Instant Gratification or Long-term Success?
By J. “Angelsjunky” Northrop
I’m going to pause with my ongoing series on The Angels: Past, Present and Future to offer a perspective on the currently most pressing issue of Angeldom: Miguel Cabrera and more so, what this means to the Angels, now and in the future.
I will gladly admit my bias in terms of baseball philosophy: Primary emphasis on player development, minimal free agency and trades–only to fill specific needs or weaknesses but almost never at the expense of the future. It just seems obvious to me: If you have to pick, choose “the foreset” over the “tree”, the instant gratification of the big bat with big numbers. Is it not better to have a healthy and full farm system to draw from rather than one depleted through trades for high-priced, aging players? Are not the franchises that are the most successful over long periods of time the ones that focus on player development? And have we not seen the downfall of franchises when they opt to emphasize free agency at the expense of the farm?
Now it is not so black and white. A team can emphasize player development as primary while still occasionally signing a big name free agent and/or making a blockbuster trade. And of course ever so often a free agent is worth the multi-year huge contract; signing Vladimir Guerrero a few years ago is a case in point, a marquee player in his prime (28) to below-market value because of a supposedly bad back. Miguel Cabrera is also a very special case: He is not a 30-something at the tail-end of his best years, but a 24-year old superstar that should just be getting going. To put it another way, Miguel Cabrera is no Mo Vaughn. At an age when most players are just breaking into the big leagues, his numbers so far are only equaled by Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.
How much should the Angels give up for a player like Miguel Cabrera? The deal that seems to be required is Howie Kendrick, Nick Adenhart, Reggie Willits, and Jeff Mathis, or some variation of similar packaging. That is, a young second baseman on the verge of stardom who could compete for a batting title as soon as next year; a top pitching prospect who could be anything from a #1 to #3 starter; a natural lead-off hitter capable of a yearly .370 OBP and 40 sb; and a former top catching prospect who should still be at least a good platoon player, perhaps even eventually an above average starting catcher. Is Cabrera worth this high cost?
Just how good is Cabrera?
Much is made of the fact that Cabrera is only 24—2008 will be his age 25 year (that is, he will turn 25 before July 1st). He has already played 720 games, compiling a line of .313/.388/.542 and a career 143 Adjusted OPS+ (Guerrero’s is 148). His individual season OPS+ have been 106, 130, 151, 159, 150. To give a frame of reference, an OPS+ of 150 is MVP-calibre–that means that Cabrera’s last three seasons have been of MVP quality. As for his defense, he is very average: he has a lifetime fielding percentage of .954, which is also the NL average for 3B over his career. His range factor per nine innings is slightly below average: 2.52 to 2.70.
Despite these impressive numbers—more so because they have been accomplished before he has seen his 25th birthday—there are two relatively minor quibbles to take note of. His last three seasons have been virtually identical. Impressive, yes, but still no sign of further improvement. This does not mean that he will not have another career spike, but it is also possible that what we’ve seen is what we’ll get. Secondly, while his career defense has been average—both at 3B and in LF—his 2007 defense, 154 games at 3B, was markedly below average: a .941 FP (.954 league average) and a rf/9 of 2.51 compared to 2.68.
But let’s not quibble too much: the young man is a terrific hitter and even if he doesn’t improve will remain one of the ten or so best hitters in the game. Any team would love to have a player whose three most similar players through age 24–according to Baseball Reference’s player Similarity Scores–are Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr, and Frank Robinson, three of the hundred or so best players to ever play the game.
How much is Miguel Cabrera worth?
In one of my blog entries I gave a system for rating players in tiers:
- 1st tier: Superstar – Among the best players in the game (e.g. A-Rod, Johan Santana, David Ortiz).
- 2t: Star – Among the best players in the league at their position; all-star (e.g. Victor Martinez, Chase Utley, John Lackey).
- 3t: Borderline Star – Very good player with occasional star-calibre season; possible all-star (e.g. Mike Lowell, Kelvim Escobar, Steve Finley in his prime).
- 4t: Quality Regular – An average or above average player (e.g. Bengie Molina, Mark Grudzielanek, Adam Kennedy as an Angel).
- 5t: Mediocre Regular/Quality Bench – (e.g. Darin Erstad as a first baseman).
- 6t: Poor Regular/Decent Bench – (e.g. Jose Molina).
- 7t: Scrub – How did he get to the major leagues? (e.g. Erick Aybar in 2007).
Furthermore, I offered a tentative valuation whereby, as with chess pieces, you can assign a point-value for each tier. From 7t to 1t: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 15. These numbers are, of course, arbitrary—but allow me to play with them a bit.
