2194 Words on Andre Ethier, Michael Bourn, and Trade Value

ethier_vs_bravesOn New Year’s Eve, Jason Churchill of Prospect Insider caused a bit of a stir when he tweeted ”hearing Mariners have progressed in trade talks for a hitter. Indications it’s Ethier. Multiple players involved.

As you can imagine, that got everyone all excited, because Andre Ethier is a big name, and any time any sort of half-credible rumor comes up involving a fan favorite, people are going to get excited. I say “half-credible” not to impugn Churchill, though he’s not really known for breaking trade news, but because this news isn’t necessarily ”news”. Despite the insistence of some national writers that the Dodgers haven’t been involved in trade discussions for Ethier, if you’ve been paying attention, I’ve been saying here for weeks that they have — specifically with Seattle & Texas. In my book, that gives Churchill’s report somewhat more credence, though it’s difficult to know if negotiations really have moved forward or if he’s just getting older info out now.

Either way, it’s clear that the Dodgers and Mariners have been discussing Ethier, and whether it happens or not, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve been doing so. The Dodgers considered signing Josh Hamilton and trading Ethier. They considered signing Nick Swisher and trading Ethier. Now, it’s Michael Bourn, who is the only outfield option left that would make moving Ethier even a possibility.

Whether signing Bourn and trading Ethier makes sense depends on two things; first, your opinion of Bourn’s value as opposed to Ethier’s, since they’re very different players, and second, what sort of return the Dodgers could expect in exchange for Ethier.

It’s that second part which is going to be more difficult to parse, because there’s an absolutely enormous gap between the value of Andre Ethier as seen by the common Dodger fan, and as seen of Ethier within the industry. The Dodger fan sees one of the longest-tenured players, a guy with more than his share of huge hits for this team, a “Gold Glover”, a homegrown talent — well, sort of — who is one of the most popular players in uniform, and they think “superstar”. But that’s not at all how his trade value is going to be seen by other teams. While he’s obviously a talented hitter who crushes righty pitching, he’s also a guy on the wrong side of 30 who offers limited defensive value, is unplayable against lefties, has continued injury concerns and occasional battles with management, and a huge contract that was panned by almost everyone outside of Los Angeles.

That’s the guy who the Dodgers are offering in trade, and that means that expectations should be limited. That means that no, he’s not bringing back Felix Hernandez — not that he’s available anyway — and he’s almost certainly not going to bring back Kyle Seager, who would be a great solution to the Dodger infield problem. (That’s less about Ethier than it is about the fact that the entire point of this for Seattle is to fix their atrocious offense, and moving one of their few decent hitters would be counterproductive. Free agents won’t take Seattle’s money to hit in that park, so they’re forced to try to trade for one.)

In one of Churchill’s many tweets on the subject, he opines that he heard the discussed deal would have four players coming from Seattle and two headed north from the Dodgers, and that aligns exactly with what I’ve heard. Unsurprisingly, Ethier would be joined by an excess starting pitcher — Chris Capuano or Aaron Harang —  but the identity of the Seattle foursome changes each time I hear about it. The two pieces of it that rarely change are lefty Charlie Furbush, 27 in April, who was one of the best lefty relievers in the American League last year in his first year in the bullpen (2.81 FIP, 53/16 K/BB in 46.1 IP) and one of the several impressive Seattle starting pitching prospects. No, that wouldn’t be Taijuan Walker, who is probably one of the five best pitching prospects in all of the minors, but more likely James Paxton or Danny Hultzen, who are thought of in the #3-5 range of Seattle prospects.

The other two seem to be in flux. Just last week at FanGraphs, I wrote about how the additions of Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, & Kendrys Morales this winter make for a huge 1B/LF/DH logjam in Seattle, given that Justin Smoak, Casper Wells, Mike Carp, Eric Thames, Michael Saunders, & Jesus Montero are all already in the picture. They’re going to need to alleviate that mess somehow, especially if they’re adding another outfielder in Ethier, and so it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Wells (a righty outfielder with pop who is a good defender at all three positions) or Carp (who is out of options and doesn’t hit righty, but who can play first base and corner outfield) find their way into the deal. The last player could be another, lesser, prospect, or it could be that the Dodgers do want to add a fantastic defensive shortstop (if a total black hole at the plate) in Brendan Ryan, because you know I didn’t just write about him last week out of the blue.

If a pitching prospect, lefty reliever, bench player, and a zero-bat shortstop — I should point out here we have no idea how much money the Dodgers might send along to cover Ethier as well, which would be a huge component of any deal — doesn’t exactly sound like enough of a return for Ethier, you wouldn’t be alone in that opinion; the casual fan, who likely wouldn’t have heard of Paxton/Hultzen and focuses only on Ryan’s batting average, would howl.

But if such a deal does happen — and again, we’re indulging in speculation and somewhat-informed opinion here, because we don’t know what a final deal would look like or if it even will happen at all — it’d be important to remember that it couldn’t be looked upon solely as “Ethier traded to Seattle”; since the Dodgers would almost certainly only pull the trigger if Bourn was committed to coming, it would have to be seen as part of a larger move in which this kind of complicated overall math would need to be completed:

Ethier OR Bourn plus [Seattle trade acquisitions] plus [moving Matt Kemp to RF] minus [first round pick]

An added complication here is not knowing what kind of contract Bourn & Scott Boras would command, because while his market is very limited right now, he’s also almost certainly going to want more per year than B.J. Upton got in his 5/$75m contract with Atlanta. If the Dodgers are going to be throwing in some money for Ethier as well.. well, I don’t think anyone wants to be putting $100m or more between Bourn & Ethier to make this happen. Then again, the Dodgers don’t seem to care about money these days and the figure here is impossible to speculate on with any accuracy, so we’ll set that aside for the moment.

