Kotsay for Hernandez

Hadn’t planned to be away from the blog for so long this time. I started to scratch something together the other day when the Giants went out and picked up A.J. Pierzynski, because I figured that move might impact the Padres. And it did.

When last we met, I mentioned that I expected Kevin Towers to grab one of Pierzynski or Ramon Hernandez to be his catcher in 2004. When the Twins-Giants trade went down, I suspected it was only a matter of time before the rumored Hernandez for Mark Kotsay deal would happen.

Now that it (apparently) has happened, what do I think of the trade? That’s a complex question. I’ll start by saying that I think the Twins did a terrific job of getting value of Pierzynski and that I wouldn’t have wanted to see my team give up a package like the Giants did to acquire a good but not great catcher. Word is the Twins wanted Jake Peavy from the Padres. Viewed in that context, I love the deal with Oakland. Kotsay is a good player if healthy (a big if) but he’s not a guy, like Peavy, around whom you build a ballclub.

This trade interests me for several reasons:

  1. It was made between two “small-market” teams with GMs who know each other very well and who respect one another.
  2. Both teams filled enormous holes in their lineups without leaving themselves exceptionally weak anywhere and without significantly impacting their payroll.
  3. And probably the most fascinating aspect to me is that this is a deal involving three players who are essentially in their primes. All three were born within six months of one another, all have shown flashes of potential, all are likely about as good as they’re going to get, and yet it’s quite possible that at least one of them still has a “breakout year” or three in them.

I’ve been a big fan of Kotsay since he arrived in San Diego (although not as big a fan as my wife, who called me at work yesterday to ask if the rumors were true) and often thought he could have a career path similar to that of Steve Finley, who turned out to be a much more productive player in his 30s than he was in his 20s. Back injuries have a way of changing things, though, and I’m no longer as certain about Kotsay as I once was. That said, I think he’s a pretty good bet at least to return to pre-2003 levels (.290/.360/.450).

I am sorry to see Kotsay go. He’s been a class act all the way, and when healthy he’s produced. He gets on base a little, drives the ball into the gaps, plays a solid center field, and generally carries himself on the field and off it the way you’d like to see all your players do. He also is a pretty heady baserunner, which the A’s should appreciate.

As for the guys coming to San Diego, I don’t know a lot about either of them. Hernandez has the reputation of being a decent defender and last year finally showed something with the stick. Was this a one-year aberration, or is he just now coming into his own at the plate? Catchers often develop their hitting skills relatively late, and Hernandez is entering what should be his prime, so there’s cause for cautious optimism here.

If Hernandez can come anywhere near his .273/.331/.458 performance of a year ago and catch 135+ games (as he has each of the past four seasons), this will work out real well for the Pads. If he moves back toward his career numbers of .253/.322/.400 then that’s not as exciting, unless of course you’re judging him against recent Padre catchers.

Hernandez has some pop, in the same sense that Kotsay does. Not a lot of homers, but a fair amount of doubles. He doesn’t walk a ton, which couldn’t have helped his cause in Oakland, where that particular skill is valued more than almost anyplace else. Looking at Hernandez’ age 27 comps at B-R, I’m struck by the names of three catchers that I remember watching play: Charles Johnson, Joe Oliver, and Jody Davis.

Johnson walked and struck out a lot more than Hernandez does. At age 28, coming off a .251/.340/.413 season, Johnson hit a barely believable .304/.379/.582. Oliver’s numbers are pretty close to Hernandez’ through their first four years in the big leagues, but Oliver never spiked like Hernandez did in 2003; Oliver missed all but six games of his age 28 season. Davis was a better hitter than Hernandez at this point in their respective careers, but as it turned out, the former Cubs’ backstop was already on the downswing by age 27. The following year saw him hit .232/.300/.400 following a .256/.315/.421 showing the previous season.

A leap of Johnsonian proportions seems pretty far-fetched for 2004. A leveling off or slight decline seems more likely, given his age, his demanding defensive position, and the fact that he’ll be working with a new pitching staff. I’m looking for something like .260/.320/.430. Not great, but a fair shake better than what’s been coming out of that position since at least the first half of 2001, when Ben Davis looked like he’d arrived.

Which leaves us with Terrence Long. I admit, I have no idea what to make of this guy. He had two decent years in Oakland, followed by two substandard years. Check this out:

 .164 .333 .558  .069
 .129 .298 .505  .076
 .150 .369 .500  .082
 .140 .319 .463  .064

Is it immediately obvious from this which were the decent years and which the substandard? Those actually look pretty consistent to me. Now look at this:


Long is pretty much your textbook version of the guy who needs to hit .280 to be of value. But what is the difference between a .240 hitter and a .280 hitter? Over 500 at-bats, the former collects 120 hits while the latter has 140. Twenty hits in a season. A hit a week.

That’s an oversimplification, but I think you get the point. A few more hits fall and Long is a marginally useful hitter. I’m not saying it’s great or even very good, but with a few breaks, the guy isn’t a total black hole. By most accounts Long is a terrific athlete whose baseball skills aren’t on par with his ability. He’s also a guy (like Hernandez) who didn’t fit in real well with Oakland’s system and had pretty clearly worn out his welcome there.

Yeah, Long is a Padre because Kotsay is more expensive than Hernandez. But who’s to say a change of scenery won’t do him some good? And before you flame me on that one, I’m not saying he’ll totally bust out and become Bobby Abreu. But he has had at least some success in the past. He has gaps power and is moving to a park that is expected to favor left-handed hitters. Is it out of the question to think that he might return to pre-2002 form and hit .280/.330/.430? Or that he might even be one of those guys whose light suddenly turns on and he hits maybe a little better than that?

I’m really trying to temper my enthusiasm as much as possible with Long, because the fact is his record is very spotty. Make no mistake, he’s a significant downgrade from Kotsay offensively (and apparently his defense isn’t all that hot either) and there’s a decent chance he’ll be riding pine before too long. There probably isn’t anything here that we haven’t already seen out of Long. But there might be.

Of course, that in itself is a double-edged sword. His athletic ability and "potential" might get him more looks than he deserves (see Kingsale, Eugene). It also might keep Xavier Nady from playing every day. Then again, who knows what the outfield is going to look like in 2004. Right now it’s Ryan Klesko in left, Brian Giles in center, and some combination of Nady and Long in right. From a defensive standpoint, I’m not at all convinced that’s going to work.

Pure, unadulterated speculation on my part: Nevin or Nady moves in a package for a legit center fielder. Don’t ask me for names, I haven’t read all the tea leaves yet. I just keep looking at this outfield configuration and can’t shake the feeling that something must change. Again, I’m not working on anything other than my own intuition, but I don’t see this happening come Opening Day.

My overall feeling with the trade is that it should help both clubs, although not in a way that promises to excite fans a great deal. The Padres go from a black hole behind the plate to slightly above average at that position, while the A’s take baby steps in attempting to upgrade their outfield. If Kotsay is fully healthy and returns to pre-2003 levels, then Oakland should be very happy. If Hernandez repeats what he did last year and proves it wasn’t a fluke, then the Pads will be happy.

Long is the wildcard. And there is always the possibility (probability?) of further maneuvering. One thing is for sure: If the outfield remains as it is, the Padre staff would do well to pick Brian Lawrence’s brain on the art of inducing an obscene number of ground balls.

What Others Are Saying about the Trade

Tagged as: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.