January 13, 2004

Reader Mail (Darin Erstad Edition)

Before I start with anything else, I want to thank John Sickels, Ryan Levy, Tony Pierce and Matthew Namee (twice) for stepping in as guest columnists while I was away losing all my money last week. I really enjoyed reading all of their pieces and, from the many emails I received, you did as well.

I don't go on long vacations all that often (although I am not against the idea), so I'm not sure when I'll need more guest writers, but it is great to know that there are lots of quality writers out there willing to pinch-hit for me. So thank you John, Ryan, Tony and Matthew. It was an honor having your work on my site and I really appreciate it.

If you missed them, here are the entries from while I was away in Sin City:

John Sickels - On Being a Twins Fan

Ryan Levy - How I Remember Josh Beckett

Tony Pierce - the busblog writes aarons baseball blog

Matthew Namee - Baseball's Greatest Keystone Combinations

Matthew Namee - Keystone Chasms

I returned from my vacation on Monday, with an entry about my experience in Las Vegas. Then yesterday, I got back into the regular swing of things and discussed Vladimir Guerrero signing with the Angels and how that changes the landscape of the American League, as well as the possibility that Darin Erstad would shift from center field to first base as a result of Guerrero joining Anaheim.

Here's a little of what I said about Erstad:

"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."

I'm not sure if a lot of my readers are Angels fans or if you were just excited to have me back, blogging about baseball, but for whatever reason yesterday's entry got a ton of good reader responses.

Let's dive right in...

From Sean:

"While you're unfortunately right about Erstad's value diminishing tremendously if he goes to first base, you're wrong about their potential options at first if they choose to keep him in center. Of the three possible first basemen you mentioned - Anderson, Guillen, and Guerrero - only Anderson is left-handed. And he's never played first base. Asking Guillen or Guerrero to play a new position with the significant handicap of wearing a glove on the foul-line side is asking for trouble.

There's some reason to hold out hope if Erstad goes to first. Anderson has played a fairly significant number of games in center during his career, and his defensive numbers were good (not Erstad-like, but better than average). Erstad will actually provide a little more value to the Angels than the average first baseman provides to his team, both because Erstad is a better fielder and because the Angels rely on better-than-average defense at 1B to compensate for Eckstein's arm at short (Spiezio deserved a lot more credit than he ever got in this department). Defensively speaking, then, taking into account the arms that will now be in left and right, the Angels probably get very slightly worse, but not a lot worse.

Offensively, there's a faint chance that Erstad's numbers will improve with a move to first. I know a lot of people - people who I think are nuts - who claim that Erstad's offensive woes are due to the wear and tear of playing center field the way he does. While there's no doubt that Erstad sacrifices his body to make those plays, there's also no evident correlation between his offensive production and his defensive position, going back to his first couple of years when he played 1B full-time.

Realistically, there are three possibilities for the Angels:

1. Play Erstad at first and hope his offense improves, while recognizing that even if he doesn't, you still essentially replaced Scott Spiezio with Vlad Guerrero in your lineup.

2. A half-year of Anderson at first and Erstad in center, and a half year of Anderson in center and a replacement-level player at first (assumes injury to Erstad).

3. Trade Erstad and a pitcher for a decent first baseman.

I think I can say definitively that the Angels won't consider #2. Everyone and their dog is saying that Erstad will play first, and Scioscia has been quoted as saying he'll probably hit second (shudder). They have a surplus of starting pitching, so I think option #3 would be attractive - Erstad plus Ramon Ortiz or Jarrod Washburn would probably turn a couple of heads, assuming they can find a team that's got a 1B to trade. Realistically, though, I think they'll start the season with Erstad at first."

That, my friends, is what a great reader email looks like! Sean raises a ton of interesting points, so let me try to hit on most of them...

I honestly don't see the problem with asking a corner outfielder to "learn" first base. It's not as if the Angels would be asking them to do so mid-season, they could go into spring training with the idea of letting whomever they chose to make the move work on playing first base for several weeks.

There is a reason guys like Mo Vaughn and Frank Thomas are/were first basemen, which is that first base is an incredibly easy position to play, relative to the other, non-DH, choices. Baseball history is littered with guys who made the switch to first base from other positions and did just fine, including many guys who were horrible defensive players at their former spots. I see little reason why above-average defensive corner outfielders like Garret Anderson, Jose Guillen or Vladimir Guerrero would have a problem becoming acceptable defensive first basemen.

As for the point that, of those three, only Anderson is left-handed, I don't see why that matters much. Here is a list of right-handed throwing first basemen who had at least 400 at bats last season:

Richie Sexson

Jeff Bagwell
Jim Thome
Sean Casey
Carlos Delgado
Kevin Millar
Scott Hatteberg
Derrek Lee
Jason Giambi
Mark Teixeira
Scott Spiezio
Jeff Conine
Doug Mientkiewicz
Ken Harvey
Tino Martinez
Paul Konerko
Wil Cordero
Robert Fick
Jason Phillips

I don't see why Guillen and Guerrero being right-handed throwers would even be an issue. In fact, Scott Spiezio, the guy whom Sean praises for his defense with the Angels over the last few years, is a right-handed thrower.

