January 12, 2004

Angels in the Outfield

A month ago, I wrote an entry describing just how glad I was to be living in Minnesota. The reason being that, despite the horrible weather here, it meant my baseball team was located in the American League Central.

Here's a little of what I said:

As bad as the weather is, it's a walk in the park compared to the prospect of fighting against New York, Boston, Toronto and Baltimore for two playoff spots. I'd rather freeze my ass off and play the Tigers.

With what has gone on with the teams in the AL East this off-season, I honestly believe the Twins would be fighting for fourth-place in 2004 if they switched spots with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. And now, as if the Beasts in the East weren't enough to make me thank my lucky stars for being in the Central, Vladimir Guerrero has signed with the Anaheim Angels for five years and $70 million.

I still have some questions about Anaheim, and the Mariners look to me like a team headed in the wrong direction very fast. In looking at what the Orioles have done, I think they are still not a playoff team, no matter how many good catchers they sign this off-season. That said, I have very little doubt that at least six and possibly seven of the top eight teams in the American League reside in either the East or the West.

If I had to come up with some sort of a ranking at this point, the AL top-10 would probably look like this:


New York







Kansas City


There is plenty of room for discussion certainly and I haven't really looked at things all that closely, but I think you see the point. Could Minnesota, Chicago or Kansas City be one of the top five teams in the AL in 2004? Sure. Is it likely, considering what has gone on this off-season? I really don't think so.

But that's fine with me, because the Twins don't have to beat the Yankees or the Red Sox or the A's. They don't even have to beat the Blue Jays, Angels or Mariners. At least not until playoff-time, of course. No, they simply have to win one more game than the White Sox, Royals, Indians and Tigers. Despite everything that has gone on, I still feel fairly confident they can do that.

Let's take a look now at how the Angels shape up, with Vlad Guerrero...

They now have the following players on the roster who could best be described as "outfielders":

Vladimir Guerrero

Garret Anderson

Darin Erstad

Tim Salmon

Jose Guillen

Jeff DaVanon

Unless they plan on switching from the AL West to a softball league in the next month or so, the Angels are only going to be allowed to play three of those guys in the outfield at one time. However, the logjam isn't quite as complicated as you might think.

Tim Salmon, at 35 and with various injuries taking their toll on him over the last few years, will almost certainly be the everyday DH. Jeff DaVanon, at 30 and with just one good half-season of major league baseball under his belt, will most likely serve as the fourth outfielder.

So, that leaves Guerrero, Anderson, Erstad and Guillen for three spots. Here's where it gets tricky...

According to just about any advanced defensive metric you choose to look at, Darin Erstad is not only one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, he is one of the best defenders at any position. In fact, according to several of those metrics, he is the best.

Mitchel Lichtman's outstanding "Ultimate Zone Rating" defensive system has Darin Erstad worth 41 runs defensively over the average center fielder, per 162 games played, from 2000-2003. That ranks first in all of baseball, and it isn't even particularly close. He's significantly ahead of Mike Cameron, Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter and every other center fielder in baseball.

In addition to Erstad's impressive UZRs, Diamond-Mind consistently gives Erstad "Excellent" ratings in center field, which is the highest rating given. The only other center fielder given "Ex" ratings in each of the past two years is Mike Cameron.

Taking those numbers and ratings and adding in personal observations and opinions, which seem to agree that Erstad is a very good fielder, I think it is fair to conclude that he is one of the top handful of defensive center fielders in all of baseball.

At the same time, Erstad's offense has been horrible.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA

2001 .258 .331 .360 .239
2002 .283 .313 .389 .238
2003 .252 .309 .333 .222

Which brings us to the catch-22 the Angels find themselves in. Darin Erstad is a great defensive center fielder who has not hit at all during the last three years. That means almost all of his value as a player comes from what he does on defense.

Meanwhile, he missed 95 games last season with leg injuries. If he's injured, he won't provide them with any value, defensive or offensive.

The question then becomes whether or not to leave Erstad in center field, where he provides a ton of defensive value along with his bad offense, and is also at a high risk of re-injury. The alternative seems to be to move Erstad to first base, where he would be asked to do a whole lot less moving around and running, and where the injury concerns wouldn't be as big of an issue.

The catch-22 part comes when you consider that a) he loses an incredible amount of his outstanding defensive value if he moves from CF to 1B and b) his offense, while bad for a center fielder, would be extraordinarily horrendous for a first baseman.

To me, there is no question. If Erstad is at first base, he provides zero value to a baseball team. Sure, he might be more likely to stay healthy there, but he will also be one of the worst everyday first baseman in baseball. In center field, there is a much better chance he will either re-injure himself or injury another part of his body, but at least when he is on the field he will provide actual value to the team.

Think of it this way: Ozzie Smith is perhaps the greatest defensive player in the history of baseball and his incredible defense earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Pretend for a moment that Smith played first base, instead of shortstop. Instead of being an extraordinary defensive player whose bat was a little sub par for his position, he would have become a good defensive first baseman who was absolutely horrendous offensively compared to his peers. Just by switching positions, he goes from being a Hall of Famer to being a guy not worthy of a roster spot.

Erstad's case isn't quite as extreme as Ozzie's, but it's close enough. I actually defended the Angels when they signed Erstad to a four-year contract extension a while back (it was actually the seventh entry in the history of this blog). I still think that, when healthy, he is one of the best all-around center fielders in baseball (if you haven't noticed, I am slowly but surely starting to place a lot of value on defense).

As a first baseman, Erstad simply becomes a horrible player. That may seem too extreme, but I think it is the truth. When a player has one skill that is among the best in all of baseball and you take that away from him, that often leaves a poor player. By moving him to first base, the Angels would be taking Erstad's lone remarkable skill away from him.

What to do with Erstad is a very easy decision in my opinion. He's worthless at first base and has value in center field, if healthy, so you stick him in center field for as long as his legs can take it. Of course, all indications from the Angels are that Erstad will be playing first base for them next season, which is going to hurt their defense immensely while taking away some of the value they just gained from signing Guerrero in the process.

A Jose Guillen-Darin Erstad-Vladimir Guerrero outfield would be something to watch. Erstad chases down anything and everything in center, and Guillen and Guerrero have perhaps two of the best outfield throwing arms in the history of baseball. Erstad could be the next Keith Hernandez at first base and he still wouldn't provide Anaheim with as much value defensively as he has playing center field over the last few years. His replacement in center - whether it is Guillen, Anderson or Guerrero - won't be completely horrible, but the switch would still lead to a lot more balls falling in for singles and flying into the gaps for extra-bases.

Signing Vladimir Guerrero is a huge move for the Angels and I think $70 million for five years is a very reasonable price for a 27-year old who has established himself as one of the best hitters in the game. Anaheim has the makings of a very good team in 2004, but they could be a whole lot better if they'd think about asking Anderson, Guerrero or Guillen to pick up a first baseman's glove.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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