Monday was an interesting day in Major League Baseball, with a handful of very small moves and one big one that stood apart. Beyond the actual moves, though, there was an unusual abundance of interesting speculation, tidbits and non-transactions. A couple of those stood out to me, as well, so I’ll quickly run through my thoughts on them here.

Nelson Cruz and the Mariners

Nelson Cruz, of course, was that big one, agreeing to sign a four-year, $57-million contract with the Seattle Mariners. Cruz was exactly the kind of player the Mariners needed, and his addition might make them the favorites in the AL West heading into next season, depending upon the rest of the offseason.

Cruz has kept his statistical line remarkably steady over the past four years. He’s batted no lower than .260 in any of those seasons, and no higher than .271. His highest OBP during the stretch was .333; the lowest was .312. His batting average on balls in play floated only between .288 and .301. His extra-base hit percentage was never lower than 9.9 percent, and never higher than 11.3 percent. Strikeout rate: between 20.7 and 23.9 percent. Walk rate: between 6.4 and 8.1 percent. You get it. He was consistent.

The weird thing about that, though, is that there’s been nothing consistent about the environment within which Cruz has produced those numbers. Scoring is way down, Strikeout rates are way up. Walk rates are down, to—we’re not talking about this enough—the lowest rate since 1968, and before that, the lowest since the 1920s. Home runs—and perhaps this is the most telling example of the situation, because Cruz led MLB with 40 home runs in 2014, a career-high—are down to 1992 levels. The fact that Cruz has resisted the offensive downturn over the last several seasons, even while playing his way into his mid-30s, should augur well for him as he takes on the challenge of hitting in one of the league’s dimmer environments for power. He won’t hit 40 home runs again (probably), but he should be a solid, above-average right-handed hitter for the middle of the Mariners order, and there’s no possible profile that team could need more. Cruz breaks up Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano. He adds definite, indomitable home-run power to a team who had spent the past half-decade looking for that skill in all the wrong places. He fills a DH slot that had become a yawning, hideous void, and that was likely the reason Seattle missed the playoffs in 2014. He really boosts this team.

Speaking of those missed playoffs, remember that as a part of the rationale for Seattle’s significant outlay in this deal. Cruz might not be worth $14 million and change two years from now, let alone four, In the meantime, however, he just might put Seattle over the top, and end the playoff drought the team has experienced since 2001. The Mariners won 87 games last season, and that was despite:

  • An atrocious aggregate performance from their designated hitters;
  • Mike Zunino posting a .254 OBP and striking out 158 times against 17 walks;
  • Taijuan Walker getting very little chance to contribute, due to an injury in the spring; and
  • Austin Jackson hitting .229/.236/.260 in two months’ work after arriving in a trade.

All that was true, and still, the Mariners outscored their opponents by 80 runs in 2014. Based on runs scored and allowed, they were better than five of the 10 teams who did play postseason ball. From an age and projection perspective, the roster figures to be even better next year, especially with Cruz in the fold. At this point on the win curve, and given Cruz’s ability to defy the systemic gravity that has brought offense down of late, I’m comfortable saying that the Mariners made a wise move, even if the back half of this deal will be ugly.

Yasmani Grandal and the Padres

This hit my Twitter feed mid-morning:

and immediately made sense to me. The Padres have catcher Austin Hedges working his way toward the Majors. Hedges might be the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues right now, and could become as valuable a defensive player as any in baseball over the next two years. Grandal has dealt with PED suspensions, injury trouble and early questions about his defense, and he was traded for, not drafted, and even the guys who traded for him are now gone. There’s no particular reason the Padres ought not to consider a trade, under the right circumstances. Grandal would have very high trade value. But then, come late afternoon:

Huh. Hmm. What? Grandal is a hitter who can help the Padres contend for the NL West title immediately. He’s 26 years old, has patience and power, bats from both sides of the plate and acquits himself fine each way. He’s a strong defensive player himself, especially when it comes to pitch-framing, which we’re coming to find is the best way a catcher can rack up defensive value. If San Diego really wants to compete right away, trading Grandal goes from logical to idiotic.

