November 9, 2008

Potential Trade Target: Garrett Atkins

Among the many potential trade targets being linked to the Twins this offseason, Garrett Atkins' name seemingly pops up most often. Not only have the local scribes reported on the Twins' interest in Atkins, Rockies beat writer Troy Renck of the Denver Post seems convinced that he has a legitimate chance of ending up in Minnesota. For instance, last month Renck penned the following note about the Twins' interest in Atkins:

Moving Atkins for pitching--the Angels, Twins and Red Sox are all potential fits--makes the most sense for the Rockies' roster with Ian Stewart at third base and Todd Helton expected to return as the everyday first baseman.

Then last Monday he wrote:

The American League Central should be the epicenter for interest in Atkins, with the Twins and Indians trying to fill needs at third base and each possessing a bushel of young pitchers. It's not too hard to see conversations starting around the Twins' Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn or Cleveland's Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers.

Renck then more or less revised that same note for the next day:

The Indians and Twins have inquired about infielder Garrett Atkins. Both have needs at third base. Atkins would fit nicely in Minnesota between left-handed hitters Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.

Most recently, Renck wrote the following over the weekend:

It has been a rapid transformation from slugger to walking trade rumor. Garrett Atkins chewed on that idea over dinner Wednesday, aware he has become an appetizer for teams looking for a corner infielder. The Rockies are ... listening to calls from the Twins and Indians about Atkins.

Clearly there's some fire behind all that smoke and on the surface at least Atkins looks like a perfect fit for the Twins. He's a right-handed, power-hitting third baseman and has batted .305/.369/.498 with an average of 25 homers and 110 RBIs over the past three seasons. At first glance he'd be a big upgrade at third base over a Brian Buscher-Brendan Harris platoon and would be a great fit in the lineup either between Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau or in the No. 5 spot behind Morneau.

However, dig a little deeper and Atkins looks much less appealing. His overall production has declined significantly since his career-best 2006 season. He hit .329/.409/.556 with 29 homers, 48 doubles, 79 walks, 117 runs, and 120 RBIs that year, but since then his OPS has dropped from .965 to .853 to .780. Even a .780 OPS is slightly above average for a third baseman, but focusing on Atkins' raw numbers is misleading because he's played half his games in the best ballpark for hitting in all of baseball.

For his career Atkins has hit .337/.394/.527 at Coors Field and .260/.328/.424 everywhere else, which makes him 20 percent less effective on the road and includes a measly .233/.278/.383 mark away from home this year. Take him away from Coors Field and Atkins has been a below-average third baseman offensively, which is a problem given that his fielding is also sub par. During the past three seasons Atkins has posted a Revised Zone Rating of .665, which rates five percent below average at third base.

Beyond that, when Todd Helton went down with a midseason injury the Rockies decided to play Atkins at first base while 23-year-old rookie Ian Stewart manned third base despite not being considered a great defender himself. And finally, via arbitration Atkins figures to make at least $6 million in 2009 and $10 million in 2010, at which point he'll be eligible to leave as a free agent. Given all of that, should the Twins really be heavily pursuing Atkins?

Take him away from Planet Coors and Atkins is a career .260/.328/.424 hitter and poor defender who's declined significantly over the past two seasons. Not only will he cost at least $15 million over the next two seasons, the price to acquire him from the Rockies figures to be plenty steep as well. Meanwhile, for the combined cost of around $700,000 the Twins could save their trade bait and money to improve other areas by simply letting Buscher and Harris split the position.

Buscher and Harris will never approach the huge numbers Atkins posted in Colorado a few years ago, but neither will Atkins at this point. Buscher batted .315/.391/.517 at Triple-A over the past two seasons and has begun his MLB career by hitting .297/.354/.411 in 279 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Harris is a career .269/.330/.408 hitter in 1,186 plate appearances as a big leaguer, including .295/.360/.440 against left-handed pitching.

Platooned properly, Buscher and Harris are perfectly capable of covering third base while combining to hit at least .280/.340/.430 and would be a good bet to beat Atkins' road mark of .260/.328/.424. Even if you're willing to give Atkins the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he'll reverse his multi-year decline and improve his non-Coors Field numbers once out of Colorado, the odds are against his topping the Coors Field-boosted .286/.328/.452 mark he had in 2008. Plus, there's an awful lot of doubt:

YEAR      SO%      BB%     K/BB     IsoP
2006 10.9 10.5 1.04 .227
2007 14.0 9.4 1.50 .185
2008 15.1 6.0 2.50 .166

Atkins has seen his strikeout rate, walk rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and Isolated Power all get worse in both of the seasons since his career-year. He's striking out 39 percent more often, walking 43 percent less often, and hitting for 27 percent less power. Twins fans seem to like the notion of trading for a "big bat" like Atkins almost as much as they seem to dislike the notion of turning third base over to the old Buscher-Harris platoon that finished 2008.

However, once you wipe away perceptions, reputations, and name recognition there simply isn't that much difference in performance between Atkins and Buscher-Harris. Over the next two years Atkins will cost about $15 million more than Buscher and Harris combined, and acquiring him would also involve sending major value to the Rockies. Let the Indians have him, unless of course the Rockies are willing to swap Atkins for the Twins' own declining, overpaid right-handed hitter. In which case ... maybe.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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