I'd like to thank all of those who wrote in support of Coco, Part I, and also those who disagreed with me or raised other issues about the deal. The sentiment was heartfelt, the concerns well-considered, and the points made considerately (only one guy called me an idiot, not bad).
I have an easy answer for this one: Chemistry simply is not quantifiable. There is no way to know whether the addition or loss of one person or another will affect a clubhouse or a team. There is no way to predict how the exact same team will act, interact and respond to challenges from one year to the next. This is not to say that chemistry doesn't exist, it most certainly does. It just means that it cannot be measured or predicted and therefore cannot be a determining factor in baseball decisions.
There are many examples of successful teams with a volatile star (this ring a Belle?). And there are just as many examples of players so surly they poison a clubhouse and have to be dispatched (good luck, Ken Macha, you're gonna need it). And there are good guys on bad teams (Mike Sweeney, for example), good guys on good teams (like Coco) and every variation in between. Sometimes bad guys, like A.J. Pierzynski, become good guys just by changing clubhouses.
Quite simply, there is no way to know. So most players, managers and GMs have no choice but to agree on the observable: winning creates chemistry. Count me as among those firmly in that camp.
KOO KOO FOR COCO?
Several readers suggested that I shortchanged Coco Crisp, or implied that this was a bad deal for Boston. I'm not necessarily saying that, but I do believe it was a far better trade for the Indians. There is no question that a player of Coco's ability has far greater value as a center fielder than a left fielder -- and he is valuable to Boston because that is where he'll play (although I am less certain about his ability as a leadoff man, as you will see).
It is also true, as one reader pointed out, that Coco's OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) has increased from .655 to .790 to .810 from 2003-05, and he is about to enter what most consider the prime years of a player's career. While we're chipping away, let me also acknowledge two errors on my part. One reader refuted my assertion that Jason Michaels would make more contact than Coco by pointing out that Michaels whiffed in 15.6 percent of his at-bats in 2005, while Coco struck out in only 13.5 percent. Another corrected the years of service for Coco, which is two-plus, meaning he has four more arbitration-eligible years until free agency, not two. Still, as he was kind enough to point out, the cost of a player of his accomplishment in arbitration will be millions more than what the Indians took on in the deal. Both of you are correct, and I thank you for the corrections.
All of the points stated above are valid and true and confirm that Coco is a very good player. But what is his upside? That's the big question. In researching outfielders with similar stats through age 25, I was able to come up with just one who experienced a significant jump in power -- Garret Anderson. At age 27 in 1999, he jumped from 15 to 21 home runs and then on to four more consecutive 28-plus home run seasons during his peak years. Could Coco become a Garrett Anderson-type player? He most certainly could, but league history is not littered with players who have made similar leaps in power.
If not power, then might Coco improve his plate discipline and become a more effective OBP/leadoff-type player similar to the man he is replacing, Johnny Damon? I would say that is less likely than him blossoming into a more powerful hitter. Damon was getting on base long before he reached Boston. At age 25 and 26 in Kansas City, he posted OBPs of .379 and .382, drawing 65 and 67 walks, respectively, in those seasons. The past two seasons, at age 25 and 26, Coco was at .344 and .345, with 36 and 44 walks. I don't see him becoming a Johnny Damon.
Might Coco blossom in the leadoff role in Boston, using his energy and speed to spark the potent Red Sox lineup? He might, but the numbers say that is not likely. Not impossible, but unlikely. First off, will they sit him against lefties? Because certainly his .305 OBP against left-handers isn't what you're looking for at the top of the lineup. Secondly, as a leadoff hitter in 2005, Coco posted a .327 OBP, almost 20 points worse than his overall OBP. Admittedly, that was a small sample of just 98 at-bats. So let's take a longer view, encompassing the three prior seasons, to get a statistically significant sample of 620 at-bats as a leadoff man. His OBP over those years as a leadoff hitter was .310. Yikes. Certainly I am not the only one who remembers how badly the Indians offense sputtered last year until Coco was removed from the leadoff spot and replaced with Grady Sizemore.
So who might Coco be in the next three to five years? I would suggest that he'll be Coco, maybe a bit better than the one Tribe fans know and love. He'll be a great presence in the clubhouse, a pesky player on the basepaths (although not an effective basestealer), play very good defense (excepting his arm), post an OBP somewhere right around .350 and hit 15-20 home runs for an OPS somewhere around .820-.830, which is well above league average (these days typically around .750). Playing home games at hitter-friendly Fenway Park no doubt will help, and most believe Coco is the type of player who will thrive in the bright lights of Boston.
