How Much Does Andre Ethier Have Riding On This Season?

At the LA Times Dodger blog today, Steve Dilbeck argues that the Dodgers need to lock up Andre Ethier to a long-term contract, suggesting that his value is at its lowest and that an offense which is hardly imposing can’t afford to be without him after 2012. There’s logic to the premise, of course, and I’m on record as saying that I think all of the pieces are in place for Ethier to have a big season. But you already know my response to that idea, which is that signing Clayton Kershaw is a much higher priority and that a moody platoon player who is a good-yet-not-elite hitter isn’t necessarily someone I would want to invest big money into as he enters his 30s. (That’s if Ethier would even want to stay, and there’s more than a few hints that suggest he may not, or if he’d even be willing to sign now when he knows his leverage is low.)

That’s not what I want to talk about, though, because you how I feel and I know that many of you feel similarly. What interests me more right now is trying to figure out just how much a big 2012 could enhance Ethier’s value on the market, because there’s a big difference between a deal for, say, 3/$36m (which I’d certainly love to do) and something more like 5/$85m (which I’d run away screaming from).

Over the last four offseasons, only eight outfielders have signed with a new team for at least three years, and they’re not all great comparables for Ethier for a variety of reasons. Somehow I doubt he’s matching the 7/$142m Carl Crawford got from the Red Sox or the $126m that Jayson Werth picked up from the Nationals; at the other end of the spectrum, the paltry (by comparison) $21m that Josh Willingham took from the Twins this winter and the $15m over three years that Marlon Byrd received from the Cubs aren’t even worth discussing. It’s also hard to include the 3/$31.5m that Raul Ibanez received when he went to the Phillies, because it was covering his age 37-39 seasons. And because Ruben Amaro hands out money like Ned Colletti hands out backloaded two-year contracts to veteran infielders.

Now we’re left with just three somewhat similar yet still imperfect comparisons. I’m tossing out Michael Cuddyer‘s 3/$31.5m from Colorado, because he’s already 33, and let’s face it, Ethier’s not signing for that unless 2012 is a disaster. We’re also not looking at Milton Bradley‘s 3/$30m, because his market was so skewed by his personal and injury histories, and again, Ethier’s not signing for that.

That leaves us with one last comparable, and this one’s actually worth investigating: the 4/$66m contract Jason Bay signed with the Mets before the 2010 season. Bay entered free agency for the first time having just completed his age-30 season, just as Ethier will, and he did so with a bang, hitting .267/.384/.537 and 36 homers for a playoff Boston team. Like Ethier, Bay graded as mediocre or worse in most defensive metrics, and he took a 131 career OPS+ into free agency, which is almost exactly what Ethier put up between 2008-2010. While Ethier can look forward to having only Josh Hamilton as power-hitting outfielder competition in next winter’s free agent group, Bay scored his deal in a similar environment, with Holliday being the only other outfielder to top Byrd’s $15m deal.

The big difference is that Bay was coming off one of his best years, setting career highs in homers & RBI and finishing seventh in the AL MVP voting, and had put together a string of good years around a disappointing 2007. Let’s say Ethier, no longer bothered by the knee injury that sabotaged his 2011, can put up a year that is the average of his 2008-10 campaigns. That’d be a season that looks like .289/.366/.504, with 25 homers and 88 RBI, and if he can do that or more, he’d have a pretty good chance to match Bay’s contract. Let’s be honest, though; we saw how ridiculous this winter was as far as free agency costs, even without four of the traditional big market teams (Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Mets) in the game. Considering the lack of power available next year, and figuring that neither the Red Sox or Yankees have long-term solutions in right field, Ethier – if he has the 2012 I think he might – could potentially talk his way into more of a 5/$80m type of contract.

That’s where things get tough, because we don’t yet know who will be the owner of the Dodgers at that point or how Ethier’s relationship with the club might be if he hasn’t signed. (I’m assuming there’s less than a 1% chance he signs before the season, because of the current financial state and because we’ve heard little about any talks; these type of deals rarely happen in-season.) That’s an awful lot of money to commit to a guy who can’t hit lefties, isn’t a great defender, and is heading into his 30s; on the other hand, he’s one of the more popular Dodgers and if he leaves, you have to replace that offense somewhere.

