January 15, 2013 at 10:00 am by Mark Smith under Atlanta Braves
When we last talked, we tried to figure out what the best internal option was for the Braves, and once we found that out (likely the kitty crack platoon), we could find out what the Braves need to find externally to better what they already have. In order to come out even (which doesn’t make much sense), the Braves would need to find an average starter, but in order to improve, they need an above-average starter who is likely to contribute 3+ wins of value.
What we look to do today is to find out what the best (if there is one) external option would be. The answer is not simply what player produces the most. If you were going to buy a car, you wouldn’t simply buy a Ferrari because it’s the best car available. You would take budgetary restrictions and the cost/value of the car into account. Baseball teams do the same with players. I realize you know this, but I’m pre-emptively trying to stop the debate of simply offering Michael Bourn $16 million for 2013 or trading whatever it takes to get Justin Upton. Those are the high-profile names, but let’s see if they make the most sense.
This is a list of the available free-agent outfielders and their ages heading into 2013 pulled from MLB Trade Rumors. It shouldn’t surprise you, but there’s not much left. Michael Bourn is the only free-agent who clearly meets the threshold of being an above-average regular. Scott Hairston had a career year in 2012 and could have been a 3-win player with more playing time (though that’s projecting out 400 PA to 600), and Nyjer Morgan has been above-average a couple times in the recent past. Let’s take a little time to talk about each in a little more detail.
(Note: All of the charts that follow are meant to give general outlooks. The projected WAR for each player is based on him playing 600+ PA for Atlanta, and they’re generally optimistic. They’re just to give us an idea before we move forward.)
Taking a look at Bourn, he’s a very productive player and has been for the past few seasons. Over the past four seasons, he’s been worth at least 4 wins each time. As he enters his age-30 season (born Dec 27, 1992), Bourn’s talent isn’t in dispute, but his ability to play at a high level throughout a 5-7 year deal is. My fear with Bourn is that his value is based entirely on his speed. He’s an effective hitter, but part of it comes down to his ability to run. He has a massive value on the bases because he can run. He has a lot of defensive value due to his range, which is because he can run. If anything ever happened to his speed, I’m not sure he’d have any value at all. BJ Upton has his flaws, but his skills – speed, power, arm – are at least diverse, making it more unlikely that his value goes completely down the tube.
If he accepts a one-year deal, however, those concerns go out the window. None of us know how probable that is or if the possibility of a one-year deal will attract more suitors (and thus increase what the team would have to offer him), but a one-year deal in the $15-17M range wouldn’t be out of line. I don’t know who would play CF, but if Bourn was to be moved to LF, he’d probably lose a win of value while still being valuable enough for the same one-year deal, considering the team’s desire to add wins. The lone drawback would be losing the draft pick, but the team could get it back for 2014.
That 2.5 wins is generous. Hairston has never once reached that mark, but then again, he’s never received more than 500 PA in a season. He’ll turn 33 early in the season, but I won’t say it’s completely outside of the realm of reason that Hairston could be a decent regular next season. Hairston, however, really stretches to reach our threshold, and I don’t think he’s worth pursuing as a starter.
I included Morgan because he was an interesting name to me. He’s had a few very good seasons, but both were buoyed by high BABiPs. It was a thought, but considering the additional concern over his antics, it really isn’t worth it.
There are obviously significantly more trade options than free-agent options. To get on this list, I had to think it was possible the team would be willing to trade them and to have seen them mentioned somewhere as a trade candidate, and they had be of starter quality. I did consider third basemen in this, but other than Chase Headley (who would likely be more expensive than Upton) and Mike Olt (may not really want to bank on a rookie; I’d rather spend the resources on getting a guy like Upton), the good third basemen are taken and probably unavailable. As for the players in color, I’ll talk more specifically about the players in green, but I’ll quickly tackle why the guys in yellow might not work.
De Aza is an interesting player, but I don’t know that he qualifies as an above-average regular or if he’s available (it was mentioned earlier in the off-season, but I’m not sure why the White Sox would trade him). Crisp is another interesting player, but I don’t think he quite makes the production threshold either. Will Venable is a personal favorite, but he also fails to meet the production requirement (though he’d be a good platoon partner for Johnson, that’s not what we’re after here). Matt Carpenter is a guy I like for 3B, but I’m not sure he’d be available (he’s kind of an extra at the moment) or good enough. Emilio Bonifacio has the speed people seem to want, but he’s not the caliber of player we’re looking for, either. None of these players are ones that I would want to have to convince another team to get rid of, so let’s get to the other ones.
Gerardo Parra is the first guy on the list, and most Braves fans know him because of his strong arm, having thrown out a number of Braves on the basepaths the past few seasons. Parra has been a part-time OF for Arizona the past few seasons, amassing 400+ PA filling in often and for injuries, but he’s never really been given an opportunity to start every day, which is probably true for 2013 as well. While he has definite value on defense, he’s not a particularly good hitter, but as you may notice, he’s still been a valuable player and has improved since a dismal 2010. The main draw, in this scenario, is that he’ll turn 26 early in the season and just hitting his peak, indicating he may improve and become an above-average regular.
