Scouting the Trade Market: First Basemen

Lucas Duda. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Lucas Duda. (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

On the off-chance that Ji-Man Choi is not a true-talent 216 wRC+ hitter, the Yankees are going to need a first baseman to solidify and stabilize both the lineup and the infield defense. Chris Carter played himself into a second DFA, Greg Bird may require surgery on his balky right ankle, and none of the team’s internal options seem befitting of a team with playoff aspirations.

All of that put together, assuming the Yankees do not continue to struggle into the waning days of July, should make them something of a buyer as the trade deadline approaches. The question then becomes a simple matter of who is available, and at what cost?

The simplest way to hazard a guess at the marketplace is to see what rentals are available (meaning who will be a free agent at season’s end). As per MLB Trade Rumors, that group is mildly enticing:

  • Yonder Alonso, Oakland A’s
  • Pedro Alvarez, Baltimore Orioles
  • Lucas Duda, New York Mets
  • Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox
  • Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals
  • John Jaso, Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Adam Lind, Washington Nationals
  • Mitch Moreland, Boston Red Sox
  • Logan Morrison, Tampa Bay Rays
  • Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers
  • Mark Reynolds, Colorado Rockies
  • Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians
  • Danny Valencia, Seattle Mariners

There are several names that can be ruled out immediately – Alvarez (trading within the division for a player reminiscent of Chris Carter), Lind (the Nationals aren’t selling), Moreland (the Red Sox aren’t selling), Morrison (trading within the division for someone that needlessly bashed Gary Sanchez), Reynolds (the Rockies aren’t selling), and Santana (the Indians aren’t sellers) are unlikely to pop-up on the Yankees radar for various reasons. Napoli is an unlikely target, as well, given that he may be the worst first baseman in the game this year, with a 77 wRC+ and -0.6 fWAR. That leaves us with:

Yonder Alonso

Alonso has been one of the best stories of this half-season, serving as a standard bearer for the flyball revolution (or the juiced ball, whichever point of view you prefer). He is currently slashing .280/.375/.568 with 19 HR in 280 PA, good for a 150 wRC+. There have been some signs of regression, though, as Alonso hit .267/.353/.433 with just 3 HR (114 wRC+) and an elevated strikeout rate in June. He’s also struggled with some nagging injuries, which has been the case on an almost year-to-year basis.

I’d be a bit weary of Alonso, due to how inflated his numbers are by his incredible May. A team might be willing to pay for his line on the season, rolling the dice that he’s broken out after years of mediocrity, and the A’s are sure to shop him aggressively.

Lucas Duda

The Yankees have not made many deals with the Mets, but it does happen on occasion – and there could be a definite match here, as the teams trend in different directions. Duda finally seems to be healthy, and he’s batting .249/.359/.548 with 14 home runs and a 137 wRC+ in 231 PA. He has a 123 wRC+ for his career, and he posted a 134 wRC+ between 2014 and 2015, so this isn’t a complete outlier. Duda may not hit for average, but he takes plenty of walks (11.5% for his career) and hits for power (.211 ISO).

As a result of this, Duda is likely the best hitter of this group, when healthy. That caveat bears repeating, but he feels like the safest bet to be a middle of the order thumper.

Todd Frazier

Frazier is a solid defensive third-baseman, so this is cheating a bit – but he has played a few games at first this year, and 94 in his career. He’s batting .215/.332/.450 with 16 HR (107 wRC+), but that is weighed-down by his early struggles. Frazier raked in June, with 8 HR and a 144 wRC+ in 109 PA, and he has hit for power throughout his career. His month-to-month inconsistencies, however, have followed him for several years now.

That being said, Frazier is an interesting target, if only because of his positional versatility. If Bird manages to get healthy or another internal option rears his head, Frazier could shift across the diamond and relieve Headley of everyday duty. He’s a feast or famine type, but the famine isn’t as bad some other options.

Eric Hosmer

I struggled with including Hosmer here, as the Royals aren’t all that far from contention. He’s in the midst of a bounceback season (he’s always better in odd-numbered years), with a .313/.371/.484 slash line (126 wRC+) in 348 PA, and he’s been a key to the team’s turnaround. The Royals have several key players coming up on free agency this off-season, though, so they may be inclined to cash-in now, instead of chasing a wild card berth and little else.

Hosmer is the youngest option here, at 27-years-old, and might be the least obtainable player in this group. There’s probably a team out there that would swing a deal for him with an eye towards re-signing him, and that’s unlikely to be the Yankees.

