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Maximizing 3B/LF

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Mench is gone, Jenkins is gone, we've spent most if not all of the payroll dollars available, and we still only have one starter for 3B and LF.

That's not really a bad thing--we still have 16 or 17 pitchers for 12 spots, including as many as 8 starters, and it's likely that we'll deal one or two of them.  A 3B/LF could come back that way.  But, given what we'd get in exchange for Capuano or Vargas, I wonder how much that matters.

First off, I'm going to ignore the possibility of getting a CF and moving Bill Hall to 3B.  It makes sense, yes, but the Brewers aren't going to do it.  If I were running the Strat-O-Matic 2008 Brewers, I'd do it, but that's neither here nor there.  So, there are two possibilities: Braun plays third and LaPorta/Gross/Dillon/Gwynn/acquisition covers left, or Braun plays left while Counsell/Rottino/acquisition plays third.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of huge assumptions required in figuring out what would be best.  It's easy enough to project offensive performance for guys like Gross, Dillon, and Counsell, or targets such as Brandon Inge or Joe Crede.  It's most certainly NOT easy to project how bad Ryan Braun will be at third base next year, or how he'd handle left field, were he to move.

But...let's make some assumptions.  Even pinning down Braun's level of defensive "contribution" last year is hard, but if we throw together a bunch of metrics and multiply out to 162 games, he's probably at about -40 runs, or about -4 wins.    Needless to say, that's really, really bad.  Now, as Jacob pointed out the other day, that's not really the right way to do it -- we should regress some, even apart from the expectation that Braun will work hard at improving.  For various reasons I'm not going to get into here, I'm going to do so modestly, and say that, if Braun plays 3B for 155+ games next year, he's going to cost us 3 wins with the glove.

An even tougher assumption is how Braun would handle LF.  In many ways, he'd probably be good--he's fast, he's got a strong arm--but there would be an adjustment period.  Let's say that his glove would cost us 1 win in left field.

If those assumptions are correct, we gain 2 wins simply by moving Braun to left.  It wasn't that easy last year, when Menchkins was installed in left and we had a gaping, Mendoza-lining hole of Counsellino at third, but now that we have a collection of replacement-level talent at both positions with a few months to tweak the roster, it's simpler.

Given that Braun is (according to my WAGs) worth 2 wins more in left, it's obvious that we should look for a 3B.  Basically, a replacement-level third baseman is equal to a 2-win left fielder.  In more realistic terms, a platoon of Counsell and Rottino is worth about the same as Ryan Church, and only a bit less than Josh Willingham.  Put another way, a marginal win costs $3MM+ on the free agent market, so moving Braun saves us six mil.

The options

Given that we can put 3B options and LF options on equal footing by subtracting 2 wins from LFs because they leave Braun at third, let's look at some of our choices:

  • Counsell, or Counsell/Rottino platoon: The offense could be brutal -- let's say we'd get 230/320/330 -- but the defense would be pretty good.  Approximate runs created (RC) is 59 for that offense, and let's give Craig a win above average for his glove.  That's 69 runs, with no penalty for Braun.

  • Joe Crede: I project Crede at 323/453 OBP/SLG,  or 77 RC.  He's a good defender, maybe even as good as Counsell.  Give him a win above average, and he's at 87 RC.

  • Brandon Inge or Tad Iguchi: I project Inge at 313/405, and Iguchi at 335/387.  Both are 70 RC, not much above Counsell's.  Inge isn't a notable defender, and Iguchi would be switching positions.  These are worse options that giving the job to Counsell outright.

  • Gross/Dillon platoon: I project Gross at 338/410, which is mostly vRH, though with plenty of pinch hitting.  With a strict platoon, we might get 340/420 out of the pair, which is 77 RC.  The defense wouldn't be great, it might even be below-average.  Not only that, but we lose two wins because we play Braun at third in this case, which brings us down to...worse than Counsell.  In other words, Gross/Dillon is about 1 win worse than Counsell/Rottino, all things considered.

  • Tony Gwynn: I know somebody's going to bring him up.  I project him at 297/273.  His glove would be great, I'm sure, but in order to be as good as Braun in LF and Counsell at 3B, his defense would have to be worth about four wins.  That'd be historically good.

  • Josh Hamilton/Adam Jones: here are a couple of young trade targets (and, admittedly, very long shots).  I've got Hamilton at 366/524, and Jones much lower.  Hamilton's numbers give him a RC of 106.  His glove is good enough for center, so let's say he'd be 10 runs/1 win above average in left.  Subtract 2 wins for putting Braun at third, and we're down to 96.  That's considerably better than going with Counsell at third, by far the best option so far, but it's also probably the priciest (in talent, anyway--it would take AT LEAST Villanueva to pry away Hamilton). Jones is much more of a long-term project; I project him around 300/410, or about 4 wins worse with the bat than Hamilton. Andre Ethier is about half-way between them, so a probably upgrade, if a very modest one.

I'm sure there are other options out there, but none of them are going to be much different from one of the examples above.  For example, my projection for Rolen is very close to the numbers for Crede, and with his injury history, I don't figure he'll be much better with the glove.

The point of all this isn't to compare all these players, despite all the pixels I've spilled doing so.  I'm getting at a few things:

  • It's likely that Braun is better in left, even with some improvement at third, even with some adjustment to a new position.  I realize this isn't a consensus position, and I don't pretend that my numbers are accurate, but I do think that the difference is somewhere between 1 and 3 wins.

  • Craig Counsell's defense makes him a plausible starter.  In fact, he may be a better option that some of our supposed targets.

  • The gain in switching Braun to left means that any LF we acquire would have to be very, very good in order to make up for leaving Braun at third.  Such a player won't be available on the trade market for the likes of Chris Capuano, and the only free agent who fits the bill is probably Barry Bonds.

Moustache In Action

Here's the plan.  Sign or trade for a solid backup IF--a Counsell/Alex Cora clone who can play short.  Preferably someone righthanded to be a platoon partner of sorts with Counsell.  Let Counsell/new guy/Rottino battle it out in spring training for the 3B job, and tell Ryan Braun to start shagging flies.

Trade Capuano, Bush, or Vargas (or two of the above) for prospects, ideally a catcher, almost as ideally some more young pitching.  As I see it, the MLB roster is set; anything we do now would just up payroll and make very very minor improvements.  Better to shed some $$ by trading Capuano and keep a modest war chest for necessary in-season acquisitions.

Update [2007-12-10 14:15:50 by Jeff]: If you read this right after it was posted, you'll notice the RC numbers have changed. I was using the wrong formula for simple RC (it's simple, but apparently not simple enough), and some of the conclusions change a little bit too.