As for his value, I’ve given a suggested value in green ($5.25M per win in 2013, $5.5M in 2014, and $5.75M in 2015; you can quibble with the details, but I’m just trying to give you an estimate) based on him starting every day for Atlanta. Matt Swartz, at MLB Trade Rumors, projected a $2.1M salary for 2013, and I’ll project $4.5 and $6.5M (I used current teammate Cody Ross as an arbitration comp) for $13M total. That’s a surplus value of about $30M, but considering his value right now is closer to a 2-win player, his total value would be (2*5.25+2*5.5+2*5.75) $33M, giving us a surplus value of about $20M. If you look at prospect values, trading for Parra would likely cost a top position player prospect (Christian Bethancourt?) or a couple decent pitching prospects (Sean Gilmartin, Zeke Spruill, JR Graham?).
The advantage to trading for Parra is that the Braves probably wouldn’t lose anyone off the major-league roster.
Any of you heard of this guy? Over the past 4 seasons, Upton has gone from awesome to pretty good to MVP candidate to meh, and it’s this inconsistency that has driven the DBacks to consider trading him. The main difference in his value has come from his power which has vacillated between average and well above average, but as you can see, projections see him rebounding. I see no reason to doubt that. If you do and see him as more of a 3-4 win player, then his value might be closer to (3*5.25+3.5*5.5+4*5.75) $58M, meaning his surplus value is basically Parra’s, but you should still be willing to pay a little more in prospects for Upton because he’s a better player than Parra (a 3-4 win player will help the team more than a 2-3 win player despite their overall values).
Unfortunately, the DBacks seem to selling Upton for retail. A $40-50M surplus is pretty difficult to get to using prospects, and the Mariners were willing to pay Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Stephen Pryor, and Charlie Furbush. A similar deal from Atlanta could be Julio Teheran, Nick Ahmed/Bethancourt, Gilmartin/Spruill, and Juan Jaime, but it might take a major-league reliever like Eric O’Flaherty or Jonny Venters. Don’t belittle Furbush and Pryor as they’re both strikeout-heavy relievers with 5-6 years of control left. O’Flaherty really isn’t guaranteed to be better than either, is more expensive, and is only under control for 2013. And while I’m sure most of us would rather trade Randall Delgado than Julio Teheran, that doesn’t mean the DBacks will simply accept a deal with Delgado instead of Teheran.
The obvious advantage to trading for Upton is getting a star-caliber player to complete what would be, at the very least, one of the top 3 outfields in baseball, but it might require trading significant parts of the major-league roster, which might defeat the purpose.
Before you flip out, hear me out. While I understand that Alfonso Soriano is one of the more derided players for “not living up to his contract”, that doesn’t mean he’s not useful. Soriano had a bounce-back season in 2012, and while such a season from a 36-year old is often seen as a blip, it helps Soriano’s case that there was a reason for it – using a lighter bat. Soriano has always used a heavy bat, but in an effort to regain bat speed, he saw it pay dividends. While I wouldn’t expect another 4-win season (not likely to quite repeat the power, fielding, or BABiP), a 3-win season doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities.
The question is what the Braves would have to give up. For a deal to work, the Braves would obviously not take on the entire contract, and because the Cubs have a small payroll but presumably a large revenue base, the Cubs should be able and willing to eat a significant portion. If the Cubs were to eat around $20M, that would leave the Braves paying $15M or so, but as you can see, Soriano’s value (in green) is about $10-$15M higher than that. To offset some of that, the Braves can counter with the fact that Soriano is 37, and as guys get older (especially strike out guys), they’re more likely to collapse. The Cubs, however, are likely to want a decent prospect in return after Soriano had such a good season, so a Zeke Spruill/Aaron Northcraft-type prospect might work. Depending on the amount of money eaten by the Cubs, the amount or type of prospect would change (eating more money means a better prospect and vice-versa).
The advantage to this deal is trading away very little, but the risk is Soriano’s already declining bat speed completely disappearing.
With only one year of control, Corey Hart has the least team control of anyone on this list, but he still fits what we’re looking for. The main issue is that Hart moved to 1B last season after several years of being a pretty bad defensive LF, so the Braves would be sacrificing defense in left. Hart’s offense, however, is his calling card, though he’s similar to the other players on the list in that his power is somewhat aided by generally hitter-friendly home parks, and the 30-homer power might inflate his perceived value. That being said, Hart will be 31 at the beginning of the season, and he’s likely to be a slightly above-average regular.
Now, what would it take? The Brewers are, at best, the third-best team in the Central, and their starting rotation and farm system could use a little help. Hart shouldn’t have too much value beyond what we’ve discussed here, so a Spruill/Northcraft-type prospect might do it. The main question is whether the Brewers are willing to move Hart. They sit in an awkward middle ground where they have a chance, but it doesn’t look particularly great. They may want to keep Hart in order to make a run, and unless they received a blow-away offer, they may be inclined to keep him. Hart’s not a player I want to overpay for.