Except that, maybe it doesn’t. About a decade ago, and probably even five years ago, players were all bought and sold. It was merely a matter of whether teams were paying in cash or in prospects. Farm systems were banks, and prospects were currency. That doesn’t seem to the be the case anymore. Teams have grown into the view Bill James espoused so many years ago, that prospects’ futures can be projected accurately (enough), given the right inputs and sufficient manpower. Prospects have taken on more textured, finite asset value, and that makes it harder to get deals done. Therefore, teams are back to making true trades, allowing themselves to get slightly weaker in one area if it will make them much stronger in another, consolidating the value of two decent, young, cheap players into one more expensive star, those kinds of things. We saw this in the Josh Donaldson trade, in the Jason Heyward trade, in the summer’s Jon Lester and David Price trades.

Another factor compounding the move away from simple buy-and-sell dealing is the second Wild Card. We could broaden that to say that the competitive fabric of the league, from qualifying offers to spending caps on amateur talent to the flood of national revenue, has encouraged teams to go for it more often. The hard task of reaching the Postseason has softened, and teams are rushing to avail themselves of the opportunity to be a surprise contender. The 77-win 2014 Padres got a surprisingly strong run from back-up backstop Rene Rivera when Grandal missed time. Perhaps they’re willing to bet on getting enough production from him to bridge the gap to Hedges, if it means upgrading their (currently abysmal) left side of the infield. At any rate, the seemingly conflicting information about their intentions highlights an interesting shift in the game’s market dynamics.

Gregor Blanco and the Giants

I hope you can forgive me for my overuse of the embedded Tweet:

I found Schulman’s speculation a bit odd. Blanco seems like an obvious, easy call in this regard. He’s set to earn between $3 million and $4 million in 2015, and his open-market value could be double that. If nothing else, he’s a trade chip, not a castoff. Schulman stood by the possibility, though, and was rather harsh toward those who tried to cite WAR values to him:

He looks like a Luddite, I suppose, picking a fight where there never needed to be one over a player who will almost certainly be retained anyway, but he’s actually kind of right about this. Blanco is a .257/.344/.344 career hitter. Utterly nothing suggests there’s upside from there, in a talent sense, although his numbers would certainly look prettier if he called almost any other ballpark home. Blanco is, and will be for a while, a league-average batter with above-average speed and above-average defensive skills in the corner outfield spots. He can play center field, but he’s stretched there, average but no better.

That’s a valuable skill set; it really is. Blanco is a two-win player, basically, a little more when he gets on base consistently. If Schulman doesn’t believe that (to his credit, he says he does believe it), he’s blind. Blanco’s well-rounded skill set, coupled with the fact that he bats left-handed, makes him an ideal fourth outfielder. He has all kinds of value.

In the marketplace, though, Blanco would never make the $10-14 million per year that those two wins would normally command, and it’s not because teams are stupid.

Statistics that measure value over replacement are good instruments. They accurately and importantly capture what a player does well, and assign value thereto. Teams don’t pay for measurements, though. They pay for projections. In any contract negotiation, the discussion must and does center upon the weighted spread of possible outcomes for the player in question over the course of the proposed term. Upside matters at least as much as reliability when it comes to getting the last dollar for a player. Power lends upside. Elite strike-zone control lends upside. While Blanco has better walk and strikeout rates than an average batter, he is not close to dominating the strike zone, and age 31 is not the time when light-hitting speed guys suddenly find a dozen home runs a year that they’d never remembered to hit before. Blanco wouldn’t make Nick Markakis money on the open market. He’d be lucky to make much more than David DeJesus money. Schulman has his finger on the pulse of the market on this one, and what’s more, he and the market are taking the right approach.

One more thing about Blanco, because he’s sort of the opposite of Cruz with regard to the league’s shifting offensive environment. He’s hit in nothing but poor hitter environs, and he’s actually improved even as pitchers have tightened their choke hold on offense. Are teams missing that, or valuing it too lightly? I doubt it. Part of what Schulman was saying was that, even accounting for the depressed offense leaguewide, there’s not a lot to Blanco’s offensive profile. He is, again, not totally wrong. Cases like those of Cruz and Blanco make me wonder whether we’re applying the caveats of league averages too broadly. Teams seem to apply it somewhat less evenly, which might imply that they have a better handle on which players’ numbers are being affected most by the factors pinning down scoring, and which are relatively unchanged. In fact, I would be surprised if there isn’t some more textured, nuanced way that teams distinguish the intrinsic elements of that decline from the selective or elective elements. Blanco might be one player the Giants, and even most other clubs, find to be a modest offensive asset under any circumstance.

