One of the tropes I tend to hammer on is that teams should be built to win in October, not simply to get there. Winning is the gift that keeps on giving, good for attendance spikes, better local market media and ad revenue, and permanent satisfaction that you've done more than someone like the Yankees or Braves lately. Who knows, it might even make you an acceptably Angeleno franchise, instead of a suburban wannabe.
This isn't going to be a paean to current Angels GM Tony Reagins versus former GM Bill Stoneman; neither man is Branch Rickey, but Stoneman presided over a World Series winner (2002), while Reagins has the ambition and the brains to do the same. By acquiring a premium first baseman, this trade will help make the difference between the Angels being merely a good team and a squad good enough to take its best shot at the cream of the better league (the American) and then stomp the senior circuit.
In practical terms, Mark Teixeira is the kind of slugger you'd love to have. Against top fireballers he'll fight off being overpowered, get in a few rips and take a base, that last representing something the Angels don't see much of; he simply murders off-speed pitchers. He's a true switch-hitter, in that he's not losing much whether he's batting righty or lefty. The Angels make a bit of a fetish of their mastery of situational hitting, and on that score you would think that Tex should fit in, having already delivered on 16.3 percent of his baserunners; ranking 96th among the 378 hitters with 100 or more PA is more good than bad, and it's definitely not like they brought in someone like Jack Cust (298th). Consider the team-level rankings for non-pitchers in OBI percentage, which measures the percentage of runners on base driven in during a batter's plate appearances. The MLB average is 14.2 (see chart, right).
All very interesting, and all very validating for the Angels' way of doing things, except Casey Kotchman wasn't a problem in this area, ranking 40th in the majors by plating 18.3 percent of his baserunners. It's instructive to put those percentages in the context of the lineups that created those opportunities; the Angels rank 11th in the league in Equivalent Average, and 12th in the league in unintentional walks drawn. Playing in that low-OBP offense, Kotchman was getting significantly fewer opportunities than Teixeira was with the Braves, with only 174 PA with runners on base while spending most of the season hitting sixth, behind the heart of the order, while Teixeira had 247 batting fourth in the DH-less league, a slot where the pitcher's hitting (and rarely reaching base) affected his total opportunities.
So all the talk about Teixeira as an RBI guy in the middle of the order is relatively unimportant, not on an Angels team that's just not going to give him that many baserunners to plate in the first place. Instead what's really going to matter are the things he can control -- the power he'll deliver and the OBP that he'll add from the middle of the order. His presence in the lineup will spare the Angels the indignity of batting Maicer Izturis third and put some lefty-hitting power between Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter in the cleanup slot against right-handed pitching. Maybe that pushes Izturis to the second slot, where his past-but-not-yet present OBP skills might help maximize the value of the damage Tex can do. If not Izturis, maybe they push Howie Kendrick into the two hole and go for some short-sequence violence up front. (NOTE: I know, sabermetric orthodoxy insists that lineup order doesn't matter; I guess I keep forgetting to drink all of my Kool-Aid, especially when lineup-related research depends on so many lazy assumptions.)
The price for Teixeira -- a bullpen arm in Stephen Marek and a still not-yet-something first baseman who's going to be arbitration-eligible and is only under control for three years in Kotchman -- is definitely one worth paying, and for that the Angels are getting two months with a premium first baseman in a lineup that needed a difference-making hitter of Teixeira's caliber. Beyond that the Angels will also then get first shot at re-signing Teixeira (perhaps an attractive proposition, since the Angels are regular winners), and a pair of Type A free-agent-generated compensatory draft picks if he decides that he doesn't like the color of the Angels' money, or that California taxes just aren't what he wants to pay.
In the abstract, the picks themselves might have been worth it as a matter of repurposing Kotchman and Marek after both have come up short relative to the hopes invested in them as prospects, so from that point of view adding the two months with Tex at first base to take their best shot at winning the whole shebang just makes this that much tastier. Add in that they'll be up a spot on the 40-man over the winter, and it's a move that creates all sorts of little benefits beyond the obvious one of adding Teixeira's bat.
If there's really something to credit Reagins for, it's some combination of the following factors:
• The recognition that no matter how much Kotchman was an organizational favorite son -- literally, since his dad's in his third decade as a scout and manager in the organization -- he wasn't blossoming into the kind of premium bat you need at first base.
