August 3, 2009 at 9:34 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves, Front Office, Player Analysis, Transactions
So for the third straight year, the Braves do something involving a 1B at the trade deadline. They went from pulling off a 7-player trade for the biggest name on the trade market, Mark Teixeira, to trading said big name for dimes on the dollar that they paid to get him, to shipping off some of the dimes they got for a 2-month rental. The previous trades were easily digestible, easily understood, and everyone seemed to have the same reaction to the trades. When Schuerholz acquired Teixeira and a reliever for 4 prospects and our big-league catcher-turned-1B, the trade was universally understood. The Braves are going for it. They traded away elite prospects, but they got their guy. He’ll help them tremendously on offense and on defense. They should be primed for a playoff push for the next two years. In 2007 they missed the playoffs and in 2008 an injury-wrecked pitching staff led them to their worst record since 1990.
Seeing as they weren’t going to make the playoffs, Wren decided to do a little damage control and trade Teixeira for something useful rather than just lose him to FA and simply collect 2 draft picks. The return of Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek wasn’t awesome. But that’s about all Wren could’ve gotten for Tex. Might as well just get what you can. Like I said, dimes on the dollar his predecessor paid for Tex. Whether or not two draft picks would’ve been more valuable is certainly debatable, but that situation won’t be addressed in this space. Not today, at least. But whether or not you agree with the move, you can at least understand why he did it.
But nobody really seems to understand the Kotchman for LaRoche swap. It’s one that requires more thought. Not easy to digest. You have to delve deeper into the framework of the organization and the trades’ implications beyond this year to really understand it. Even then, I think it’s impossible to fully understand it until we see what goes on this off-season, but I’ll attempt to lay it out. Some points.
1) The trade is risky. We traded two years and two months of Casey Kotchman for two months of Adam LaRoche. Purely in terms of value, two years and two months of Casey Kotchman is worth more than two months of Adam LaRoche. Granted, there’s financial uncertainty with Casey as an arbitration-eligible player, but simply put, all other things equal, his contract is worth more than LaRoche’s contract. Even when you consider the fact that the Red Sox included money to make the deal salary-neutral (that is, the Braves’ will not pay, out of pocket, more money than they would have had they not made the deal), the Red Sox got more value from the trade than the Braves did.
But we’re not talking about a zero-sum game here. Trades are rarely a zero-sum game. Both involved parties can win, both involved parties can lose, or some combination that doesn’t add up to zero. If you only consider the value of each player, then yes, they are. But sometimes a player (or a contract) is more valuable to a certain team than it is to another.
LaRoche could end up being more valuable to us than Casey’s contract, even if LaRoche is only around for a few months. For reasons I’ll get to.
2) It’s not nearly as risky as the Mark Teixeira deal. Just like the stock market, the maximum you can lose is your initial investment. I now look at the Mark Teixeira deal as basically trading 5 prospects (4 with star potential) for what really amounted to, in the end, nothing*. No playoff berth. And those 5 prospects are gone forever. The good news about this deal is the Braves traded zero prospects and 1 contract which doesn’t represent a significant piece of their future. Now of course you always want to maximize value, and if a few things don’t happen, the Braves didn’t maximize their value. But if this trade is a complete failure, at the end of the day, you’ve lost two years and two months of Casey Kotchman. It’s Casey Kotchman. It’s an easy loss to stomach. Not like you traded Matt LaPorta or anything.
*I do go overboard with the “nothing”. We used Teixeira for a year, Ron Mahay for two months, let Mahay walk, then traded Teixeira. In the Teixeira deal, we netted an interesting relief prospect (who decided to get really fat and become fairly useless this season, but that’s neither here nor there. He’s still a prospect and it isn’t relevant) and three years and two months of Casey Kotchman. We used a year of Kotchman then flipped two years and two months of him to Boston for two months of Adam LaRoche. So at this point we’ve got two months of Adam LaRoche and an interesting relief prospect to show for the 5 prospects we dealt for Teixeira. Not “nothing” but certainly pennies on the dollar.
3) The organization’s intentions behind this move are clear. They believe that LaRoche gives them a better chance to make the play-offs than Kotchman does. Furthermore, LaRoche attempts to address the teams’ biggest systematic weakness: the inability to hit home runs. It’s hard to theoretically argue that LaRoche doesn’t addresses this issue. LaRoche has hit a home run in 4.1% of his career PA’s whereas Kotchman has hit a home run in only 2.2% of his PA’s. LaRoche also has more than twice as many home runs this year as Kotchman does. But though the LaRoche acquisition attempts to fix the teams’ biggest systematic weakness, does it give the team a better chance to make the post-season?
Kotchman is a superior defender to LaRoche. LaRoche isn’t necessarily a disaster with the glove, but Kotchman is one of the best in the business, and almost anyone is a downgrade in that department. The advanced metrics show LaRoche is a below-average defender. Though only slightly. Whereas Kotchman is a well above-average defender. No question, we lost something in that department in the deal.