That last paragraph is just speculation, but I think it helps clarify Schulman’s thought process. I would be stunned if the Giants non-tender Blanco, and I respect his value, but I share some of Schulman’s reservations about both his open-market price tag and his actual value. If nothing else, the debate created an opportunity to take a longer look at how teams conceptualize value.

 

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4 Responses to “Nelson Cruz, Yasmani Grandal and Gregor Blanco: Three Quick Takes on Monday’s Big Names”

  1. Ryan at NatsGM.com

    Matt,

    Great read, definitely enjoyed it! One part of the Blanco discussion I think bears mentioning is the ease at which “we” now comfortably assign generally players worth (X) WAR ($6mm per Win) in contract value – It seems so flippant on our part and feels almost ingrained in the thinking of good baseball minds on the net.

    I think your thoughts above similarly nail this thinking – “we” are falling into groupthink. Not all WAR or offensive numbers are valued the same and we must recognize that the market does not act completely rationally. Nelson Cruz might have a similar WAR figure to Gregory Blanco all things equal, but Cruz’s RH power in this lacking environment allows him to receive $57 million on the open market, while Blanco would likely receive less than $15mm.

    Ryan

    Reply
    • Matthew Trueblood

      Thanks, Ryan. You’re mostly right in your assessments, too. I’ll just raise two issues:

      1. I don’t want to advocate blindly accepting the market’s rationality, either. We know that teams grossly erred in their evaluations of players for a long time, and it’s perfectly possible that they still do in some ways. We should endeavor to understand how teams value players, but what specific things they value is just one part of that, and understanding doesn’t necessarily mean condoning. I like that we can criticize teams for being wrong in their valuations, too; it’s a tricky balance to strike.
      2. I don’t like the ‘RHH power guys are rare, so they’re expensive’ rationale. Scarcity counts, but value is value. One thing I’m almost sure teams ARE wrong about is the way they’re pricing the so-called scarcity of right-handed power. Right-handed batters were better than ever, relative to lefties, this past season. It’s just that all batters were pretty bad. Walk rate is actually at a lower historical nadir than home-run rate, but no one is making a run on guys who draw walks all day. So while the shape of a player’s value does matter on some level, especially for individual teams, I’m not sold that it’s the state of right-handed power, nor any other temporal market dynamic, that makes Nelson Cruz more valuable in free agency than Gregor Blanco would be.

      Reply
      • Ryan at NatsGM.com

        Matt,

        Agree 100% with your first point. Your second point I have some quibbles with – Certainly your point about value being value is absolutely true, but scarcity, whether believed or non-existant, certainly plays a major role in GM’s decisions in free agency. Heck I’ll pay big money for an ice cream cone in 90 degree August, but wouldn’t spend a .02 on one in these cold temperatures. This involves essentially behavioral economics. RHH power is perceived to be lacking in the game (whether true or not), certainly the points you make about walk rates and otherwise are true, but we cannot ignore need and perception when discussing the market. We are seeing flawed RH hitters (Cruz, Trumbo, Butler) signing for significantly more money than comparable overall value players Gregor Blanco, De Aza, and others.

        Again, great piece and I love the baseball discourse back and forth.

        Reply
        • Matthew Trueblood

          No, you’re right about that. Perceived scarcity can be as powerful a market factor as real scarcity—maybe a more powerful one.

          Did you see Dave Cameron on the RHH power thing on JABO Wednesday? If not, check it out. He makes an interesting case. I think he may be onto something, and that I was partially right and partially wrong about the whole phenomenon. There’s work yet to do here.

          Markakis sort of throws a wrench into the narrative about RHH even being so highly valued, though, doesn’t it? We might need to reconsider the market, with the idea that execs are simply spending big on every bat within reach, left-handed or right-. It has me thinking.

          Reply

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