The first round pick falls into similar territory for me. While I obviously prefer to hang onto those valuable picks whenever possible, I’m not against losing it as a strict rule. I hated the idea when the Dodgers kicked around bringing back Hiroki Kuroda because I felt it was foolish to do so for one year of a 38-year-old pitcher; it’s different for several years of a valuable outfielder, and especially so if the value of the prospects coming from Seattle help replenish the system nearly as much anyway. It would be portrayed as the Dodgers “losing a pick to sign Bourn,” but it really could be seen as being part of the overall transaction here.

So that leaves us with the idea of what is better for the Dodgers in 2013 and beyond: Ethier in right field, or Bourn in center, Kemp in right, and holes filled by the Seattle additions. And I have to say, it’s a lot more difficult than I anticipated to choose between those two scenarios.

The appeal to keeping Ethier is obvious. He might only do one thing well, but he’s really, really good at it: crushing righty pitching. Copying myself from a few weeks, ago, “even last year, when he struggled for months at a time, he had the 7th highest wOBA against righties of any other player, better than Josh Hamilton or Giancarlo Stanton or Joe Mauer or Chase Headley. Over the last three years, he’s 9th; over the last five, he’s 7th.” That’s not just good, it’s elite, and considering that there’s more righty pitching than lefty pitching in baseball, there’s considerable value to that. As I’ve begged for over the last four years or so, if you just accept he’ll never hit lefties and find him a decent platoon partner, his overall line will make him look like a star and we’ll all be happy to sit back and watch him rake. That’s the kind of player that’s very difficult to give up.

But whether the team has been unable or unwilling to do so, that platoon partner has never materialized, and it’s becoming a problem that his great production against righties won’t mask. Word is out, and Ethier saw far more lefty pitching than ever last season, nearly 40% of his plate appearances. That’s not a number which is likely to decrease without the Dodgers actively keeping him away from southpaws, and after more than 1,100 career plate appearances against lefties, any hope of him learning to hit them should be long gone.

If you’re choosing Bourn, you’re going with a player who is unquestionably inferior to Ethier with the bat. Bourn’s .326 wOBA last year was just a touch off his career high of .330; Ethier’s worst season, back in 2007, was .341. Ethier gets on base more and provides considerably more power; no one is going to argue that.

Of course, Bourn brings value in ways that Ethier can’t even consider. He’s stolen at least 41 bases in each of the last five years, twice topping 60; Ethier has 21 in his entire career. By FanGraphs‘ “Ultimate Base Running” stat, he was 10th in MLB in 2012 and 2nd over the last three seasons. In the field, most would agree that Ethier has improved from “borderline atrocious” to “acceptable” over the last two seasons, but Bourn is universally acclaimed as a very good defender at a much more valuable position. That’s why, despite Ethier’s advantage at the plate, Bourn has been ranked as a more valuable player by fWAR in each of the last four seasons, and of course cumulatively over that time (20.1 to 11.1). He’s also durable, having visited the disabled list only once — and not since 2007 — unlike Ethier, who has been sidelined with various maladies in each of the last three seasons.

You also have to take in account the effect on the rest of the roster. With Ethier, Kemp remains in center and the leadoff spot in the order is a question with no right answer, potentially dooming us to more time with Mark Ellis gritting out grounders to second. With Bourn, Kemp moves to right field, vastly improving the defense at two outfield spots and providing a perfect solution for leadoff. In that situation, you’re maybe looking at a top five of 1-Bourn / 2-Carl Crawford / 3-Kemp / 4-Adrian Gonzalez / 5-Hanley Ramirez, which is pretty appealing. (Also if you care about such things, Bourn & Crawford are longtime friends who played on the same Little League team in Houston, which is a nice bonus.) Plus, you’ve added whatever the return for Ethier would be, which potentially strengthens the bench, defense, bullpen, and farm system.

If it sounds like I’ve completely talked myself into wanting to do this, that’s not quite true, though I admit it’s more and more intriguing the more I think about it. The single most valuable skill in all of these permutations is Ethier’s productivity against righty pitching, and you never want to be the side that’s giving away the most valuable asset. There’s also the concern that as a speed player, Bourn — eight months Ethier’s junior — is more susceptible to aging in his 30s, which is valid, though I’ll admit that doesn’t bother me as much here because we’ve seen few signs of it yet and it’s not like Ethier isn’t also a threat to decline to the point where he should only be a 1B/DH, positions the Dodgers can’t offer — especially with his injury history.

I do think that we’ll have a resolution on this one way or another relatively quickly, because Boras needs to find Bourn a home and I can’t imagine Ethier enjoys seeing his name constantly out there in trade rumors. If it does happen, the specifics that we can’t yet know — who Seattle would send in return, and how the money plays out between Bourn’s contract and covering Ethier — would of course make or break the deal. For now, I can say this: the rumors surrounding Ethier are real, and there’s a very good argument to be made that moving him and signing Bourn improve the club both now and in the future, just as they were valid lines of reasoning when Swisher & Hamilton were the potential targets.