The Braves gave up a lot last year for what everyone knew was a year-and-a-half rental of Mark Teixeira. A Scott Boras client, Teixeira appeared unwilling to go behind his agent’s back like A-Rod to reach a contract extension, so the team and fans both seemed to realize that 2008 was going to be Tex’s final year in a Braves uniform. Even if the Braves had the cash to sign him to a contract, (a) he was going to wait until after the season to negotiate, and (b) the Braves were unlikely to be the high bidder with as many as 3 AL East clubs interested. I think I came across last year as mildly critical of the deal, but optimistic that Tex would be the missing piece the Braves needed to reach the postseason again.
This year, the Salty-Andrus-Harrison-Feliz-Jones-etc. package that the Braves gave up in 2007 had to be considered a sunk cost. There was no point revisiting it or comparing the terms of a possible 2008 trade to the one from 2007. Tex would be possibly only a two-month rental for any potential trade suitor, possibly making him worth 1-2 wins above an average 1B, far less than the return the Braves were poised to get at this time last year. From the start of the season it became clear that if the Braves fell out of contention, they would be wise to shop Teixeira. With the prospect of receiving (maybe) two compensatory draft picks for him, it seemed likely that the Braves would at least get more value than the draft picks out of a trade.
The Braves did fall out of contention this year, and management made the wise decision to put him on the market before the trade deadline. Rumors swirled about the Braves getting Conor Jackson, Chad Tracy, or James Loney to replace Teixeira, and in the end, they got Casey Kotchman (and minor league reliever Stephen Marek) from the Angels. Here’s a quick profile of the new guys:
Kotchman, whose dad is a high-level scout in the Angels’ organization, was LAA’s top prospect for several years before his arrival in the majors. He was projected as a guy with contact skill, mid-range power, and a great glove at first base. That has been mostly correct and has informed his current projection, which is that of an average first baseman who still has some power projection left at age 25 despite a ragged injury history.
Throughout his minor-league career, Kotchman struggled with injuries, and that has carried over into the majors. Since 2003, he has played in 64, 115, 141, 32, and 137 games, an average of 98 games per season. He has played 100 this season and is reportedly healthy. That will be key to the Braves’ return on their investment, since they don’t really have anyone else to plug that hole (both in the lineup and on the field) if he’s out for any reason.
Kotchman has an interesting statistical profile. He doesn’t strike out much at all (6.2% of the time), but his walk rate is down this year (4.6%), less than half what it was in 2007 (10.7%). With that kind of plate discipline, he ends up putting a lot of balls in play. Most of those balls are actually hit on the ground; Kotchman has a weak career line drive rate of 16.5%, and over half his batted balls are ground balls. With no real speed, it then comes as no surprise that he hits into plenty of double plays: 17 last year in 508 PAs, 14 this year in 398 so far.
Another interesting thing about Kotchman is his reverse platoon split. Over his career, he has a .757 OPS against righties and a .785 mark against lefties. He consistently posts a higher BABIP against lefties, so it’s hard to say he’s just lucky against them, even though he has only a fifth as many at-bats against LHP than RHP. I’m not sure if Mike Scioscia just used him selectively against lefties, or if he just didn’t get that many chances against them in the AL West. Left-handed batters typically have larger platoon splits than their right-handed counterparts, but this doesn’t appear to be an issue with Kotchman.
Unless he can make more solid contact and get his line drive rate back into the 18-21% range (where it was when his prospect status was at its highest), his improvement will be contingent upon getting more fly balls to go out of the park. His HR/FB rate is 10.7% this year, well behind Chipper (20%) and McCann (15.6%) but ahead of Johnson (8.3%) and Francoeur (8.1%).
The Angels tried Marek out as a starting pitcher at first, even though he was drafted having been a reliever. He pitched fairly well despite being old for his league every year, but then he stalled in 2007 while repeating high-A at age 23. They converted him back to relief, and he’s been somewhat successful in AA this year while improving his strikeout rate considerably (57 in 46 2/3 innings). Reportedly, his changeup gives lefties fits.
All things considered, he’s not way behind in terms of development and is still young enough to be considered a prospect. He’ll be 25 in September, and with some second-half success, he may be in major-league training camp as early as next spring.
In Marek, the Braves have a guy who could be a solid, cheap major league reliever down the road. Kotchman will be under team control through 2011, so it’s nice to get 3+ years of a player with at least some potential for improvement. The Braves can move him if someone comes along through the farm system or if they see a tempting free agent, so I’d say they did about right in this trade, even if it looks disappointing compared to the bounty of players they sent to Texas a year ago. They paid the price to have a great slugger and a better chance at the postseason for a year. It didn’t work out, and they were wise to move on.
What’s interesting to me is that the Braves seemed not to place a lot of value on the compensatory draft picks they were likely to receive when Teixeira walked as a free agent. The Braves have a pretty good record developing young talent, but it’s clear that the unpredictability of said talent requires that they be valued somewhat low. High draft choices do not instantly become top prospects, even if they often do. Teixeira was almost certainly gone, so it’s hard to say the Braves didn’t come out a net positive if you only consider the picks given up. I’m still somewhat surprised that the market wasn’t a little more favorable, given the abundance of possible buyers and relatively few sellers with anything to offer.
Moving forward, the Braves will have some money to spend in the offseason. If Tim Hudson’s injury is as serious as it looks, a starting pitcher will be the top free-agent priority. Otherwise, the Braves might be able to look at an outfielder. Perhaps they’ll do both anyway. Hopefully they will also use the last two months of the season to sort out what things will look like in 2009, assuming they plan to contend again immediately next season.
This kind of scenario is a new one for me and one the Braves haven’t visited in quite some time. I was six years old and not a baseball fan in 1990, the last time the Braves were not in contention past the trade deadline, but I’m sure I can stomach it for at least the next couple of months.