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November 30, 2009

So You Need


by Christina Kahrl

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We like to talk about how OBP is life, life is OBP, yadda yadda yadda, right? Well, who are the real answers for those clubs looking for OBP-related help in their lineups? Some of these are obvious, some less so, and some are being touted as solutions but may not be quite the right answer. Taking a cue from Mr. Jaffe earlier in this series, let's start off with a table that breaks these into two categories, the guys who can play positions, and the ones who really shouldn't, who you might want to pick the phone and ask after if you're willing to swing a deal, and finally the already-signed Official OBP Hero of 2009, Bobby Abreu (props to Tony Reagins and company for cutting to the chase). Then, we'll work down into the individual cases and their respective or putative merits.

                  2010                  2009 UBBr
Dude          Pos  Age   PA   OBP   EqA   + HBPr   2008?
Nick Johnson   1B   31  574  .426  .301   .186     .224
Craig Counsell 2B   39  459  .357  .275   .105     .166
Felipe Lopez   2B   30  680  .383  .284   .101     .083
Chone Figgins  3B   32  729  .395  .277   .140     .119
Marco Scutaro  SS   34  680  .379  .279   .138     .105
Coco Crisp     CF   30  215  .336  .255   .135     .088
Mike Cameron   CF   37  628  .342  .281   .121     .116
Jason Bay      LF   31  638  .384  .299   .155     .121
Johnny Damon   LF   36  626  .365  .292   .115     .104
Gregg Zaun      C   39  296  .345  .257   .115     .132
Eric Hinske    4C   32  224  .348  .273   .138     .106
Jim Thome      DH   39  434  .366  .280   .152     .143
Hideki Matsui  DH   36  528  .367  .293   .127     .093
Gary Sheffield DH   41  312  .372  .292   .125     .124
Dan Uggla      2B   30  668  .354  .280   .142     .128
Brad Hawpe     RF   31  588  .384  .296   .129     .128
Milton Bradley OF   32  473  .378  .271   .154     .149
Bobby Abreu    OF   36  667  .390  .286   .132     .105

With a couple of noteworthy exceptions,* these are the top free agents in the admittedly abstract unintentional walk rate plus HBP rate in 2009, with a reminder of what their rates were in 2008. I take all that as more than a little interesting, given that these aren't just a generally old group of players, but also one with a lot of combustibility. Johnson, Figgins, and Crisp have all missed significant time to injury, which might lower their base compensation rates, for example. That might make them more attractive, and it might not, but for the savvy OBP shopper, it might also suggest some creative playing time-driven deals for Johnson and Crisp-Figgins is probably in great shape, given his leadoff man's rep.

First off, Johnson's the obvious "best of class" prize-winner. Add in that he's not a butcher around the bag, and unburdened with a rep as an RBI guy, and he becomes that odd Eddie Yost-style solution for a team that needs baserunners, an OBP contributor at a corner you can stick up in the second slot of an order, allowing you to stop farting around with slappy middle infielders giving play-by-play announcers too many opportunities to go through the motions talking about productive outs. A walk moves runners up quite nicely, after all. Among the more ambitious clubs, the Mets, Braves, Diamondbacks, and Giants could certainly use him, but he'd also help the Yankees, Rangers, or White Sox as a DH.

Considering the choices of F-Lop and Craig Counsell, it's interesting how quickly some seem to have forgotten Lopez's wild inconsistencies in performance. Getting into a funk as a National might seem forgiveable, but it's not exactly to his credit, and the vagaries of his performance hasn't been a question of his position-Lopez's carer walk rate at second is lower than when he was tasked with playing short. I guess I see inconsistency, a lofty line-drive rate in '09, and the virtues of playing in a bandbox for a good chunk of the season, and take all that as cause to moderate my enthusiasm for him. If it's a low-end deal, a year-plus-option deal, that works, but a peek into the periscope says, "thar be dragons." Similarly, Counsell's age suggests a middling sort of offer for a middling sort of solution-he's valuable, but for how much longer?

I've taken flak in the past for piping up for Figgins-apparently my anticipating a better 2009 from him over Adrian Beltre was controversial in some circles-but his rate of reaching base via freebies or taking one for the team seems to be a relatively stable asset, no differently than his consistently above-average BABIPs or line-drive rates. A reflexive assertion on the subject of regression is all well and good, but Figgins has been better than league-average in all of these things, and there comes a point in time to accept that this is part of his skill set. Is he worth an eight-figure-per-annum deal? I'm glad that isn't a question I have to answer, because the market for known quanitities atop the order isn't cheap, and Figgins has lost chunks of the 2007 and 2008 seasons to injury. However, add in his virtues as a third baseman, and he makes for a fine fit-at a price.