Now Miguel Cabrera is, and should remain, a 1t player–a true superstar. I am tempted to call him “just” a 2t star based upon his excellent hitting but merely mediocre defense, but his age and potential puts him up a notch. His 143 Adjusted OPS+ is only surpassed by nine active players, and equal to Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, and Chipper Jones.
What about the four Angels mentioned above? It is hard to say, but potential-wise there is a range:
- Kendrick – 3t to 2t
- Adenhart – 4t to 2t
- Willits – 4t
- Mathis – 5t to 4t
If we use the point-system, Cabrera is worth 15; Kendrick 7-10, Adenhart 5-10, Willits 5, and Mathis 3-5. So the Angels package is worth between 20-30 points–up to twice Cabrera’s value…if they fulfill their potential.
Is this really an accurate assessment of comparative worth? Not really, but as an intellectual exercise it illustrates some important issues. In fantasy baseball it is usually a good idea to trade two good players for one great one as the latter are far more difficult to come by than the former, and you can always pick up a decent player having a good year on the waiver wire. But that is fantasy baseball which A) includes an artificially bloated waiver wire, and B) Is usually played for just one season.
The second point (B) is the important one. The Angels probably have enough talent that they could trade for both Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana. Think about that for a moment…
OK. Both are far from the quintessential aging free agent star; Cabrera will be 25 next year, Santana 29. Both are among the ten most valuable commodities in all of baseball. These are the packages that the Angels could offer for them, and probably be successful:
- Cabrera: Howie Kendrick, Nick Adenhart, Reggie Willits, Jeff Mathis.
- Santana: Jered Weaver, Brandon Wood, Ervin Santana, and maybe another decent prospect.
That is a lot of young talent. Certainly the Angels would (finally) be on a level with the Red Sox, and for years to come. But how many years? Around 2010 some of the regulars would be in serious decline, with little money or young talent to replace them. Not to mention that signing Santana and Cabrera long-term, in addition to Guerrero and Torii Hunter, would lock up an enormous amount of money in just four players: over $80 million a year just for those four. Focusing such a large portion of a franchise’s resources on a few players is enormously risky.
I am not suggesting that there is an easy answer here, for certainly a team featuring three bonafide superstars in Guerrero, Cabrera, and Santana would be something to watch–and considering that they are all Latino would only drive revenue through the roof for the Los Angeles metro area baseball club. We also have to remember that Arte Moreno, from everything that I can tell, is a business man first, a baseball man second. That means that the bottom line for him is profit. And so far he has done quite a job, with a team valued at almost three times what he paid for it (I forget the source for that–but I read it somewhere on the internet ;)). He has also said, on more than one occasion, that he wants to make this team successful for the long-term, which is certainly something to be hopeful about.
But as a baseball fan, and multi-decade Angels fan, I want to see the emphasis on the farm system, on the players that I, that we, have followed up through the organization for the last few years, since around the time that the Golden Era of Angels baseball began in 2002. I want to see Howie Kendrick win multiple batting titles, as if we were getting Rod Carew again but this time in the first half of his career, not the second. I want to see if Nick Adenhart can receive the torch from John Lackey, who received it from Chuck Finley, as the team’s homegrown ace. I want to see if Brandon Wood can fulfill the promise he showed in his historic 2005 season. I want to see if Jered Weaver becomes the Angels answer to Tom Glavine. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see Miguel Cabrera and/or Johan Santana wearing Angels uniforms. I would love to see our team march into Fenway without the characteristic feeling of dread that we all feel come October. And I’d love to win the World Series again. But I’d rather do it with our own players. Someone it just seems more…meaningful.
I want to see our own young players remain Angels, even if it makes a World Series win less of a seeming sure thing. I want to see if the Angels, our Angels–not imports, no matter how flashy–can win it all.
The Angels are at a pivotal point in their organizational history. Five years after their first—and very surprising—World Series championship, we have seen three playoff appearances in four years, including two first round sweeps to the Red Sox. Everyone can agree that the Angels have been just a little shy of greatness—a very good team, but not quite good enough. In addition to Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera or Johan Santana would likely change that—Cabrera and Santana would almost certainly change that, vaulting the Angels to equal footing with the Red Sox. But so too might the natural maturation of Howie Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Casey Kotchman, Jered Weaver, Nick Adenhart, and the rest of our young players. As I’ve said, this is not a clear-cut, black and white decision. It is not either/or–for certainly the Angels can trade for a Cabrera or Santana and still retain much of their core youth. But let us hope that they don’t go overboard and lose sight of the long-term for instant gratification. Let us hope…