In regard to the impact on Anaheim's defense Erstad moving to first base would have, I have some problems with Sean's logic. There is no way you can tell me that moving Darin Erstad to first base and replacing him in center field with someone like Garret Anderson is only going to lead to Anaheim's defense getting "slightly worse."

As I said yesterday, I think Anderson, Guillen or Guerrero would make more than acceptable center fielders, particularly Anderson who has, as Sean pointed out, played the position before. Even if the Angels rely on a good fielding first baseman more than most teams and even if Erstad is the best fielding first baseman in baseball, the defensive dropoff from Erstad to Anderson in CF will be much bigger than the gains from Erstad over Anderson at 1B.

In other words, this defensive alignment...

LF   Jose Guillen

CF Garret Anderson
RF Vladimir Guerrero
1B Darin Erstad

...is going to be a whole lot more than "slightly worse" than this one...

LF   Jose Guillen

CF Darin Erstad
RF Vladimir Guerrero
1B Garret Anderson

Regarding the three possibilities Sean lays out for Anaheim, I think it is very unlikely Erstad is traded (possibility #3). I don't see a whole lot of teams being interested in a light-hitting center fielder making $8 million a year and coming off a season in which he missed nearly 100 games with leg injuries. Unless the Angels are planning on doing a salary dump and possibly even paying some of his salary, I just don't see that happening.

Sean's first possibility is that they move Erstad to first base, where even if his offense doesn't improve, "you still essentially replaced Scott Spiezio with Vlad Guerrero in your lineup." I don't disagree with that, but the end result of that scenario is essentially the point of my post from yesterday. In fact, here is some of what I said yesterday:

"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."

In other words, even if you are replacing Spiezio with Guerrero in the lineup (which is a huge upgrade), you are giving away much of the gains you make from that swap by significantly downgrading your defense. By keeping Erstad in center field, Anaheim could be replacing Spiezio with Guerrero in the lineup AND maintaining essentially the same defense, which would have been an even bigger upgrade. If Erstad is at first base, the impact of Guerrero joining the team is lessened unnecessarily.

Okay, I think I responded to most of the points Sean raised in his excellent email. Let's move on to another one...

From Scott:

"I think one of the reasons that Anaheim is likely to switch Erstad to first base is that they believe the injuries that he seemingly always manages to get and play through have a large impact on his offensive game. I think they are hoping that 160 games at first with no dings, bruises, pulls, or worse will equate to an Erstad closer to the 2000 version than the one we've seen the last three seasons.

Even if he were able to hit like '98 and '99 while playing first base, it may be worth it. I'm not saying that this will actually pan out or even that this hoped for improvement in his offensive game would offset his defensive ability, but I do think that is the reasoning behind the move."

Thanks for the email Scott. I definitely want to make it clear that I am not saying in any way that the Angels moving Erstad to first base is an indefensible move from their standpoint or that it is without reasoning. I just think it is a bad move and that the reasoning is faulty. I have a very hard time agreeing with any plan that involves moving one of the best defensive players in baseball to one of the least important defensive positions, particularly when that player has not done anything offensively over the last three seasons.

However, as Scott says, the Angels are hoping that Erstad can stay healthier by moving to first base and that his offense will become better because of that. With that in mind, here's the question...there is no doubt that playing center field is far more demanding than playing first base, particularly for a guy who has had leg problems. At the same time, it's not as if Erstad would start playing first base and suddenly become a lazy, no-hustle player.

Instead of diving into the ground in short center field and crashing into the outfield wall trying to chase down fly balls, he will simply be diving into the ground in the infield and crashing into the wall down the first base line. Plus, I put the over/under on the amount of times he goes flying into the dugout chasing a foul ball in 2004 at 10.

Is it possible that playing a much less demanding position will lead to Erstad staying healthier? Definitely. Is it possible that staying healthier will lead to significantly improved offense? Definitely. I just don't think a guy who hasn't slugged over .389 in three years and has hit just .268/.320/.367 in over 1,600 plate appearances during that time is going to suddenly start hitting like he did four or five years ago.

And really, if you want to be technical about it, the last time Erstad played first base on a regular basis was way back in 1999. He hit .253/.308/.374 that year.

If I were running the Angels and you told me I could have Vladimir Guerrero for the next five years, but that in order to get him I would have to move Darin Erstad to first base, I would sign up for that deal in a second. But, as far as I know, that was not an actual stipulation. The Angels are making a mistake if they move Erstad to first base to start the 2004 season, simply because by moving him there they are eliminating a big portion of the significant gains they just got by signing Guerrero.

They are going to be fighting Oakland for the AL West and either Boston, New York or Toronto for the AL Wild Card in 2004, and that level of competition means you need to maximize any potential upgrades you can make. Moving one of the best defensive players in baseball to one of the least demanding defensive positions when you have other guys capable of moving there instead is counterproductive at best, foolish at worst.

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

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