Saturday, January 3, 2009

DeRosa Completes 2009 Infield

The Tribe's 2009 infield appears to be set. Cleveland acquired uber-utilityman Mark DeRosa from the Cubs for Jeff Stevens and two other minor league pitchers on New Years Eve. Unlike Cleveland's three previous trades where a veteran player (Sabathia, Blake, Gutierrez) was dealt to bolster the farm system, the team did not have to give up any established Major Leaguers to fill their infield hole. Word on the street is that Chicago is trying to trim their payroll to bring in a free agent (probably Milton Bradley), although I'm surprised they gave up such a versatile player in DeRosa.

DeRosa is similar to Casey Blake in that he can play solid defense at several positions. He saw most of his starts at second base (80) and the corner outfield positions (53), with a few starts at third (10). He has split the majority of his career between second, third, and short over eleven Major League seasons. DeRosa received limited playing time in his first five seasons, but finally broke through at age 31 with Texas (coincidentally, he was in line for a new contract that year). Rather than level out after securing a new three-year contract, DeRosa developed into a valuable starter for Chicago and posted career highs in homeruns, OBP, and runs scored in 2008.

Mark DeRosa 2006-2008 Seasons

2006 TEX 31 572 13 .357 .456 108 14
2007 CHC 32 574 10 .371 .420 102 17
2008 CHC 33 593 21 .376 .481 118 23

Last season, DeRosa was tied for third among all starting ML second basemen in OBP (only Utley and Brian Roberts had a better mark). Perhaps even more impressive was that his .376 OBP tied for fifth among all starting ML third basemen as well (only Aramis Ramirez, David Wright, ARod, and Chipper Jone were better). He is projected to bat second in the order, a spot that has been a bit of a revolving door under Manager Eric Wedge (hopefully DeRosa can provide some stability here). I'm pretty optimistic that DeRosa will continue to post strong offensive numbers because his ability to reach base relies heavily on walks, rather than just a high batting average or pure speed. DeRosa had 147 hits in 574 PAs with a .371 OBP in 2007. He was able to boost an already outstanding OBP by five points in 2008, even though he had three fewer hits and 19 more PAs. His pitch selection at the plate has also improved for three straight seasons, with a 0.43, 0.62, and 0.65 BB/K ratio, respectively.

DeRosa's power numbers are expected to decline some due to the switch from Wrigley Field (1.163 HR park factor) to the Jake (.824 HR park factor), but 13-15 homers are certainly possible. With the exception of a freakish spike in homers (21 in 2008, career high of 13 at the notorious Rangers Ballpark in 2006), DeRosa's numbers don't show any of the typical warning signs of an imminent decline. His linedrive percentage has remained steady for the past three seasons (22.3% average) and his 2008 BABIP of .325 was actually very close to his career mark of .320, so it's not like DeRosa was performing any miracles last year.

If Choo ends up as the starting right fielder, DeRosa is a perfect fit to platoon there against left handed pitching. Choo has a career .913 OPS against righties, but has just a .703 OPS against lefties. DeRosa owns an .847 career OPS against lefties. Carroll tends to have more success against left handers as well, making him the logical choice to man third with DeRosa in the outfield. DeRosa also finally gives Cleveland a prototypical second-slot batter with an excellent OBP to follow Sizemore in the lineup. DeRosa's matured patience at the plate, above-average baserunning, versatility on defense, and playoff experience provides the Tribe with a significant upgrade over Jamey Carroll, Andy Marte, and Josh Barfield.

Now, the first thing I thought of when we picked up Mark DeRosa was: didn't we just trade this guy? And what happened to his beard? Personally, I think DeRosa is a better overall player than Blake and I really like this trade. Some fans may be wondering why Cleveland traded away three pitching prospects for a player comparable to Blake though. First, Cleveland got back a ridiculous amount of value for Blake. Twenty-two year old catcher Carlos Santana is an absolute stud in the minors and is the heir apparent to Victor Martinez behind the plate right now (assuming Victor signs beyond 2010 and moves to first base, that would be awesome). As if that wasn't enough for Blake's expiring contract, the Dodgers threw in a young, cheap, future closer candidate in Jon Meloan.

Second, the exclusive negotiating period Cleveland would have had by keeping Blake in a lost season wouldn't have mattered one bit, since the team was never interested in keeping him long-term anyway. I was happy to see Blake get a good contract (he's actually been an above average player for the past five seasons, so he deserved some job security), but he just wasn't a good fit for Cleveland at this point.

Blake ended up with a three year, guaranteed contract worth $17 million (he'll be making $5 mil next year). It's not a stretch to say Cleveland had Blake at his peak and the Dodgers signed the 34 year-old with his most productive seasons behind him. Projected performance aside, there wouldn't have been room for Blake on the roster beyond the 2009 season. Luis Valbuena is a strong candidate to take over second base in a year, which would move Peralta to third. Top third base prospect Wes Hodges is also on track to make an impact by 2010 as well. So if Cleveland had met Blake's demands to fill an urgent need for 2009, they would have basically been stuck with a very expensive bench player once the next wave of young (and more talented) players emerged.

DeRosa is a much better fit for Cleveland because he only has one year left on his contract and is actually half a million cheaper than Blake was in 2008. Cleveland needed to bring in a veteran infielder one way or another so they didn't have to gamble on a rookie infielder or mess with yet another replacement level platoon. Plus, if DeRosa plays well enough to become a Type-A free agent when he walks at the end of the season, Cleveland could quickly recoup the loss of one of the Single-A prospects they traded.

Just for fun, let's compare Cleveland's former third baseman to recent acquisition DeRosa. I added Jamey Carroll to show what the team would have had to settle for if they hadn't of picked up DeRosa, since a platoon of Valbuena and Carroll was really the only viable infield option available in-house (I don't have much faith in Barfield).

Indians Infielders 2008 Stats
Player Age PA HR OBP SLG OPS+ WS 2009 Salary
C. Blake 34 601 21 .345 .463 110 18 $5 mil
M. DeRosa 33 593 21 .376 .481 118 23 $5.5 mil
J. Carroll 34 402 1 .355 .346 85 10 $2.5 mil

DeRosa was significantly better than Blake in every category last season, while Carroll doesn't stand up to either player. In fact, DeRosa's OBP pretty much crushes Blake's over the last two seasons (especially 2008). Blake also trails in OPS+ by eight points and falls just short of DeRosa's average performance the past three seasons (108.3 vs. 109.3 OPS+). Perhaps the best indicator of the type of upgrade Cleveland made at third is the difference in win shares. DeRosa was much more valuable to his team last season, with a five point advantage over Blake in total win shares. I think the team would be more than happy to pay that extra half a million to DeRosa if he can contribute a couple extra wins for 2009.

I don't feel like Cleveland had to give up much to acquire DeRosa from the Cubs. Jeff Stevens is the only player ready to make a contribution at the Major League level, but his role with the club was uncertain in such a crowded bullpen. Meanwhile, the 19 year-old Archer and 23 year-old Gaub seem to have a lot of potential, but are both still developing as players. The way I see it, Cleveland traded away an extra, unproven bullpen arm and two potential relievers who are still multiple years away from contributing (if they ever make it to the Majors) for a low-risk, relatively inexpensive veteran infielder that they absolutely needed.

For more information on the three pitching prospects above, I would highly recommend Tony Lastoria's blog. I seriously wouldn't have had any idea who Archer or Gaub were without Lastoria's scouting reports, so check it out.

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