Purgatory Online

Friday, January 16, 2004

All right, so the Angels get better offensively in 2004, and that's no small thing. So what happens defensively?

Darin Erstad's return to first base is a big blow to the defense, and to Erstad's value as a player. Erstad plays a remarkable defensive game in center. Although he missed too many games in 2003 to qualify for the statistics leaderboards, in 2002 he led the majors in both range factor and zone rating, as well as leading the majors in total chances, while making exactly one error. In 2001, he was fifth in range factor, first in zone rating, sixth in total chances, and first in fielding percentage (again with one error). By just about any objective measurement, Darin Erstad is the best defensive center fielder in the game - and he may be the best defensive player, period.

So moving Erstad to first base hurts. Yes, of course, he'll continue to play stellar defense at his new position. But stellar defense at first base won't have an occasion to be displayed nearly as often as it would be in center; Erstad is going from one of the most demanding defensive positions to the very least demanding defensive position. He'll be replaced in center by Garret Anderson, who possesses a better-than-average .993 fielding percentage and 2.75 range factor in just over 300 career games in that position - so the defensive downgrade at center won't be as bad as if he were being replaced by just anybody, but it will still be significant enough to outweigh the defensive gains at first base. Perhaps more significantly, Erstad will instantly become virtually valueless to the Angels, unless he substantially improves offensively. Well, that's not technically true - he won't be valueless, but his value will be so close to "replacement value" - i.e., the value that would be provided simply by calling up someone from the minors - that it becomes rather difficult to justify his salary ($7.25 million in 2003).

Meanwhile, replacing Garret Anderson with Jose Guillen in left trades fielding prowess for a strong arm. Guillen is a competent right fielder, with slightly worse range than Anderson, but does have the kind of throwing power that runners think twice about. Similarly, replacing Tim Salmon with Vladimir Guerrero in right field should be an improvement in that area as well - Guerrero has been in the double-digits in assists every year since 1997, while Salmon, who has that kind of potential when he's healthy, has been either injured or relegated to DH for fear of injury so often that he might as well become the full-time DH anyway.

Overall, my sense is that the Angels get slightly worse defensively than they were in 2003 (this doesn't count pitching, obviously). The frustrating thing about that is that, with Erstad in center and, say, Jose Guillen at first, they could potentially be a much better defensive team.

So why won't the Angels do such a thing? That's a question for Monday, friends. In the meantime, I leave you with a mystery of the unexplained: the Angels will be scouting Maels Rodriguez, a Cuban defector and starting pitcher who's rumored to have a 100-mph fastball. Keep in mind that this is a free agent, not someone they'd trade for, and ask yourself just what the Angels would do with seven starting pitchers. This is either a colossal miscalculation, some kind of misdirection, or an indication that Stoneman has a fairly advanced deal put together to offload an arm or two already.

[Postscript: Maels Rodriguez is a reliever, apparently. For reasons unknown, I thought I had read that he was a starter, but this is not true. Not that it matters - the Angels have apparently shown nothing beyond cursory interest]