The advantage to this deal is limited risk, but his perceived value might be higher than his real value.
Willingham has been a Braves fan-favorite to acquire for some time. The Braves have seemingly had trouble filling in the outfield for the past half-decade or so while Willingham toiled away on unimpressive NL East teams. It seemed like a match made in heaven, but the Braves never pulled or had the chance to pull the trigger. Willingham has always had patience and power, but his value has always been brought down by frequent injuries. Over his first 7 full season, he’s played 140+ games 3 times and has only done so once (last season) in the past 5. He will turn 34 in another month, and guys don’t generally get healthier as they get older.
But Willingham’s value is very high right now. He’s under contract for just $7M for each of the next 2 seasons, and he just blasted 30+ homers for the first time in his career. And he did that playing half his games in Target Field. What that means is that his perceived value is probably higher than the one I have in green, and that value already meant trading one of the Braves’ better prospects. Do you want to trade away two good-to-decent prospects for a guy whose value may not really be more than what Parra could offer?
The advantage to this trade is the best non-Upton hitter on the list at a very reasonable price, but I also expect that he’ll cost a couple pretty pennies.
Morse has become somewhat of a hot topic lately because of Adam LaRoche signing a new contract with Washington and with an outfield crowded with Bryce Harper, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth. Morse is a nice addition to a team, but he really stretches the definition of “above-average” regular. His one 3-win season is basically the definition of his best-case scenario. Morse has 30-homer power, but he’s a bad defensive LF who doesn’t run the bases well. Working in Morse’s favor is that he’s 31 all season and has an affordable contract.
Working against him is that Morse probably fits along with Corey Hart as being a player whose perceived value is probably higher than his real value. In addition, he plays for division-rival Washington, and while that shouldn’t make a difference theoretically, Washington isn’t likely to help their main rival for the division title if they can trade Morse elsewhere. There should be plenty of suitors for Morse, so I wouldn’t expect the Braves to get him cheaply. Morse isn’t a guy I want to “overpay” for, and I wouldn’t expect Washington to be enthusiastic about trading him to Atlanta.
The advantage to Morse is limited risk in regard to his contract, but I’m not really sure he meets our talent threshold of “above-average regular”.
You’ve Spent 2,500 Words on This, so Who’s the Guy?
As you can see, there aren’t a ton of options out there to fill the LF hole, but the Braves do have some choices this late in the off-season. If I had to rank them, I’d say:
1) Michael Bourn on an expensive one-year deal – This gives the Braves a lot of production, only costs money, and limits risk, but no one knows if Bourn would take such a deal or if the Braves could afford it. I probably wouldn’t be interested in a long-term deal.
2) Justin Upton – Upton will require the most, but he’s the only player on the list who is a difference-maker, has 3 years of control left, and is the youngest player here. Everyone else, with the exception of Bourn, stretches the definition of “above-average” regular and would have to play near their best to reach it. Upton’s baseline is “above-average regular”.
3) Alfonso Soriano – He gets a bad reputation, but he’s been a pretty valuable guy in 3 of the past 5 seasons, has power, and has been better than you’d expect defensively (trend is slightly above-average in LF). The cost should also be fairly minimal, but I could see a situation in which the Cubs held out for a good return, knowing they have him for two years and can afford to keep him.
4) Gerardo Parra – Parra is one of the few guys on this list heading into his prime, and while I have some Home/Road fears with him, he gives a solid combination of value and long-term control. He won’t come cheaply, though.
5) Josh Willingham/Corey Hart – Both players are solid players, but I don’t like the idea of paying a lot for either one. Contracts are reasonable, though.
6) Michael Morse – The production vs cost of acquiring scale seems to tilt way too much toward the cost side.
The important question to always keep in mind is “What does he cost?”, and as a result of being where we are, we simply don’t know the answer to these questions. I’ve tried to be as reasonable as I could be, but I’m admittedly using a lot of speculation here.
Remember, the Braves already have a possible internal option that should amount to a decent MLB starter, so adding in the cost of adding a player, the Braves would need to add an above-average regular to really improve upon what they already have. Bourn and Upton are really the only guys who can dependably fit that bill, and they will likely cost a lot to acquire. But given the fact that the Braves are probably valuing these marginal additional wins more than a normal win, either of them would certainly be worth pursuing.
Final question – “Of all of these scenarios, which would you pick?” I don’t want to give you this answer, but it depends on the cost. I’d be willing to part with a lot for Upton, stretch the budget for Bourn, or simply go with the kitty crack platoon if the prices for the other options are too high. Sticking with the internal option may resign the Braves to a repeat Wild Card appearance, but adding Bourn and Upton may still not make enough of a difference to beat out a Washington Nationals team that might be the best in baseball.
So who do you choose?