 MLB-S
Chris Young R 30 CF 104 5.5 MLB-S
Ryan Sweeney L 29 CF 98 -2.2 MLB-B
Andres Torres B 35 CF 95 5.4 MiL
Casper Wells R 29 LF 90 10.6 MiL
Jordany Valdespin L 26 CF 85 -4.0 MiL
Grady Sizemore L 31 CF 81 -4.6 MLB-B
Sam Fuld L 32 LF 81 11.9 MiL
Franklin Gutierrez R 31 CF 78 3.3 MLB-B
Jason Pridie L 30 CF 76 4.1 MiL
Jake Smolinski R 25 LF 76 4.5 MiL
Trayvon Robinson B 26 CF 73 -1.1 MiL
Clete Thomas L 30 CF 73 1.0 MiL
Laynce Nix L 33 RF 71 14.2 MiL
Xavier Avery L 24 LF 71 3.5 MiL

Of those available this off season, Andres Torres and Laynce Nix, to my knowledge, are the only players without teams.  Torres is apparently still suffering from an injury suffered last year.  I am not sure about Nix's reasons.  Ellsbury, Young, Sweeney, Sizemore, and Gutierrez do not adequately fit the role being discussed here because they are quality enough players to be rewarded with MLB contracts.  That leaves eight players that are equal or better than Avery according to this projection.  Two of those eight, Pridie and Robinson, actually played in the Orioles organization last year.  Eight options amongst thirty teams sounds a bit scarce to me.

The above though is not a complete list.  The Orioles wound up finding a backup centerfielder in the Rule 5 draft.  So, who is the giant list of players would have been eligible in the Rule 5?

Player B Age PO OPS+ D/550 Roster
Julio Borbon L 28 CF 71 1.4 AA
Thomas Pham R 26 CF 83 2.7 AAA

That list really is only Borbon.  Pham, being on the AAA roster, would have needed to stay on the active roster for the entire season.  Pham, who we have covered before, has an interesting tool kit, but has suffered from a wide range of unfortunate injuries.  Borbon, placed on the Cubs AA roster, could be had and placed in Norfolk.  Again, though, neither of these players have the luxury of an option assigned to them. 

This should lead us to wonder just how many centerfielders does a team need?  Well, last year, Adam Jones was not injured.  As such, the team employed Nate McLouth, Chris Dickerson, and Jason Pridie in centerfield.  The year before, Adam Jones played every game, but McLouth, Endy Chavez (who was replaced by McLouth), Robert Andino, and Xavier Avery logged innings there.  In 2011, a slightly banged up Adam Jones played 148 games with Matt Angle, Felix Pie, and Kyle Hudson filling in.  In other words, if your center fielder is healthy then it does not matter much who you have in AAA.  That said, a healthy Jones still needed two to three players each year that had to be exposed to waivers.  This suggests that it is important to have a couple players capable of playing centerfield in Norfolk if you do not have a player like Avery that you can shuttle.

All said and done, I think the above illustrates, at least, that Xavier Avery does have value beyond his age.  That he is useful to an organization.  His skill set is not exactly hard to find, nor is it easy to find.  The Orioles wound up replacing him with Julio Borbon, but Borbon was not exactly expected to be present in the Rule 5 draft and the team does not have the luxury of putting him safely on a Norfolk to Baltimore shuttle that Avery's option year would have provided.  But, yeah, this value is slim.  Yes, the value is there and it is real, it just is not a great value.  Seattle though seems to see it.

In the end, that minimal value (and ignoring his slim breakout potential) was considered a value worth lost in exchanged for the potential that Mike Morse had beyond the similar pieces the club already employed.  Yes, we could sit and argue the value of slivers of hair between Morse and Avery probably just as well as we could argue Francisco Rodriguez and Delmonico or, perhaps, we simply could enjoy the sun and some hot chocolate.  The latter is likely a better expenditure of time.


Anonymous said...

I want to read your stuff, I really do, but you need to change your layout. White text and a black background is a terrible choice for a web-page, and halfway through the third paragraph I start getting a headache trying to read it.

Jon Shepherd said...

I appreciate your concern.

We are aware that a segment of our readership finds the design to be difficult to use. We have explored ways in the past to improve the experience, but have found that there are some programming artifacts that require going to about 200 posts individually to correct. Those pages are still frequently viewed and the time investment in making sure those older pages still look sharp is too much for us to currently handle.

I would suggest using a mobile app to view the Depot. We are able to strip down the colors for that and it has helped readers with similar eye strain to read our site.


Anonymous said...

I think you guys are good writers and analysts, but don't you have better things to do than figure out that Xavier Avery might have a tiny bit of value to the team, or that the J. Santana signing has a tiny bit of risk?

Jon Shepherd said...

Amazingly...teams often ponder this. These things may not hold much interest in the mainstream, but these considerations are made by front offices.

Jason said...

I find it very interesting, thanks for the commentary. However, I believe you have discounted one big component of his value as a pinch runner. That has to count for some added runs. Otherwise, thanks for the best orioles blog on the internet!

Jon Shepherd said...

Despite Avery having great speed, he is actually a poor base stealer and not the best on his reads when running on hit balls. With that in mind, he grades out as simply above average on the base paths. Perhaps, with maturation, he will excel.