John Jaso

Jaso is strictly a platoon player at this point, with only 69 PA against LHP since the beginning of 2015. He has done fairly well in that role, though, with a 119 wRC+ against righties in that stretch (108 in 2017). Jaso is hitting .250/.326/.459 with 7 HR (107 wRC+) in 193 PA on the season, spending time at first and in both outfield corners.

If I had to handicap this group, I would bet that Jaso is the most available and most easily attainable player. He’s also the most uninspiring, though, as someone that only partially fills the need at first.

Danny Valencia

I nearly left Valencia out due to his character issues, but that hasn’t necessarily dissuaded the Yankees lately. The 32-year-old journeyman (he has played for seven teams since the beginning of 2012) is batting .272/.335/.412 with 8 HR (104 wRC+) in 310 PA, as he adjusts to being a full-time first baseman for the first time in his career. Those numbers are a bit skewed, though – he had a 53 wRC+ in April, but a 122 wRC+ since. And that 122 wRC+ is essentially the happy medium between his 2015 and 2016 seasons.

Valencia offers some positional flexibility, having spent time at first, third, and both corner outfield spots. His defense isn’t particularly strong at any position, though. I do like Valencia’s bat, but I do worry that his bouncing around the majors and last year’s fight with Billy Butler may be indicative of a somewhat toxic presence.


Each and every one of these guys likely represents an upgrade over Choi, though I wouldn’t be terribly enthusiastic about bringing Jaso or Valencia on-board. Jaso would need to be leveraged as a platoon bat in order to extract the most value, and Choi’s production at Triple-A, age, and five years of team control may just merit being afforded that same opportunity. And, as much as I try to avoid harping on unquantifiable concerns, Valencia’s history is disconcerting for such a young team.

That leaves us with Alonso, Duda, Frazier, and Hosmer. I won’t hazard any trade proposals, as mine would almost certainly suck, but I would be most interested in Duda, Hosmer, Alonso, and Frazier, in that order. And, depending upon the cost, I think that all four are worth kicking the tires on.

2011 AL East Busts: part 2 of 2

New York Yankees: Robinson Cano

2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360

Laziest superstar EVER. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Despite the absence of both Larry Bowa and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano had a career year in 2010. His game took a huge step forward in terms of power and on-base skills. His walk rate inched up close to 10%, and he increased his ISO to .214, the latter being good enough for second-best for all second baseman. As Mike noted in Robbie’s 2011 season preview, he was the team’s best player by all methods of evaluation.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Cano taking a step back from his lofty levels of production, projecting a batting line of .299/.347/.488, a .360 wOBA. This would be worse than Cano’s 2010 or 2009, and resembles closely his 2007 season when he put together a .358 wOBA on .306/.353/.488 hitting. The problem with this is that this seems to be largely out of line with what most people expect from Cano this season. It’s possible that this reflects a bit of optimism about Cano’s natural progression, but some of the arguments are quite persuasive. Mike for one noted Cano’s constancy in terms of production:

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

On Friday, Mike Jaggers-Radolf at Yankee Analysts took a similar tack towards Cano’s conservative Marcel projection (.354 wOBA with a .300/.347/.476 line)

[The] numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances. In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative.

In a lot of ways, having this discussion about whether a .360 wOBA is too conservative for a second baseman is a testament to how talented Cano is and how lucky the Yankees are to employ his services. A .360 wOBA in 2010 would have ranked 5th best in 2010, 3rd in 2009 and 7th in 2008, and it also projects as the second-highest wOBA of any 2B in 2011, ahead of Pedroia, Uggla and Kinsler and behind only Chase Utley. This is a long way of saying that like Mike Jaggers-Radolf and Mike Axisa, I’m optimistic that Cano can outperform these relatively meager expectations and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more bullish projection next year once the systems have another full season of data. I’m not a gambling man, but I would love to plunk down twenty bucks on Cano beating a .360 wOBA.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista

2010 wOBA of .422; projected 2011 wOBA of .365

One of the terms of Bautista's new contract is that he can wear his glove like that whenever he wants and no one can say boo about it. (AP Image)

It is entirely reasonable to wonder whether Jose Bautista’s 2010 season will be viewed with the same credulous sense of “he hit how many home runs?” as Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is viewed now. Prior to hitting 50 home runs for the Orioles, Anderson was a career .250/.349/.393 hitter with an OPS+ of only 101. In 1996 he hit .297/.396/.637, and never came close to touching that level of production the rest of his career. Bautista’s power profile was even worse than Anderson prior to last year. He was a career .238/.329/.400 hitter with an OPS+ of only 91. Last year, though, he clubbed 54 home runs en route to an insane line of .260/.378/.617.

