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There and Back Again

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This season's trade deadline was relatively uneventful when compared to years past, but there was one trade that gave us something to mull over.  Frank Wren sent away our first baseman Casey Kotchman for former Brave, former Pirate, and, now, former Red Sox Adam LaRoche.  Before I give my take on this acquisition, I wanted to detail the path LaRoche took from when he left the Braves to when he came back.

January 17, 2007: Adam LaRoche and Jamie Romak for Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge

July 29, 2008: Mark Teixeira for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek

July 31, 2009: Casey Kotchman for Adam LaRoche

So, if my logic is correct (and it often isn't), this series of trades ultimately culminated in the following[1]:

Braves get: Mike Gonzalez, a part of Javier Vazquez (i.e. Brent Lillibridge), one year of Casey Kotchman, a decent relief prospect in Stephen Marek

Braves lose: half a year of Mark Teixeira, about two and a half years of Adam LaRoche, a potential, average major league outfielder (i.e. Jamie Romak)

All-in-all, I think the end result of these trades came out big in our favor.  We can't credit Wren to all of this, since the first LaRoche trade was a Schuerholz move, but he really has filled in for John well.  That is neither here nor there, though, as the point of this article is to break down the LaRoche - Kotchman trade.  Without further ado, below are the benefits, the drawbacks, and the verdict of the recent trade.

Benefits

Let's ask my good friend PECOTA (yes, I personify lots of things) about what production it predicted out of these two players in the beginning of the year:

LaRoche: .270 / .353 / .487, 551 PA, 30 2B, 24 HR, 23.3% K%, 11.1% BB%, 24.3 VORP

Kotchman: .288 / .353 / .423, 538 PA, 30 2B, 11 HR, 9.9% K%, 8.3% BB%, 13.9 VORP

Just by looking at VORP, LaRoche comes out way ahead.  Many people have mentioned this before, but LaRoche will most certainly bring more power to the plate, which is evident in the .64 difference in predicted slugging percentage.  I find it interesting that they both have close to the same doubles rate; the extra base hit they differ so wildly in is homers, where LaRoche is projected to put up double Kotchman's total.  LaRoche definitely has problems with contact, as many big swingers do, but his slightly better eye does help.  The defense, according to PECOTA, is pretty similar.  They pin LaRoche as an average fielder and Kotchman as above average.  However, it is important to point out that first base is not an important defensive position, which is why PECOTA gives very little weight to it.  Thus, it seems we're getting a much better hitter with LaRoche.

For those of you who think the cost in this first baseman swap is far away in the favor of the Red Sox, you should note that the Braves are not paying a dime for LaRoche's services.  I'm serious.  Take a look at Cot's Baseball Contracts, undeniably the best website for baseball contracts.  The Red Sox are paying the remaining 3 million that LaRoche is owed.  Essentially, the only cost we paid for LaRoche was Kotchman himself.

There is also the fact that Freddie Freeman of the infamous duo "Salt and Pepper" is likely to make his debut either late 2010 or 2011.  At the beginning of the year, he was probably around replacement level as a first baseman, but his impressive numbers at Myrtle Beach and Mississippi, so far, at the young age of 19 translates to some quickly improving skills.  If he caps off this year in Mississippi off with some big performances and shows up to spring training next year ready to smash, he might even be able to break the roster come June.  Speaking of "Salt and Pepper", there is reason to think that Heyward, who has an OPS of 1.216 in AA right now, could start next year with Atlanta.  I've even read that a September call-up is not out of the scope of possibilities (!!).  There have been whispers of it and, if he in fact did, we may see a guy like Church moving to first base to make way for Heyward.

Drawbacks

The most apparent negatives to losing Kotchman are his age and length of contract.  Kotchman will likely be locked up till 2011 under arbitration, rather than going into free agency next year, as is the case with LaRoche.  Plus, he is a full three years younger than LaRoche (29) at 26.  Those two points are being cited as the big losses to the Braves and I certainly couldn't disagree more.

Also, some projection systems, legitimate ones like CHONE, seem to disagree wildly with PECOTA's position on these two players:

LaRoche: .264 / .340 / .468, 504 AB, 32 2B, 23 HR, 23.4% K%, 10.0% BB%, .352 wOBA

Kotchman: .286 / .365 / .450, 451 AB, 28 2B, 14 HR, 9.8% K%, 10.2% BB%, .360 wOBA

CHONE seems to predict LaRoche's power will not make up for his inability to make contact, giving an edge to Kotchman.  The year laid out by CHONE for Kotchman is not necessarily a stretch either; his line for the Angels in 2007 was very impressive: .296 / .372 / .467 (.840) in 508 PA.

Looking to what both men have done this year, we see both have been underperforming.  They both have identical wOBA's of .332 and near matches in OPS (Kotchman's .764 vs. LaRoche's .778).  Add to that what UZR/150 thinks of their defense this year (Kotchman's 5.8 vs. LaRoche's -3.4), it appears Kotchman has been the better player to date in 2009.

One other very important side note is that Nick Johnson recently got traded to the Marlins for Aaron Thompson.  Granted, I don't know that much about Thompson or the Washington front office, but from what I've read about Thompson injury problems, it sounds like we could've possibly gotten this rental on Johnson ourselves if we had dangled Kotchman.  This is entirely speculative, of course, but there is no denying that Nick Johnson is a far and away a better first baseman than LaRoche AND Kotchman when healthy.  Yes, he would've cost more than LaRoche, but, if we are legitimately making a run for the playoffs and could afford it (I'm assuming we can't, because this would've been too big of a loss if we could've), the ~2.5 million he is owed would be well worth it.

Verdict

It was a positive trade; not a great trade or a good trade, but simply a decent trade.  It is a small acquisition that, I believe, moves us marginally closer to our goal for the playoffs this season.  I say all this because I'm confident LaRoche is the better first baseman (right now).  LaRoche's peripherals are all in line with what we would expect of him, except his BABIP (.015 points lower than career) and his HR/FB rate.  That rate, however, could be a result of playing in PNC park.  His HR/FB numbers for the Braves went like this: 15.3%, 15.7%, and 21.2%.  As for his years with the Pirates up till now: 11.1%, 15.6%, and 11.5%.  Perhaps he did lose his power when he went to Pittsburgh, but I think it's just waiting to break back out.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I do not believe much in UZR, but its measures at first base are the very questionable.  The weights on the fielding events relating to first base are, in my opinion, way too big.  I do not believe that there is such a large difference in the run consequence of fielding the least demanding, defensive position.

Best of all, we are not paying LaRoche a dime, a key thing to note that has been lost on many analysts taking a look at this trade.  Looking into the future and knowing the talent we have coming up in the minors, getting a little relief on the wallet for a half year rental on a better hitter isn't a bad deal. 

The final thing for those that enjoy little intangibles is that LaRoche recently bought property with Chipper Jones, so the addition of LaRoche will no doubt help the clubhouse chemistry.  I'm not sure how much help it needed, but with former teammates like Chipper and Nate McLouth, he will certainly get along fine with his "new" teammates in Atlanta.

[1] Clearly, it is not this simple, but I find it somewhat enlightening to take time and write down a "before" and "after" scenario.  It helps put trades into greater prospective, as well as being a fun exercise.  Like this.


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