Is Bobby Abreu the Answer in Left Field?


Rumors were swirling Thursday night that the Cleveland Indians were in serious talks with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim about a trade that would send Bobby Abreu to the Tribe. In exchange for Abreu and a substantial part of his $9 million 2012 salary, the Indians were probably offering former top prospect Trevor Crowe.

The deal has reportedly fallen apart, at least for now. But even if Abreu trade talks don’t heat up again in the next few days, it’s clear that Cleveland was seriously considering bringing him in to be the starting left fielder. So, as it was with Johnny Damon and Vladimir Guerrero, it’s worth asking: Could the Indians use Abreu as their starting left fielder?

Abreu is widely regarded as an abysmal fielder; he played just 28 games in the field in 2011 and managed to post a horrific -38.0 UZR/150 (it’s a small sample size, but even if the actual value is exaggerated the point stands). He can still hold his own at the plate, though: he hit .253/.353/.365 in 142 games with the Angels last year. His power is mostly gone (.112 ISO), but he still has his trademark plate discipline (13.3 percent walk rate) and he’s stolen at least 19 bases 14 years in a row.

As with Damon and Guerrero, the only way Abreu would win the left field job is if the Indians decide to punt defense. Manny Acta has indicated that offense will be his top priority in picking the Opening Day starter, but I don’t know that he was thinking about someone with a glove like Abreu’s when he said, “You hit, we’ll find a place for you.”

But let’s take Acta at his word and assume that defense is truly irrelevant. How does Abreu stack up against the Indians’ other left field options offensively? I used the new and improved Simple WAR Calculator to calculate OPS+’s for each real candidate for the left field job based on various systems’ 2012 projections (I used the Angels’ 2011 run environment for Abreu and the Indians’ for everyone else). Here are the results:

Abreu’s mean projection comes out on top, though Russ Canzler might rank No. 1 if the ever-optimistic Bill James had made a projection for him. From these numbers, then, we can probably conclude that Abreu would an offensive upgrade for the Indians’ left field spot.

But it’s not that simple. First off, the difference between Abreu and Canzler and Shelley Duncan is negligible. Abreu leads Duncan in the mean projections by only one point of OPS+, and both James and Marcel see Duncan as the better hitter. And if we limit our study to the three systems that have ranked each candidate, Canzler would come out ahead as Abreu’s mean projected OPS+ would fall to 107. Not to mention the rumors that Abreu showed up to camp out of shape—that won’t help his hitting ability.

Unless you weight ZIPS much more heavily than the other projection and you ignore Abreu’s poor conditioning, hittingwise it’s essentially a wash between him, Duncan, and Canzler. Which brings us to defense: even if you truly take Acta at his word, fielding has to at least be a tiebreaker. Duncan isn’t a Gold Glover and Canzler isn’t considered particularly athletic, but neither would resemble the sieve that Abreu would likely be in left field. In other words, Abreu would probably be at best the third-best choice for the Indians’ Opening Day left field spot.

If the choice were between Abreu and Jason Donald or Aaron Cunningham, Abreu might be the best choice. Given Acta’s preference for offense, he’d probably go with Abreu. But that’s a false dichotomy. Duncan and Canzler make their livings offensively differently than Abreu does, but each one’s bat is roughly as good as the others’. Once you factor in defense, it becomes a pretty clear advantage for Duncan or Canzler.

This isn’t to say that acquiring Abreu would necessarily be a mistake—if the Angels are picking up most of the $9 million tab, he could be a useful bat off the bench in the late innings or a backup designated hitter for when Travis Hafner needs a break. But he almost certainly wouldn’t be an upgrade in left field, and the Indians shouldn’t give up very much to get him.

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