That's a very good player; a contributor you'd love to have around. Among center fielders, that's pretty darn good, as you'll see. But that's not the player he would have been in Cleveland. Among left fielders, his numbers are not outstanding.
Among everyday left fielders in 2005, Coco's OPS ranked 13th. Coco's home run total, 16, ranked 20th, right below a fading and now 33-year-old Garrett Anderson. Among everyday AL leadoff hitters in 2005, his .327 OBP atop the lineup ranks 12th, two rungs from the bottom.
I say none of this to offend or disparage Coco, who, as I've said many times, is a very good player. I've heard nothing but praise for him as a player, a man and a teammate. But beyond all that, you are what your numbers say you are. His numbers, in relation to other left fielders, put him in the middle of the pack. Among center fielders, his OPS puts him fifth, right behind Grady Sizemore and above Johnny Damon, which is why Boston wanted him, and rightfully so.
He has value to the Red Sox that he didn't have for the Tribe, and Andy Marte held value for the Indians. The Sox were willing to part with Marte to get Crisp -- this is why the deal worked.
The key to success as a GM in any market, but especially a mid-market, is to be able to identify the key core players around whom you can build a championship club. These players must be at or near the top of all players at that position, or be irreplaceable on the open market due to lack of depth at the position leaguewide (like catcher or third base), a certain valuable skill set (power at SS, or stealing bases), or simply the cost of replacing him with a comparable player. For the Indians, among position players, this would include Grady Sizemore (top five center fielder, with power), Jhonny Peralta (power at SS), Travis Hafner (best DH), and Victor Martinez (catcher who can hit). The Indians have reason to believe that Marte (power at 3B) will join their number. That's another key piece to the championship puzzle.
In my opinion, for all the reasons just stated, Mark Shapiro's decision regarding Coco was an astute one. In Cleveland, because the team is sold on Sizemore in center, Coco was not going to be a core player as a left fielder. But he was and is a good enough player to bring great value in return -- this is exactly the kind of player you trade to add key chips to a championship team. Trade anything less and you don't get much in return, trade anything more and you risk making a regrettable mistake.
IMPACT ON 2006
The real sticking point for those who wrote in disagreement, however, was that they felt 2006 was compromised by this deal. After hanging in with this team for the last four years, then seeing it narrowly miss out on the postseason last year, they felt like this team had arrived and that 2006 could be the year. Perfectly understandable.
There is a broader discussion to be had that encompasses the losses of Kevin Millwood, Bob Howry and Scott Elarton, and the potential effect of those losses on 2006, but the issue at hand is whether this trade will impact 2006.
The Indians don't believe this trade jeopardizes their chances at the postseason in 2006, and here is why I believe they are right.
Mota over Riske: As mentioned in the first column, the Indians received a clear upgrade by acquiring Guillermo Mota and dealing David Riske. I found an interesting tidbit that further illustrates (in addition to home runs allowed) why Mota is an upgrade over Riske. Mota had 14 holds last year; Riske had none. That's right, zero. A player earns a "hold" when he enters the game in a save situation and departs without having surrendered the lead. Now, it's not the most insightful, accurate stat around, but zero? When a guy makes 58 appearances and not once notches a hold, well, that tells me the Tribe wanted no part of putting Riske in a risky (sorry, had to be done) situation. And for good reason, given his penchant for giving up the long ball. Now Mota wasn't exactly lights out the past one and a half seasons in Florida, but he was battling through some arm trouble, twice going to the DL last year. If healthy, he's a clear upgrade. If not, the Indians get cash to cover his contract and a player to be named later. I'll take it.
Shoppach over Bard: Let's face it, Bard was so bad at the plate last year that manager Eric Wedge seemingly couldn't muster up the courage to put him in the lineup. Victor Martinez started 139 games behind the plate last year, second only to Oakland's Jason Kendall. It only stands to reason that Martinez would benefit from more rest and a few less rigorous days at first base and could see an increase in his offensive numbers as a result. If Shoppach provides anything offensively on the days he plays, this simple swap will result in a boost for the Tribe's offense. We'll come back to that.
The case for Michaels: Once again, I'll make the case for Jason Michaels. Defensively, he is on par with Coco. Now defense is darn near impossible to rate, but for outfielders, range factor (successful chances -- putouts plus assists -- times nine divided by the number of defensive innings played at that position) is about the best tool we have. In essence, do you get to the ball and catch it or not? In left, Michaels posted a 2.33 to 2.23 for Coco, who tied for fifth among all regular left fielders. In center, Michaels posted a 2.79 to Coco's 2.37. Coco didn't play right (due to his arm, no doubt), but Michaels did and posted a 2.55 out there. Certainly this isn't the end-all and be-all of judging defensive ability, and it was a limited sample for Michaels, but the fact that Michaels has a good enough arm to play right and bested Coco in both left and center in range factor indicates that defensively, he is on par with Crisp.