To be honest, the cleanest solution might be for him to have a great season but for Ned Colletti’s patchwork collection of misfit veterans to fall apart, leaving Ethier as a very valuable trade chip at the July deadline. If he can be used to get a nearly-ready top third base prospect plus some other parts, that’d be hard to pass up.

Of course, this all depends on Ethier having a bounceback season. If he doesn’t, then maybe his price drops to where it’s palatable to keep him – but if he’s coming off two disappointing years in a row, how much do you want him? I’m not sure it’s an overstatement to say that Ethier could have something like $40m or more riding on 2012. It’s a big season for the Dodgers. It could be an even bigger one for Andre Ethier.

How to Improve the Offense: Trade a Good Young Hitter!

Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that?

I wasn’t planning on putting up another post so soon after praising Martin (sidenote: Vote Martin ’08!), but this article just came out about two hours ago, and I can’t help but take a look at it here. It’s FOXsports.com’s Ken Rosenthal with more crazy trade rumors! I’m often torn between wanting to strangle him for some of the things he says, and wanting to send him a basket of candy for giving me gifts like this to write about.

What do you have for us today, Ken?

Make outfielder Matt Kemp available, and the Dodgers’ trade options quickly would multiply. Make Kemp available, and the team could put together a package for virtually any hitter on the trade market — the Pirates’ Jason Bay, maybe the Tigers’ Magglio Ordonez, maybe even the Rockies’ Matt Holliday.
 
To this point, the Dodgers have resisted moving Kemp or any of their other top young players, but their stance might be changing. “If we get to the point where we can definitively improve ourselves, we’ll do it,” general manager Ned Colletti told the Los Angeles Times.

This is already getting out of hand. No one denies the Dodgers could use some help on offense – that much is obvious. But trading Matt Kemp is in no way the answer. Remember back on April 6, when I posted a Baseball Prospectus article that showed that Kemp was off to a historic start for someone his age? Sure, he hasn’t necessarily kept up that pace, and we’d all hoped the power would have come along by now. But as someone who’s not even 24 for three more months, he’s still leading the team in slugging percentage (excepting Furcal, who hasn’t played enough to qualify.) Not to mention the fact that he’s shown a strong arm in both CF and RF, and much improved instincts in the outfield. No question that he’s got room to improve at the plate, but he’s not the problem here.

Also, I’m not sure how Colletti stating the obvious (if we can make ourselves better, we will) proves that “their stance is changing” on anything.

Kemp, batting .299-.346-.446 at age 23, possesses the tools to become a major star. A rival executive describes him as an “awfully, awfully intriguing talent,” one who only figures to get better. Questions persist about Kemp’s makeup and ability to make adjustments, but those are not unusual criticisms of a young player.

He certainly does possess the tools to become a major star, and is already proving so at the major league level. And while I’ve long though any issues about his makeup were overblown by the media, the end of this paragraph is dead on – he’s a young player. In the outfield, he’s already shown that experience has helped him immensely; why should we think the same won’t happen at the plate?

A trade of Kemp is not the Dodgers’ only alternative — the team also could pursue a less dramatic possibility, trading either first baseman James Loney or right fielder Andre Ethier to add more of a veteran presence to a lineup that ranks 11th in the National League in runs per game.

This is a little more reasonable. I don’t really want to see Loney moved after we waited so long to get him, but he’s been pretty underwhelming so far this year (97 OPS+). As for Ethier, he’s been a good, solid player who I think we’d all like to see manning the outfield for the next several years, but there’s no question he doesn’t have the ceiling that Kemp does.

The eventual returns of shortstop Rafael Furcal and even center fielder Andruw Jones should help the offense, but Furcal is expected to be out three more weeks, with the oft-injured Nomar Garciaparra replacing him at short. If the Dodgers ever get healthy — if — the addition of a proven slugger could be the difference in their quest to overtake the Diamondbacks in the NL West.

