Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Who's Your Left Fielder?

I wasn't able to post this when I planned (Monday, July 22nd), and events made me glad it turned out that way. Here's the chart for left fielders:
For those unfamiliar with my previous posts, this scatter graph plots all left fielders on two axes, the horizontal being their 2013 salary and the vertical their value as calculated by FanGraphs. Players above the line are outperforming their contract and  players below are underperforming, with the distance from the line showing the magnitude of performance. Looking at this, Carlos Gonzalez and Starling Marte are the best-performing left fielders and Vernon Wells the worst. Not all data points are labeled.

Since this is the first outfield post, I'll begin by stating that I chose the predominant position for each player, since several shift around--for example, Mike Trout plays a fair amount of left, but since he is predominantly a center fielder, I'll evaluate him there. I'll begin with the person who made me VERY HAPPY I didn't write this until today, a person represented by a data point right in the middle and right on the line, suggesting he's performing exactly as he should be. In that last sentence, I used the contraction "he's," which in this case means he WAS, because it's Ryan Braun, and he's done playing baseball for the year. If Bud Selig were to follow through and give him a 100-game suspension, he'd still owe 35 games next year, but I'm not sure how that will be handled--the news was only announced a couple of hours ago and the full story isn't out yet. He was out for a month in June, and even taking that into consideration his power numbers were down significantly from previous seasons. I'm more interested in what it means for his contract going forward, since the dollars jump substantially in 2014 and really kick in beginning in 2016. I'm sure the Collective Bargaining Agreement deals specifically with this issue, but the Brewers are on the hook for over $110 million guaranteed. He's 29, and if they have the chance to revisit that contract, who knows what can happen? In any case, for the rest of 2013, the title of this blog post isn't merely a rhetorical question but a way of life for the Brewers.

I scratched my head when the Yankees traded for Vernon Wells at the end of spring training. He was owed $42 million through 2014, came with no prospects and has been underwhelming offensively since 2011. I was clueless as to why the Blue Jays signed him to the contract they did after 2009, but was beginning to think I just might have been wrong--he batted .300 with 6 home runs in April, so maybe a change of scenery to New York was all he needed. Since then, not so much--4 home runs and a .215 average as the Yankees fade from contention in the AL East. They're not out of it yet but will need more production than Wells has been giving them. Wells is merely the best example of the underwhelming and expensive left fielder, a group that includes Alfonso Soriano, Carl Crawford and Matt Holliday. Holliday has been okay and a recent DL stint might keep him from setting the record for most GIDP--at the time of his injury he was on a pace for 38, which would break the record of 36 by Jim Rice in 1984 (next-worst? 35 by...Jim Rice in 1985). Carl Crawford might be a new breed of player, the kind that plays well for Joe Maddon and underachieves elsewhere. Previously it had only been pitchers that were affected by this malady (Scott Kazmir and James Shields) but maybe it's made the leap to position players as well. Alfonso Soriano has been playing okay and the Yankees are interested--he's a natural for an AL team that can use him at DH, but he's still owed $18 million for 2014. These four represent a trend that is passing by as we speak, the team willing to trade off spending in future years for current production. When the Cubs signed Soriano as a free agent at the beginning of the 2007 season, they had every expectation that he would be a liability by 2012 or so...and would have led the Cubs to a World Series in 2007 or 2008. He was very productive for them in those years, but it was a failed bet.

The value players are a varied bunch, led by Starling Marte, who is having a very solid season. I don't know how his power numbers will project out as he gets older, but if he's only going to hit 15-20 home runs he can't lead the majors in caught stealing. I don't know who the real Domonic Brown is, the one who hit 12 home runs in May or the one with 9 home runs since then. I don't think it matters much either way as I suspect he'll be the Phillies left fielder for some time. Kelly Johnson, Gregor Blanco and Nate McLouth are spare parts having decent years and helping their teams (except Blanco as the Giants find new and interesting ways to lose). Michael Brantley is having a solid year for the surprising Indians, only 1.5 games behind the Tigers as I write this in the AL Central. I don't think they have a prayer of making the playoffs (neither does Baseball Prospectus), but they do have a big decision to make as he is arbitration-eligible after this year. Since he's not locked up, it appears the Indians will use the arbitration years to see if he really deserves a big contract. I wouldn't--he's 26, and I'd just pay him in the $7-8 million range for the next three years and move on. That's probably why I'm not a general manager.

One last comment on the young players--it hit me AFTER I posted this I had missed someone very important and searched high and low to figure out how I did that. It took me 5 minutes or so to see there's a data point right underneath Nate McLouth that isn't labeled. That would be Bryce Harper, and if he can stay in one piece, he'll be the class of left field for years to come. He's still only 20 so it's speculation to know just where his power numbers will be, and I'm not sure where his eventual position will be, if he's destined to be a left fielder or if he'll shift to right when the Nationals are finished with Jayson Werth.

This is the contract status for those left fielders grouped around Ryan Braun:


No payroll-busting contracts in the group, and these are the players that are in their prime. It's clear the Braun contract is an anomaly that probably won't be replicated for some time to come, but in the Brewers defense, they had locked him up into the next decade. For all the grief that Carlos Quentin receives, he's delivering value, and many teams would be very happy to have Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon or Justin Upton patrolling left. These contracts will have very real ramifications for the young players playing on their first contracts.

Carlos Gonzalez is a very interesting case--he's delivering great value this year and was recognized almost upon his Major League arrival as someone worthy of a long-term contract. He's still relatively affordable this year but enters the expensive part of the contract beginning in 2014 and will be owed $63.5 million through 2017. He'll only be 31 and has been a very consistent performer since he came to the majors, but what exactly has a solid-to-above average hitter ever done for the Rockies? They have a decent offensive lineup, one that's much better with a healthy Troy Tulowitzki, but until they figure out how to pitch in that ball park, I'm not sure ANY money makes a difference. Having written that, I suspect there are 26-28 teams that would take Gonzalez in a heartbeat.

Beginning with the straight line of points with Andy Dirks at the top and Tyler Moore at the bottom, there are two distinct groups: the Dirks group also contains Matt Tuiasosopo, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava--solid players all, but no foundational building blocks. The next group (all unlabeled) includes Sean Rodriguez, Logan Schafer and Chris Carter, and it doesn't get any better as you go below the value line. Part of it is baseball logic--you play left field because you can't play anything else and have a good bat, but I've been hearing more and more that there's pitching in the minor leagues but no hitting. It very well could be these types of players are the vanguard of that trend if true.

This is the first position I've reviewed that doesn't have a decent number of good young players--in my mind, the only players that qualify would be Marte and Domonic Brown, with a slight nod to Michael Brantley. None of these players (absent some dramatic change) will get Ryan Braun-like money and might be lucky to reach $10 million a year, which speaks volumes about the players below them--they might only make it to $5 million. Left field is probably one step ahead of first base in that teams are no longer willing to spend big money for one-dimensional players--Andy Dirks and David Murphy are rated as the best defensive left fielders, and what has that done for their respective teams? At least in the AL the DH gives additional value to left fielders, but it's a new day, one that will not see the likes of Ryan Braun's contract for quite some time.

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