The M’s Put a Premium on Certainty
Soooo, welcome Nelson Cruz. Thanks for everything, Michael Saunders. Enjoy playing in that ballpark in which you’ve hit your longest career HR, and hit more HRs than you did in Texas, Anaheim or Oakland. The M’s seemed desperate to improve their offense, and thus they didn’t balk at four years for a 34-year old slugger. Despite this, they took some public shots at their 3rd best hitter – on a rate basis – last year, and all but hung a “make an offer” sign around his neck. How do we interpret these moves? What’s the pattern here?
First of all, we need to address the M’s very public infatuation with “right handed power.” As every sabermetric fan reminds them, production is production, and it doesn’t matter how you get it. That’s true for most every team, but if any team can make the case that they’re falling short *because* of a specific offensive hole, it’s probably Seattle. From 2012-2014, the M’s have been in a dead heat with the Marlins for the worst offense against left-handed pitchers. Limit it to the last two seasons, and the M’s have been the worst offense in baseball. The M’s wRC+ keeps dropping, and they were saved from last place in 2014 thanks only to a truly horrific showing by the Padres. Now, wRC+ is park adjusted, but perhaps it’s not adequately accounting for the marine layer, and 2014’s stats include Kendrys Morales’ weird collapse, and remember that Morse was hurt in 2013, and…. You can quibble with the numbers, but only at the margins. What’s worse is that all of baseball knows it, and thus they know how to attack the M’s. Over the last three years, no team has had more plate appearances AGAINST left-handed pitching than the M’s, and it’s not particularly close.
Moreover, the M’s have tried remedying this situation in several ways. Morse was acquired in a (bad) trade as an arb-eligible player. Corey Hart was a low-cost bargain-bin pick-up after a year off due to injury. Casper Wells came in trade, as did Franklin Gutierrez. They tried marginal prospects of their own (Liddi); they tried other teams’ marginal prospects (Wily Mo Pena. They tried switch-hitters from Justin Smoak to Milton Bradley to Chone Figgins, and all of it has blown up in their face. The M’s have apparently decided that they’d rather buy some line-up balancing right-handed production at full price rather than continue to try to cobble it together on the cheap. And frankly, given what we’ve seen of the market thus far, that may be understandable. I’m not thrilled that the M’s are so dead set on such a limited player, but that doesn’t mean they should’ve given MORE money for a Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez, two players with defensive ability, but a particular kind of defensive ability the M’s don’t need. You could theoretically play them in an OF corner or 1B, but their prices are determined by where they COULD play, not where you’ll actually play them.
Thanks to their position on the win curve*, the M’s didn’t want to turn their pitching prospects or Saunders into prospects, and for a number of reasons (including what sounds like LA’s asking price) they haven’t made a move for Matt Kemp, who’d cost plenty in dollars and talent. So, hey, Nelson Cruz. The M’s – and fans – don’t seem to care about the “value” of the deal; I think everyone essentially agrees it’s dead money in years 3-4, but for the first time in a long while, the M’s can focus on the short term.
So what does this have to do with Michael Saunders? The M’s pretty clearly hated the fact that he was hurt several times. That sounds petulant or uncaring, but teams obviously put a very high premium on durability – on the ability to play every day. Nick Markakis just signed a four-year, $44m deal with Atlanta that can only make sense if teams are willing to pay for durability (even then, I’m not sure this deal will ever make sense). Ryan Divish of the Times talked about this on twitter last night, saying that durability is something teams and managers focus on, and pointing out that it’s something arbitrators look at in salary hearings. Michael Saunders played less than 100 games in 2011 and 2014, and missed time in 2012 and 2013 as well. While on the field, his production was great – he put up more batting runs in 2014 than Dustin Ackley has in his entire career, but the M’s were frustrated with Saunders. WAR incorporates playing time, and replacement level’s utility rests, in part, on its ability to highlight the *value* of playing every day, even at a below-average level. But it’s pretty apparent that at least some teams assessment of the value of part-time production and health don’t line up with our publicly available stats. That’s interesting, if only because the implied premium looks so high.
Both of these deals seem like a way to gain certainty, or lower variance. The M’s got the top HR hitter because they were tired of trying to patch a long-term problem with home-grown talent, trade pieces and lower-tier free agents. They were tired of not knowing when they could write Saunders’ name in a line-up, and decided instead to bolster their rotation. So were the M’s…right? Does this make a kind of sense? Well, sure, but it doesn’t answer the question everyone’s asking: “were these good moves? Do they make the team better?” The premium teams place on durability seems like one piece of a larger puzzle of how teams’ own valuation of players *has to be* different than ours. I don’t say that to suggest Fangraphs/BP/whoever have the right numbers in every case. I’d hope the teams could do better. But the gap is so large that it’s worth wondering if teams (or maybe managers) don’t OVERvalue health.** Still, the M’s have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from their investment in Felix and Robinson Cano. Felix’s greatness comes in part from his remarkable durability, and Cano showed the value of buying premium production if you haven’t been able to develop it yourself.
Ultimately, however you frame the moves, it all comes down to talent, and developing talent. The M’s are in a position where they absolutely needed to upgrade their DH slot, and balance their line-up a bit more. The M’s are in this position because they failed, spectacularly, to develop a half-decent right-handed hitter, and their attempts to buy or trade for one haven’t gone much better. It’s not that the M’s haven’t tried other ways to fill this need, it’s that they keep trying to fill this need with limited, flawed and out and out bad players. That they cast out Saunders, a guy who M’s fans may be overrating but at least has shown the ability to hit at the big league level, puts the Figgins/Hart/Morse/Tui/Mangini/Bradley/etc. history in even starker contrast.
Nelson Cruz has far more pull power, and more power overall (5th highest ISO on fastballs in MLB last year) than Morse or Hart. The M’s in-house options at DH included Carlos Rivero and Stefen Romero, both of whom own career minor league slugging percentages below .400, and Jesus Montero, who…yeah, not an option. You can see why the M’s think they’ve plugged the hole, and honestly, I think the team’s got a better chance at the playoffs with Cruz than they did with either Romero, Billy Butler, or Michael Cuddyer. Moreover, I think taking on more of Kemp’s contract or signing Hanley Ramirez would have been more likely to hamstring the team’s finance in 2017-19 than the deal Cruz signed. But at the end of the day, the M’s signed an aging, one-dimensional player to a contract that everyone agrees is too long. The M’s traded a good, cost-controlled young hitter despite having serious issues with outfield depth. The M’s value certainty, but they haven’t proven they can identify it yet.
* I wonder what effect the Josh Donaldson deal had on the M’s. Maybe none, but the M’s chief rival for the 2014 wild card just traded their best player, and will lose their best pitcher in FA. The M’s were going to upgrade anyway, but maaaan, the A’s certainly made it easy for the M’s to justify an overpay.
** To make this pencil out, you’d essentially have to reject the concept of replacement level – the idea that Saunders+Player X might give you more in total than a healthy-but-bad Player Y. Incidentally, the M’s have been burned on this both ways. They dealt with Erik Bedard’s injury woes and Milton Bradley’s existential ones, and watched as some of their most durable players posted lackluster batting lines. Mariners!