Well, Furcal, sure. But Jones? Really? Is anyone out there saying, “damn! if only we had Jones back, we’d be fine.” Anyone? Hey, I’m hoping that his time off and healthy knee will help him more than anyone, but what happens if/when he comes back and is still his same ineffective self?

Rosenthal then goes on to suggest deals for Adam Dunn, Magglio Ordonez, Matt Holliday, and Jason Bay. To which I say:

Dunn. I wouldn’t mind taking him for the next few months until he goes free agent, but not at the expense of Kemp.  
Ordonez. Magglio’s 34, missed two years to an experimental overseas knee surgery, and after getting $15m this year is in line for $18m next year and $33m more over 2010-11 with easily reached incentives. Uh, pass?
Holliday. Besides being a Boras client who’s free agent at the end of the year and being a divisional rival, he’s a massive Coors Field creation. Career home OPS, 1.088. Career road OPS, .780. Pass.
Bay. The only really interesting name on the list. Though he does turn 30 in September, he’s relatively cheap ($5.75m this year, $7.5m next year) and is absolutely killing the ball. I’d love to have him on the team. That said, I still wouldn’t move Kemp for him. But I would be willing to send Ethier and some other parts to Pittsburgh.

If the Dodgers are patient, Kemp might prove more productive than Bay, Ordonez or even Holliday. But this is a team that has won only one postseason game in the past 20 years. Colletti needs to win. Manager Joe Torre wants to win. And Matt Kemp is one powerful chip.

And herein lies the problem. One huge reason that the team hasn’t won in 20 years is that when the Dodgers have come up with talented young players, all too often they’ve been dealt off too soon (Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza, etc.) So far, Colletti’s done an admirable job of not selling off our talented young players, but it’s the line “Colletti needs to win” that really gets me. The reason he needs to win is not because the young players haven’t performed to expectations (though that may be true, in some cases). The reason Colletti is feeling the pressure is because of all of the high-priced veterans he’s signed that haven’t lived up to their billing – i.e., Jones, Jason Schmidt, Nomar Garciaparra, Juan Pierre, etc. To further blow the future of this team because his mistakes have him on the hot seat could set this team back years.

One more Dodger-related note from Rosenthal:

The Dodgers, before obtaining shortstop Angel Berroa, attempted to acquire White Sox infielder Juan Uribe in a deal for Esteban Loaiza, major-league sources say. The Dodgers offered to split the difference between Loaiza’s contract and Uribe’s, but the White Sox balked and signed Loaiza for the pro-rated minimum after the Dodgers released him — a move that also enabled them to retain Uribe as a trade chip.

I’m torn about this idea. On one hand, Uribe is awful – after putting up a pretty good 111 OPS+ with 23 HR in 2004, his numbers have cratered straight downhill every year since. On the other hand, even while awful he still gets double digit HR every year, and even more importantly his acquisition might have forestalled that of Angel Berroa’s.

Speaking of Nomar and the infield situation, this line from Tony Jackson blew me away and is really what I’d intended to write about today:

Nomar Garciaparra, meanwhile, is expected to start a rehab assignment possibly by the end of this week, and he is expected to play exclusively SS on that assignment — which means he’ll probably be the Dodgers’ everyday SS, the position where he became a star in the late 1990s, when he returns. Torre said Nomar won’t need the full 20 days.

As someone who lived in Boston 4 years ago when the “Nomar as SS” idea really started to flame out, this blows my mind. Hey, remember last year when he had to stay at 1B, keeping Loney in AAA, because he was “too fragile” to play 3B? SS ought to be a trip. I can’t even blame Torre for putting this out there, because really, what else is he going to do? With Furcal’s return constantly up in the air, Angel Berroa clearly not the answer, and Nomar unlikely to be a permanent solution, we’re really going to need to look for yet another shortstop. I’m definitely going to be looking around the SS market to see who we can come up. Like, tomorrow.

 - Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg