Five days have passed since Frank Wren brought Adam LaRoche back to the Braves and it seems like everyone has shared their evaluation of the deal (mostly negative and/or confused), so here goes another one. My post doesn’t focus on LaRoche’s value down the stretch or the absence of Kotchman for the two seasons after LaRoche presumably leaves Atlanta via free agency. What I am looking at is the value of not having Kotchman (or LaRoche for that matter) for those two years. The scenario I’m using is dependent on a couple things (that very well may not happen), so take this as more of a what-if than breaking down what is decidedly going to happen.
Casey Kotchman was always rather unimportant in the grand scheme of things; that much should come as no surprise. He was merely an affordable and productive enough way to bridge the gap to Freddie Freeman and a lot of my opinion on the matter is based upon our future first baseman’s ETA. The general consensus (at least from the more vocal ones at Talking Chop) seems to be a call-up at some point during the 2010 season. I think anything other than a cup of coffee in September is a pretty unreasonable expectation though. He’s been sort of a package deal with Jason Heyward since the two were drafted in 2007 with both being promoted at essentially the same rate, but a major league promotion will almost certainly not be the same. We’re already talking about Heyward being called up as a 20-year old – something that is incredibly rare -- but he’s polished enough and at a physical maturity level where it would probably work. Freeman on the other hand seems to lack the polish (as evidenced by his .725 OPS in AA) or physical maturity to be a viable option as a major league regular before 2011, at which point he’ll be 21 (still very young).
Even if you don’t agree with my Freddie Freeman timeline, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll disagree with the entire post. Financially, this deal makes sense for the Braves even if he’s ready at some point next season and makes more sense if he takes longer than that. Going into this season, Kotchman’s contract status was a major plus since he’s making a little under $3 million, but that price will go up. It was fine to get mediocre production for that amount, but if he makes $4.5 million and $6.5 million (very reasonably estimates) over his final two arbitration-eligible years, would he still have been worth it? To answer that question, we have to account for what a replacement could do and the one player I’ll focus on is Martin Prado.
I know some of you are already cracking your knuckles in preparation of some response about how Prado’s bat doesn’t play at first, but before you write, does Kotchman’s bat play there? If we’re basing next year’s first base production off what we would have gotten from Kotchman, then Prado certainly is an upgrade in terms of value. He’s a better hitter (72-point higher career OPS), has played fantastic defense in his relatively small amount of time at first, and will make about 1/9th Kotchman’s salary this year and around 1/13th his salary in 2010.
The obvious hole in my logic at this point is who will play second and that’s a legitimate concern that could completely destroy this whole scenario if one Kelly Johnson doesn’t hit. I’m optimistic based off of past results and how much less pathetic he’s looked at the plate since his DL stint that KJ is capable of returning as a starting-caliber second baseman, but nevertheless it is a concern. If Kelly (or some combination of Infante and him) can hold down the fort at second, that also frees up possible at-bats and playing time for Brooks Conrad, who undoubtedly impressed Bobby and the rest of the coaching staff in his short time with the big club this season.
The true bottom line in this post is that utilizing Martin Prado at first would not only upgrade the position, but would save a significant amount of money (up to $10 million over the next two seasons) compared to what the team would have been paying for Kotchman and that’s money that could come in handy when looking to re-sign Rafael Soriano after the season.