After months of speculation, the inevitable finally happened this week: the Cleveland Indians agreed to sign free agent first baseman Casey Kotchman.
Kotchman might not be a particularly exciting acquisition—after the $214 million Prince Fielder just got from the Tigers, the Indians spending $3 million on a first baseman doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Especially since he plays a premium offensive position and his primary source of value is usually his glove.
But in spite of his low profile Kotchman, who turns 29 this month, is exactly what the Indians needed, and this was a great move for the Tribe.
First things first: Kotchman won’t match his production from 2011. Last year, he hit .306/.378/.422 with 10 homers, 48 RBI, and 2.8 fWAR; per wRC+ (125), it was the best offensive year of his career. Not bad for a guy who had come to the Rays’ camp on a minor-league deal.
Unfortunately, Kotchman’s breakout isn’t sustainable. His BABIP last year ballooned to .335, which was the sole driving force behind his bat’s sudden boom—if anything, his plate discipline and power numbers in 2011 were worse than his career norms. Given that his pre-2011 career hit rate was just .268 (he managed a meager .229 mark in 2010) and that his inflated BABIP didn’t correspond with a significant change in his batted-ball profile, it’s hard to see him maintaining his 2011 level of production.
According to our Simple WAR Calculator, Kotchman would have been worth 1.6 fewer wins in 2011 if his .335 BABIP had been replaced with his .280 career mark; that would have made him worth 0.7 WAR. In today’s player market, $3 million for a player of that caliber is a pretty fair deal.
And that seems like a skeptical view. Plugging Bill James’ projections for Kotchman into the Simple WAR Calculator and assuming he’s an above-average fielder and a lackluster baserunner, he’d be worth 1.1 wins over 150 games. And even when combining RotoChamp’s skeptical projections with the slight underestimating biases of the calculator, Kotchman projects at 1.4 WAR for a full season.
Consider also that “replacement level” isn’t the standard the Indians are using. Forgetting about new acquisition Russ Canzler for a moment—I think he could be a valuable asset, but it seems as though I’m in the minority there—the incumbent first baseman in Cleveland is Matt LaPorta. He was on pace to be more than a full win below replacement level last year, and depending on which projection system you use he’d probably be about a half-win below replacement in 2012.
Whatever projections you prefer, it’s fair to say Kotchman represents at least one win of improvement over LaPorta—about $5 million worth of production. And it will probably be more like two additional WAR, maybe more. We’re still talking about a below-average first baseman here, but the difference between him and LaPorta is probably similar to the improvement the Tigers will get from replacing Victor Martinez with Prince Fielder.
Finally, Kotchman will fit in in Cleveland because of his solid defense. The Indians have a pitch-to-contact staff that had the highest groundball rate in the league last year; with Derek Lowe now in the fold too, they’ll probably retain that title in 2012. That means infield defense is of the upmost importance in Cleveland. The impacts of infielders’ gloves are magnified behind this staff, so Kotchman’s dexterity in the field matters more to the Tribe than it would to just about any other team.
Kotchman probably isn’t a long-term answer at first. His ceiling pales in comparison to LaPorta’s, and even if LaPorta continues to struggle Kotchman might not be the Tribe’s best choice at first base. And if Indians fans are expecting to see the vintage 2011 model of Kotchman in 2012, they’ll be disappointed. But that doesn’t mean the deal is meaningless.
Albert Pujols he’s not, but for $3 million we just shored up the biggest hole on the team. Great get for Cleveland.