It's probably cussedness, but I guess the overreaction to Marco Scutaro's bugging me. A lot depends on the price at which he's signed, of course, considering he's coming off of an obvious career year, he could be disappointing and useful all at once. Considering that in the last two years-his first two as an everyday player-his power output wasn't extraordinary relative to his body of work in Oakland, yet he achieved a career-high walk rate in 2009. As a seemingly odd combination of someone who hits more fly balls than grounders and has managed an average or better line-drive rate in each of the last four seasons, and as a player who even in his "down years" manages to walk better than nine percent of the time, he could be the odd sort of fit with a team in a hitter's park looking for middle infield help, certainly better than more-in-vogue F-Lop and Counsell. It's interesting that his walk rate seems to take a particular hit in "man on first" situations-maybe he's just better off not futzing around with the little man's game, and protecting or advancing runners? If he succeeds in frightening the Jays off from an arbitration offer by suggesting he'd accept, the market for him gets a little more interesting.

As far as the center-field options, Cameron's the known quantity you'd expect to find on this list, while Crisp's a bit more of an odd discovery. Given that it's roughly half again as high from what you'd normally from Crisp given the entirety of his career, this looks an awful lot like a guy who, because of his shoulder problems, couldn't get the ball in play with any authority, and adapted by trying to work his way on base. Could there be a lesson in that, or will a presumably healthy Crisp go back to his less-patient past? Optimist that I am, I'd like to think a learning curve's possible, but I wouldn't go too far as far as betting on it.

Jason Bay and Johnny Damon share similar reputations as declining left fielders, which may not affect the older Damon's offers any, given that he's more of a short-term buy in the first place. I don't think seeing either of them on this list is surprising, any more than I'd predict either of them to fail to deliver value, at least on the OBP front. Bay's four-year deal will end up being a bit more problematic for a team that doesn't have an open DH slot than Damon's one- or two-year deal will at considerably less cost.

To skip ahead a beat to the DHs, labeling Sheffield a DH might rile some, and I admit, he can still cast a shadow and kill grass in an outfield to be named later if someone asks him to. Thome's declining skills and absolute DH-iness would seem to limit him to one-year or one-plus-option deals with a very few teams, but I'd rather venture into that territory than overlook Godzilla's missing big chunks of two of the last four years. Matsui's walk rates have been pretty solid, and while he's a pull hitter who should probably factor that into his employment choices going forward, NuYankee wasn't the root cause of a career-best HR/FB rate, not when his road ISO was 84 points higher than his home ISO. Between his power and walks, he should have a reasonable platform for success going forward, with the "if healthy" caveat. In contrast to the DHs, I'd bring up four-corners reserve Eric Hinske as a cheaper alternative to the outright DH types, given that he can still stand around at third or an outfield corner and play first base, which comes in handy in the age of 12- or 13-man pitching staffs, and since Sheffield, Thome, and Matsui all come with questions involving age and durability, deciding that the attendant risks that come with the benefits are too rich to afford and just buying Hinske wouldn't be the worst idea.

Finally, among the catchers, Zaun's the obvious choice, but he's also not really capable of everyday play, and there's the problem of having him catch. The only other free-agent catcher with a rate of unintentional walks and HBPs above 10 percent was Henry Blanco, who also isn't really an everyday option these days, even allowing for the fact that he really can't hit right-handed pitching.

Given that these aren't the best collection of options across the diamond, I figured I'd throw in the guys who some teams might target because they're becoming increasingly expensive, and their current employers have a rumored willingness to part with them. Uggla gets more attention for his power than his patience, but it seems clear he brings that to the table as well; if you're really looking for help at second (or third), he's a better target for acquisition than what's on the market, and since he's under control for two more years, he's also obviously a better investment than offering deals of similar or greater length to the available free-agent infielders. The problem, of course, is that it will take more than money to afford him, but a team looking to win now with a hole at second or third should be talking to the Marlins.

Hawpe's fielding is as much a cause for concern as Bay's or Damon's, but if you're looking for an all-around offensive producer against right-handed pitching in an outfield corner, he compares favorably as a short-term solution before he hits free agency after 2010 (at his option, if dealt, or if the acquiring team buys out his 2011 option for $500,000) or 2011 (if the acquiring team picks up his $10 million option). I'd expect the price of that option is enough to make getting him more an effort to get the one year, not both, which might also lower what you're willing to offer for him. The Rockies don't have to give him away, so we'll see if anyone's really in the market for a DH-worthy platoon player who could nevertheless add walks and power.

Finally, there's the always exciting topic of Milton Bradley, a game where almost everyone seems to wind up feeling like they lost. In the long list of things that went wrong for him in 2009, some things did go right-he kept taking his bases, for example. His BABIP decline wasn't horrific, it was just a matter of not being able to repeat a .388 clip from 2008. His ratio of homers to fly balls declined steeply, however, so I'd expect that to come back if he's in the right place, and add that to his walks, and you've got an offensive asset... who also happens to be an easy source of distraction. Realizing that value depends so much on the soft factors of which team in what market with who managing it, that it's going to be interesting to see how many pennies on the dollar Jim Hendry gets back if he finds anyone willing to take on the risk.

*: The exceptions are guys I'm really not sold have any remaining value in anything beyond bench roles, if that: Jason Giambi (.176), Austin Kearns (.171), and Chris Duncan and Luis Rodriguez (.132). Giambi's a DH who didn't slug; Kearns looks cooked, Duncan's unique injury runs up a big red flag, and Rodriguez... well, if you must, after you, my dear Alphonse.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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