• Accepting the math that three years of an adequate first baseman is something you give up to get two months of one of the best at the position to maximize this team's shot at another World Series win, because an adequate Kotchman is something you can replace without any effort (with minor league first baseman Kendry Morales, perhaps).
• You didn't have to give up a blue-chip prospect to address your lineup's shortcomings. An arm to flavor the deal in an exchange of first basemen can be written off as the cost of doing business.
• You didn't settle. The Angels are playing to win, not just against their AL West rivals, but with an eye towards playing deep into October. This last might seem obvious, but Terry Ryan never figured it out in Minnesota, and nobody's suggesting that Ryan was a bad GM, just that this is an element of organizational management and opportunity management that not everyone gets.
As for the Braves, GM Frank Wren wasn't going to get anything like the package that his predecessor, John Schuerholz, surrendered to bring Teixeira from Texas to Atlanta last summer, because Schuerholz was getting an impact player who could help his team win two division titles as well as an element of certainty as far as the makeup of his lineup over the winter of 2007-08, while Wren's giving up just one shot to try and win, plus the attendant draft picks. Even so, this isn't a package that really helps the Braves all that much, not in any meaningful way beyond controlling costs, and given that they can look forward to three years in arbitration with Kotchman, perhaps not even that.
As a result, since Kotchman's going to be a seven-figure player for the rest of his pre-free agency career with the Braves after his two-month introduction, the real question is whether or not he's worth it, or if he isn't the sort of player you go out of your way to avoid this kind of commitment to. The answer isn't really a very happy one for Braves fans.
Kotchman is usually evaluated in terms of power potential (mostly unrealized) and fielding acumen. Granting him the fielding, that leaves us with the first baseman's primary responsibility, hitting prowess. Kotchman's career has had its share of hiccups, between too much time spent cooling his heels waiting for the organization's man crush on Darin Erstad to subside in 2005, to a 2006 season wiped out by a bad case of mono, but last year, aged only 24, it finally appeared that he was breaking out, delivering a .294 Equivalent Average, and he also reached that stathead's joyspot by walking at least once every 10 plate appearances. The power was all against right-handers, and not really masked by any park effect; he had an ISO of .189 against right-handers, and .082 against lefties, so decent work, but not game-breakingly great.
This year he hasn't improved any in the power department while getting dramatically worse as hitting coach Mickey Hatcher's latest hacktastic hero, as his walk rate's dropped to less than four percent, with no commensurate payoff at the plate. Slick-fielding moderate-powered first basemen who hit .269/.307/.414 against right-handed pitching don't get compared to John Olerud or Wally Joyner, they get "maybe he'll grow up to be Vic Power or even Pete O'Brien if things start going right for him."
If that doesn't sound like a championship ballplayer, you're beginning to get the idea. Obviously his inconsistency is both his bane and his best defense against criticism; as he moves deeper into his expected peak period through his age-25 through age-29 seasons, if he can lean more toward that 2007 campaign, he's a worthwhile placeholder. If he keeps see-sawing between millstone and asset, however, he'll be an exasperating player who will be hard to trade high when his value is up, and hard to stomach when it's low.
The second player in the deal, Marek, has value, but it's not really enough to say this is an exchange that's going to do Atlanta that much good. He's a max-effort hurler who has been moved to the pen in his first season in Double-A this year, and with consistently good velocity and a usable curve to keep people honest. With 57 strikeouts in 46 2/3 IP he has punched out slightly more than 28 percent of the hitters he's faced, but he has also walked 21 hitters. He's not overly fly ball-prone, which bodes well for his future in any environment.
A Braves scout might think they can work with him to perhaps move him back to the rotation and maximize the value he might have; he did manage to strike out more than seven batters per nine innings over 25 starts in Rancho Cucamonga in the high-offense Cal League last year. However, it initially looks like he's slotted to stay in the pen, where maybe he becomes a useful guy and maybe he knocks around for a while as something less than a premium reliever; the margin between the two is very slim, and so broad that it seems unlikely he'll do all that much to recoup the value expended in the deal -- both Teixeira and the draft picks that left with him.
To give Wren credit, he was in a tough spot, and he also wound up having to make a pretty quick call. The Angels gave him an erratically valuable first baseman who will be under team control for the next three years and a live-armed minor league reliever. It isn't inconceivable that Wren will look good in a year or two, especially if Kotchman finally finds himself and settles in, but even if he just recaptures the walks, a low-powered first baseman is the kind of player whom you have to compensate for in your lineup, not build around.
Additional research by William Burke and Kevin Goldstein.