Would Yonder Alonso Be an Upgrade at First Base?


One of the more interesting Indians-related stories to break last week was the news that Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty had talked to the Tribe about trading Yonder Alonso to Cleveland.

We already know that Matt LaPorta is likely to lose his spot as the Indians’ starting first baseman, but with apologies to Shelley Duncan there isn’t a clear in-house alternative. Chris Antonetti said earlier this month that the front office had “some creative ideas” for upgrading the Tribe’s offense. A trade for Alonso would certainly fit the bill.

There’s no doubt that Alonso’s long-term ceiling is higher than LaPorta’s (or any other realistic candidates for Cleveland’s first base job): he’s appeared on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list three years in a row, and at just 24 years old he has plenty of time to develop into a star. But if the Indians were to trade for him and plug him in at first base, would he be a significant improvement over LaPorta in 2012? And if so, how much of a difference would he actually make?

The best place to start is looking at how the players did this year. Alonso appeared in just 47 games for the Reds but hit the ground running, raking to the tune of a .330/.398/.545 triple-slash (160 wRC+) with five homers, 15 RBI, and 0.6 fWAR in 98 big-league plate appearances. Before that, he played 91 games with Triple-A Louisville, hitting .296/.374/.486 with 12 homers and 56 RBI in 409 trips to the plate. Jeff Sackmann’s handy dandy Minor League Equivalency calculator translates that to a .254/.322/.404 line in the majors.

Combining both parts of his season, Alonso ends up with a .268/.336/.425 MLB-adjusted triple-slash. LaPorta, meanwhile, hit .247/.299/.412. Doing some quick number crunching and assuming both players are bad but not complete butchers in the field or on the basepaths, that production would give Alonso an advantage of a little more than 2 WAR over LaPorta over a full season (162 games, 700 PAs).

But that methodology is somewhat unfair to Alonso. His stint in the majors was short, but his MLB stats are his most recent ones, and what he actually did in The Show might be more telling about how he personally adjusts to big-league pitching than Sackmann’s calculator. Projecting his MLB production over a full season—take this with a grain of salt, especially since his .387 BABIP is almost certainly unsustainable—and Alonso (who at this point would be an MVP candidate) would give the Indians eight wins over LaPorta. Even taking his hit rate down to a more manageable .325, he’d be a full six-win upgrade.

But neither of those methodologies is intellectually satisfying. As a compromise, I’ve combined Alonso’s MLB and Triple-A production from this year but given twice the weight to his big-league numbers. This gives him a projected .278/.346/.445 triple-slash (with 22 homers and 86 RBI)—and he’d beat LaPorta by about 4.5 WAR.

These projections from this year’s numbers make Alonso look very appealing, but they actually undersell him because he’ll probably be even better in 2012. He’s no spring chicken—he’ll be 25 in April—but barring some sort of setback it’s reasonable to expect a couple more years of growth before he reaches his prime. LaPorta, too, has room for development and could be better in the future, but Alonso is two years younger and still has his top prospect status. My money’s on Alonso taking a bigger step forward than LaPorta next year—meaning the gap between them will grow even wider.

This isn’t to say that the Indians should acquire Alonso at any cost—there’s no way to know exactly what it would take to pry him from the Reds, but he definitely wouldn’t come cheap—but it’s clear from this comparison that he would give the Tribe an immediate boost, not just the promise of production down the road. The two teams seem to match up pretty well, and unless Jocketty is demanding a king’s ransom Alonso should be one of Cleveland’s top trade targets this winter.

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