At the plate, I think we've agreed that Michaels is better at getting on base while Coco has more power, the end result being that both posted an OPS last year of around .810. The big question is whether Michaels can sustain that over a full season as he has been, to date, a part-time player. I might add that he has been a part-timer not because he didn't perform or was often injured -- it had a little bit to do with two fellas named Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu.
Anyway, one indicator of a quality at-bat is the number of pitches a player sees per at bat. It stands to reason that quality hitters have quality at-bats. The thinking being that a high number of pitches per at-bat indicates selectivity at the plate and an ability to foul off pitches, resulting in more walks and better pitches to hit. In 2005, Michaels saw 4.11 pitches per at-bat, which would have ranked him 17th among all position players had he enough at-bats to qualify. Coco saw 3.48, which put him at No. 133 of 148 players that qualified. What does this all mean?
A few years back, a guy listed a lineup of the top players at each position in pitches per at-bat and then compared it to a lineup of the worst at each position. The result: On average, the player with the higher pitches per at-bat had an OPS 100 points higher than his counterpart. So I'm thinking that high pitches per at-bat at least loosely correlates to better results at the plate, and that the guy who sees a high number of pitches per at-bat will not significantly drop off due to the additional exposure that comes with more at-bats. I could be wrong, of course, but I believe the reasoning is sound.
As for power, in the last three seasons (513 at-bats), Michaels has hit 17 home runs. In 2005, Coco hit 16 in 594 at-bats. I'm no math whiz, but isn't that more HRs per at-bat for Michaels? Granted, he played in a home run haven over in Philly, and he'll be playing every day for the first time in his big league career, so let's factor in a significant 30-percent drop in power for Michaels, giving him only 12 home runs in 500 at-bats this year. And let's assume Coco continues adding pop and hits 22 in Boston. That's 10 home runs. Ten. Is this what you're losing sleep over?
What if Shoppach hits eight homers as the backup catcher, instead of the one Bard chipped in last year, and Victor pops an additional three because he's more rested? We're all even, folks, and that's considering home runs only. Over the course of 600 at-bats, the difference between a .380 OBP (Michaels) and a .345 OBP (Coco) is 21 baserunners. That's 21 more RBI opportunities for Jhonny Peralta, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez.
Now it seems like I'm judging Coco by one standard and Michaels by another. That's because I am. Nobody is saying Michaels is a "core" player, while those of you in disagreement are arguing that Coco is a core player. What I'm saying is that the dropoff from Coco to Michaels in left is not significant enough to jeopardize the Tribe's chances in 2006, and the Tribe got a potential core player, Andy Marte, who just might be the banger the Indians need to get over the hump, if not in '06, then in the years that follow. And they got a clear upgrade at backup catcher, and probably an upgrade in the 'pen, too.
One reader was concerned about the lack of depth in the outfield without Coco and wondered who would replace Grady should he be injured. My answer is that this deal does not change the outfield depth at all. As stated above, Michaels is Coco's equal defensively and would move to center field if Sizemore is injured, just as Coco would have if he were here.
You still may not be sold on Michaels and that is your right, but he is a capable defensive outfielder who started 62 games in center for the Phillies last year. An injury to Grady would open questions about left field, but that would have been the case even if this deal hadn't been made.
Another reader felt the deal was unnecessary because either Aaron Boone or Casey Blake could have manned third for the next few years. I would argue that Blake's below-average OPS of .746 and Boone's .677, at ages 31 and 32, respectively, is not the rack you want to hang your future on. Much like Crisp, Blake and Boone are both great guys, have great clubhouse influence and leadership skills. All of that has value. Last year, Boone was in his first year following major knee surgery and did, indeed, perk up in the second half. So there are reasons to be guardedly optimistic that he'll bounce back this year. But if he doesn't, the answer isn't moving Blake in from RF, creating an opening out there and putting Blake in an unfair position. The truth is, there was no answer. Now there is.
If Boone does not rebound, the Indians call up Marte, a player most believe is capable of posting a .750-plus OPS right now. In fact, he's never posted an OPS below .830 at any level of play. But there is no reason to rush him with Boone on hand, and the Indians would like Marte to cut down on his strikeouts, so he'll start the season in Buffalo. If Boone has a solid rebound year and Marte spends the year down at Buffalo, he'll only be that much more ready to play in 2007 and the Indians will have had another year to evaluate him, in their system, to assist them in deciding whether to pick up Boone's option for next season.