*Note: this is a continuation of yesterday’s post. You can take it for what it is, but I’d recommend reading the first half to get the full effect.
Yesterday we examined the two power-hitting outfielders that we know the Diamondbacks have been in on. Both Mark Trumbo and Yoenis Cespedes fit the bill as a “power bat” in the outfield, something that Kevin Towers has publicly stated that he’s seeking. For many fans, the prospective of adding an elite power bat like Trumbo or an exciting, powerful athlete like Cespedes, is an exciting proposition. But we have to ask some questions when looking at this potential move: why does Towers want to acquire a “power bat” in the first place? Presumably, it’s because he believes that it makes the team better. But is this actually true? Before answering this question, let’s take a look at a few things.
There are a number of people that argue that the Diamondbacks need to get a power bat to protect Paul Goldschmidt. I roll my eyes every time I hear this because the myth of lineup protection has been dispelled time and again. Don’t believe me? You can read it at FanGraphs, from Tom Tango (via The Hardball Times), Baseball Prospectus and other places all over the internet. Sabermetrics, by and large, has dismissed the notion of lineup protection and we should, too. Protection is not a sound reason to acquire this “power bat.”
Perceived Value vs. Reality
There is an overwhelming perception that home runs are incredibly important in building a winning team. While homers are helpful, the ability to hit them isn’t necessarily more valuable than any other particular skill set. What clouds the current perception of value is that home runs, and power hitters in general, are scarce in today’s game. In fact, home runs as a whole are down and have been trending down for quite a few years now. But, as Dave Cameron points out for ESPN Insider, the currency of baseball is runs, not the scarcity of events. As you’re most likely well aware, there are many ways to score runs aside from hitting dingers. As Cameron states,
“At the end of the day, the only thing that really matters is how many runs a team scored and allowed in a given game. Even over a full season, the standings usually track very consistently with total runs scored and runs allowed. How you score runs does not really matter so long as you do. Home runs certainly help in that regard, but they don’t become exponentially more valuable simply because they become more scarce.“
A great examples of this is a team that has a low on-base percentage but hits a lot of home runs (think: the 2013 Chicago Cubs). Because of this, most of those homers will come with the bases empty and result in a solo homer and only one run scored. But a team that has a high on-base percentage that hits few home runs (think: the 2013 St. Louis Cardinals) will actually score more runs overall over the course of the season because, given their high OBP, the team will experience a lot of high-probability of run-scoring states. This is why the league leaders in offense are almost always teams with high on-base percentages. They may or may not hit a lot of homers, but they keep the train moving and give themselves a chance to score without having to rely on the ball going over the fence.
Maybe it’s all of the old ESPN commercials with the tagline of “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” that tainted perception. But numbers are without tainting and it’s been clearly proven that home runs do not make a great offense by themselves. As an example, the 2013 Mariners should be well aware of this because they focussed on adding home run power to the lineup during the previous offseason and did so successfully. But while they finished 2nd in the majors in home runs, they were 22nd in runs scored, thanks to finishing 26th in OBP. Oh, and they had only the 12th-best record in the American League while missing the playoffs yet again. Adding home runs to the roster for their own sake is only one of the many flaws of the Seattle front office, but the Diamondbacks seem eager to make a similar move in adding a low-OBP power bat this winter. Arizona should learn from others and understand that adding power for the sake of power does not necessarily improve the offense.
All of our discussion regarding adding an outfield bat has ignored the fact that the Arizona outfield is currently full. Trading either Pollock or Eaton is of little consequence, too, as they’re center fielders primarily and don’t really factor into the discussion of corner outfield playing time outside of late-inning defensive replacements. To acquire either Cespedes or Trumbo, the Diamondbacks would have to trade or bench either Gerardo Parra or Cody Ross because they would be splitting time in right to free up left field for the new player. Parra was the team’s second most valuable player in 2013, mostly due to his defense, while Ross was incredibly productive when healthy.
And maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, because nobody knows the physical status of Cody Ross. He’s signed through 2015 at $9.5 million per season and dislocated his hip last August. His salary warrants a fair amount of playing time given his health, and his production last season backs that up. Adding another outfielder to the mix won’t help either of those things. You could suggest trading him, but I’m not sure anyone wants to trade for a 33-year old outfielder coming off of a dislocated hip. So, trade Parra? Maybe, but coming off his second gold glove, he’s clearly worth his salary and is just reaching his physical prime. Some continued offensive growth should be expected from him. Maybe you platoon the righty Ross and the lefty Parra in right field but now you’re cutting into the playing time of both players and spending over $15 million to do it. I’m not sure that’s the best use of resources for a mid-market team.
The costs above are opportunity costs at the major league level, but there will be costs at the minor league level if the team executes a trade for either Trumbo or Cespedes. The proposed package for Cespedes was AJ Pollock and Tyler Skaggs, but the teams didn’t agree on the deal. At this point, it’s unclear whether the Diamondbacks thought it was too much or whether the A’s thought it wasn’t enough. Either way, it didn’t go down but it gives us a baseline to work with. Arizona is going to have to part with at least two significant pieces to make a deal of this caliber. It’s either a major league outfielder (Eaton or Pollock), a major league starter (Delgado, Cahill or Miley), a top prospect (Skaggs, Owings, Davidson, other), or a combination of the players above, which is most likely.
The last part of the cost equations is considering the salary that will have to be paid to the acquisition. As noted in Monday’s post and also above, Trumbo is likely due around $25 million over the next three years through arbitration (barring an extension) and Cespedes is due $21 million over the next two seasons. Since the team has very little payroll flexibility as is, this is a significant concern without being able to move more salary off the books in addition to the $5.5 million freed up in the recent Heath Bell/David Holmberg trade.
In sum, an acquisition of of either Trumbo or Cespedes will cost the team playing time for Cody Ross and/or Gerardo Parra, a package of prospects and the new player’s salary. It’s not just as simple as plugging this “power bat” into the lineup since there are no current holes and hardly any financial flexibility to speak of.
You can probably guess at this point, but I don’t think the Diamondbacks should make this trade. It’s not a clear upgrade and it comes at an enormous, even unknown, cost. There is no evidence that Trumbo or Cespedes will make the team better just because they hit for power. For the record, Steamer projections have Trumbo worth 2.2 WAR over 144 games in 2014 and Cespedes worth 2.5 WAR in 130 games. Meanwhile, our in-house solutions in Parra (2.8 WAR in 138 games) and Ross (1.8 WAR in 122 games) are just as productive, if not more. Yes, Parra and Ross are different players than Trumbo and Cespedes, but while the team can add power in a potential trade, they’re going to lose the OBP and/or defense provided by the internal solutions. There just isn’t a clear upgrade here, and given the outlined costs, this is not a transaction that needs to be completed.
People get hung up on the home runs because they’re sexy and memorable. A 30 home run season from Mark Trumbo sounds like a great idea, but we have to remember that we’re not adding 30 home runs to the Diamondbacks’ total. If Ross were to play 120 games in left and someone else (either Parra, Eaton, Pollock or Prado) were to take the rest, you can bet that that combination would hit 15-20 home runs over the course of the season. So you can plug Trumbo in at 30 home runs, but you’re really only gaining 10-15 dingers from left field. 10 homers over the course of 162 games is a pretty small number given the costs we’ve talked about. The team could probably replicate this by just making sure they re-sign Eric Chavez.
Because of the fact that more home runs won’t necessarily help team, since it’s likely to come at a cost of more strikeouts and less on-base percentage, this deal sounds better to fans clamoring for changes, and a Diamondbacks front office trying to sell it to them, than it will look in reality. Tower should pass on a trade for either of these outfield “power bats” and start addressing other needs, such as rebuilding the bullpen.
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