LaRoche, in his career, has been a better hitter than Kotchman. He owns a career .270/.338/.487 line, good for a .349 wOBA opposed to Kotchman’s .271/.339/.412 and .327 wOBA. This year, however, LaRoche’s line is down from his career line, as he’s only hitting .251/.329/.449 with a .331 wOBA. Kotchman is hitting a respectable .281/.353/.408 with the exact same .331 wOBA, up from his career line. Kotchman is only 26 years old and LaRoche is 29 years old, so this could be LaRoche simply declining due to age and Kotchman improving as he reaches his prime. Could be. Or it could be luck. Or a slump by LaRoche. The organization, however, feels that something else is at play here.
LaRoche has been a notorious second-half hitter. That is–he hits better in the 2nd half than he does in the 1st half. In his career, LaRoche has hit .252/.326/.447 (eerily similar to his .251/.329/.449 line thus far this season), belting a home run 3.5% of the time he comes to the plate, in the first half whereas he has hit .296/.356/.554, belting a home run 5.0% he comes to the plate, in the second half. This isn’t just 1 monster 2nd half season, he’s pulled this exact same trick every single year he’s been in the big leagues. I can’t explain it. I don’t see how I could. I’m also far from convinced that something is actually making him a better 2nd half hitter and it’s not just a coincidence. I’ve never seen one study that concludes previous 1st/2nd half performances have predictive value. Or even one that suggests a thing called a “2nd half hitter” exists. Maybe Probably the organization knows more than I do. Maybe it’s a risk they’re willing to take. I don’t know their reasoning for being able to count on or hope that LaRoche pulls his usual trick. I know that if LaRoche hits .296/.356/.554 for us he’ll most likely be a substantial upgrade, but if he hits .251/.329/.449, well, we probably should’ve just kept Kotchman in that case. And I don’t pretend to know which of the two we’ll see. Hopefully the former.
So to answer the question, does LaRoche give the Braves a better chance to win, only if he hits like he has in the 2nd half of his career.
4) It’ll be an interesting off-season. Before the LaRoche trade, I just assumed the organization had Kotchman penciled in for 1B in 2010. He provides value, albeit not much. And he’s a cheap, young, sure thing. It’s not like he’s ever hurt the team, like, say, oh, I don’t know, Francoeur. Kotchman provided a nice stop-gap until Freddie Freeman, the organization’s future at 1B, is ready. Now, Kotchman is no longer in the organization and LaRoche will be eligible for free agency. He’s close to qualifying for Type B FA status and if he hits like he has in his career in the 2nd half, he most likely will qualify. Does the organization attempt to re-sign him? Probably not. Freddie Freeman will almost certainly be MLB ready by the start of the 2011 season and LaRoche isn’t going to be looking for a 1-year deal. He’s eligible for free agency for the first time in his career. He’s looking to make his big money, cash in big time. So that seems out of the question.
With Kotchman’s contract off the books, does the organization use the money to a) go after a free agent 1B, b) go after a free agent OF, c) retain bullpen help (Soriano and/or Gonzalez), d) retain starting pitching (Hudson, Vazquez), or e) just cover arb raises? I don’t know. An infield of Chipper, Escobar, Prado, and Kelly Johnson (with either Prado or Chipper playing 1st and the other playing 3rd, I’ll get to the moving Chipper to 1st thing in another article) would be sufficient offensively provided KJ returns to form and Prado continues to hit. Can the organization count on that until Freeman is ready? Would they be best served keeping their pitching staff mostly intact and going with the group they already have? I don’t know. We’ll see how the off-season plays out. All I know is that it’s going to be very interesting. We won’t know how to evaluate this trade until we see what Wren does with the financial flexibility he’s inherited now that Kotchman’s contract will be off the books in 2010. And just to clarify, no, Kotchman isn’t making A-Rod money. But he’ll likely get 4-5 million dollars in arbitration. And that’s no small chunk of change. Especially to a mid-market team.
5) Conclusion. While I feel like I’ve made some good points, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to being able to assess this trade. There’s so much at play here. His first half numbers vs. his second half numbers, the contract situations, etc. If this move proves to be the difference in the Braves making the playoffs and not making the playoffs, it was a good one, even if they sort of sold Casey Kotchman a for pennies on the dollar. There’s no question, the Braves didn’t maximize value here, but making the post-season makes it worth it. It really does. When you make a trade like this–one that you give up more than your recieve with intentions of making the post-season–it was good if you make the post-season and bad if you didn’t. And even then, we’ll have to see how the off-season plays out before we can really evaluate the trade. So we’ll see. I don’t really have an opinion on the trade. My opinion is this: the front office usually knows what they’re doing (even if they’re usually slow to react to non-productive players). So I’m only hoping they got it right and hoping LaRoche turns in a strong August and September and (hopefully) October. Wouldn’t surprise me. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t. And that would be very, very bad.