Many have noted, though, that Bautista’s 2010 performance might not be such a fluke. Joe Pawlikowski was one of them over at Fangraphs, arguing that it’s at least possible that Bautista’s famed swing change could lead to sustained success. PECOTA seems to take the easy way out and simply splits the difference. A wOBA of .365 would be well north of anything Bautista had done prior to 2010, but it’s also a substantial drop from his .422 mark last year. In a way, PECOTA’s projection probably mirrors what most analysts would forecast if given the chance. No one would be eager to label the entire season a fluke and predict him to return to his .750 OPS days, just as no one actually predict him to slug over .600 again.

It’s appropriate to end with this analysis by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, an analysis that really encapsulates all the moving parts when dealing with projecting difficult cases. The emphasis is mine.

In some cases, players get lucky. In others, they simply cease to be unlucky, and in still others, their true talent level takes an unanticipated step forward. Once those seemingly anomalous seasons take place, PECOTA incorporates them into its projections for the following year and revises its estimates upward, but rarely anticipates a repeat performance, barring a favorable spot on the aging curve.

That doesn’t stop us from identifying players whom PECOTA might like more than the prevailing opinion, but where does it leave us with a few of this year’s trickiest test cases? Take Javier Vazquez (please). As someone whose ERA has routinely failed to match his peripherals (or more accurately, the peripherals we generally expect to predict ERA), Vazquez has come with plenty of baggage even at the best of times. Nonetheless, after Vazquez bought another ticket out of New York with an abysmal performance last season, PECOTA foresees a rebound to a sub-4.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in Florida. Meanwhile, 2010 super-slugger Jose Bautista is projected to shed nearly half of his homers (which would still leave him with his second-best season to date).

In the case of each player, we can do more than simply throw up our hands and attribute last year’s surprising performance to divine dice rolls. Vazquez experienced a sizeable velocity drop (whose effects can be quantified); Bautista made well-publicized changes to his stance and swing. PECOTA doesn’t know those things, but you and I do, even though we might not know their precise significance. Given the increasing granularity of baseball data capture, perhaps the passage of time and future additions to PECOTA’s code will make it possible to adjust the forecasts not only according to what numbers were produced, but to a greater degree, how they were produced. For now, feel free to indulge your inner PECOTAs, but remember to forecast responsibly.

Tampa Bay Rays: John Jaso – 2010 wOBA of .341; projected 2011 wOBA of .319.

Jaso with GM Andrew Friedman, who is no doubt pointing out some new market inefficiency he discovered over breakfast. (AP Images)

John Jaso may have a very limited major league track record, but it’s still a bit odd to see such a projected drop-off from PECOTA. Jaso placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting this offseason after logging over 400 plate appearances for the Rays as their catcher (so long, Dioner). His increase in playing time was partly the result of him doing one thing very, very well: take walks. In 2010 John Jaso was to taking walks as Kevin Youkilis was to being ugly, and he also shared Youkilis’ disciplined approach at the plate. His walk rate was the second-highest of all catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. The Process Report ’11 noted rather poetically that Jaso’s approach at the plate was based on a very selective eye:

Jaso’s offensive approach is simple too. Jaso will not swing if he determines a pitch is on its way outside of the strike zone. Labeling this an approach is probably being too casual, as Jaso’s pitch selection seems to teeter on the thinnest border between obsession and religion. At times, it seems Jaso follows the scripture of Youkilis, where swinging at a poor pitch is a sin – one punishable by eternal damnation and pitchfork poking.

In 2011 PECOTA projects Jaso’s OPS to drop nearly 50 points with an OBP of .347 and a slugging percentage of .355. This is largely predicated on a slight decrease in walk rate (13.1%) and a fairly low BABIP of .270. Jaso sported a robust OBP throughout his minor league career, so this would surely be a disappointing mark for him in 2011. The Rays have options, though. The Rays always have options. They can use Jaso against righties and have him avoid the tougher left-handed pitchers, and then deploy lefty-murdering Kelly Shoppach against the CC Sabathias and Jon Lesters of the league. They’re also working out Robinson Chirinos at catcher this spring, and his PECOTA projection is very impressive. If for some reason Jaso can’t live up to the standard he set for himself in 2011 the Rays ought to have good flexibility at catcher regardless.