Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Yonder Alonso‘s name appear in trade speculation all across baseball, including as a potential fit for the Cleveland Indians. I’m all for the idea of bringing Alonso to Progressive Field, and I’ve previously suggested that the Indians build a deal around Alonso and Josh Tomlin.
Such a deal would be a win for Cleveland (and Cincinnati too, in my opinion), but a package of Tomlin and perhaps Jason Donald would be less than what the Reds are hoping for. Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty is looking for a No. 2 starter in return for the rookie first baseman; defining pitchers in terms of Platonic ideals of rotation slots makes for an extremely subjective analysis, but Tomlin probably better fits the mold of a No. 3 starter.
Given the league-wide concern over Alonso’s poor defense it seems unlikely that any team will meet Jocketty’s demands. How firm he would be in trade negotiations remains to be seen—he Reds are under no obligation to trade Alonso, and if they don’t get an offer that’s to their liking they don’t have to make a deal. It’s not as though he has demanded a trade or Cincinnati is desperate to move his contract.
But forgetting about negotiations and the Reds’ leverage, how much would Alonso be worth to the Indians, or wherever else he might end up?
Bill James projects Alonso, who turns 25 in April, to hit .277/.345/.446 in 2012; he doesn’t provide defensive projections, but based on his reputation around the league it’s probably safe to assume that he’s a true liability in left field and one step above that at first base. Prorating James’ projections over 150 games and 600 plate appearances, our Simple WAR Calculator puts Alonso at 0.3 WAR at first and 0.2 WAR in left. For a young player you could do worse, but clearly Alonso will have his work cut out for him in living up to his hype.
Meanwhile, combining Alonso’s brief big-league stint last year with his minor-league equivalency numbers (as determined by Jeff Sackmann’s calculator) and using the same assumptions for his defense, Alonso comes in as an exactly replacement-level player for 2012. Throw in a half-win improvement as he continues to develop, and Alonso projects at 0.5 WAR—still not what you’d like to see from an everyday player.
Were Alonso to be a full-time DH you could add about another 0.5 WAR to either of these estimates (so bad is his defense that the gains from requisitioning his glove would outweigh the costs of moving him to the easiest spot in the lineup), but fewer than half of all MLB teams would even have that option, and a hitter who gives you 1.0 WAR as a full-time DH probably isn’t worth a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Of course, Alonso is a top prospect and is only 25 so he could very well blow past these projections, and even if he doesn’t become a star next year he might become a household name in 2013 or 2014. I don’t think anyone would take issue with saying that he’ll at least be an average player (about 2.0 WAR per season) someday, and he has the ceiling of a multiyear All-Star, or perhaps even MVP candidate.
But even that doesn’t fully justify the price Jocketty is demanding. Alonso still has some time to develop before he enters his prime, but by a player’s age-25 season he’s usually pretty close to being the player he’s going to be for the rest of his career. He could break out and have a monster season that surpasses all reasonable projections, but he could also remain more at less at his current talent level for the rest of his career. Or worse, he could regress, like Cleveland’s own failed first base prospect Matt LaPorta.
In addition, there is the very real and often underappreciated significance of position and defense in assessing value. Chase Utley wouldn’t be on the fast track to Cooperstown if he were a clumsy-gloved first baseman, and Jose Reyes wouldn’t have gotten $106 million if he were a DH. Mighty though Alonso’s bat may be, his worth will always be dragged down by one-dimensionality, and his defense will only worsen as he ages. Think Paul Konerko, or David Ortiz and Ryan Howard over the last couple years—there’s no questioning their offensive abilities, but they’re nowhere close to being elite players because of their defensive limitations.
This isn’t to say that Alonso wouldn’t be an asset to a team that acquires him. At the very least, he’s a useful player with the upside of an All-Star. Looking specifically at the Indians, he’d be a definite upgrade in 2012—using James’ very optimistic projections, the Simple WAR Calculator has LaPorta at -0.6 WAR—and looking down the road at who would replace them I think Cleveland would be better off with Alonso than Tomlin. But it’s hard to envision a scenario in which another team would be willing to give up what the Reds’ are asking for Alonso.
If Jocketty is just posturing or trying to increase his own leverage in trade talks, that’s completely understandable—he’d definitely lose some negotiating power if he told the league he was open to lesser offers. But if the Reds front office and Cincinnati fans value Alonso like a future MVP and really wouldn’t consider a trade worthwhile unless it nets them an ace, they could end up missing out on a deal that would help their team.